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Homeowners Who Played The Odds On Oil Heating Costs Lose Out

Overall, natural gas is by far the most popular source of home heating in the U.S. But in the Northeast, homeowners are much more likely than in other regions to use heating oil.

Many homeowners are smiling this winter, because fuel prices are down 50 percent from two years ago.

But not everyone is happy. Buying heating oil is a little like playing poker: Bet on the wrong price and it'll cost you.

Barb Corliss handles customer service at Keyser Energy in Proctor, Vt. The company provides heating fuel to about 5,000 customers, and Corliss says it's been a crazy ride.

"Four-dollar-a-gallon oil down to $1.799 today," Corliss says. "It's been a ride for not only the staff, the drivers, but the customers as well."

While many customers pay as they go, others prefer to lock in a price for the entire year. Still others pay a bit more per gallon for a sliding scale that caps how high prices go while allowing for price drops.

"It's speculation," says Corliss. "People are innate gamblers by nature."

But after watching all the news about volatile oil prices, many of those gamblers are tired of the pricing game.

On a recent subzero morning, a Keyser fuel truck backs into Jackie Fetterolf's driveway.

Fetterolf is one of many who bet wrong on heating oil and locked in a price last June when it was 23 percent more.

"It's very frustrating because you plan it, and years past it's always gone up, and now it doesn't, and now you go, 'Is this really worth doing?' " Fetterolf says.

The Pluses And Minuses Of Locking In

While fixed contracts can be great when oil prices are climbing, Matt Cota of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association says unless you bought sliding scale insurance, there are no rebates when fuel drops.

Whenever a customer buys a fixed-price or pre-buy contract from a heating oil dealer, the dealer has seven days to buy that fuel from its wholesale supplier, Cota explains.

So if a customer buys a fuel contract for $700 in July, the dealer has one week to buy $700 worth of fuel.

With oil prices at 10-year lows, the popularity of fixed-price contracts has declined.

At Keyser Energy, nearly half of customers had been using them; now, it's about one-quarter.

Rob Oberg, a driver and deliveryman for Keyser, says he's not hearing many complaints from customers — even those with fixed contracts — because prices are so low.

"Most of the people I run into are actually rather happy," he says.

A few blocks away, Rhoda Grace says even though she locked in a price last summer, she's taking it in stride.

"I feel safe anyways. If the price happens to skyrocket, I'm covered," Grace says.

Experts don't expect fuel prices to climb this winter. But come summer, all bets are off, and fuel buyers will have to decide if they feel lucky when it's time to heat their homes.

Copyright 2016 Vermont Public Radio

Nina has been reporting for VPR since 1996, primarily focusing on the Rutland area. An experienced journalist, Nina covered international and national news for seven years with the Voice of America, working in Washington, D.C., and Germany. While in Germany, she also worked as a stringer for Marketplace. Nina has been honored with two national Edward R. Murrow Awards: In 2006, she won for her investigative reporting on VPR and in 2009 she won for her use of sound. She began her career at Wisconsin Public Radio.
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