July 19, 2008

Jittery Homeowners Look For Other Heat Sources

By Bill Leukhardt, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Jul. 19--On a beach-perfect July Wednesday, winter's distant chill drove Dan and Terri Bohn from their comfortable Bristol home into a Plantsville store that sells wood-burning stoves.

The couple spent part of the afternoon immersed in home heating options -- sweating slightly as they checked heat output from test stoves burning wood pellets and compared equipment that might help trim their winter heating bills.

"I'm on vacation, but the price of oil is a big concern," Dan Bohn said as they eyed showroom equipment at Dean's Stove and Spa, hunting some way to reduce fuel oil bills. Bohn fears his bills could exceed $5,000 if heating oil hits $5 a gallon.

The Bohns are among thousands of state residents looking ahead with dread to winter, worried by steady, upward spirals of fuel oil and natural gas prices that some fear could double heating costs over last winter's. "People are more aware of fuel costs now than they've ever been," Kristen Lowenthal said on a 90-plus day hot enough to wilt patio plants.

Her company, St. Pierre Fuel Oil in Woodbury, founded by her great-grandfather in 1929, is having its first-ever open house from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today to tell its 2,200 customers from Newtown to Litchfield, and anyone else, about programmable thermostats, thermal collectors and other technology to make oil-fired systems more efficient.

"People are very aware of fuel prices. It's thrown in front of us in every newscast," said Ron Packer, an employee at St. Pierre.

Gasoline is above $4 a gallon, diesel nearing $5 -- both about twice the cost of a year ago. Retail fuel oil prices in Connecticut are nearly double what they were this time last year, averaging $4.73 a gallon in the Hartford area this month and even more statewide, according to a survey conducted by the state's Office of Policy and Management.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell and her counterparts in the fuel-oil dependent Northeast have asked Congress for more federal money to help low-income residents pay winter heating costs. Almost 98,000 Connecticut households got assistance last winter from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP. Rising costs will likely mean a greater need this winter.

"Never before in modern history has New England faced the prospect of so many residents being unable to heat their homes," Rell said last week in a statement.

So it's easy to understand why winter heating is a topic this summer.

Dave Catucci of Plainville, out for a chili dog, fries and soda this week at Saint's restaurant in Southington, said he's thought several times this summer about the cost of the oil and electricity he uses to heat his home.

"It's going to be expensive, so I'm putting some money aside," he said.

Businesses that offer ways to conserve fuel and trim costs are epicenters this month for people taking a more proactive approach.

Dean's, in business since 1979, is seeing five times the business this month that it did last July, said owner Dean Michanczyk.

"I sold three stoves after-hours last night by phone," Mark Tiso, Dean's general manager, said Friday. "Usually, our stove season begins in August, but this year, the season never ended."

Among people Friday in Dean's showroom were Chris and Donna Bedell of Ridgefield, and their son Chris. The Bedells were pricing a wood-burning stove to reduce oil usage in their 1,600-square-foot cape house. They burn between 875 to 1,000 gallons each winter.

Bedell, a real estate appraiser whose business is down this year because of the housing slump, said the couple want to pare fuel costs. He figures a wood stove could save them two tanks a season, enough to pay off the initial investment in two or three years.

"We're on a budget, but there has to be something we can do. Maybe an insert in our fireplace," he said. "But we'll buy wood. No way I'll be chopping it."

Dan and Anne Robichaud of Cheshire, both retired, were at Dean's looking at a pellet stove. He said they have been talking the last two weeks about finding some alternative to fuel oil. He wasn't surprised to see other folks in a stove store on a summer day.

"It's just a heck of one mess for everybody," Robichaud said.

Another visitor to Dean's was Mike Amato of West Haven, who worked up a sweat checking out the bright-orange fires inside several wood pellet stoves to give potential buyers an idea how the devices worked.

Amato, who lives in a condominium, was along with a friend from Milford looking for a less expensive way to heat his home.

"If I had a home instead of a condo, I'd be here shopping too," Amato said. "People have had it."

Contact Bill Leukhardt at [email protected]


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