Consumers are Getting A Break From Mock Spring

Brian Turley of Noank took advantage of the unseasonably mild weather Thursday to paint his boat.

The town of Groton’s public works department, which might have been expected to be plowing snow, repaired sidewalks
instead, said Director Gary Schneider.

At the same time, Norwich discount oil dealer Don Sanford looked out on a parking lot full of idle delivery trucks and lamented “the winter that wasn’t.”

“It’s like selling snow to the Eskimos,” he said.

Fuel prices have plunged and so has fuel usage, as Mel Goldstein and other forecasters continue to report daily temperatures climbing into the high 40s and 50s, well above normal readings for early January. The temperature
Thursday in southeastern Connecticut peaked at 55 degrees, according to Goldstein’s colleague, meteorologist Geoff Fox.

“Temperatures have been above normal since the ninth of December, and there’s really no prospect of getting below normal before early next week,” Goldstein said. “And if we do, it’ll only be temporary before it gets mild again.”

November and December were the warmest on record in Connecticut, Goldstein added.

That’s not the kind of forecast Sanford and other home-heating oil retailers want to hear. They bought oil at this summer’s premium wholesale price of $2.20 and have sold it at retail prices of 50 cents more a gallon, said Gene Guilford, executive director of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association in Cromwell. Now they can’t buy at today’s wholesale prices of $1.99 or less until they sell what they have on hand, he said.

As far as counting on the weather turning cold, Sanford was not optimistic.

“I’ve seen winters where it never does,” he said.

The oil industry records how cold the climate is and how much heating oil may be needed with a measurement called degree days. The lower the number of degree days, the warmer the season.

The normal 30-year average of a year’s worth of degree days is 2,413, Guilford said. Last year, the number was 2,313.

This year, it’s down to 1,953.

“That’s huge,” Guilford said. “That’s off 20 percent from normal,” a drop that correlates to a decrease
of 30 percent in oil consumption. “Last year at this time we had 32 inches of snow,” he said. “We’ve
gotten nothing this year. Nothing.”

Some of the reasons for the change in oil prices are mystifying, Guilford said.

“Worldwide, it started with abnormally high cost through August, and then the market absolutely collapsed,” he said. “We’re not sure why, but crude oil dropped from $78 to $57 a barrel. Then everyone assumes we’re going to have winter, but where the hell is it?

“The fact remains, this is a seasonal business. You have to earn your income as a dealer between November and March.”

Natural-gas prices also have plummeted from 64 cents per cubic foot last January to just under 35 cents this month, said Jeff Tilghman, a spokesman for Yankee Gas.

Despite not having as much work as he’d like, Sanford said his company is “getting along.” Others, like Mark Mazzella, owner of Benvenuti Oil Co. Inc. in Waterford, said full-service firms such as his can ride the wave of decreasing demand by repairing equipment and providing other services to customers.

“We don’t get concerned,” Mazzella said. “It’s a good thing for homeowners; they’re finally getting a break. In 57 years, we’ve never had a layoff. Granted, it’s a warm winter, but we’re diversified enough” to handle it.

Other entrepreneurs who sell heating-related products such as wood for wood stoves and rock salt for driveways have also seen business slow to a crawl.

“Snow shovels, ice melt, pretty much all that stuff is down” in terms of sales, said Gordon Savard, store manager for Benny’s Home and Auto Store in Waterford.

Bill Ross, a senior landscape designer at Burnett’s Landscaping in Salem, provides pay-as-you-go snow removal but says he hasn’t missed the work. His crews are happy to focus on landscaping, he said.

“It’s kind of a good thing, because we’d much rather be doing what we’re good at,” he said.

Some, like Savard and Turley, believe New England ice and snow will arrive, possibly with a vengeance, before the winter season ends.

“I’m just like everybody else,” Turley said. “I take advantage of these warm days when I can. It won’t last, I know it won’t last.

“I think we’re going to pay for it ultimately.”

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