“Feeding the Beast”, Searching for the Best Last Minute Buys for Fuel Oil in the Hudson Valley

If people indeed have multiple lives, I am very likely the reincarnation of one of Aesop’s muses for his fable “the grasshopper and the ant”, and definitely not the inspiration for the ant character.  It isn’t until summer’s date officially passes, I start wearing sweaters regularly, and put the mums in the pots that I remember there is something that needs to be addressed, namely, how am I going to heat my house through the colder months.  After a dozen years, had I been more of ant, by now I would have some green, geothermal, solar, wind-powered self-perpetuating heating system in place, but as I only address the issue two weeks before the first frost date each year, I go the tried and true route; ie firing up the furnace in the cellar.

It is an ominous looking contraption.  A twisted mass of pipes and valves emanate from the large metal core, taking up the better part of a room.  Sometimes it is hard to believe that this intended to heat my house, as opposed to providing a safe haven for not only Freddie Kruger, but a couple other of his mutant serial killer friends as well (less Jason from Friday the 13th, I think they had a falling out). The furnace is approaching its 50th birthday, and each year when it comes time to have it cleaned and serviced, I expect to be informed it’s finally time to put it out to pasture.  However, the technician annually tells me “if it ain’t broke, why fix it? “  so, aside from replacing the odd part here and there, and getting a fancy new fuel efficient swiss burner, it runs like old faithful.  In the service hall outside the basement is a red master switch to the thing.  Each fall, after I remember that its there, I flip it on.  A low hum emanates from the furnace room down the hall and through some process that involves oil fire and hot water, “voila!” I have heat. Almost.

The essential component for all of this to work is to have oil in the tank under my porch to feed the lumbering beast.  The good news is it’s easy to find, even last minute.  The bad news is it’s harder to pay for.  I know if you plan ahead, you can lock in prices and get deals, and work out a year round budget plan.  I never get around to doing that.  Years back I had a year round, monthly budget plan, which billed me every month spreading the pain in smaller increments.  I found however, it didn’t erase the pain, and getting hit with gargantuan seasonal bills as opposed to more reasonable monthly ones encourages me to conserve energy, keeping my thermostats down as low as I can bear.  It might be uncomfortable at times, but my guests find it novel to be handed a snowmobile-suit to wear inside when coming over for dinner in the winter months, and I assure them blue lips are bound to come into vogue very soon so they can try the look out for free at my place.

No matter how low the thermostats are kept though, you still need to buy oil.  I tend to stick to the same company year after year, but this season I decided to start from scratch, pulled out the yellow pages (yes, I still use yellow pages) and chose four local oil companies,  to compare the prices and deals each offered.  I had received a coupon in the mail for $50 off a purchase of 200 gallons or more from Suburban Propane, so I tried them first.  I phoned and spoke to very nice young woman named Stacy.  I told her I received a coupon in the mail, wanted to buy some oil with it, and I would pay upfront.  After taking a moment to figure out what I was talking about (understandably, as I tend to fill in my verbal gaps a lot with my hands, which doesn’t translate well over the phone), She explained the deal to me in very easy to understand terms.  The price that day was $3.99 a gallon, bringing the total price to $799.80 for two hundred gallons.  Less $50, the total would be $749.80.  I asked how much a regular service call to clean the furnace would be, which was $168.  It all sounded good.  I thanked her, told her I was checking a few different places and that she might hear back from me.

Next on the list was First Fuel (I have a weakness for alliteration).  I got a man named Ryan on the phone, who was just as nice as Stacy was (spoiler alert; all the people I talked to were very nice).  I was surprised to be quoted a price of $3.89 for fuel, or 10 cents lower than Suburban’s regular price.  I asked Ryan if they had any specials or payment plans.  He said they did offer them, but they usually started earlier i n the season (Suburban basically said the same thing).  I asked about a furnace service, and he explained the technicians they worked were not employees, but independent contractors. That worked with them, and the standard rate was $189 (roughly $20 more expensive than Suburban’s).  I told him it all sounded good, thanked him, still had to call another place or two to do some cost comparisons, and  he might hear back from me.

The third company contacted was Valley Oil.  I found myself speaking to woman named Tabitha (yes, yes, she was also very nice and helpful).  Given the same questions, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their oil price was $3.79, the cost of a furnace cleaning/check up was $159.84, AND there was still time to join some kind of price cap plan – good for 8 months, with a cap of $4.19 a gallon.  I was very excited, and told her I had just one or two more places to call, and that she might hear back from me.  I was excited, although aside from their competitive pricing, I was hooked by Tabitha’s name. Fantasies of the little tot from “Bewitched” growing up, marrying a mortal and moving to the northeast to work for a local fuel company swirled through my head.  I stopped myself, remembering that it was just a tv show, and just stick with the facts.  On the other hand, maybe that was part of their plan?  I was almost ready to call Tabitha back, but felt it only fair to give a chance to the company that I had been using for the past couple of years (not letting them know that I was a regular customer). 

I phoned Bottini Fuel, and got someone named Brian on the phone.  Asking the same questions, I was shocked, aside from speaking to the fourth customer service rep in row who sounded nice and friendly, Bottini’s price was $3.69 a gallon, 10 cents less than Valley Oil’s. Each place I had called was 10 cents cheaper than the one before meaning, there was a 30 cent differential between Bottini and Suburban’s prices, and that begins to add up.  I asked about budget and payment plans, and I was told it was not to late.  Brian explained about a “Rest of Season Price Cap” plan, which involved paying a 35 cent up front charge, or on top of charge, per gallon of fuel you think you would order, or would order through the season, to guarantee that price.  This si where he lost me, frankly it flew right over my head.  I then followed my tried and true fallback method, which was to never accept an initial offer.  I bet they get that a lot, as Brian, without missing a beat, gave me a second alternative, which sounded more appealing and didn’t necessitate paying any additional fees. Although it sounded good, I decided to compare apples to apples, and chose the company based on the daily quoted price alone.  Thus Bottini remains my fuel company. I am happy with the exercise, as I learned that it really does pay to shop around, all the companies are very helpful, and next year, I will try to remember tie a string around my finger earlier in the year, to plan ahead and get an even better deal.

Faces on the street

What if a Few More of Our Nineteenth Century Homes had “Walked like an Egyptian” Instead of Going “Greek” and “Goth”?