Long winter means protracted demand for heating assistance

The extended cold season that has been a boon for local fuel companies has forced nonprofits that provide heating aid to scramble to cover clients.

Fuel companies and fuel assistance organizations say the late end of chilly temperatures has caused local residents to spend more on heating this year than in recent memory.

"We're seeing the same amount of clients, but we're talking to more people that are in crisis situations, and we're referring people more and more to other options," said Christopher Sardo, energy director for Thames Valley Council for Community Action, which offers fuel assistance to low-income families.

Sharon Peccini, who oversees the United Way's Project Warm Up, says her program had to seek additional funding to accommodate more households seeking emergency help with heat.

The program ran out of its original $90,000 in funding in January and had to apply for grants and seek donations in order to find another $70,000 to put toward fuel costs. The program ultimately provided emergency fuel to 451 households. It served 366 last winter.

"Many families in our community do go without, but it was so cold, they couldn't go without," Peccini said.

Local temperatures peaked daily at higher than 45 degrees by early or mid-March in the winters of 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13, according to Cornell University's Regional Climate Center, which draws the data from the Norwich Public Utility Plant. But this year, daily peak temperatures are still occasionally falling below that mark.

"It was nothing unheard of, nothing too anomalous, just the consistency of the cold is what this winter will be known for," National Weather Service meteorologist Joey Picca said of the weather in southeastern Connecticut and the surrounding region.

That consistency has kept the heat on.

Nate Weiss, owner of Weiss Realty, which provides heat for those who rent in its two apartment complexes, Field Side Apartments in New London and Post Road Gardens in Waterford.

Weiss said an 85-cent increase in cost per gallon of oil combined with the number of cold days have made for higher than normal heating costs. Heat turns on in the company's apartments at or below 68 degrees.

"We will probably never have a higher year (than) this year," he said.

Norwich Public Utilities has pumped 32 percent more natural gas through its pipes this winter than last, NPU General Manager John Bilda said. He attributed about half the uptick to customers buying more fuel and the other half to the company expansion.

The number of customers who enroll in NPU's payment deferral program because they can't pay bills up front has increased by about 10 percent, he said.

Jeff Suntup, partner at New London's Anytime Fuel Oil, said customers are buying more fuel, but he attributed that in part to psychology. He said that because people are surprised by the persistent cold, they continually top off their oil tanks whether they use the fuel or not.

"It's all a basis of perception," he said.

Oil and natural gas are not strictly winter commodities. Many households use the fuels to heat water throughout the year. Housing units that heat with electricity also have seen higher usage.

The impact of using more sooner can roll into the rest of the year. Households that can't afford to purchase more fuel later may face some cold showers come July.

New London Housing Authority Executive Director Sue Shontell said higher heating costs could lead the organization to table projects such as replacing windows or installing new flooring later in the year.

The housing authority spent a total of $9,000 more than it budgeted in December, January and February on electricity to heat the organization's five high-rise buildings, according to Shontell.

"The longer it stays cold, it does stay higher," she said. "You still have to make it through the rest of the year with the same amount of money."

Those in need of heating assistance still may request help from TVCCA for payments on fuel shipments that took place as late as March 17 by calling (860) 425-6681.

t.townsend@theday.com

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