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Lower heating costs projected

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    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Brian Fritzinger, a deliveryman for R.F. Ohl Fuel Oil, Lehighton, fills a propane tank at a Franklin Township home. The federal government projects a 14 percent drop in propane prices this winter.
Published October 08. 2009 05:00PM

Leaves are turning red and gold as the seasons change, but projected lower heating fuel costs mean that homeowners can look forward to a little more green as autumn freezes into winter.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration this week released the figures, which anticipate an average 8 percent drop in heating costs over last winter. EIA projects average household heating costs at $960 from Oct. 1 to March 31, a decrease of $84 over last winter.

The biggest drop is projected in natural gas and propane, estimated at 12 and 14 percent, relatively. Electricity and heating oil prices are expected to decrease by about 2 percent.

The reduction is attributed to a generally milder winter and lower fuel prices. But, EIA cautions, "fuel expenditures for individual households are highly dependent on local weather conditions, market size, the size and energy efficiency of individual homes and their heating equipment, and thermostat settings."

Heating fuels offer a range of warmth for the price. Per million BTU's, coal is cheapest at $9.06. Electricity, at $33.70 per million BTU's, is the most expensive.

Locally, heating fuel companies are hitting the road, delivering loads of cozy warmth to area homes.

"It's been busy this week now that it's colder," said Steve Ohl of R.F. Ohl Fuel Oil, Lehighton. His company also sells propane, and those customers are looking forward to spending less to heat their homes this winter.

That's a good thing, because propane is growing in popularity.

"We're seeing more new propane accounts than oil accounts," he said. "A lot of it is the perception that propane is 'greener' than oil."

Ohl referred to Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens' plan to wean America from foreign oil by increased use of alternative energy and the use of propane largely produced as a by-product of natural gas to power small engines and heat homes. Propane produces a third less greenhouse gas and no particulates, making it less polluting than oil.

Ohl pointed to propane's versatility.

"You can cook with it, use it for fireplaces, heat with it," he said.

While many are choosing propane, oil remains one of the most popular heating fuels.

"People still like the convenience and the availability of oil," said Dave Hiles, owner of Hiles Bros. Plumbing, Heating & Fuel Co., Summit Hill. But he and his wife Lisa say price predictions are iffy at best.

"I wish the government would get out of the oil price speculation business," he said. "No one knows. It's driven by the speculators on the stock market. It's not anything to do with supply and demand."

Oil prices can fluctuate several times a day, Lisa Hiles said.

"We know every day what its going to be the next day" but not long-range, she said.

"They regulate milk, they should be regulating (oil) price fluctuations," Dave Hiles said.

While most homes are heated with oil, propane or electric, many families here in the coal region still choose anthracite as their fuel of choice.

"We have an awful lot of people using coal as a primary heat source," said Anne Dalvet, office manager at American Premium Fine Coal in South Tamaqua. She said rice coal is running at $150 a ton, picked up, and $175 a ton delivered.

The company saw a spike in customers last year when oil prices soared, but she's concerned there may be a shortage of rice coal later in the heating season because some breakers shut down production last summer due to the economic slump.

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