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Deep freeze putting grip on our wallets

Published March 04. 2014 05:00PM

John Stoj of Albrightsville fired up his wood stove Monday night, hoping to tamp down a surging electric bill.

"I'm bordering on $400 for my electric bill," he said.

Stoj, a retiree who relies on electric baseboard heat, is keeping most of the rooms in his home closed off to save money. He bought the wood stove several years.

He's not alone. As this winter's deep freeze continues, homeowners are turning down thermostats, using space heaters and doing whatever they can to manage steadily climbing heating bills.

The one-two punch of unusually cold weather and escalating heating costs is hitting homeowners hard.

This morning, temperatures hovered at around 9 degrees in our area, climbing from 1 and 2 below zero in the pre-dawn hours.

After reaching highs in the low 20s today, the mercury will plunge again tonight into the single digits.

"We're not looking at record territory yet, but it is 10 to 15 degrees below normal for this time of year," said National Weather Service meteorologist Mitchell Gaines.

He said the snow cover and lack of wind are having a refrigerator-like effect.

"Winds act to mix the air, so heat is able to escape and snow cover traps colder air," he said.

But low temperatures in March are nothing new. On March 4, 2003, it was 8 degrees in the Lehighton area. Temperatures also plunged into the single digits in March of 2005 and 2007, according to the National Weather Service.

More typically, temperatures range from the upper 20s to the upper 40s at this time of year.

It's not just the plunging mercury that is triggering higher heating costs. The cost of fuel has been going up.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the cost per gallon of residential heating oil jumped from $3.79 on Jan. 20 to $4.05 Feb. 24. Residential propane climbed $3.41 to $4.01.

The cost and availability of heating oil varies from day to day, said Lisa Hiles of Hiles Brothers Plumbing and Heating in Summit Hill.

Customers are using more oil.

"In January, we picked up 30 percent more (fuel) than last January, and in February, we picked up about 22 percent more," she said.

She offered as examples two families of similar size.

One family used 854 gallons of oil last year from October through March 1. This year, they used 1,326 gallons about $1,100 more. The other family, which installed more insulation and took other cost-saving steps, used 826 gallons of oil last season and 1,092, about $500 worth, so far this year.

"The coldest air in 20 years drove PPL Electric Utilities customers to set an all-time power demand record for the PPL Electric Utilities service territory," said spokesman Bryan R. Hay.

PPL's entire customer base, about 1.4 million, used nearly 7.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Jan. 7.

"That's enough for nearly 700 average homes for a year," he said. "The previous all-time record of 7.5 million kilowatt-hours also was set in winter, in February 2007."

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