Staying warm is a pricey proposition
Fueled by the skyrocketing increase in world crude oil prices, many Nevada County residents are paying more to heat their homes this winter.
Some are using wood products to slow their spiraling costs for heat, but even the cost of a cord has increased. PG&E electric heat users have been enjoying stagnant rates for several years, but those using natural gas and propane say the price has at least doubled since this time last year, while kerosene and home heating oil costs have also shot up.
How much insulation a home has, how large it is, the tightness of windows, and how hot you like it has everything to do with winter heating costs. So comparing prices of all the different fuels is somewhat of an apples and oranges proposition.
In an informal survey of consumers in Grass Valley, natural gas users yelled the loudest. PG&E said last October the increases were coming due to a low supply for high demand, partially caused by Hurricane Katrina wiping out the Gulf’s energy infrastructure.
In Grass Valley, Danielle Wilmoth and her family heat, cook and warm their water with natural gas in a small home. Their $195 PG&E bill for January split into $158 for the natural gas and $37 for electricity.
“It’s crazy,” Wilmoth said recently. “It affects us big time. Everybody at work compares bills to see who gets the highest.”
Wilmoth’s mother, Diana Wilmoth, is also feeling the heat in Chicago Park, as it were.
“Last year I paid $300 to fill my (250 gallon) tank,” Wilmoth said. “This year it was $600, I couldn’t believe it.”
Wilmoth had to ask her propane company if she could pay in installments.
“I couldn’t pay them all at once,” she said.
Near downtown Grass Valley, smoke from Wayne Gibson’s wood stove wafts into the pines above town. The cost of heating his home solely with natural gas is the reason.
“That’s why we’re burning more wood now,” Gibson said. “I can get wood for free and that’s cost-effective.”
Gibson said he didn’t use much wood during the holidays when there was a lot of family around and the heat was turned up high. Because of that, he said, his natural gas price went up to $150 for January, compared to $50 in January 2005.
Martin Light uses propane at his home on the San Juan Ridge.
“The last time I bought it, it was $2.81 a gallon,” Light said, quite a bit higher than the average cost of $2.03 a gallon found in a survey of five area propane firms. “I saw my (propane) driver the other day and he said, ‘You don’t want to see me for awhile.’
“It’s up a about a buck,” from last year, Light said.
According to Ed Rogers at Northern Sierra Propane in Grass Valley, many firms quote lower prices over the phone to entice customers.
“All companies have a hook,” Rogers said. “They set you up at a low price and then give you the regular price change” down the line. “Ask beyond the low price; ask what happens a year from now.”
Propane tank sizes vary, as do the sizes of homes and their heating efficiency. Dealers say some users have to fill their most common 250 gallon tanks once a month, while others refill every six weeks or longer during the five-month heating season of mid-October to mid-March.
Rogers said propane employees fill tanks to about 87.5 percent. Using that, the every six-weeks fill marker and the $2.03 a gallon average, a homeowner would seemingly be paying about $287 for four weeks of propane heat. That price would drop with a longer refill time and better home insulation. But because the gas used could be driving a clothes drier, water heater or even more appliances, the price would vary from home to home.
Wood prices vary with temperatures, and hard woods like oak, walnut and madrone command top prices, particularly if seasoned for one year, split, cut and delivered. Pine is normally much cheaper and does not put out the sustained heat the hardwoods do, according to area wood dealers.
A comparison of five dealers produced an average of $257 a cord for ready-to-go oak or oak mixed with good pine. That same cord cost $125 to $175 last year, but wood cutters say their fuel prices to get to and cut the product have increased the cost of doing business.
“People don’t think wood prices should go up, but a shortage of almond this year has created a demand for oak,” said Linda Harlan. She sells wood to Nevada County customers with her husband, Ron, from Orland in the Sacramento Valley.
“The average person burns three cords” each winter, according to Don Rhoades of Don’s Firewood, who cuts and delivers in Nevada County but lives in Auburn. People in Truckee burn even more because it’s simply colder, Rhoades said.
In Nevada County, the cost of wood heat works out to about $154 a month if you divide the five-month season into $771 for three average cords of wood.
At Al Mader’s Grass Valley home, a wood pellet stove has been an energy saver.
“The price (of pellets) hasn’t gone up in three years,” Mader said. “We buy it during the summer and we get three tons a year right at $185 a ton.”
Mader only uses 2 1/2 tons during the heating season, so his bill comes out to about $93 a month.
The average price for wood pellets at two different feed stores in Grass Valley, selling three different products, was $208 per ton.
Electricity and Natural Gas
Gauging a monthly bill for electric heat is difficult because the power may be used for other appliances. PG&E’s best available statistics for Nevada County show the average power bill from August 2004 to July 2005 was $77.74 and $71 in December of 2005.
Lisa Randle at PG&E also said the average cost of natural gas here from August 2004 to August 2005 was $52.50, compared to $101.31 in December 2005. Those averages also include climate belts from the mild weather often found at Lake of the Pines to Truckee’s cold, hard winters.
The most recent statewide figures for PG&E natural gas customers show an average cost during January of this year at $156 due to the high market. PG&E predicted that will drop to $107.44 for February because of conservation, but that figure was issued before the recent cold snap.
Kerosene and heating oil
Some with older homes still burn diesel heating fuel in the winter. Others have opted for the new kerosene heaters, particularly those who live outside the county’s towns and do not have access to natural gas.
At Sierra Energy in Grass Valley, Bob Butler said he and his two local competitors keep busy filling the old and new markets.
“Kerosene sales are up every year,” said Steve Nelson at Hunt and Sons Inc. in Grass Valley.
Most people use about 30 gallons per month, Nelson said. Using the average price of the three competitors of $2.46 per gallon and Nelson’s 30-gallon figure, the cost for a month would be $73.80.
Perhaps that’s why Bob Robinson at Robinson Enterprises Inc. in Grass Valley said, “The last 10 years, kerosene has been getting more popular.”
The cost of kerosene and diesel heating oil is up about 90 cents per gallon this year compared to last, Robinson said. The average heating oil price for the competitive trio is $2.21 per gallon.
To figure an average monthly price for heating oil is virtually impossible, Robinson said, because tanks sizes vary with houses, and users often supplement with wood heat.
Whatever you are using this winter, chances are you might echo Diana Wilmoth when she got her last statement in the mail.
“When I got that bill for $600, I said, ‘Oh my God!”
To contact senior staff writer Dave Moller, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4237.
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