- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

Some Washington-area businesses and homeowners already have started preparing for this winter, which is expected to bring soaring heating costs.

They are refilling their oil tanks, cleaning out or replacing furnaces, turning to wood stoves and even insulating walls to help keep down the cost for heating once the cold weather hits.

Thomas J. Fannon & Sons began delivering heating oil to some of its Fairfax County customers during the summer. While some clients were surprised or didn't know why their tanks were being filled so early, most customers were well aware of the cost forecasts, said Tom Fannon of Fannon & Sons.

The Alexandria, Va.-based oil company usually begins filling tanks in early September for customers with automatic delivery, continuous refills when the tank is running low. Fannon & Sons already has had an increase in the number of requests from customers without automatic delivery to refill their tanks.

"All in all, people have an understanding, they read the papers and have an awareness," Mr. Fannon said.

The Department of Energy predicts that heating oil will cost an average of $1.31 per gallon nationally at the start of the winter, almost one-third higher than a year ago. Natural gas is forecast to be 25 percent higher, at $8.59 per thousand cubic feet.

More than 10 million U.S. households used heating oil last year. More than 58 million residential customers used natural gas, according to the Department of Energy.

The higher prices are blamed partly on OPEC production limits and booming demand because of the strong economy. Although the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed Sunday to raise production to 800,000 more barrels of oil a day, refineries are having trouble producing gas and oil fast enough to keep up with demand.

Lawmakers from Northeastern states, which depend heavily on heating oil, yesterday pressed the White House to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The Clinton administration is considering tapping the emergency stockpile as a cushion against climbing oil prices.

Utility companies are warning their customers about the steep costs expected this winter.

Washington Gas Light Co. and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. are sending warnings to their customers notifying them of the estimated 25- to 27-percent increase in their winter bills.

Washington Gas, which serves about 860,000 customers in the District, Virginia and Maryland, sent out this month's bills with a newsletter that provides information about pricing, offers advice and conservation tips, and reminds customers they can choose a competitor.

BGE, which serves 1.1 million customers in Maryland, will send out pamphlets with its October bill emphasizing conservation. The Baltimore-based company always sends out information to prepare customers for winter, but usually doesn't stress conservation, a company spokeswoman said.

Residents also are trying to ease the crunch by increasing the insulation in their homes.

"We are seeing with new construction people are more conscious and spending more on insulation," said Ginny Cameron, president of AC&R; Insulation in Beltsville.

But the company's business has not picked up yet and she expects calls to come in after the first cold night, like they do every year, she said.

Ken Grunst, owner of Foam Insealators of Maryland and Virginia, said his company is doing more foam insulation, a liquid that is sprayed on walls, floors, in attics and crawl spaces and that expands to 100 times its original size.

Several factors have led to the increase in business, including more people moving into homes and more people wanting to make their homes more comfortable. High heating costs also could be a reason, he said.

Foam insulation, while more expensive than typical insulation, is estimated to cut heating bills by 30 to 40 percent, Mr. Grunst said.

While foam is only a small segment of the insulation market, Mr. Grunst expects more people to use it.

"I think you'll see a lot more of the foam insulation because there is no assurance that [these prices] are as high as they're going to be," Mr. Grunst said.

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