Extreme cold causes burst pipes, spike in fuel demand

(This story by Tim Camerato was published first by the Valley News on Jan. 3, 2018, and augmented here with material by Dave Gram of VTDigger.)
Homes and businesses around the region are contending with burst pipes, spikes in heating oil demand and a run on electric heaters as temperatures dipped to subzero levels over the long holiday weekend.
The National Weather Service reported a low of minus 27 on Monday night in St. Johnsbury.
“That’s impressive right there,” Peter Banacos, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s South Burlington office, said Tuesday afternoon. “It was pretty chilly this morning.”
Home heating oil delivery. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fuel Dealers AssociationTemperatures moderated at midweek, rising to 20 on Wednesday afternoon in both Burlington and Montpelier. But they were set to drop again, with minus 21 in the forecast for Saturday in the capital city.
The weather was enough for schools to either call off classes or postpone the start of school.
Oxbow High School in Bradford closed Tuesday morning after several buses froze, according to a notice on the school’s website.
The Montshire Museum of Science also was closed Tuesday after pipes there burst.
“We’ve got a number of crews in today to help us with cleanup and reinstallation,” said Marcos Stafne, the museum’s executive director, who added the Montshire would open again Wednesday.
“We haven’t seen something like this in many, many years,” said Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.
While the region has seen cold snaps, he said, it’s rarely had to contend with such a prolonged period of cold.
The extreme temperatures have caused more customers to use up their propane at quicker rates, Cota said, adding companies are in turn working nearly around the clock to meet demand.
“It’s like triage,” he said. “We are in an emergency situation.”
Both Vermont and New Hampshire issued emergency declarations, allowing the temporary suspension of a federal rule limiting how much time fuel drivers can spend on the road.
Federal regulations normally prohibit fuel drivers from spending more than 10 hours a day on the road, but the cold temperatures are requiring them to work much longer, Cota said.
“Just working normal banker’s hours isn’t going to cut it,” he said.
Many heating company owners are working alongside their employees to deliver fuel, said Bob Scully, executive director of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire.
Cota said it’s all hands on deck in Vermont, too. “Owners of (fuel) companies were in the driver’s seat of a truck on New Year’s Eve … some for the first time in 10 years,” he said.
He added that the spike in demand means companies’ ability to keep up varies, influenced by their own supply chains and things as basic as how many trucks and drivers they have. He urged home heating oil users to keep an eye on their tanks’ gauges and to call their supplier when they drop to a quarter full.
“Calling when you’re out of fuel is going to be too late,” Cota said.
Temperatures are roughly 30 degrees colder than many companies were projecting earlier this winter, meaning fuel is being consumed at a much faster rate than was expected, Scully said. And to catch up, he said, companies generally would need 30 percent more trucks on the road to meet the demand.
When the region does reach normal temperatures, Scully predicted, it will take two weeks before fuel companies are working on a normal schedule.
Until then, companies are warning customers that it could be several weeks before they get another delivery.
Rymes Propane & Oil, which serves Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, said it was experiencing call volumes at “record levels all week” in a post on Facebook.
“Our hold times are, as you would expect, longer than normal, ranging from five to 10 minutes,” the post said, adding Rymes is now booking deliveries for the week of Jan. 15.
Dead River Co. also posted on Facebook on Tuesday, saying it is focused on “serving our current customers” and warning there could be a delay responding to requests.
Perry Plummer, New Hampshire’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management director, asked residents to be “patient but persistent” with oil companies in a Tuesday news release.
“If you are in need of fuel, call your service provider,” Plummer said. “With high call volumes, wait times can be 10 minutes or longer. Be patient and stay on the call. Fuel is available and service providers are making deliveries as quickly as possible.”
Several Upper Valley residents took to social media this week to express that they had either run out of heating fuel or might soon.
Tom Chase, a White River Junction resident, said his propane tanks are now at 25 percent and his family is working to conserve what’s left.
“We called the fuel company and they gave us a date toward the end of January when they were going to be out,” Chase said in a phone interview.
The company has since said Chase could expect more fuel sometime around Thursday, but there’s no guarantee it will be there.
His house is on an auto-pay plan, meaning propane is delivered on a regular basis, and Chase thought that would prevent the tanks from running low.
“We have an electric fireplace, so we’ve been turning that on,” Chase said, adding he’s sleeping in multiple layers and avoiding using the propane stove.
Much of the country is contending with cold weather this week, which is being blamed for at least nine deaths, according to The Associated Press.
Wind chill advisories and freeze warnings were issued Tuesday from Canada to south Texas, including a “hazardous weather outlook” that covered much of northern New England.
The National Weather Service expected “sub-zero wind chills” to continue across the region throughout Tuesday, with cold temperatures expected to combine with wind for “dangerously cold chills” throughout the rest of the week.
Residents who are looking for electric space heaters as a supplement for traditional fuel are likely out of luck, with stocks depleted in many areas.
“They’re flying off the shelves right now,” said Robin Parker, the owner of Canaan (New Hampshire) Hardware and Supply. “Hopefully, people don’t have too much damage before it warms up.”
Parker said supplies, such as heat tape and insulation, also are in a high demand among people who have either experienced heating problems or are worried they soon will.
“Nobody wants to run out,” she said.
It could be several days before the region begins to warm up, according to Banacos, the Burlington-based weather forecaster.
“Maybe there will be some moderation early next week, but we have to get through the weekend first,” Banacos said.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Extreme cold causes burst pipes, spike in fuel demand.