It has been an unforgiving six months for the heating-oil industry. Rather than coasting into summer with the crush of winter behind them, companies are grappling with the wreckage that $130-a-barrel crude continues to heap onto their balance sheets.
Companies across the region say they have been saddled with so many unpaid customer bills that they are taking out bigger loans from already credit-shy banks to cover the unpaid debt while crossing their fingers that customers will pay.
The situation is all the more urgent, they say, given that crude prices this month hit the $130-a-barrel mark - higher than anyone was predicting even six months ago.
That means that dealers are getting hit a couple of ways. Not only are they financing their customers' unpaid bills, they are paying more than ever to fill their tanks at the refinery and store the oil until customers need it.
As a result, the region's heating-oil companies are scavenging to avoid being blown out of business.
"We're really financing [customers'] heat - not selling oil anymore," said Dan Hanly, vice president of Dave Hanly Oil in Collingdale. "I've had to take out a line of credit to pay my suppliers and be able to carry my customers."
With retail prices well above $4 a gallon, customers are hard-pressed to pay for what they buy.
"I used to discount my oil for a payment of five days," Hanly said. "Now I find I'm carrying these people for 60, 90 days - some maybe into next season before they can pay me off for what they're using this year."
Dealers across the region face the same storm of troubles: Customers are breathing down their necks about sticker shock; international commodities traders continue to force the price of crude to unprecedented levels; and bank loan terms are tougher than ever thanks to the credit crisis.
An oil supplier has it tough. "He's working with his bank as well as he can. He's trying to collect from the consumer early where possible. But usually that's not possible. He's struggling," said Roy Patterson, executive vice president of the Delaware Valley Fuel Dealers Association, a nonprofit trade group that represents 30 full-service heating-oil dealers in Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks Counties.
Kurt Haab, president of F.C. Haab Co., of Philadelphia, described the current state as "very stressful" and blamed much of today's problems on commodities traders investing furiously in oil futures as the value of the dollar has made investments elsewhere less attractive.
"I think the health of anybody in the retail heating-oil business is at stake," he said. "There's a lot more companies going out of business, putting themselves up for sale, because they can't afford to stay in business."
"Just look at the phone book," said Haab, whose grandfather Fred Haab founded the company in 1945. "It's gone from four pages of heating-oil businesses to two."
Haab said his company was seeing larger unpaid customer balances.
The average wholesale price per gallon of heating oil at the Port of Philadelphia was $3.97 on Tuesday - 73 percent higher than it was Oct. 1, when a gallon cost $2.29, according to The Energy Cooperative, based in Philadelphia.
Hanly said his company was carrying over $100,000 more in unpaid balances than usual this spring.
It has gotten to the point where Hanly waits to hear from refineries what their prices will be the next day before sending any of his trucks for a fill-up.
"If the price is going up at midnight, I'll load my trucks up this afternoon," he said. "If the price is going down, I'll hold off until tomorrow.
A nickel up or down is worth the effort. On a 3,000-gallon truck it adds up to $150 savings.
Consumers buy heating oil one of three ways: spot priced (they pay what it costs that day on the spot market); price protected (they negotiate a locked-in per-gallon rate with a company that can last for a year); capped (they pay a premium to adjust their rate if crude prices drop).
Patterson said many dealers had stopped offering locked-in contracts. He said the market was simply too volatile for anyone to come out feeling happy with their bet.
"Most of the ones . . . that had offered it in previous years have it available," Patterson said, "but they're not promoting it. Because nobody wants to be the one who locks in at $4 and the price drops down to $2.50."