Thursday, April 17, 2014
LIMERICK — When it’s 14 degrees and the wind is gusting to 25 mph, as it was last Tuesday, heat is a matter of survival in Maine. And despite trends to natural gas and other fuels, the primary heat source for seven out of 10 homes still arrives via an oil truck.
Jim Carroll of J.P. Carroll Fuel Co. slips down an icy driveway while making an oil delivery in Limerick on Tuesday. Carroll is one of four siblings running the company started by their grandfather. In a time of mega-utility mergers, oil delivery remains a family-centered business in Maine.
Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
Jim Carroll drives through Limerick village on his way to an oil delivery. Extreme cold and snow and ice storms have made this winter tougher for Maine fuel dealers and their customers, especially those in old homes.
Out here, in the hilly woodlands of western York County, a 68-year-old, family-run fuel company is trying to live up to its legacy during a winter that won’t soon be forgotten.
“It’s one of those years,” said Jim Carroll of J.P. Carroll Fuel Co., “when even the older guys are saying, ‘This is cold.’ It’s one of those years that really tests your ability to serve your customers.”
In an era of mega-utility mergers, oil delivery remains a family-centered business in Maine.
Roughly 80 percent of the 135 members in the Maine Energy Marketers Association have family roots, according to Jamie Py, the group’s president. More than half are two- to four-truck operations.
Of the big four energy companies in Maine – Dead River, C.N. Brown, Irving and Downeast Energy – only Downeast has an out-of-state, corporate owner, and that happened only two years ago.
“It’s generational,” Py said. “It’s passed down to children, who keep it going.”
And it’s dynamic, too, Py added. Anyone can buy a truck and deliver oil. But staying power, that’s another story.
“They have to deliver a service and a value, so customers want to stay with them,” he said.
Fuel dealers throughout Maine have been struggling for weeks to serve their customers. Extreme cold has been sucking the heat out of the state’s older, poorly insulated housing stock. Frequent snow and a crippling ice storm have turned roads and driveways into skating rinks, making it harder for trucks to reach homes that need oil.
Money’s tight, too, as Maine slowly recovers from the recession. Fuel dealers see it when customers call and order the 100-gallon minimum. That’s what they can afford. But with a typical home burning 800 gallons a winter, that’s eight deliveries, and added costs for the dealer.
Finally, Maine is experiencing a well-deserved thaw this weekend. But the winter is young, and people seem to be caught off guard, Carroll said, by the early, bitter cold. When the mercury plummets, pleading calls stream in from customers who simply have run out of oil. Then the pressure’s on to respond, and the oil dealer becomes a lifeline.
“When it’s 10-below, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for getting people oil,” Carroll said.
These challenges are magnified in the foothills of the White Mountains. J.P. Carroll makes regular deliveries to roughly 3,500 customers sprinkled in a 20-mile radius from Buxton to Parsonsfield and Newfield and over the New Hampshire border.
Folks around here began getting deliveries from the company in 1953, when John P. Carroll added fuel oil to his seven-year-old gasoline station on Route 11. “The Station,” as it’s known, remains the headquarters. A black-and-white photo on the wall shows the founder standing outside, next to a refrigerator he won from some long-gone oil supplier, for selling enough product.
The four-truck operation is run today by the founder’s four grandchildren – Jim, Sean, Lisa and Diane. A fourth generation is in training. Service calls are answered 24/7, and someone is at the station every day except Christmas.
Last Tuesday, Jim Carroll was preparing a route around town while Sean was manning the propane truck. Diane Medici was at the phone; Lisa Hackett had the day off.
After working all weekend to get oil to people who were running out, Carroll was trying to get caught up on his auto-fill customers. Dealers prefer auto-fill, especially with 12-month payment plans. It lets them map out the most-efficient delivery routes and schedules. It’s the most affordable way to keep tanks from getting low, Carroll said.
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Jim Carroll walks a hose behind a house in Limerick while delivering oil Tuesday. His family-owned business has four trucks to serve its roughly 3,500 customers in western York County and in New Hampshire.