Sense & Centsibility Blog

Propane Shortage? What Now?

Propane. D’oh, pain. The freshly appointed Great American Propane Epidemic of 2014 has been a reoccurring theme in counseling sessions over the past two weeks. Since our winter days and nights aren’t showing signs of getting any warmer, this problem should continue to dig further and further into many rural Northerners bottom lines. How can you react and deal with the insanity that comes with a $5 a gallon propane reality?  

1. Assess short term co-alternatives

Utilizing your fireplace or wood burning stove is a natural response to the cost of heating a home with any kind of fuel source. If you have a wood supply you should start integrating a healthy mix if you haven’t already. This will prolong the need to refill your propane and help you reduce the amount you need to refill if you are stuck buying the expensive stuff. Just like the cost and scarcity of propane, however, seasoned hardwood is harder to find and more costly than in typical years in most areas if you must order it.

Also, you need to be careful to make sure how much you are getting for your money and how ready the wood is to burn, because terminology in buying fire wood varies like non-other. A “cord” could mean as little a pickup load to a dump truck worth, and “seasoned” wood could mean its old (like dissipating to dust, old) or cut down yesterday depending on who sells it to you. If you are like me, you also have a couple space heaters kicking around that seemed like a good idea for a supplemental heat source until you got the power bill. Though it is anything but efficient on a normal day, heating occasionally used rooms with a space heater is going to prove more economic than heating your whole house on $5 per gallon LP.

2. Consume less

It’s no longer just advice for hippies and tree huggers, maximizing your home’s efficiency and your own energy behaviors equates to noticeably more cash money with the elevated LP prices. Turn the temp down 5 degrees and wear a sweater and some wool socks. Turn it down another 10 degrees when you are away from home. Match the reduction with your hot water heater by changing the automatic setting of 120 degrees to 110. Wrap the windows in insulated wrap to make them air tight and put towels at the foot of exterior doors. Lastly, unless your outbuildings feature animals or pipes, consider heating hiatuses.

3. Consider making capital improvements

What you don’t want to do is self-justify missing mortgage payments or racking up thousands in high interest credit card debt carrying out a knee jerk reaction in updating a perfectly good heating system because it is uncharacteristically expensive in the immediate sense. However, if you were in the market for an upgrade to a solar thermal or even a wood boiler setup, what better time than now? For more ordinary budgets, replacing a washer, stove or water heater (go tankless) with a more efficient modern alternative helps. Lastly, installing an attic fan or a series of top floor ceiling fans helps like nothing else to recycle rising hot air, meaning less heat needs to be created to maintain an agreeable level.

4. The money has to come from somewhere

No matter what you do to cut down on how much you use, if you depend on propane for heat, you will overspend your eyeballed budget this year. Luckily, this has all materialized before you filed your 2013 income taxes. Regardless if you were intending on spending your refund on a big screen TV or fueling additional retirement savings, it may have to wait if the added expense would only resurface as new debt by being unable to afford another element of your budget. If it’s not as simple as a tax refund, it may take revamping a medium term goal (i.e., trading a camp-cation in the BWCA for the hotel-dependent trip planned to Mexico) or just modifying your behavior by simply deciding to alienate a wasteful component of your spending such as deciding to stop smoking or refusing to eat and drink out in bars and restaurants.

5. A little help may be in the cards

There may be some kind of assistance available in your area to help defer some of the economic impact the increase has had on your household. For instance, the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps provide heating assistance to low income households, especially those with seniors, children, veterans and people with disabilities and has designated an emergency “crisis” fund that may issue payments as soon as next week. To check qualifications, you would want to contact your local Energy Assistance service provider, call 1-800.657.3710 or stop by the Dept. of Energy Resources website. In addition, a hotline has been established for general questions about the shortage and is listed as the go to source to contact if you are in serious danger of running out of fuel.

Have questions about all of this? Give us a call at 888.577.2227. We can take a look at your budget and see what's really going on and give you resources to help with your situation. Don't go another month feeling stressed. Call now!

Author Tim Fischer is a Housing Counselor at LSS Financial Counseling.