Dealers say there's no shortage of home heating oil; Fred Fuller company blames order backlog on phone system that crashed
LACONIA — Fuel oil dealers around the state are stepping into the breach to fill the heating oil tanks of customers of Fred Fuller Oil & Propane, one of the state's largest heating oil delivery companies, which has been plagued by delivery problems for more than a week.
The company which had hoped to have operations back to normal by today suffered another setback when its trouble-ridden telephone system crashed again yesterday morning.
Fred Fuller has blamed the problems in keeping up with deliveries to its customers on the frigid weather, coupled with a crash last week of its company-wide phone system which has been preventing customers from notifying the company that their fuel tanks were getting low.
The company is scrambling to clean up the backlog of overdue deliveries and is making progress in that regard, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti, who heads the AG's Consumer Protection Bureau.
Fred Fuller customer Scott Laliberte of Sprucewood Drive in Gilford said that he had only an eighth of a tank of fuel as of yesterday. When he was unable to reach Fuller by phone he went to the company's office in Laconia where an employee told him he was on the schedule to get more heating oil a week from today. "I told them I couldn't hold out that long. So I went fuel oil shopping."
Laliberte said that Dutile & Sons Oil Co. of Laconia is scheduled to deliver 100 gallons to his house sometime today.
Laliberte said had pre-paid for his oil with Fuller and once that pre-buy amount is used up he will no longer do business with Fuller.
Other fuel oil dealers in the state have adequate supplies of fuel and are aslo helping Fred Fuller customers fill their tanks, according to Bob Sculley, the executive director of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire, a trade association.
Sculley said that one dealer who belongs to his organization has for the last two weeks been fielding about 200 calls a day from frustrated Fred Fuller customers.
"There is no home heating oil shortage. There's plenty of supply," said Sculley. "This is a difficulty related to only one dealer," he said of Fred Fuller which, Sculley added, is not an Oil Heat Council member.
Close to 60 percent of New Hampshire homes are heated with oil.
Boffetti said that Fuller is "buying and delivering a large amount of oil every day," and its drivers were making deliveries well into the evening in order to fill customer orders.
Here in the Lakes Region, Stafford Oil has been delivering fuel to about 100 Fred Fuller customers a day since last Friday, according to Curtis Stafford, the company's vice president. "We don't want them to suffer" due to lack of heat, he said.
Fred Fuller is considered to be the largest fuel-oil delivery company based in New Hampshire. Although the company does not divulge how many customers it has, the number is believed to be around 50,000. The company, based in Hudson, serves much of the southern half of the state, including the Lakes Region, as well as some Massachusetts communities close to the New Hampshire border.
Both Fairpoint Communications and NEC, the provider of Fred Fuller's telephone system, were working together to solve the telephone problems, Fred Fuller attorney Simon Leeming said yesterday. Leeming said that Fairpoint and NEC had made five or six "major corrections" since the phone system went down last week. He said the telephone system seriously exacerbated the company's ability to make timely deliveries because a high portion of its customers are not on an automatic delivery schedule, but rather call the company whenever their fuel tanks start getting low.
Boffetti said he was aware of the latest failure of Fred Fuller's phone system, but he said the AG's office was still holding the company to its promise to have the backlog of deliveries to its customers cleared up by today.
The breakdown in the telephone system prompted Gov. Maggie Hassan to set up a hotline Tuesday evening specifically for Fred Fuller customers in imminent danger of running out of oil.
Nearly 1,100 consumers flooded the hotline with calls as of 9:30 yesterday morning, according to the governor's spokesman. Marc Goldberg said nearly all those calling the hotline reported having had less than a quarter of a tank of heating oil, with the vast majority having only an eighth of a tank of heating oil or less remaining, and many were without heat altogether. He concurred with Sculley's statement that Fuller customers are the only ones facing the problem and that there is no shortage in the supply of heating oil.
The hotline number is 227-0002.
Boffetti said that while the rate at which people were calling the hotline was subsiding, the number of calls "is still unacceptable, particularly because of the number of people who are without fuel." He said that the hotline was making it possible for Fred Fuller customers to reach someone to report they were getting low on oil while technicians work to get firm's in-house phone system fixed. Boffetti said the telephone troubles appeared to be due to a "data corruption problem" in the company's own system and not because of any trouble with Fairpoint's system.
Leeming said Fred Fuller is working with Homeland Security to provide a back-up cellphone coverage plan for its office staff, which will be put into place should landlines crash again.
The state attorney general's office has ask for documents from Fuller Oil supporting its claims to have enough money to support all the pre-buy orders sold this winter, as well as those being sold for next winter. Boffetti said that while he has concerns that Fuller was collecting money for future sales when it couldn't meet current obligations, the biggest priority the AG's office has right now is to see that the company "is responding to an emergency situation of getting heat to the people who need it."
Leeming did not respond directly to the financial issues raised by Boffetti, but he did say that Fred Fuller representatives had met with Boffetti and Leeming assured that Fuller would address whatever concerns Boffetti has.
The weather so far this winter has been noticeably — though not drastically — colder than usual, according to statistics.
Stafford said that measured in degree days this winter has so far been 5 percent colder than the 30-year average, or 10 percent colder than last winter, which was milder than normal.
Sprague Energy and Irving Oil are the major suppliers for most of the state's fuel oil dealers, according to Sculley. Both have giant terminals in the Portsmouth area, where tanks that hold tens of millions of gallons of oil are supplied by ocean-going barges and tankers.