October 9, 2021 6:38 PM

If you have shopped for a fuel oil company within the last 30 years, you most likely came across some form of the “computerized degree day/automatic delivery service assures you of an uninterrupted oil supply when you need it most” statement from marketing materials or the sales person. Since most all oil companies use computerized degree-day systems, homeowners might do better figuring out “once my company knows I need oil, does it have the resources to get the oil into my tank before I run out?”

It may seem counter-intuitive but my experience in working for close to a dozen oil companies over the years has led me to conclude that the larger the oil company, the more likely some of their customers will go days without heat during prolonged frigid weather! I’ll tell you what I mean by recounting my experience at one of the largest retail heating oil companies during January-February 2018. But first, we need to know what a typical winter is like.

Large oil companies are like yachts in that once a course is set, they are not nimble enough to change it on a dime. The place I worked for figured on about 30 drivers for the winter working an average of 50 hours per week while the average temperature was close to 30 degrees. If temperatures dropped into the teens or single digits for a couple of days, management would plan on drivers to work more overtime to compensate. When the outside temperature gets to single digits, homes go through twice as much fuel as when the temperature is in the low 30’s.

In periods of brutal cold weather, a smaller company’s owner can jump into a spare truck boosting company delivery output by 25 to 35 percent before his other drivers work extra time. The larger companies simply do not have 15 extra drivers or trucks sitting around in their yards that can boost output in the same way. Even when the weather was brutal, a Contract Automatic Delivery customer who chose a smaller company was without heat for at most a few hours.

From what I saw, the large company’s plan for extenuating circumstances when temperatures became frigid for a few weeks was to plead with government officials to declare a State of Emergency. That way, the company could legally ignore D.O.T. Hours of Service regulations. I kid you not! Now I’m not a fan of overly burdensome regulation by government but I thought this was rich given that the company employed safety officers who followed drivers around making sure they did things like getting in and out of their trucks and pulling the delivery hose according to the company safety policy.

In January of 2018, the weather got bitterly cold and stayed that way for weeks. Our location was doing pretty well considering... maybe 2 percent of the customers were running out of oil. Upper management rewarded our oil delivery manager by taking a few drivers from him and sending us to a location that had by my guess 10 percent of the customers running out of oil and it increased as time went on. When this happens, the service department cannot keep up with the no-heat calls unrelated to run-outs so everything snowballs.

I would say 15 percent of the customers were without heat even though the drivers and servicemen were on a mandatory 7 day per week 12 hour per day schedule for weeks. Servicemen were telling me they were canning about 10 run-outs per day. A few customers I pulled up to were telling me they had no heat for two to three days! They were unable to get a customer service rep on the phone even though they tried for hours at a time. The drivers were told not to prime and start these customers. Instead, the customers were supposed to wait until the service man arrived. I ignored those orders. Meanwhile, the location that I was working previously had more and more people running out of oil. There were quite a few insurance claims because pipes were bursting.

The moral of the story? Bigger is definitely not better when it comes to picking a company that keeps the mechanicals of your most valuable investment running. Choose a smaller company so you can sleep better at night when the weather gets brutal outside.