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NH oil firms step in to help Fred Fuller customers

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 08. 2014 10:33PM

New Hampshire home heating oil dealers are not running into supply problems and are helping frustrated Fred Fuller Oil & Propane Co. customers fill their tanks, according to the head of a statewide industry organization.

"There is not a supply shortage," said Robert Sculley, executive director of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire. "This is not an industry-wide problem in New Hampshire and New England. This is a company-specific problem."

The head of the state's Consumer Protection Bureau on Wednesday agreed that supply appears to be abundant in New Hampshire and no other dealers are having issues meeting demand.

"This does seem to be confined to a delivery problem with Fred Fuller Oil," Senior Assistant Attorney General James T. Boffetti explained.

Fred Fuller Oil, one of the state's largest heating fuel delivery companies with main offices in Hudson, got backlogged on deliveries last week at a time when the region plunged into arctic cold snap, Boffetti said. Fuller promised to be caught up with all deliveries by week's end, Boffetti said.

Sprague Oil of Newington and company owner Fred Fuller told state officials Wednesday that the oil company has been buying "significant" daily amounts of home heating oil, totally about 500,000 gallons since Monday, Boffetti said. Fuller's trucks also have been delivering oil late into the night to get through the backlog of customers, Boffetti said.

"I do not have any indication that he is in serious financial trouble," Boffetti added.

"I haven't audited his books. I don't know if he has a cash flow problem or not...He has yet to provide me with proof of his pre-buy liabilities and his futures contracts," Boffetti said.

But Boffetti noted that the vast majority of Fred Fuller customers who have gone without oil are those who either pay as they go or are on a budget plan. Just a small fraction of those affectd have pre-buy contracts, he said.

A company-wide failure in Fuller's telephone system should be fixed by today, Boffetti said. The breakdown in the telephone system have made is impossible for customers to place orders for oil since last week. This prompted Gov. Maggie Hassan to set up a hotline at 6 p.m. Tuesday specifically for Fred Fuller customers in imminent danger of running out of oil.

Nearly 650 consumers flooded the hotline with calls by 2 p.m. Wednesday, the governor's spokesman said. The vast majority had less than 1/8 of a tank of oil left — the rest had less than a quarter of a tank of oil or run out of oil completely, spokesman Marc Goldberg wrote in a statement. The hotline number is 227-0002.

State officials staffing the hotline first make sure consumers are safe then work with Fred Fuller to get drivers and technicians out to customers, Goldberg said.

"The health and safety of individuals who are running dangerously low on heating oil due to delivery issues with Fred Fuller Oil Co. remains Gov. Hassan's primary concern," Goldberg wrote. He said the hotline will remain open until "we are confident that response times are sufficient to ensure the health and safety of customers."

Goldberg said the situation "highlights the need for strengthened consumer protections for heating oil customers, especially those on pre-buy (contracts)."

Meanwhile, other dealers are pitching in to help those needing oil, Sculley said.

Mary Olsen, officer manager at Shattuck Oil Co., said the Pepperell, Mass., company has added 40 to 50 Fred Fuller customers from New Hampshire since last Thursday, including filling an elderly Nashua woman's tank Tuesday.

"We just delivered to an 80-year-old woman who hasn't had heat for two days," Olsen said. "She was a Fuller customer. She had no oil."

Sculley said there are about 200 oil dealers in New Hampshire and Fred Fuller serves tens of thousands of Granite State customers. "If he's not the biggest, he's one of the biggest," Sculley said.

Matthew Ciardelli, co-owner of Ciardelli Fuel Company in Milford, said his staff has been fielding several hundred calls a day from Fred Fuller Oil customers since Friday.

"We've helped out several hundred customers who aren't our regular customers," Ciardelli said, adding that his staff has worked up to 14-hour days to meet the additional demand.

On Friday night when temperatures plunged well below freezing, Ciardelli said neighbors of a 98-year-old Amherst woman dropped in his office worried the woman would run out of oil because they were unable to contact Fred Fuller Oil, her regular company.

"She was 98. She could barely use the phone. Her neighbors stopped by our office," he said. Ciardelli said he took a truck home and delivered oil to the woman as well as his neighbor, another Fuller customer who was on empty.

Ciardelli said his company was able to offer a helping hand because — anticipating the cold streak coming into the region — they got caught up on deliveries to all their customers by last week.

About 58 percent of New Hampshire homes use oil for heating, according to Meredith Hatfield, director of the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

She said the state's hotline set up to handle the Fred Fuller situation "is both triaging people in an emergency situation" and talking to people who want to file complaints with the state's Consumer Protection Bureau.

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