The wildly fluctuating price of home heating oil is causing both concern and confusion among hard-pressed Northern Ireland consumers.
Variations in cost recently of up to 15% from one day to the next reflects its unpredictability and makes it particularly difficult for householders to know when best to buy.
The price of 900 litres can rise — or fall — by around £10 within hours, according to data provided by an independent website that monitors various oil distributors.
Indeed, last week this newspaper reported that home heating oil prices had plummeted to a 16-month low, only to find that the cost of a tank fill had gone up again — in some cases by around £40 — less than 24 hours later.
The good news for home heating oil users across the province, however, is that industry experts are now forecasting that costs will remain fairly uniform over the next 12 months.
The prediction follows an exceptionally difficult 2008 for householders who saw prices hit unprecedented highs of over £600 for 900 litres and more than £350 for 500 litres.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Northern Ireland Oil Federation spokesman David Blevings moved to allay customer fears over pricing, adding that he understood there was confusion in the marketplace.
“We appreciate how difficult it is for consumers to keep track of prices,” he said.
“However, local distributors have no control over wholesale price movements and we recommend consumers keep in touch with their regular supplier who will be happy to advise them.
“The good news is that price stability looks like being a feature of the market in 2009.”
Data obtained from www.cheapestoil. co.uk on Monday and again on Tuesday highlighted how online prices can fluctuate in either direction within a matter of hours.
Local oil distributors have no option but to accept and pass on market increases
Bangor Fuels was quoting £311 for 900 litres at 11pm yesterday, for example, which represented a reduction in price of £10 on Monday’s tariff of £321 (as recorded on the website between mid-day and 11pm). Similarly, the cost of 500 litres dropped by £5 within the same time frame.
Meanwhile, online prices for 900 litres at Leebody Fuels increased by over £7, from £321 to £328.86, between Monday and Tuesday, according to www.cheapestoil .co.uk.
With the recent drop in wholesale costs having resulted in lower home heating oil prices, householders can fortunately now fill up their tanks for almost half of what it cost in the summer.
And Mr Blevings said that local distributors were committed to giving Ulster’s beleaguered customers the best possible value for money.
“The price of home heating oil for 900 litres has fallen by approximately 45% since the beginning of July 2008,” he said.
“We saw a short term ‘spike’ in prices from Monday January 5, however, due to the markets’ reaction to the cold weather and increased demand, the Middle East tension and concerns over the Ukraine / Russian gas dispute. The oil market is very sensitive and the availability of information to traders and speculators can change the market within minutes.
“Local oil distributors have no option but to accept and pass on wholesale market increases as they occur.
“There will always be slight variations in prices between distributors due to differing operating overheads and stocks, but on the whole consumers in Northern Ireland are well served by a very competitive industry.”
Mr Blevings also pointed to the latest independent Sutherland figures, published last October, which showed that consumers in Northern Ireland buy their home heat product at 4% below the UK average and 10% lower than in the Republic.
Value Oils managing director Donall O’Connor — whose company has 12,500 registered users — said he expected prices to remain stable — or even fall — next year.
“With the downturn in the Far East and demand dropping off in America it looks as if prices will at worse stabilise and at best get a little cheaper,” he said.
Value Oils — which is the only 100% internet based heating oil distribution company in Northern Ireland — was charging £305.71 for 900 litres and £175.09 for 500 litres yesterday.
A spokesman for www.cheapestoil.co.uk said the average price for 900 litres and 500 litres yesterday was £324 and £188 respectively.