Here’s your first quiz for the new school year:
It’s going to be cold this winter, and the price of home heating oil has doubled over the past five years . You can either:
A) Get an apartment in which heat is provided by the landlord (AHP) and the price of oil is included in the rent (AHP = PHHO R), or:
B) You can find an apartment in which heat is not provided by the landlord (AHNP = PHHO R).
If you choose B, there are a series of sub-options, including:
C) Arranging with a fuel company to provide you with oil (PHHO |- FC), in which case you can either:
D) Call the fuel company when you need oil
E) Have the fuel company deliver oil on a regular monthly basis but with fluctuating prices, reflecting the chaotic world market price of oil
F) Arranging with the company to spread out your projected winter oil payments over ten months at an averaged price
Alternatively, you could:
G) Attempt to buy oil at its lowest price on the spot market from discounters . But if you choose either option D) or G), you run the risk of running out of fuel completely .
How do you proceed? Include consideration of your monthly income, future debt levels and the amount of money you are potentially willing to spend to improve your landlord’s property. Express your answer as a relation to your immediate monetary restrictions and your environmental concerns about the use of carbon.
It is, of course, a trick question. There’s no single right answer. But before winter arrives, you may as well take a quick survey course to get a better handle on the subject.
To begin, excepting those rentals with electric heat, which is often even more expensive in Halifax, home heating oil is pretty much the only option. Natural gas is just beginning to become available in the area, but for all practical purposes oil is the only fuel available. That’s what those big, grey tanks in people’s backyards are all about (Wilson Fuels offers a 20 percent bio-diesel mix made from fish oil at the same price as their normal product, but for now, bio-diesel is limited to houses with an interior tank.).
In most of Canada, heat is usually provided with the rent, says Megan Leslie, a community legal worker with Dalhousie Legal Aid. But that’s not the case locally, especially for those hunting for cheap rent. “Probably the majority of low-income housing does not provide heat as part of rent,” she says.
Leslie’s advice depends on a person’s individual circumstances. “If they’ve had problems meeting their bills in the past, I suggest they look for an apartment where heat is included. But one problem with having heat included in rent is that there’s no control for bringing down costs. You’re paying for what the landlord thinks you’ll be using, no matter how much you cut back.”
Those landlords that do provide heat, though, are making strides to improve the efficiency of their rentals, reducing their costs and the negative environmental effects of high energy use, explains Gary Highfield, general manager at Wilson Fuels. “Before it didn’t really matter, but now oil’s a significant expense. They just can’t increase the rents the amount needed to cover the higher oil prices.”
Still, many landlords—especially those with apartments in which heat is not included in the rent—don’t want to or can’t invest in energy-saving retrofits, says Brendan Haley, energy coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre. But, he says, there are steps renters can take to lower their fuel bill (or, for electric heat, the electric bill). “I’m a renter and I work at an NGO, so you know I don’t get paid much. But every time I move into a new place I seal the windows and buy a tube of caulking.”
A tube of caulking ($5) can seal cracks around windows and in the walls. Weather stripping around doors blocks cold drafts. Window kits ($8) attach plastic sheeting to a window, providing an additional layer of insulation. These simple steps will more than pay for themselves, even for a renter, says Haley.
The Nova Scotia Department of Energy makes more suggestions on its website, gov.ns.ca/energy. Many of these are common sense: Turn down the thermostat at night, open the window blinds in the daytime, lower the water tank temperature—but many others require substantial investment in appliances and insulation that a renter probably won’t want to make.
“Why would you do that?” asks Leslie. “Buy new appliances and leave them for the landlord? Increase the value of the apartment, and the landlord raises your rent.”
In other words, after taking the easy energy-saving steps, you’re pretty much stuck with the bill. How do you pay it?
You can buy oil from discounters—companies that deliver oil on a cash-in-hand basis (check the phone book). This will shave about 10 percent off your total bill. The problem is that you might screw it up—forget to faithfully check the tank and you’ll be out of money when you need the oil, as there’s generally at least a $100 minimum fuel purchase.
So most people still rely on fuel companies, which make periodic deliveries and bill the user. Most companies also offer payment plans that stretch your projected winter fuel needs over a ten-month period, lessening the direct hit a bit. At the end of the winter, you’ll receive a credit if you’ve used less fuel
than originally projected, or a bill if you’ve used more.
Still, even with all of the strategies for reducing the heating bill, some people are going to have a hard time. Last year the province had a program called Keep the Heat, which gave low-income oil users a $250 rebate, but that program has been scrapped to pay all oil users, regardless of income, a sales tax rebate averaging around $175. Keep the Heat was cancelled this spring, but the tax rebate doesn’t go into effect until January 2007.
For the most desperate, the Salvation Army administers two programs that help, based on need, income and family size (Contact any Army outlet for details). But, “except for the Salvation Army, which is limited, with the demise of Keep the Heat, there is not a single energy assistance program in Nova Scotia,” says Leslie. “I’m at a loss for what to do.”
Ultimately, says Leslie, heating issues are political. She encourages students to become involved in the cause, to benefit both people and the environment.
Consider that your internship assignment for the year.
Visit our Student Survival Guide for a list of questions to ask before you sign the lease.
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