Truck drivers for heating oil companies are facing “a nightmare” on their deliveries as they deal with frantic freezing customers, icy driveways and oil tanks buried by snow and ice, according to one company owner.

Les Thomas, owner of Cash Energy, which has offices in Scarborough and Bangor, said his company has set records for the number of oil deliveries it has made in the past few weeks.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but I don’t remember it being this cold so early in the season,” Thomas said Friday. “And people aren’t prepared. It’s the worst time of the year for this to happen; people are spending their money on Christmas, not oil.”

The recent winter storms and extreme cold temperatures are stretching the ability of heating oil companies to keep up with demand from customers. As a result, dealers are asking customers to be patient as the environmental conditions impede their ability to make deliveries.

The brutal cold means people are burning more fuel than usual, and companies are fielding more calls from customers looking for a delivery. Additionally, the snow and ice slow down delivery times as truck drivers are often forced to dig out oil tanks.

“The two pieces together make it a very active time for our companies,” Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, said Friday. So active, in fact, that several calls to owners of oil companies were not returned Friday. John McKusick, owner of McKusick Petroleum in Dover-Foxcroft, said he was so busy that he couldn’t spare 10 minutes to speak with a journalist.

But it’s not a situation they can’t handle, Py said. Heading into the winter, companies prepare by adding drivers and stocking up on supply, but it’s always hard to handle extremes.

“They do their best, and hopefully, customers out there understand that,” Py said.

With approximately 70 percent of Maine households using oil as their primary heating fuel, many are familiar with the situation.

In the week before Christmas, drivers for Dead River Co. made roughly 20,000 deliveries to customers in Maine, an increase of 18 percent over the same week the year before, according to Deanna Sherman, vice president of the company’s energy division.

Sherman said Dead River’s drivers have been working overtime to meet customer demand for fuel.

The situation was serious enough that on Dec. 31, Gov. Paul LePage declared a limited emergency, which, among other things, waives certain U.S. Department of Transportation rules that limit the number of hours fuel delivery truck drivers can work. The declaration is in place for two weeks, and is an extension of a previous emergency declaration LePage made Dec. 13.

That emergency declaration was “extremely important” for fuel companies’ ability to meet their customers’ demand, according to Py.

While demand is up, the supply of heating oil hasn’t become an issue, according to Sherman and Thomas. However, prices have increased a small amount. The statewide average price for No. 2 heating oil was $3.76 per gallon during the week of Dec. 30, up four cents from the week before and up 21 cents since the heating season began in October, according to the governor’s energy office.

Customers who entered into fixed-price or capped contracts earlier in 2013 are not seeing any difference in what they pay for the fuel, but customers who didn’t enter into pricing arrangements are paying those increased costs, especially those who heat with propane.

Propane prices have increased by 30 to 40 cents per gallon in the past few weeks, according to Sherman. Propane cost $3.06 a gallon during the week of Dec. 30, an increase of 39 cents from October.

Another challenge heating oil companies face is handling the increased volume of service requests, according to Sherman. Dead River has beefed up its staff to handle the calls, but Sherman realizes some customers could become upset by a slower response than they are used to.

“In the grand scheme of things, when you have deliveries to around 20,000 customers a week, the majority we’re meeting their need, we’re getting there on time,” Sherman said. “But for that small percentage that we don’t, we apologize. We take it personally, and it bothers all of us at Dead River Co.”

Jessica Miller, a philosophy professor at the University of Maine, is one Bangor customer who expressed frustration at not being able to reach a Dead River representative on the morning of Jan. 1, when she woke up to find her oil tank empty. Unable to get through on the phone, her husband drove to Dead River’s office to schedule a delivery. Miller said a Dead River truck showed up a few hours early, but it was a trying experience.

“They did respond pretty quickly,” Miller said. “I just did feel that they might have been better prepared for this sort of contingency given the ice storm and the frigid temperatures.”

Sherman admitted Dead River had a phone problem on New Year’s Day that was caused by overwhelming demand and system configuration issues related to an answering service the company used.

“That was something we do not pride ourselves on,” Sherman said, adding that it was a “short-lived issue.”

Miller’s experience highlights an important lesson for customers, though. Thomas said homeowners need to keep an eye on their tank’s gauges and not let it get below a quarter tank. Scheduling a delivery ahead of time will allow homeowners to avoid the situation in which they’ve run out of fuel and need an emergency delivery.

“The biggest thing is to keep an eye on your tanks and don’t let them get too low,” Thomas said. “And give your oil company a little bit of notice.”

Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.