LIMERICK — When it’s 14 degrees and the wind is gusting to 25 mph, as it was last Tuesday, heat is a matter of survival in Maine. And despite trends to natural gas and other fuels, the primary heat source for seven out of 10 homes still arrives via an oil truck.

Out here, in the hilly woodlands of western York County, a 68-year-old, family-run fuel company is trying to live up to its legacy during a winter that won’t soon be forgotten.

“It’s one of those years,” said Jim Carroll of J.P. Carroll Fuel Co., “when even the older guys are saying, ‘This is cold.’ It’s one of those years that really tests your ability to serve your customers.”

In an era of mega-utility mergers, oil delivery remains a family-centered business in Maine.

Roughly 80 percent of the 135 members in the Maine Energy Marketers Association have family roots, according to Jamie Py, the group’s president. More than half are two- to four-truck operations.

Of the big four energy companies in Maine – Dead River, C.N. Brown, Irving and Downeast Energy – only Downeast has an out-of-state, corporate owner, and that happened only two years ago.

“It’s generational,” Py said. “It’s passed down to children, who keep it going.”

And it’s dynamic, too, Py added. Anyone can buy a truck and deliver oil. But staying power, that’s another story.

“They have to deliver a service and a value, so customers want to stay with them,” he said.

Fuel dealers throughout Maine have been struggling for weeks to serve their customers. Extreme cold has been sucking the heat out of the state’s older, poorly insulated housing stock. Frequent snow and a crippling ice storm have turned roads and driveways into skating rinks, making it harder for trucks to reach homes that need oil.

Money’s tight, too, as Maine slowly recovers from the recession. Fuel dealers see it when customers call and order the 100-gallon minimum. That’s what they can afford. But with a typical home burning 800 gallons a winter, that’s eight deliveries, and added costs for the dealer.

Finally, Maine is experiencing a well-deserved thaw this weekend. But the winter is young, and people seem to be caught off guard, Carroll said, by the early, bitter cold. When the mercury plummets, pleading calls stream in from customers who simply have run out of oil. Then the pressure’s on to respond, and the oil dealer becomes a lifeline.

“When it’s 10-below, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for getting people oil,” Carroll said.

These challenges are magnified in the foothills of the White Mountains. J.P. Carroll makes regular deliveries to roughly 3,500 customers sprinkled in a 20-mile radius from Buxton to Parsonsfield and Newfield and over the New Hampshire border.

Folks around here began getting deliveries from the company in 1953, when John P. Carroll added fuel oil to his seven-year-old gasoline station on Route 11. “The Station,” as it’s known, remains the headquarters. A black-and-white photo on the wall shows the founder standing outside, next to a refrigerator he won from some long-gone oil supplier, for selling enough product.

The four-truck operation is run today by the founder’s four grandchildren – Jim, Sean, Lisa and Diane. A fourth generation is in training. Service calls are answered 24/7, and someone is at the station every day except Christmas.

Last Tuesday, Jim Carroll was preparing a route around town while Sean was manning the propane truck. Diane Medici was at the phone; Lisa Hackett had the day off.

After working all weekend to get oil to people who were running out, Carroll was trying to get caught up on his auto-fill customers. Dealers prefer auto-fill, especially with 12-month payment plans. It lets them map out the most-efficient delivery routes and schedules. It’s the most affordable way to keep tanks from getting low, Carroll said.

Carroll’s pleased when he pulls up to a home on a side street.

“This is as good as it gets,” he said. “A flat driveway that’s shoveled out. This is heaven.”

But in the village, Locust Hill Road is not flat. It’s well sanded, though, and Carroll eases his truck up the incline to Ruth Floyd’s sprawling house, circa 1850. The wind blows through it, Floyd said, as she steps out into the wind and cold to watch Carroll work.

She’s on a budget plan with the company, and says she’s lucky to have enough savings to make the payments.

“It’s a tough winter, but we’ll make it,” she said.

Carroll pumps 142 gallons. The cash price for oil on this day is $3.79 a gallon, but Floyd had the foresight to sign up for the company’s price-protection plan, and is locked in at $3.49. She burns 1,800 gallons a year.

“She’s a big user,” Carroll said. “It’s a big, old house.”

NO STRANGER IN THE TRUCK

Back on Route 11, near Sokokis Lake, Carroll’s brother passes by in the propane truck. Then another of the company’s drivers, at the wheel of one of the oil trucks, crosses his path. Waves are exchanged.

As he drives around, Carroll waves, it seems, to every other car. That’s what comes from living in a small town since he was 8 years old, when his father retired from the military.

As a kid, Carroll rode in oil trucks with his dad and grandfather. He went off to college, graduating as a history major from Notre Dame. He returned to help out his dad, with the intention of staying for a year or so.

“That was 24 years ago,” he said.

Carroll’s father died in 2007; his grandfather passed away in 1994. When his grandfather was in his 80s, he would sometimes sit in the passenger seat while Carroll delivered oil.

On Route 160, Rhonda Stitson’s house sits on a hillside. The driveway is steep enough that she has had to put her truck into four-wheel drive many days this winter to get home. Last Monday, during the brief, rainy thaw, she was able to remove enough ice to expose some bare pavement.

“I went out yesterday and chipped and chipped,” she said. “I knew he was coming.”

Stitson’s work was welcomed by Carroll. Sometimes, he can’t back his oil truck up the driveway to deliver. Tuesday morning, he filled her tank. She was glad for the fill-up, but not the amount of oil she’s using this winter. Although the house is only 24 years old, Stitson has gone through 500 gallons, at a cost of roughly $1,600.

At a home on Route 11, Carroll started backing up a driveway until his wheels began to slip. Noticing a snowmobile track across the lawn, he decided to park farther from the house. Then he did a quick visual calculation. The oil hose is 130 feet long. Carroll dragged the heavy, rubber snake up the trail. He reached the filler neck with only 10 or so feet of hose remaining on the reel.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE

The J.P. Carroll fuel trucks keep in touch by radio. Pulling into town, Carroll hears his name. It was his sister, at the station.

“Are we going to Waterboro this afternoon?” Medici asks.

Back at the office, Medici said 10 calls had come in during the morning from people who say they’re running out of fuel. One man in Waterboro is a “will call” customer, which means he’s not on auto-fill but calls when he’s running low.

But this time, he told her, his tank had run dry. J.P. Carroll charges $75 for a special, unscheduled delivery.

“He says he’s out and he has to have it,” Medici said.

These “will call” customers typically want to feel in control of their oil deliveries, Carroll said. But if they don’t pay attention to their tank’s fuel gauge, suddenly the dealer is responsible.

“We’re going to do our best to take care of him,” Carroll said.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com