When winter’s cold evenings fell upon Maine residents last year, Bret Mills woke up one morning to a stark reality after opening a fuel bill to fill his tank: Paying for fuel to heat his new home was going to be expensive.

“It was quite the shock,” said the 26-year-old Mills, who bought a house last June on Bridgton Road in Westbrook. “We were dipping into our equity just to pay for our heat.”

After paying nearly $800 per month in heating costs last winter, Mills decided he needed to make a drastic change to save money for the upcoming winter that could be the most expensive he has faced.

The first-time home owner will be replacing his oil burner with a propane burner that he predicts will save him nearly $1,500 per year in heating costs.

The project, which he will pay for using equity from his home, is expected to be completed by October and costs $20,000. While the initial cost is steep, it will pay for itself in the “long run” Mills said.

“We explored other alternatives such as using strictly solar power,” he said. “That would’ve cost us nearly $40,000 to install and start, and it was going to cost just a few thousand dollars just to have a consultant come out and speak to us. In the end, we decided propane was the way to go.”

On Aug. 18, the average price for heating oil in Maine was $4 a gallon, according to MaineEnergyInfo.com. That is a 42 cent drop from Aug. 4, but at the same time last year the average price was $2.69.

Oil has risen steadily since 2005, when the average price of oil

peaked at $2.12 in March of that year.

Those costs have affected Brian Dunn and his wife Tanya of Gorham who are planning to burn more wood this winter. Dunn said last year his family used mostly oil and spent nearly $3,000 on fuel.

“We can’t afford to do that again, and I expect that if we burned mostly oil this year that price would be a lot higher,” Dunn said.

Dunn has been gathering wood from family and friends and spending his weekend afternoons cutting it into ready-to-use wood stove pieces. He said he hopes to scrounge up at least one cord on his own before paying $500 to $600 on two more cords that he will burn in place of oil this year.

“We’re going to burn around the clock,” he said. “My oil heats everything such as my home heat and the water. I’m going to try to burn enough wood that only the water is heated by the oil.”

Dunn, 42, said that while wood is cheaper than oil, he has found that it is costing nearly 15 to 20 percent more than last year.

“It seems that this year more people are buying wood and that is driving up the cost,” he said. “You just can’t win.”

Mills is also finding other ways to save or earn more money to prepare for this winter.

He found a part-time job at Anthony’s Italian Kitchen in Portland’s Old Port to supplement his full-time income from Transformit, a company in the Gorham Industrial Park that specializes in making awnings and tents for national and international trade shows.

He said he held off on finding a second job until he started researching the oil price trends.

“I held off for a while because I didn’t really want to do it,” he said. “It’s difficult because it really cuts into my free time and takes away from other things that I want to be doing, but I’ve got to do what I need to in order to cover my heating costs.”

He also only washes his clothes with cold water and puts bricks in the toilet tanks to conserve water.

“I am doing whatever I can to cut down on costs this year,” he said.

Throwing a wrench into the Dunns’ budget is also the lagging economy. Tanya lost her job as a waitress at Casa Novello in Windham in July after poor sales forced the business to shutdown.

The Dunns have since trimmed their cable and phone services to the basic plans and are buying Christmas gifts for their two kids on a monthly basis instead of waiting for December to buy them at one time, Dunn said.

“That can be a thousand dollars right there if you buy the gifts all at once,” he said. “You’re basically cutting out the extras, too, such as going out to eat and cutting costs wherever you can.”

Both Mills and Dunn, although accepting the inevitability of higher fuel costs, say they are frustrated with oil prices rising and hurting their wallets.

“It’s ridiculous,” Mills said. “Every time I turn around it seems like I’m burning a hole through my pocket because prices keep rising.”

“I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Dunn said. “But I can’t imagine how much worse it can get.”

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