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5 August 2020
The 1.3 million UK households who rely on a heating oil tank to warm their homes risk overpaying due to an under-regulated market that gets too little political attention. There's no slick solution, but there are things you can try to cut heating oil prices. And right now prices are super-cheap as a result of falling oil prices across the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Deliveries of heating oil and other liquid fuels are continuing as normal during the coronavirus pandemic, though suppliers have now introduced contactless delivery. This may mean you won't be able to pay by cash or cheque for the time being. See our Coronavirus Finance & Bills Help guide for the latest info.
This guide's for those using home heating oil (not LPG or renewables). Instead of getting gas via pipes, oil is delivered in a lorry and stored in a tank. If you have heating oil, it's likely you've tried many of the tricks we cover below, but we don't want to leave anything out. If you're completely new to it, you can find cheap suppliers via the steps below, but it's also worth asking the old tenants for tips too.
You can get two main types of heating oil – kerosene or gas oil. Which you need is determined by the type of boiler you have. Kerosene is most commonly used in homes and is more efficient, so if your boiler takes either oil, it's usually worth going for this one.
Shockingly, there's no regulator to look after heating oil users, leaving you high and dry on price transparency and fairness (though there is a code of practice some suppliers subscribe to – more details below). But there are three things you can control to net cheaper oil:
Heating oil prices in the UK tend to follow trends in global oil prices, and with lockdowns in place across the world due to the coronavirus pandemic, global oil demand has plummeted to 20-year lows. As a result, UK heating oil prices have also plummeted.
According to one broker, UK heating oil prices dropped by more than half in April – from a price of about 45p per litre towards the end of March, to just 22p per litre at the end of April.
However, while prices are so low and it's a great time to stock up, it's important not to panic buy right now. Suppliers can still be hit by sickness and staff needing to self-isolate, so it's key not to put too much stress on them, as it could cause delays in getting supplies to those who really need it now.
Knowledge is power, so the first step is to ensure you know what prices are available to you.
You can use specialist heating oil sites to compare rival companies. There are two types of sites – brokers and simple comparisons. With the brokers, they secure a deal and you pay them if you're happy with the price. A comparison simply lists the cheapest prices it can find.
The more you try, the better, but make sure to check at least two. Start with these (we picked them as they're independent, but feedback is scant, so they're listed in no particular order):
Do you use a better comparison site? Please let us know.
It's important to note we're not suggesting you just buy from these sites – brokers often charge a bit more for doing the legwork. Some comparison sites aren't transparent about being linked to parent oil suppliers, but all the sites above are currently independent of any oil giants.
Once you've benchmarked prices, you can start to whittle costs down even more by haggling. Here's how...
Not all suppliers are physically able to send tankers to your area, so as well as noting down names from the comparisons above, use the UK and Ireland Fuel Distributors Association (UKIDFA) directory, Yellow Pages, Yell or Google Maps to find your local ones.
Pick a supplier, call it up and haggle. Don't be shy. This is a haggling business. If you've never haggled before, don't try and be overly clever. You're just calling to give it a quote and see if it can beat it. The more oil you order, the bigger the discount you're likely to get.
You're more likely to get a result if the staff member empathises with you. If you're polite, charming and treat the process with humour, you'll get further – never be aggressive.
As negotiations come to a close, a classic sales technique is staying silent. They want you to accept the price just to fill the silence. Make them fill it with a cheaper offer.
After your first haggle, whether it worked or not, call a few more suppliers, quoting the best price you've had and see who can beat it. To speed up the process, you could simply knock some off your existing price and say this is what you want them to beat. But don't go too far with this – if it's unrealistic, it may say no.
If you've got a regular or preferred supplier, or someone who has spent lots of time helping you, go back to it to see if it will match the best price you've found.
The UK and Ireland Fuel Distributors Association (UKIFDA) is the trade association for the oil distribution industry, funded by members (like most trade bodies). It has a code of practice that it asks members to adhere to. The code asks members to clearly explain payment options and charges, not to change unit costs once agreed and to resolve incorrect deliveries, among other things.
All UKIDFA suppliers are also members of UtilitiesADR, an independent alternative dispute resolution scheme for non-regulated issues between consumers and utility providers.
Check your supplier is accredited with the UKIFDA, it should bear a logo on its website.
The price you pay for your oil is directly influenced by the wholesale price suppliers pay, which fluctuates on a daily basis (plus their profit margins on top).
The giant gas and electricity suppliers buy energy ahead when the price is cheapest. But heating oil suppliers don't do this, so short-term fluctuations more directly affect prices. Therefore, timing is everything. Right now prices are super-cheap as a result of falling oil prices across the world due to the coronavirus pandemic, but as a general rule:
Summer's often the best time to buy. Low demand drives prices down. December is often the priciest month.
Yet it's also important not to leave buying oil to the last minute. Emergency deliveries can cost about 10% more. Plan ahead and get quotes with a few weeks to spare, to give yourself the most flexibility and best prices.
Get into a routine of checking your oil level, so you can judge when to order – most tanks come with a basic gauge – or have a dipstick handy. You can get fancier gizmos which automatically alert you when you're low on oil (or if sudden drops occur), but these can be pricey.
If you want to really hone your savings, monitor prices daily using the price chart from Boilerjuice and time your buying for when prices are dipping.
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While not guaranteed, in general the more oil you buy the better discount you can get. Whether this is buying ahead for the year, pairing up with a neighbour or joining an oil-buying group – the bigger the buy, the bigger the savings, so joining a group will probably get you the best price.
If buying on your own, bear in mind the more oil you buy and store, the bigger the loss if you're unfortunate enough to be a victim of oil theft.
In the right kind of numbers, bulk-buying heating oil as a village can give you leeway to negotiate better deals with the oil suppliers.
It's also in the supplier's interest, since it saves on petrol by not having to make multiple trips to the same area.
Lots of heating oil clubs already exist, set up by individuals or companies. Some charge a small admin fee, but steer clear of any asking for large amounts.
Setting up an oil club is fairly simple, but does require someone who's willing to chase quotes and organise members. About 20 people ordering around 10,000 litres of oil is the optimum for getting a really good deal while still being able to organise a group easily.
Simply ask people in your area to commit to an amount of oil and get quotes for the group (or take it in turns) every month or so.
Even teaming up with just one neighbour can save a decent amount. The heating oil company will strike a deal and bill each person individually. Most firms are happy to do this provided you live reasonably close to each other.
Sounds obvious, but discounts for group-buying are given because the company saves money on delivery costs. If you're too far away, it won't work.
Ringing around for quotes will take time, so the group leader must be prepared to do the graft. Or you could put in a rota system.
Suppliers often have minimum delivery amounts. You need to check this and ensure you time your orders so you order enough.
You need to decide when you will order. Some houses may have bigger demands, so will need to order more often. You may also want to watch the markets to buy at a trough (see more on buying at the right time).
Liaising with your club is important, so make sure a good channel for communication is set up.
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Most suppliers have a minimum order of 500 litres a pop, which will set you back about £100-£150. It's a big outlay, so it's important to manage your cash properly. If you're buying via a club, you may pay it and it will take care of payment to the supplier. If not, these tips apply to you.
Unlike with gas and electricity bills, you don't get a discount when paying for heating oil by direct debit. However, it can be convenient as it allows you to spread the cost and you can still haggle.
How it works. Usually they'll ask you to pay for your first order upfront, and will then agree to a set amount you pay each month for future orders, so you don't need to pay upfront again.
You can order a delivery any time you like, money will be taken from the account to cover it. The price you pay for that oil will depend on the price they offer that day, so you can use the same techniques mentioned above to buy at the right time.
What if the direct debit doesn't match my usage? You may have surplus credit at the end of the year, which your supplier will refund, or you may have a shortfall to pay. One supplier, Watson Fuels, even pays around 2% interest on any excess cash in your account. But don't go for it unless it's cheapest, which is far more important.
Don't let a direct debit stop you from haggling elsewhere. While you can usually stop the direct debit at any time, the downside is you're far less likely to go out and haggle with other suppliers when you have the convenience of a direct debit. Don't let it drive you towards apathy.
Bigger orders get bigger discounts. Therefore, it's most cost-effective to buy larger amounts less often. If you don't have the cash flow to do this, save money each month. Use Martin's piggybanking technique to make this easier.
Or simply add up how much you spend each year on oil and put this aside each month in a savings account. For example, if you make three orders of £500 per year, you should be saving £125 per month. Put this away in the top easy-access savings account to boost interest.
If the supplier doesn't charge extra for paying on credit cards, use a cashback card and you can get up to 5% back. But ONLY do this if you'll pay back the card in full each month. See Top Cashback Cards for the best buys.
Pay for £100+ of goods on a credit card and the card company's jointly liable with the retailer if something goes wrong. This gives you extra legal rights. While it should work, it's not tested for heating oil purchases. See the Section 75 guide for more. Though only do this if you can clear the card in full next month to avoid interest.
Both the oil you buy and the tank you store it in cost big, so if things go wrong you'll be seriously out of pocket.
The Oil Firing Technical Association (Oftec), the body which represents suppliers, suggests you get an annual tank inspection for starters. But you can do simple checks for corrosion, cracks and discolouration yourself, and make sure no debris can get into the tank to affect the oil. See Oftec's guides for more.
Heating oil theft still happens. Here are a few things to try to limit the risks:
The location of oil tanks can be a critical factor. Ideally they should be situated within sight of your home, but not visible from the road. If tanks are visible, plant hostile (thorny) shrubs around your tank.
Thieves will think twice before forcing their way through a prickly hedge, and the smallest trace of blood or shred of ripped clothing could provide enough forensic evidence to identify the offender.
Sadly and bewilderingly, energy regulator Ofgem doesn't have any responsibility for heating oil and there are no immediate plans to change that. With no consumer body to protect heating oil users, it's not as easy to get redress as it is with other purchases.
Unfortunately, this means you will need to rely on the courts if things go badly wrong. However, the small claims court is relatively easy to use and not as scary as you may think. But first, try the following:
The types of issues you might encounter include:
When starting a complaint, it's best not to go militant unless you have to. The first easy step is to go back to the shop or phone the call centre. Explain the problem and your suggested resolution.
If you go in with polite gusto, saying you know what your rights are, chances are the store will sort your problem in a flash.
If the supplier won't help, pen a complaint letter and send it to the head office. If it needs to go to a local office, it'll be passed on.
Send all letters by recorded delivery, so you can prove they received it, and always save a copy.
Your letter should mention any statutory rights you think have been broken. Don't overwrite these letters, just pen one or, at most, two sides explaining the problem. Crucially, always include what you want them to do to put it right. If you have documentary evidence (or photos if it's damage), include it.
It is worth adding that you will consider court action if this is not satisfactorily resolved.
If you're not confident the supplier will help you if you run into troubled waters, there are two consumer rights which may help you:
Does your supplier belong to the trade body? The UKIFDA has a code of practice which it asks all members to adhere to. If the firm doesn't, it may be kicked out, which means it can no longer bear the UKIFDA logo. It's also a member of an independent alternative dispute resolution scheme for utility providers – UtilitiesADR.
If you've exhausted all routes via the supplier and the trade body, there are two consumer rights which may help you:
Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. Pay for £100+ of goods on a credit card and the card company's jointly liable with the retailer if something goes wrong under a special law called Section 75.
This is particularly valuable for heating oil consumers, as the next step is the small claims court. Section 75 gives you a robust option without having to go to that trouble, plus allows you to take up the issue with the Financial Ombudsman Service (for free). See the Section 75 guide for more. Though only do this if you can clear the card in full the next month to avoid interest.
Consumer contracts regulations. These regulations give a 14-day cooling-off period after you've had an order delivered (see Consumer Rights for more info). However, it may be difficult to enforce these regulations once the oil has been put in your tank.
If all else fails and the shop hasn't given you a satisfactory response, don't be disheartened. You can still go to court, but the only person who can force action is a county court judge (sheriff court in Scotland).
Yet before you get legal on their butts, you're expected to try to resolve things directly. Ideally, send a "letter before action" to say you are going to take them to court. If you don't try, the judge is likely to look unfavourably on your case, so always use the steps above first.
Legal action in what's usually known as the small claims court is limited to claims under £10,000.
See the Small Claims Court guide for full info.
Discuss/share your haggling and cost-cutting tips with other MoneySavers in the Cheap Heating Oil forum thread.
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