In this March 4, 2009 file photo, David Steward of Royal Oil & Propane delivers home heating oil to a home in Portland, Maine. Credit: Joel Page | AP

It’s been a rough start to the new year for thousands of customers who rely on home heating fuel and for the companies that provide it.

More than a week after a blizzard and a spate of record-low temperatures, suppliers are still facing a backlog of orders, customers have run out and some deliveries still can’t be scheduled for another two weeks.

PitStop Fuels delivery driver Kim Mullins has been working 13-hour days for the past two weeks. She has had one day off: the day of the blizzard, when it was unsafe to drive. Other than that, she begins each day filling up her truck at 5:30 a.m., when it’s still dark outside.

“Right now, I’m currently putting No. 2 in my back pocket, trying to fill it up as far as possible so I can get to as many houses as possible,” she says.

Mullins’ back pocket is a holding tank in her truck. She pumps 2,100 gallons of No. 2 heating oil into it to serve the customers along her route in Raymond. That amount will supply about ten homes before she’ll have to circle back to a bulk plant in Gray to refuel.

By the end of the day she’ll have delivered fuel to 40 or 50 homes.

“Especially with this company, we’ve been getting a lot of negativity, but every customer that I’ve come across, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to see you!’ Some people had their kids make me cards saying, ‘Thank you for showing up. Thanks for keeping us warm.’ It melts your heart. It makes it worth 13-hour days,” Mullins says.

Much of the negative comments have been on social media, where customers have expressed anger and frustration when they’re told they’ll have to wait 10 days for a delivery. But PitStop is not alone.

Many fuel companies are experiencing delays because of what they say is “unprecedented demand.” Compounding the problem is a statewide shortage of qualified delivery drivers. Some suppliers have stopped taking new customers.

Josh Sandahl, vice president for PitStop, says his company will take new orders as long as customers are willing to wait several weeks. And for those new customers, he has some advice.

“Right now, the best you can do this time of year is an automatic delivery plan. In May, we go out with budget plans. That’s probably the best option out there because it comes with automatic delivery and it spreads your payments out over 12 months. That makes it easy for a consumer to budget. Makes it easy to plan. You don’t have to call in for deliveries,” he says.

That’s been one of the big challenges for PitStop. Ninety-five percent of its customers are not automatic delivery. Because they’re on a limited budget, they can only afford 50 gallons or so at a time, and they’re used to calling when they run low and having PitStop deliver within one to three days.

That all worked well, Sandahl says, until the snowstorm came, followed by the below-zero temperatures, the holidays and the blizzard. Everyone used more fuel than expected. And then everyone called in for a delivery at the same time.

At peak demand a week ago, customer service reps at PitStop were getting 6,000 calls a day.

“On average, during this time of year, they would see about 800 calls a day. We are currently responding to about 1,600-1,800 calls a day. Not only are these folks answering phone calls, they’re answering emails. And we see in excess of 4,000 emails at a time,” Sandahl says.

In response to customers’ needs, PitStop set up an overflow call center and hired 40 additional attendants. The company is also taking walk-ins at its administrative office in Standish. Those workers are putting in 12-13 hour days.

Customer Service Representative Melody McKay says everyone on the staff has done everything they can to help out. And she says even customers who’ve stopped by the office have stepped in to help their neighbors.

“There was one man standing in line for his turn and heard an elderly woman in a critical situation, and we were discussing that with her, and he said, ‘Excuse me. Where do you live?’ And he managed to fill a can and go help her out. We have a great community and we’ve had a lot of support here,” she says.

Back on her delivery route, Mullins stops at the home of Carol Vining of Raymond. She and her husband have been out of oil for more than a week and making do by going to a gas station and bringing home extra fuel to keep their furnace going.

“We got some yellow K-1 cans and we actually chose to use diesel. We had to travel to Poland to get diesel. Windham was running out,” Vining says. “Luckily, I have a husband who can put diesel in there, so I wasn’t too concerned.”

“We care deeply about our customers. We’re here seven days a week. We are trying, not always succeeding, to do the best we can for customers,” says Mike Mikytuck, one of the new owners of PitStop Fuels.

Mikytuck and his partners took over the company on the first of the year, just in time to face a difficult challenge with logistics and public relations.

“I’ve talked to people who’ve heard that we’ve been sold to a giant conglomerate or they’re shutting the business down or they’re from out of state and they don’t care about us. We’re committed to this,” he says.

Mikytuck is convinced the company will get better and stronger because of the challenges it’s faced so far this winter. And he’s asking customers to be patient just a little bit longer.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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