INDIANAPOLIS - After weeks of frigid temperatures, Indiana's propane dealers are hoping forecasts of warmer days, improving supplies and lower prices will begin easing shortages of the heating fuel that have left many rural Hoosiers in chilly homes.
An estimated 500,000 Indiana residents who rely on propane to heat their homes, most of them in rural areas, have been hit by weeks of propane shortages and much higher prices as a combination of subzero cold and market forces strained supplies.
But Scot Imus, executive director of the Indiana Propane Gas Association, said moderating temperatures and signs that the propane supply is stabilizing suggest the worst of the shortages may be over for propane users.
Indiana has also passed through what's normally the coldest period of the winter, he said.
"Hopefully we're going to start to see things settle down," Imus said. "The calendar is on our side, supplies are firming up a bit, and prices are stabilizing. We're better off than we were two weeks ago, but we're still not out of the woods yet."
The U.S. Energy Information Association says the average price of propane in Indiana soared from about $2.81 a gallon in early January to about $4.27 a gallon by early February.
But the group's report latest report released Wednesday showed Indiana's average price of a gallon of propane had dropped to $4.04.
Despite the improving picture, Imus said that for now rural residents who use propane still need to take steps to conserve their supply, such as by lowering their thermostat, checking doors and windows for drafts and addressing those.
Imus said the propane gas association's 90 propane dealers had imposed 150-gallon limits on its customers during the shortages, but he said a couple dealers have raised that to 200 gallons in response to improved supplies.
Those dealers also want to give a break to their employees, who've been working long hours and through weekends to deliver propane to customers whose tanks ran dry during the state's punishing streak of winter weather.
Central Indiana residents Kim Casada and her husband, Charlie, are still feeling the propane pinch. They shut off their furnace on Jan. 24 and switched to using four electric space heaters to warm their 3-bedroom rural home south of Muncie.
The couple finally got a 150-gallon propane shipment on Feb. 4, but because their supplier said he wasn't sure when they might get more propane, they decided to keep their furnace off rely on their space heaters until early March.
"We don't know what else to do," Casada said. "These chilly nights, it's just really hard and we're both exhausted."
Casada said she and her husband have covered their windows inside with plastic to keep the heat in and cold out and closed off their bedrooms to increase the temperature in their living room, where they've been sleeping most nights.
Around the house they've been wearing sweaters and layered clothing to deal with indoor temperatures in the lower 60s.
"There are so many people in the same boat as us," she said.
Crystal Pettet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, said that after this week's latest shot of subzero cold, temperatures should rise by early next week to the lower 40s -- readings about average to slightly above average for mid-February.
The remainder of February looks even better. Pettet said Indiana's 2-week forecast through the end of February calls for the state to finish out the month with above normal temperatures.