Those who havent filled up their gas tanks in a week or so might be a bit startled when they pull up to the pumps again.
Thats because fuel prices have been surging sharply in recent days, making it particularly painful on the wallet.
Horrific is how Luke Roach, owner of Columbus delivery service Red Racer, describes the much earlier than normal increase in gas prices, which on Tuesday were averaging just under $3.66 per gallon locally.
For those keeping track, thats up more than 8 cents per gallon overnight from Monday, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report. Its 18 cents a gallon higher than a week ago, and up 41 cents from a month ago. The kicker: The current price is nearly 7 cents higher than this time last year.
It all leaves consumers and business people like Roach scratching their heads, wondering what is happening, and grudgingly dealing with it.
I have to charge a fuel surcharge, and I try to keep it reasonable. The customer cannot absorb the full cost of the gasoline, but you try to alleviate the impact on your bottom line, said Roach, who makes special deliveries locally and afar.
He had been charging a 10 percent markup on the full cost of a trip, but as gas prices have risen, he boosted it to 12 percent. Now Im going to have to go to 15 percent, he said Tuesday.
Various media reports have pegged the current climb in gas prices to several factors Chinas rising consumption of oil, international pressure not to purchase supplies from Iran, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cutting back production.
Then theres the semiannual reason given by fuel producers, that they are closing refineries to make a seasonal switch in the type of fuel consumers can buy. In this case, the fuel companies are moving from a winter blend to a more ozone-friendly summer blend, with the traditional rise in prices coming a few weeks earlier than in the past.
Where the cost per gallon will peak is often anybodys guess. But the auto club AAA is projecting the pain at the pump will continue to be felt by motorists through March and into April before slowly receding.
Although there are a few factors that could cause oil prices to stabilize this week, its likely gas prices will increase, AAA spokeswoman Jessica Brady said in a fuel price brief issued Sunday. So far market trends and price fluctuations at the pump have been similar to 2011 and 2012, leading analysts to believe prices will peak in April before they retreat.
Theres no consolation in any of that speculation for service station operators like Buddy Helton, who has seen a large piece of his Chevron business dry up in recent weeks.
Theyre not coming in. People have slowed down buying gasoline. Were pumping about 60 percent of what we were doing. Its just been knocked in the head, said Helton, who has been pumping gas locally since 1955, first in Phenix City, then on Victory Drive, and for the last 32 years at the corner of Veterans Parkway and 13th Street.
His station also offers vehicle maintenance and repair service, but that work has not been able to make up the difference in lost fuel sales he has experienced of late.
If people are not buying gasoline, theyre not needing service. And that affects us, too, he said.
For the record, according to AAA, the all-time high for a gallon of regular unleaded gas in Columbus was just under $4.21. That came on Sept. 18, 2008, as the Great Recession was cooling off the U.S. economy.
METRO AREA GAS PRICES
Here are the average prices per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline Tuesday for several metro areas in Georgia and Alabama:
* Source: AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report