Suburban Maryland fuel oil companies struggled against ice and snow and exhaustion last week to keep up with an increased demand for heating oil which left some customers with empty tanks.

Strategies for meeting demand included massive overtime, increased use of snow chains and dragging hundreds of feet of fuel oil hose up icy driveways that stymied trucks. Most of these efforts worked, said fuel oil company spokesmen, but in spite of them, a few contract customers ran out before refill.

Even harder to meet was demand from customers who do not have regular delivery who called looking for oil, they said.

"We've been working seven days a week until the men get exhausted. Then we start all over again," said David Wells, a partner in G.T. Wells & Son of College Park. "I'm getting awfully tired. I wish to God it would get warm."

Wells said that only a handful of customers had run out before refill but that the handful was more than ususal.Most of the time, "I'm getting there before they run out," he said.

Because of the snow and the ice and the wear and tear on the trucks, "we can't deliver as much per day, so we're delivering less at a time when customers are using more," he said. The upshot is that the firm has to work much harder, he said.

Besides the snow and ice, fuel companier were facing more rapid consumption than usual. Some customers are using as much as double their regular consumption, according to Wells.

During the first 13 days of the year cumulative temperatures were 107 degrees below the total that normal temperatures would have produced, with a predictable effect on fuel consumption.

Most fuel oil companies base their automatic deliveries on a formula that includes the customer's hostoric rate of consumption and the number of "degree days," that have passed since the last delivery. Degree days are the number of degrees between the daily temperature and 65 degrees - the industry standard for what it should be inside.

The fuel oil companies have greeted the intense cold with mixed reactions. "It's a good problem to have," said James Curtis of Metropolitan Fuels Company in Bethesda. He said Metropolitan had initially had some problems with roads but no run-outs because of them.

Not only are customers using more fuel, but also the price of heating oil has increased. Fuel oil sells for about 45 cents a gallon now, compared to about 42 cents per gallon last year.

"It's making us work harder but we don't mind. That's the name of the game in the winter," said Joe Amato, secretary treasurer and a partner in Amato Oil in Silver Spring.

"Like all the others we're working very hard to keep up," said John Iiames, manager of the fuel division for E.C. Keys & Son in Silver Spring. "This winter is 40 per cent colder than last, and that 40 per cent on top of our delivery service is a strain," because they have to deliver more frequently, he said.

Iiames said they had had a few run-outs but "wer're doing our best to respond to them."

Even though the cold weather means extra income, a number of dealers wished it away. Ernest Read of E.J. Read & Sons Inc. of Oxon Hill said. "It's working us too hard. I don't know how long my nerves can hold up."

The firm "hasn't had a chance to wash a truck, and we've hardly had a chance to grease a truck," which might take a future toll on equipment, he said.

"We'll get rid of a little product this winter," he said. "But right now I'm beginning to think I don't want to be the richest man in the graveyard," he said.