2017-11-16 / Editorial

There’s more to being energy efficient

Legislative Lowdown
by Rep. Martin Grohman

Energy price spikes due to recent hurricanes reflect how vulnerable Maine households are to volatile heating fuel prices. One of the best ways to shield yourself from spikes in energy costs is to make your home more efficient.

The best way to protect yourself from spikes in energy prices may surprise you. Yes, it’s improving your home energy efficiency, but it’s not the insulation or windows you hear about so much. It’s something called air sealing. If your home is drafty; if it always feels colder than the number on the thermostat; if it’s always freezing in the spare bedroom – you probably need to do some air sealing.

Some of this work needed to stop drafts is obvious, but the lion’s share of it is in hidden spaces. To actually see the cold air sneaking in your house you need a thermal imaging camera. This device can see hot and cold spots behind the walls and ceilings. Looking at the screen, it’s amazing to see the cold spots around ceiling lights and electrical outlets. It can also find animal nests in the walls – because they’re warm – or other problems, like disconnected ductwork.

Efficiency Maine, which is funded by a small surcharge on electric bills, offers a program to help you undertake this work. At my house, the test crew found huge open spaces in the attic where the plumber had made some connections and cut away insulation. These oversized holes were leaking in cold air. The technician told me that if all the air leaks in my house were combined together, it was as if I was leaving a large window open all winter. Visit efficiencymaine.org to get started with this excellent, high-impact program. It definitely made a difference for us for an investment of about $600, or roughly one tank of oil. Air sealing will pay back for decades and our home is less drafty and more comfortable.

Now let’s talk appliances. If your water heater has a 12-year warranty and it’s been in service for 15 years, it might be time to get a new one. One of the best items you can consider is a heat pump water heater. Water heating amounts to 20 percent of a typical home’s energy costs, and heat pump water heaters are about 60 percent more efficient than conventional water heaters. That’s because they extract heat from the surrounding air. Because they work like a dehumidifier, they dry out your basement, too. Efficiency Maine is currently offering a $750 rebate on a new heat pump water heater, putting it in the same price range as a regular electric water heater. The unit, which is larger than a conventional water heater, needs to be placed in an area that stays 40 to 90 degrees and has some circulating air. And just like a dehumidifier, they need a drain for the water they collect.

Speaking of heat pumps, heat pumps for home heating are a much better choice than electric baseboard heat. They are more than twice as efficient and they air-condition too. The latest stats from the governor’s Energy Office show that more than 26,000 air-source heat pumps have been installed since 2013 using Efficiency Maine’s rebate program.

Here’s a full list of current Efficiency Maine rebates: $500 for an air-source heat pump; $750 for a heat pump water heater; $300 for a pellet stove; $3,000 for an automated pellet boiler; $400 for air sealing; $500 for insulation per zone of the home (such as attic or basement) - may install three zones for a total of $1,500 in incentives.

The Low Income Heating Assistance Program (known as LIHEAP) is available again this year. LIHEAP is targeted to low and very low income Maine homeowners and renters. The biggest thing I find people don’t know about this program is that it is available for renters, even if your heat is included in your rent. Funding for this program, which is set annually by the federal government, hasn’t yet been announced for winter 2017-2018. York County Community Action handles all applications for York County. Visit yccac.org or call 283-2402 to get started.

Today in Maine, oil, natural gas and wood are roughly equal in price. Like many Mainers, at our house, we have multiple heating systems. We have an oil furnace, solar hot water, a wood stove and a pellet stove. Believe it or not, we’re also looking at propane, which is a clean burning fuel. Then we can really hedge our bets. However, propane pricing can be confusing. Unlike electricity and natural gas, propane is a delivered fuel and pricing is not regulated. It can be hard to understand, and it is important to be a savvy buyer to understand how rates are set. This is especially true for small volume customers – folks who only use propane for a generator, dryer, or stove (generally less than 100 gallons per year). The governor’s Energy Office has developed a three-page consumer’s guide for propane customers, available at maine.gov/energy.

A quick and economical energy saver is a programmable thermostat. This helps cut energy use when you’re away. You should know that older style mercury thermostats are hazardous and by law must be recycled. You will receive a $5 incentive for recycling. Bring them to Dupuis Hardware in Biddeford or check thermostat-recycle.org for more locations.

If you’d like to make an environmentally minded choice for your electricity supply, there’s a simple way to bring renewable energy into the mix. Maine Green Power is a program of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. This program sources renewable electricity from solar, hydro, biomass, wind and tidal technologies. We’ve got some of the cleanest power in the nation here in Maine, so there’s plenty of it. There is no need to purchase or install any equipment, you just make a selection on your power bill. We use this program at our home. It costs $9 per month. It’s a nice way to support the growth of Maine’s renewable energy economy. Especially if, like me, you always forget to turn off the light in your basement workshop.At least I’m supporting Maine’s hydropower industry. Maine Green Power is available for commercial customers too, and is a good way to market your company’s environmental awareness. Visit megreenpower.com to set it up.

Winter in Maine is beautiful, and sometimes cruel. As I believe they’ve done every year since 1818, the Farmer’s Almanac is calling for a snowy winter. I hope you can take advantage of some of these ideas, rebates and programs to take off the chill.

Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is an Independent State Representative serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Outside the legislature, he is chair of the Biddeford Solid Waste Commission. Marty hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called The Grow Maine Show. Find it on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, and sign up for legislative updates at www.growmaine.com or facebook.com/repgrohman.

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