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Down the Road

A heat pump to reduce oil use
By Milton M. Gross
Nov 11, 2012 - 12:20:10 AM

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Both of us had our secret doubts about the new mini-split heat pump, but, by golly, it works.

It heats our home, which otherwise is baseboard-heated by an old oil boiler in the basement. It keeps the set temperature in the south end of the house where it hangs, while the temperature drops a couple of degrees at the far corners of the 1,100-square-foot ranch house.

Our new mini-split heat pump at the end of our living room. Milt Gross photo.

We grew weary of our oil budget plan by which we were paying the oil company around $240 per month for 11 months. Dolores calculated that monthly payment was the budget-buster for us.

Then along came an article in the Bangor Daily News about the new mini-split heat pumps, which got us going. The article stated that with the potential passage of a bill in the Maine legislature, Bangor Hydro and other Maine electric utilities would be able to finance these new ways to heat homes. The bill passed, and Bangor Hydro is up and running with it.

We e-mailed Bangor Hydro and learned some details, which are available at www.bangorhydro.com by clicking the button on "Heat Pump Program." Bangor Hydro's program includes a reduced electric delivery rate and a rebate for those switching to this heat pump. Since the BDN article stated that any utility in Maine can do this, I e-mailed Central Maine Power, since many readers live west of the Penobscot River where CMP is power king, and asked about their version of the program.

Also because our daughter and her husband live in CMP turf.

The reply e-mail stated, "CMP does not have a program for heat pumps. We do have a rebate program for Electric Thermal Storage units."

CMP was behind the eight-ball way back when we lived in Swanville, when we kept paying our electric bill each month, and when CMP kept sending us cut-off notices. I drove to their Searsport office and learned from an awake clerk that CMP had been crediting our checks to the account of another guy, who -- poor guy -- had the same name as mine.

Okay, so they corrected their mistake. Now their new mistake, in my not-as-humble-as-it-probably-could-be opinion, is that CMP is behind the eight-ball again.

What! No mini-split heat financing program? After it was approved by the Maine legislature?

Thankfully we're at least 20 miles into Bangor Hydro country.

Bangor Hydro will finance a mini-split heat pump in homes and small businesses for their customers. And, if you've been their customer a year or more, you can skip most of the application which is found after you hit that "Heat Pump Program" button. They have a list of companies that install them, and you get to pick your favorite from their list.

We didn't find Maine Alternative Comfort LLC on that list at first, although it is there now, but learned of this company through a consultant who works for Bangor Hydro.

The consultant also told us that the University of Maine Extension, out by the Ellsworth dump -- oops, transfer station in today's lingo -- had had two of them installed and were using them. During my visit to the Extension, I learned that those who are employed there are happy with the heating system, and I got to take photos of it.

Barker-Hoyt (known hereafter as Adam because this is not a news story so doesn't need to abide by news-story writing practices of using last names) came to our house, looked things over, and suggested a location for the heat pump.

Adam Barker-Hoyt, CEO for Maine Alternative Comfort LLC in Veazie with the outdoor unit he has just installed. The outdoor unit is located as close as possible to the inside unit for efficiency of the refrigerator-like heating system. Milt Gross photo.

Heat pumps have been available for years for houses with forced hot-air heating, and recently have been better designed so they actually work when the outside temperature hovers at 20 F or dips below.

Adam explained how a mini-split heat pump would heat our baaseboard-heated house using the same principle as the refrigerator in our kitchen. Only instead of keeping stuff cool, it would make our house warm. It would do this -- honest, somehow, by a process of which I have no understanding -- by using the heat that is in the Maine winter outside air to produce heat inside the house.

Hah, yeah, we bet.

But after Adam and a technician installed it, we now say, yeah, we bet, only we'll win the bet because it's heating our house -- somehow, by that process of which I have no understanding, taking that heat from the Maine winter air and producing heat inside the house.

Adam said this was alternative heating, the idea being to not have to buy so much of that expensive heating oil. He said we'd have to use the oil boiler when the temperature dropped from cold to colder than that. We set our boiler thermostat at 64 degrees, and, Adam's gadget helped us win our bet, the one we weren't sure about. The boiler now comes on several times during each 24 hours, when the temperature is around freezing or below outdoors.

Which makes us happy for two reasons: a. we're not fans of the big oil corporations who love to exchange our money for their product made from those poor old ancient dinosaurs or whatever and b. electricity is costing less each year and comes partly from renewable sources, such as hydro, wind, and others....and, as the price of oil rises, those renewable sources will kick in more.*

I showed photos of both our inside unit and outside unit to a friend, who is thinking of installing one of these in her fairly new retirement house.

She looked at the photo of the outside unit and said, "But it's ugly."

"Not as ugly as your propane bill," I replied.

And speaking of ugly, Dolores and I have sat while not watching TV reruns and wondered how much our new heat source will cost each month. We knew how much the extra high-priced oil was costing, but we have yet to receive our first electric bill that includes the electricity used by our mini-split heating system.

So, I asked a friend who has electric baseboard heat in his house. Electric baseboard uses a lot more power than will our mini-split. He told me that in December, January, and February, his total electric bill is around $600 a month and about $200 a month the rest of the year. Our mini-split should cost a lot less than that, and we plan to calculate a year-round payment plan to even things out -- to avoid that electric bill shock.

For years, we've used a portable electric baseboard heater in our bathroom, because the oil heat didn't provide enough heat there. We never have seen a rise on our electric bill during cold months. A few days ago we bought one of those little oil-filled electric radiators for our laundry room, also known as our daughter's bedroom when she comes to visit over Thanksgiving weekend.

Haven't heard the old oil boiler come on while I've been writing this.

Which is good, because we called our oil company and dropped our monthly oil budget plan.

"Don't call us, we'll call you," I said to the oil-company manager.

Hope we don't need to call for a long, long time.

* We used to buy hydro power from the company that was eventually bought out by First Wind. Then one month we discovered that we were back on the "standard offer" again. We investigated and learned that First Wind had dropped us -- after we had never missed paying a bill on time -- without bothering to notify us. We called their Portland office and an employee verified that they had dropped us. When we asked why, the employee became very quiet -- must have gone into a meditation mode. She never told us why we were dropped.

But being a good conspiracy theorist, I have guessed at the reason. In my not-as-humble-as-it-probably-could-be opinion, why sell hydro power when you can make a lot more money cashing those government grants to build wind towers here and there -- some of which here and there's ruin scenery and destroy Maine's forest and lake beauty. One such development in the town of Freedom may have driven a farmer off his land that abutted the land on which three wind towers were built -- we've lost track of him after our phone conversation with him when he said he was going to South America for awhile. Driving along Route 139 about ten miles north of the towers, you can see those towers plainly creating part of a new horizon.

We're not opposed to wind power. Just in locations where those tall towers with their spinning blades and attached lights would ruin the nearby country.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

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