Energy crisis hijacks heating plans

Posted Oct. 06, 2008, at 9:54 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:18 a.m.

Nearly three-quarters of Mainers who participated in a recent poll plan to turn down their thermostats this winter while 10 percent predicted they will not be able to adequately heat their homes due to rising energy costs.

Those are just two preliminary findings from a large, ongoing survey that examines Mainers’ heating plans for the winter as well as how they are coping with the current energy crisis.

Not surprisingly, the survey found that a growing number of Maine residents will burn wood or wood pellets to reduce their reliance on heating oil. Forty-six percent of households said they planned to burn either cordwood or wood pellets during the coming season.

But the poll — commissioned by the American Lung Association of Maine and the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — showed that 50 percent of respondents already have made cutbacks in “critical” household or personal expenses, such as groceries or transportation.

“For lower-income people in our state, there has been an energy crisis for a long time,” said Edward Miller, chief executive officer of the lung association. “Now, it has spread to more and more people.”

The survey also raises fears among some in the health community that the high energy costs could contribute to air quality problems as more Mainers fire up old, inefficient wood stoves.

The Portland firm Critical Insights randomly surveyed 1,067 people from every Maine county for the poll. The firm continues to poll people and plans to survey a total of 3,200 respondents throughout the state.

Noteworthy findings among respondents so far include:

ä 62 percent have made their homes more airtight during the past 10 years.

ä 10 percent anticipate not being able to adequately heat their homes.

ä 21 percent have already or plan to change or modify their heating sources.

ä 73 percent plan to turn down the thermostat, while 16 percent already have cut back on the amount of groceries they purchase to counter high energy costs.

Miller said the survey illustrates trends that could negatively affect air quality both inside houses and outside.

A small percentage of people indicated they plan to switch to existing wood stoves as their primary heat source. Miller said he fears many of those will be wood stoves purchased before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed minimum pollution emissions requirements.

Miller said he is also concerned that Mainers’ frugality and do-it-yourself mentality could backfire in some cases.

For instance, 75 percent of those who plan to make energy efficiency or weatherization improvements to their homes intend to do it themselves. Additionally, only 14 percent of respondents said they had a professional energy audit or plan to in the next year.

Improperly installed or ventilated heating sources can contribute to both indoor and outdoor air pollution. Energy-efficiency experts have also warned that homeowners who choose to weatherize their homes without getting some professional guidance could end up getting less bang for their buck.

“The good news is that more people are taking action to conserve energy,” Norman Anderson, regional research director and environmental health adviser for the lung association, said in a statement. “But some heating devices can lead to indoor and outdoor air pollution. Proper installation and ventilation are essential. And some devices, such as unvented space heaters, should be avoided entirely.”

Miller added in an interview Monday that he is concerned that these do-it-yourselfers may end up becoming “do-it-to-yourselfers” if they improperly install or operate heating systems. The lung association is also concerned about outdoor air quality problems, especially in river valley communities where pollution from wood burning may not disperse.

“We realize there is going to be a lot more wood burning this winter, and there are ways to minimize the health impacts of burning wood,” Miller said.

The preliminary survey results were first discussed Friday during a panel discussion with health and energy experts hosted by the lung association.

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