BANGOR, Maine — There is one burning flame in these dark economic times. It has been burning bright for two years running and is expected to grow even brighter this year.
Bangor Gas Co. officials say that — even with the bad economy — homeowners in and around Bangor are willing to invest in natural gas heating systems to save money.
The company has grown by 40 percent for two years in a row, and “this year it’s going to be even bigger,” said Jon Kunz, marketing and sales manager.
“The word is finally getting out” about the advantages of natural gas, he said.
While the rest of the country has been tapped into natural gas for decades, with more than half of all homes in the United States heated with it, Maine usage has lagged because of the lack of access.
“Natural gas has only been available in the Greater Bangor area since early 2000,” Kunz said.
Bangor Gas, which is the only natural gas provider in eastern Maine, tapped into the nearby Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline in 2000 to offer natural gas locally to residential and business customers.
In the past decade, Bangor Gas has built new main distribution lines and service lines to reach customers in five communities — Bangor, Brewer, Old Town, Orono and Veazie — and the list will continue to grow as long as the demand is there, Kunz said.
Two of the biggest customers are Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and the Verso Paper mill in Bucksport, which has a dedicated high-pressure line. But municipalities, schools, stores and rental units also are on the continually expanding list, Kunz said.
In fact, work began Wednesday to extend a main line down Harlow Street to provide access to the Bangor Public Library, the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building and more than 25 other sites, he said.
Over the past decade, nearly 2,000 customers have tapped into the Bangor Gas lines, but “I still have 3,000 residential customers that we’re in front of who have not taken advantage,” Kunz said.
When oil prices skyrocketed in 2008 to amounts above $4 a gallon, many people, including Brewer resident Mark Blaine, began thinking about converting from oil to natural gas.
Blaine made the switch to natural gas in mid-2008 when oil cost around $3.60 a gallon, he said.
“I’ve saved a lot of money burning natural gas,” he said Tuesday. “It paid for itself the first year. The first year I saved close to $1,000.”
Blaine, who installs and maintains heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems for a living, installed his home unit for around $700.
“I didn’t change my boiler. I just put a new gas burner on my boiler,” he said.
For those who have to hire someone, the cost of converting a typical home to natural gas starts at about $1,200, Kunz said.
In addition to lower costs, using natural gas doesn’t require an annual heating system cleaning and there is no tank, he said.
“It burns a lot cleaner,” said Blaine, who lives on Washington Street with his wife, Lori, and two children, Ethan, 3, and infant daughter, Lyla. “It’s a little bit more environmental friendly.”
Before considering making a conversion, Blaine suggested calling a professional to see what is needed to make the switch and ensure the work is done to code.
“You have to make sure your boiler is capable of burning gas and that your chimney is rated for it,” he said. “It has to be lined.”
Those who make the switch can qualify for federal Energy Star tax rebates for up to 30 percent of the costs, Kunz said. The cost of installing a new gas-burning heating system is $3,000 to $4,000, both Blaine and Kunz said.
Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, a group of heating oil distributors, said he’s not surprised that some have made the switch to natural gas.
“Natural gas has had a price advantage over the last two years,” he said, adding there is no way to predict what prices will look like.
The price of fuels fluctuates tremendously from year to year, and “industrial users will use either fuel depending on price,” Py said.
In Maine, nearly 80 percent of homes are heated with oil, and there are ways to save money and reduce the amount of fuel needed, Py said.
“The best thing you can do is weatherize your home so no matter what fuel source you use” heating costs will decrease, he said. And for oil users, “upgrade your system. A new system can create a savings of 20 to 40 percent.”
To help those thinking about purchasing a new heating system, Efficiency Maine will soon be offering rebates thanks to federal stimulus money through the U.S. Department of Energy.
“The rebates will vary depending on what you purchase,” said Tim Vrabel, Efficiency Maine deputy director, adding that the more efficient the model, the higher the rebate.
Efficiency Maine officials are ironing out the final details of the new program and plan to kick it off May 1.
The easiest way to compare the costs of gas, propane and oil is to convert the different fuel sources into British thermal units, or Btus.
One therm of natural gas produces 100,000 Btus, 1 gallon of propane constitute 91,600 Btus and 1 gallon of oil equals 139,000 Btus.
So in order to compare apples to apples, the current cost of a therm, which is 69 cents, is multiplied by 1.39 to get the comparative price for oil, and is multiplied by 0.916 to get a comparative cost for propane.
“You would have to pay less than 96 cents for a gallon of oil or less than 63½ cents for a gallon of propane to equal the [current] price” paid for natural gas, Kunz said. “A commercial account can pay it [the cost to convert] off in a few months. With a residential account, it could be a year or two.”
Anyone with a nearby gas line should look into the pros and cons, Blaine said.
“Run the numbers,” he suggested. “It’s worth it, but a lot of people don’t have that kind of [upfront] money and stick to what they’ve got. If I had the money, I would put in a new gas boiler.”
Those who want find out if they have access to a natural gas line, or who want more information, may visit bangorgas.com. The Efficiency Maine Web site is efficiencymaine.com, and the Maine Energy Marketers Association’s site is maineenergymarketers.com.