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I can’t fill all the oil tanks in Maine, but…

Posted March 23, 2012, at 3:16 p.m.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t have a great mind for business. For years, I’ve been filling my neighbors’ oil tanks, whether they can afford it or not, through my fuel company. On Saturday, Feb. 4, it all caught up with me, when the New York Times exposed my unconventional business practices in a front page story about Robert and Wilma Hartford. My world changed that day and my thinking has, too.

The Hartfords are a retired couple. Robert is a veteran and Wilma is disabled. They both worked hard their entire lives and now as they enter their “golden years,” they are struggling to make ends meet. Regardless of how frugal you may be, a fixed monthly income of $1,350 goes fast these days.

As the price of oil rose, their monthly heating costs climbed to $500 (almost 40 percent of their income). Once they could no longer afford to buy fuel, things turned desperate. Even though it meant giving up his last shred of liberty, Robert offered me the title to his 16-year-old Lincoln Town Car in exchange for oil.

After the story in the Times broke, we received donations of close to $200,000 — which have all been deposited into a not-for-profit fund to help the Hartfords and others like them. My faith in the kindness of strangers and in America has been restored. I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am to all those who offered their help. The most interesting offer came from some folks who told me they could reduce the need to fill the Hartfords’ oil tank year after year.

DeWitt Kimball from Complete Home Evaluation Services volunteered a home energy audit to assess the building’s current problems and to determine what efficiency improvements might make sense. This was an eye-opener for me. He didn’t just look at the heating system, he measured the total air-leakage in the building and studied the condition of the existing insulation throughout the building and then he built an energy model — which allowed him to compare the relative values of different improvements.

I thought we could help the Hartfords by upgrading their heating system.

DeWitt’s energy model showed that a boiler replacement would save them about 10 percent.

Josh Wojcik of Upright Frameworks used the energy audit to work up some estimates for projects that would knock the total need for heat down by almost 50 percent. The retail cost of buttoning up the attic and the basement came out to $6,800, which is just about the same cost as that heating system I was thinking about installing.

Josh’s team came in with a clear plan and they worked fast. Within two days, DeWitt was back out there doing a test-out to see whether the project had the desired effect. The work exceeded his expectations.

I never knew what was possible through this type of work. But I was there for the initial audit and for the follow-up inspection and I can tell you that the home is dramatically different. The drafts are all but gone and the house holds its heat so well that the heating system rarely kicks on.

They reduced the air-leakage by more than 60 percent (still allowing for adequate ventilation), and added high-performance insulation throughout. I have a new perspective now. The high cost of heating fuel is strangling Maine’s economy and energy efficiency is the solution. I can’t fill all the oil tanks for free and if my customers can’t afford to buy fuel, my business doesn’t work.

The Hartfords story has a happy ending, but their situation was not unique. Many of Maine’s households struggle to afford heating fuel, but almost all our homes need to be buttoned up. Wasted heat in our homes drains over $450 million dollars from our economy every year.

The Hartfords have personally invited the governor and the Legislature to come to their home to learn about the power of energy efficiency and to start having a serious discussion about what must be done for the rest of the state. Here are the details: 11a.m. Saturday, March 24 at 38 West Main Street, Peru, Maine.

The governor declined, but I’m hopeful that some real leadership will emerge from the Legislature. If you want to meet The Hartfords and learn about energy efficiency, I urge you to take a ride over. The Hartfords are good people and their home is, well, warm.

Ike Libby owns Hometown Energy LLC in Dixfield.

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