HOULTON, Maine — When winter approaches, most Mainers grumble about the five or six months that they will spend shoveling and scraping the ice and snow off their vehicles.
Many families also are gripped by concern over the high cost of heating their homes for the winter and how they will pay for it.
But under a new partnership, Houlton residents can take advantage of electrical thermal storage, or ETS, technology that the Saco-based marketer Thermal Energy Storage of Maine, LLC said would give them the option of heating their homes and businesses at a price equivalent to approximately $2.25 per gallon of home heating oil. Area residents also can lock in the savings for five years through Dec. 31, 2018.
ETS heaters contain special high-density ceramic bricks that can store large amounts of heat for extended periods of time. The unit automatically heats the bricks during off-peak hours — which are weekdays between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. and all weekend long — and releases the heat when needed.
The systems are popular in the U.S., Canada and Europe because they are cost-effective, convenient and require virtually no maintenance over their 20-plus-year life. The Houlton program is modeled after one in Madison, and one now being established in Kennebunk. In 2011, Madison Electric Works pioneered this off-peak heating program by adopting a rate essentially equivalent to what is now available in Houlton.
In Houlton, Thermal Energy Storage of Maine is providing the ETS heating units, and Houlton Water Company is offering a special, off-peak delivery rate for electricity. In concert with that, the Dead River Company will sell and install ETS units for residents and businesses, and a number of local financial institutions are offering simplified energy improvement-type loan programs to help families make the switch to ETS as well as to make other energy-related improvements.
Sam Zaitlin, co-founder of Thermal Energy Storage of Maine, said during a recent interview that he was excited about the project.
“We began working on this about four years ago,” he said. “We really feel that this is a way to allow customers to save on their home heating costs.”
The supplemental room heating ETS units being offered in Houlton can provide 50 percent or more of a home’s heat. Whole house units, either hydronic or forced hot air, can provide 100 percent of a home’s heat and be combined with an off-peak hot water tank to reduce hot water costs as well.
John Clark, general manager of the Houlton Water Co., said Wednesday that the company has been working on the project for “two or three years.”
Although no customers have signed up yet, Clark said he believes that it will be another good option for consumers in northern Maine, which has “some of the highest heating costs in the state.”
“This will be an incredible savings to home and business owners,” he added.
At the same time, there are some skeptics.
James LaBrecque, a Bangor inventor, business owner and technical adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, said Wednesday evening that there were other heating sources that were cheaper, cleaner and far more efficient than ETS technology. He said that in his experience, electric heat remains too expensive to produce and transmit to pay off for the consumer.
“Markets also change,” he added Wednesday. “While you may get to lock in your [electric] rate for your [ETS] unit now, after five years, that price could go up.”
He also said that the units were not selling well in other parts of the state, something that Calvin Ames, general manager of Madison Electric Works, confirmed.
In 2011, the local power company teamed up with Thermal Energy Storage of Maine to make ETS units available. Residents and businesses could lock in at the equivalent of $2.20 per gallon of heating oil through December 2013. Thus far, Ames said Wednesday, only 12 customers had signed up.
“Everyone that has them loves them, but they are not catching on like we thought they would,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of them not being marketed well enough and the stigma that electric heat has around inefficiency and being too expensive.”
Ames said that his company has a unit to heat its approximately 3,500-square-foot office and has saved more than $2,000 on oil. He added that the American Legion hall in the community, as well as a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, each have four units to heat their establishments, and two businesses have picked up units as well, while the rest are owned by residential customers.
During a recent trip to Canada, he said, he saw a subdivision with 150 high-end homes, all of which were furnished with ETS units.
“They are very popular over there and in some European countries,” he said. “Of course, electricity is quite a bit cheaper in Canada. We have tried more advertising to get the word out about them, and we’ve had no problems at all with reliability or maintenance. They are just not going out the door like we had hoped they would.”
For more information on Houlton Water Company’s ETS offer, go to http://www.hwco.org/ or call Greg Sherman at 532-1211.