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Heat Pumps Catching On, Even Gov. LePage Loves Them

Maine is home to lots of big, beautiful old houses that are expensive to heat in the winter and to keep cool during the warmer months. It's a problem at the Blaine House in Augusta, the official of residence of the governors of Maine for nearly a century. But now the Blaine House has has joined a growing number of homes and businesses that are turning to new technology to cut down on heating costs.

The sprawling mansion - just across the street from the State House - is not only home to the governor's family, it's a museum.

"We want this house to stay another 200 years. This is a real inspiring house. It was built in the 1830s," LePage says.

On a recent tour of the house, Gov. Paul LePage highlights its historic significance. One of the biggest attractions is the study of James G. Blaine, a former governor who also served as speaker of the U.S. House, and is the only person in history to serve as secretary of state under three different presidents. But LePage says the building is expensive to heat and that's why he decided to install heat pumps.

"The heating system was atrocious, costing somewheres around $40,000 a year, I'm told, to heat the place," says LePage. "So we have cut that down by 75 percent.  So that's one of the reasons, to lower the cost."

And LePage says the heat pumps also save on cooling costs in the summer, and he and his wife Anne have been so impressed with the technology they've had it installed in their home in Boothbay. They are not alone in their enthusiasm for heat pumps, as some 11,000 units have been installed in Maine this past year. And Dana Fischer, the residential program manager for Efficiency Maine, says the trend is likely to continue.

"One of the most popular new heating upgrades that is going on in Maine right now is the air source heat pumps," says Fischer, "the mini split heat pumps. More than 700 were installed just last month."

Fischer explains that these units employ very efficient motors and heat exchange equipment to extract heat from even very cold air, but can also help cool a home in summer. Fischer says a single unit, priced at about $3,500, can handle a small home.

But in a cold climate such as Maine, heat pumps cannot completely replace a heating system. Richard Burbank, president of Evergreen Home Performance, a certified installer, says many homeowners use the devices in conjunction with another source, such as a gas- or oil-fired furnace.

"Heat pumps are an incredible way of supplementing it so that the heat pump is limited in how much heat you can actually produce, but if you get as much as you possibly can out of that, take the load off of your heating system, especially in the spring and fall, that's a really great, cost-effective solution," says Burbank.

Mike Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine, says the agency is offering a $500 rebate on the cost of buying and installing a heat pump system and the program is very popular.

"We are very impressed with the performance of those high efficiency cold weather heat pumps and the demand from consumers for them, and we can see why customers like them," Stoddard says.

Efficiency Maine is funded through a fee on utility bills. And Stoddard says the agency's new three-year budget reflects the growing public demand for heat pump technology. There is funding in the first year for 7,000 rebates, and the funding increases in the third year to cover up to 10,000 rebates.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.