Maine's heat pump business is booming. But they can still be a tough sell for low-income households
An oil furnace used to heat John Chase's home in Monson, until he switched to wood pellets and a backup gas fireplace a few years ago.
But as he and his wife get older, hauling the pellets into the house will become more cumbersome, and Chase wanted a more reliable and environmentally friendly heating source.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
It's why a team from local contractor Dave's World is at his home, where installers are routing the wires for three new heat pump units.
"I hope to be a model for a lot of people in the community," said Chase, who's building an addition on his house. "They see as they drive by and they slow down and I meet them in the convenience store, and they say, ‘What are you doing over there?’ And I get to educate them about insulation or I get tell them about weather stripping or heat pumps or getting away from fossil fuels. So it’s an educational opportunity. "
About 28,000 heat pumps were installed in Maine during the last fiscal year, with most using a rebate program from Efficiency Maine. State officials believe that's a sign that Maine is well on its way to meeting a goal in Gov. Janet Mills' four-year climate action plan: Install at least 100,000 new heat pumps in Maine households by 2025.
The state rebates are nice, Chase said, but they may not be enough to convince some skeptics.
"In Maine it all comes down to the pocket book," he said. "If you can demonstrate that what you’re doing is going to save them money in the long run, that’s the bottom line and that’s what they want to hear. "
In rural Maine communities like those in Piscataquis County, heat pumps can be a tough sell, especially for low-income households who must meet a variety of eligibility requirements to quality for one.
And it may be more difficult to meet a separate goal in the governor's "Maine Won't Wait" climate plan of installing at least 15,000 new heat pumps in income-eligible households by 2025.
Hurdles for some low-income households
A MaineHousing program will pay for the full costs and installation of a heat pump for eligible Maine homeowners.
So far, the agency has supported slightly more than 1,700 installations since the program started in late 2019, according to MaineHousing data. To qualify, consumers must own their home; renters aren't eligible. And they must receive fuel assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which subsidizes a certain amount of money for their primary heating source.
"That might be oil. That might be propane. In rare cases it might be electricity," said Randy Bridges, who runs the housing and energy programs for Penquis. "This heat pump is installed as a secondary heat source. It’s not the primary heat source."
Penquis is one of the nine community action agencies in the state that administers Maine Housing's heat pump program.
While the program does help a household reduce its energy costs, it won't eliminate a homeowner's dependence on oil, Bridges said. It can be difficult, he said, to convince Mainers on heating assistance to install a new appliance as a secondary heat source that may increase their electricity bill.
"I think their concern is that, 'Well, Penquis helps us with our oil or our propane, and now we’re putting in an electric appliance,'" Bridges said. "They’re a little concerned that they’re not going to get benefit for the electricity that the heat pump uses. That’s been a concern and that’s been a hurdle."
The Maine Climate Council’s equity subcommittee acknowledged as much in a series of recent recommendations for the state. The panel said that Mainers who rely on heating assistance should be able to install a heat pump and receive comparable help with their electricity bills.
Better heat pump technology for Maine's drafty old homes
Though Dave's World has been busy — the company typically has 45-to-50 jobs each week through the state — co-owner Matt Scott said he believes the program will truly take off once more Mainers understand how heat pumps work and how they can save money. The math, he said, usually works out in the homeowner's favor.
"Say that you couldn't afford to do your whole house, but you could afford the smallest, cheapest heat pump out there," Scott said. "You let that carry as much as it can. It's just adding [British thermal units] BTUs to the space, and your oil is reduced 40-to-50%. It's a no brainer."
Andy Meyer, a senior program manager with Efficiency Maine, acknowledges that education has been in a hurdle. But word is getting out, and he said Maine has the products, tools and manpower it needs to meet the demand.
"One thing we need is capacity, and the manufacturers have been supplying product," Meyer said. "Distributors have been stocking up and training. The installers have been hiring people and investing in equipment and investing in their businesses. So we know we can double in one year because it just happened last year."
The technology has also improved, Meyer added. Cold climate heat pumps work well today in temperatures as low as negative 15 degrees. And ductless mini-split heat pumps have entered the market, which Meyer said are a great option for many Maine homes.
"Not needing duct work is a big game changer," he said. "It enables people, like almost all of us in Maine who don’t have duct work, to benefit from heat pumps."
Penquis is seeing more interest as well, Bridges said. His agency has installed 190 heat pumps within the first four months of the year and is well on its way toward meeting a goal of at least 400 by December.
The demand may be tied to the skyrocketing costs of oil and propane in recent months, he said, but he is hearing a lot of interest in the low-cost air conditioning that heat pumps can provide.
"We’re getting more and more of the hot days in the summer, and the elderly sometimes really suffer with the heat," Bridges said. "A lot of these people may stick an air conditioner in their window of their home or maybe more than one, and the heat pump is a much more efficient alternative."
But for John Chase in Monson, he'll have to wait a while for efficient cooling. Dave’s World said it’s booked for jobs well into the summer, so crews can’t return to finish the actual installation of his three heat pump units until the end of July or early August.