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Stay warm this winter without breaking the bank, or the Earth

My husband and I still reminisce about the Heat Crisis of ’05. It was February. We’d just bought our first home and we were blissfully—and briefly—roasty-toasty. But after blowing through a tank of oil in less than a month, panic set in. One heat zone and an ancient system controlled the whole two-story house. There was zero weather-stripping and old, failing insulation. The original French doors were so poorly insulated that snow drifted into the living room.

We didn’t have the cash to tackle a big heating renovation, so we did what we could with plastic and draft stoppers and set the thermostat at 64 degrees. We wore a lot of sweaters that winter. Since then we’ve made major changes to our heating system, but I will never forget how helpless we felt when we realized how much money we were wasting to maintain a bare minimum of comfort.

It’s a story Kristie Green, co-manager of Portland’s Horizon Homes, has heard many times. “So often the [efficiency] problems aren’t what you think they are,” she says. “Or people think it’s normal to keep the thermostat at 65 because it’s Maine.”

Green’s company, founded by her husband, helps Mainers achieve comfortable, efficient homes. Using blower door testing, which Green calls “the benchmark for all efficiency improvements,” Horizon conducts energy audits to analyze where heat is being lost. Their recommendations for improvement usually include an air sealing component, insulation and heating system upgrades.

The Greens help customers make the most of incentives offered by Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state agency established by the legislature in 2009 to oversee programs that increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases in Maine through loans and rebates. Homeowners can borrow up to $15,000 over 10 years for qualifying energy improvements and rebates come back in cash. “This is not a tax credit,” says Andy Meyer, a senior program manager at Efficiency Maine. “This is a check we send you in mail.”

The available rebates total over $10,000 per eligible homeowner and come from a variety of sources. Air sealing upgrades, for example, are funded by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Large plants in Maine that run on fossil fuel bid for the right to pollute through RGGI, and that money comes directly to Efficiency Maine for distribution. Other rebates are generated by surcharges (like on your electric bill) and some originate at the federal level. The most widely utilized “instant rebate” is discounted LED lights at retailers across the state. Efficiency Maine pays the difference—sometimes over $3 per bulb—so the cost to consumers stays at 50 cents per bulb. Find out where to buy the cheapest LED bulbs on efficiencymaine.com.

Another common rebate Efficiency Maine pays out for are ductless heat pumps. These ultra-efficient, two-way systems pull warm air out of a room to make it cooler and draw it in from outside to make it warmer, even when temps are below freezing. Consumers can access $500 for their first indoor unit. Meyer says it’s the most popular type of new heating systems in Maine, where two thirds of residents are still burning oil in furnaces or boilers. “We’ve rebated 30,000 [installations], and our goal is to rebate another 100,000 over the next five years,” Meyer says.

On the Efficiency Maine website, consumers can find heating cost comparison charts, lists of available rebates and loans, application forms and registered vendors. Like many companies that install heating equipment or insulation, Horizon Home will submit the rebate forms for customers and deduct the savings from the final bill. “We’ll full service,” Green says. “Almost all our customers are claiming rebates. It can be a little gnarly to navigate on your own.”

Evergreen Home Performance, located in Rockland and Portland, is also a registered vendor. Owner Elise Brown often uses a “cap and boots” approach, tackling moisture mitigation in basements and heat loss in attics. For quick fixes to reduce air leakage, Brown suggests window inserts (visit windowdressers.org to order and join a build; it’s fun and educational), door weather-stripping and a few cans of spray-foam to seal up gaps. Between these small changes and larger, professional renovations, she says “homeowners and tenants can cut energy waste by 15–60 percent.”

Kristie Green is also finding ways to increase return on investment when owners sell their energy-upgraded homes. “It used to be there wasn’t a lot of resale value in energy upgrades,” she says. “We’re now doing Pearl Certification, which attaches true real estate value to homes.” According to the Pearl Certification website, certified homes sell for up to 5% more.

For Green, Brown and everyone at Efficiency Maine, creating incentives for efficiency is as much about comfort and cost-savings as it is about the bigger issue: the climate crisis and the resulting weatherization needs on Maine homes. Gov. Janet Mills wants Maine carbon neutral by 2045, and homeowners will have to play a major role if that goal is to be obtained. “Maine’s carbon footprint goals can be reached by people making their homes more efficient,” Green believes. If she’s right, it’s a three-pronged victory. Comfort, cost and carbon-savings.

EASY, COST EFFECTIVE WAYS TO SAVE ENERGY
(FROM EFFICIENCY MAINE)

ADJUST WINDOW TREATMENTS
During the day, let sunlight in. At night, keep curtains closed to reduce heat loss.

SEAL ELECTRIC OUTLET BOXES
Installing foam gaskets reduces drafts and creates an extra thermal barrier.

CLEAN BOILERS & FURNACES
Annual cleaning substantially extends the life and efficiency of heating systems.

INSULATE EVERYWHERE
Reduce heating costs by up to 25% with proper insulation. Can’t afford to envelop the house? The attic and cellar are the best places to start.

STOVE TOP SMARTS
Use the smallest stove top burner necessary to do the job. A 6-inch pan on an 8-inch burner can waste over 40% of the heat produced.

NO PEEKING
Each time you open the oven door to check on those cookies lowers the inside oven temperature. Use the oven light instead.

DISHWASHER, NOT DISH-DRYER
Operate at full capacity and skip the drying cycle in favor of air drying.

USE HIGH-EFFICIENCY LIGHT BULBS
CFLs and LEDs are over 70% more efficient than incandescent light bulbs. And thanks to Efficiency Maine, they’re cheaper, too.

Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.