How one Bangor couple helped convert their neighborhood to natural gas

Gale and Stephen Leavitt, of Bangor, first started talking about whether to convert their heating system to natural gas a few years ago because, well, everyone else was talking about it. Distribution company Bangor Gas was installing more underground lines to homes in the area, the price of oil had increased and neighbors and friends were wondering whether they could save money.

The Leavitts ended up not only converting their commercial property on Hammond Street and their home on West Broadway but mobilizing their neighbors to make the switch. By gathering enough interested people together, they were able to get a line installed in their residential neighborhood.

Each household and business must decide for itself whether the change from oil or propane to natural gas makes economic sense, but a collective demand is what will drive more development of pipeline infrastructure. It will require more people like Gale and Stephen to continue the expansion of natural gas in Maine in areas where there are a viable number of customers.

The Leavitts know natural gas prices will eventually go up. Gas can’t keep consistently costing them 33 to 40 percent of what it used to cost to buy oil. But the odds are that, even if natural gas prices increase, they will remain cheaper than oil. Already it’s been worth it. Though it’s taken time, patience, organizational skills, research and money, they’ve gotten a good deal.

“Progress always requires a little bit of patience,” Gale, 57, said.

They first decided to convert the burner on the steam boiler in their two-story building on Hammond Street; they rent out the downstairs for commercial use and the upstairs for apartment use. Because the boiler was only seven years old, they determined they only needed to change the burner, not replace the entire heating system. They also had to line their chimney. In total, the changes, which were made in April 2010, cost less than $5,000.

Between 2003 and 2009, they had paid an average of $11,900 per year for heating oil at the building, but in 2010 they spent only $5,200 on natural gas — earning back their upfront expenses in a year. In 2011, with a warm winter, they spent only $3,945 on natural gas there.

As they made the changes to their rental property, they also turned to their own basement. Their furnace, which heated hot water radiators throughout their home, was 45 years old and had been repaired several times. Their heating system repairman at Maher Heating had warned them it would eventually have to be replaced. They wanted to switch to natural gas, but no pipeline had yet been installed on West Broadway.

They called Bangor Gas and were told the company would need more customers before it could build a line. “We said, ‘We’ll see if we can get you some people,’” Stephen, 63, said. They had their first meeting at their home in Feb. 2010 with eight to 10 people from around their block, plus a representative from Bangor Gas. But there weren’t enough interested people to offset the cost of building the line.

Gale and Stephen didn’t give up, though. Instead of the people on the side streets circling their block, they sent letters to their neighbors who live along the entire length of West Broadway. Their second meeting was a success, and after their neighbors weighed the costs and benefits, Bangor Gas eventually got enough people to sign contracts in order to build the line.

Then the question became: What was the most inexpensive way to replace their oil furnace? Their files got thicker and thicker as they kept all their correspondence, quotes and notes through the process of determining they needed to replace their entire heating system but could take advantage of rebates from Efficiency Maine.

Their energy audit from HeatKeepers determined that, in order to qualify for the rebate, they would need a new furnace, new hot water system, spray foam insulation in the basement and a new programmable thermostat. The retrofits cost them about $11,000, but they ended up earning back $5,000 — from a $3,000 rebate from Efficiency Maine, a federal income tax credit of $1,500 and an additional rebate of $500.

That doesn’t include the resulting estimated 50 percent energy savings. (Efficiency Maine doesn’t have the same rebate program now, but it does provide low-interest loans to those who qualify and who will save a certain percentage on their energy bills when they convert their systems).

They installed the new system in Dec. 2010, but the natural gas pipes couldn’t be installed until the weather warmed. Natural gas finally started flowing on Oct. 24, 2011. Though they won’t be able to completely compare their years of heating with oil versus heating with gas, due to the retrofits, the savings will be significant.

Gale and Stephen show that people need to be proactive and persistent if they want to take advantage of potential savings from upgrading their energy systems. The issue is larger than just natural gas, they said. At the very least, people should know the options available for making their home more energy efficient, whether it’s through insulation, solar hot water heaters or natural gas.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.