Some say you can judge a society by the condition of its prisons, but the condition of its living rooms might be a better yardstick for coastal Maine in the dead of winter.

What is it like in there? Are people shivering, or raiding their bank accounts in order to stay warm? If so, something about our system is not functioning properly.

And so it is for thousands of households, especially in more remote communities where fuel prices are higher and technical support less available.

Concerned about the chronic problem of unaffordable heat, a small experiment began two years ago in Eastport to look at how homeowners might spend less money for more heat through the long winter season. The first phase of this program is coming to a close, and the project’s findings suggest not only that the difficulties of expensive heat can be overcome, but that when it comes to burdensome winter heating costs, saving large amounts of money is actually cheaper than sticking with things the way they are.

A house is hardly a house if it does not keep you warm, dry and safe. While most (but not all) homes in Down East Maine can maintain comfortable temperatures throughout the worst winter days, the cost of that warmth is—increasingly—out of reach for the typical home owner. If an occupant cannot afford to keep a house warm, the roof might as well be lifted off and removed. This condition is officially called “fuel poverty” and it is statistically linked to reduced food consumption, foreclosure, and winter illnesses associated with dangerously low indoor temperatures.

Of course, the winter heating problem is easily solved with cutting edge heating technologies that are cheap and available: a high-quality parka and an arctic-grade sleeping bag, whose high R-value insulation keep a person warm and dry under almost all conditions. Cooking dinner and taking a shower, however, become complicated.

We all know the real fixes have to do with air sealing, insulation and heating systems that have a high ratio of heat gained to fuel consumed.  We also know that we would spend less each winter, while feeling more comfortable, if only our house had the benefit of these systems, just like we know we would get better mileage if we were driving a hybrid to Portland and back. But who can afford a Prius? Who can pay for a new boiler and adequate insulation?

Here we can point to the “Prius Principle”: the notion that those who spend the most to stay warm (as a percentage of available income) are least likely to get good winter heating “mileage” in their home. It shapes the whole discussion of affordable heat for non-affluent Mainers in more remote communities.  

Our efforts, supported by the Maine Technology Institute, have focused on the island community of Eastport. Things that stop people in Eastport from installing heating systems that would save them thousands each winter include:

Our project, the Affordable Heat Consortium, tried to confront these systematic and cyclical challenges by providing free and unbiased advice to local residents, by subsidizing and coordinating 27 home heating efficiency audits, by collecting information about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different fuels and mechanical systems, and by bundling together related heating system upgrade jobs in Eastport to entice experienced vendor to make the extra long drive and provide their much-needed services.

What we learned is not surprising: under temporary, subsidized conditions, many Eastport residents were interested in learning more, finding out about their homes in relation to heating efficiency, and investing in better systems and fuels. It is only natural for people to want to know how they can get out from under this kind of a burden. There are many good alternatives to choose from in terms of insulation, fuels and mechanicals. Our ability to remediate a little bit in this regard is a indication of what is needed and what is possible, and similar efforts may be expanded and repeated elsewhere. 

Jon Calame is coordinator of Thermal Efficiency: Eastport.