By David M. Fitzpatrick

Special Sections Writer

You may never have heard of heat pumps, but they’ll change your life soon — if Hallowell International in Bangor has anything to say about it.

“I want to replace every hot-air furnace in this country by the time I’m done,” said CEO Duane Hallowell.

Hallowell and his team have made so many astounding advances in heat-pump technology that the company’s products are protected by 37 patents.

How Heat Pumps Work

But wait — what’s a heat pump, and how can it do away with hot-air furnaces?

Air conditioners use compressors to convert hot air into cool air. A heat pump works in reverse, turning cold air into hot air.

When we think of “zero degrees,” we think that means “no heat.” But “no heat” means complete cessation of molecular motion, which occurs at nearly minus 460 degrees. So while zero feels unbearably cold to us, in reality there’s plenty of heat there. Heat pumps extract this heat, and Hallowell does it better than any others.

To demonstrate, he showed me a model operating in a freezer where the temperature was zero degrees. The unit pulled in that air, vented processed air at minus 20, and piped the 100-degree hot air to an indoor unit (outside the freezer).

Hallowell is quick to note that his pumps are not electric heat. The small amount of electricity merely runs the compressors and the indoor unit; the latter is akin to running a 100-watt light bulb.

Hallowell’s pumps can extract heat from air as cold as minus 46 degrees. Even at minus 15, his residential Acadia model pump can convert this to 102 degrees indoors, operating at over 200 percent efficiency. That means that for every unit of energy put in, it produces two units. At optimal conditions, the Acadia can operate at more than 400 percent efficiency: for every energy unit you put in, you get four out.

Compare that to No. 2 fuel’s 94 percent efficiency rating: for every energy unit you put in, you get less than one out. That’s not very efficient.

Saving Big Money

“We’re just here to take a dramatic bite out of energy consumption,” Hallowell said, and his products do that by cutting consumers’ energy costs by 50 to 70 percent. “But 50 percent isn’t bad, and I’m not even trying yet.”

Right now, heating with a Hallowell pump is comparable to when oil prices were at $1.40 per gallon. Government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the military are taking notice; the company just filled a 2,400-unit order for an Air Force base.

But homeowners can really benefit from this system. Hallowell has a nationwide network of 3,000 installation contractors; each has area exclusivity until they reach their workload limits. In the Bangor area, that contractor is Radigan Mechanical.

“Just today alone, my local dealer … had 15 signed quotes for these systems here in Bangor,” Hallowell said. “People are really just saying ‘I am done, absolutely done, with these heating oil prices, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next year.’”

Installation is a breeze, especially if you already have forced-hot-air ductwork in place. The unit sits outside; two copper lines run to the air handler, which usually sits in the basement — say, where that oil tank or furnace you no longer need used to be, but a whole lot smaller. The basic-physics technology of these pumps can also be applied to your hot-water tank; instead heating water with electricity, oil, or propane, a heat pump at 400 percent efficiency can do it.

Quality and Innovation

“We only use the best components we can get our hands on, to insure total reliability, comfort levels, and just good engineering to do what we do,” Hallowell said.

To offset costs, the company uses pre-bent piping assemblies and the world’s largest HVAC component supplier. With the exception of a few electrical components, everything is U.S.-made, and a Biddeford manufacturer makes the steel cabinets that house the pumps. Hallowell employees assemble everything at the Bangor facility, which can easily produce 60,000 units per year.

“We could get better pricing if we left Maine, but we want jobs here,” Hallowell said. “We do as much here in Maine as we can.”

With a simple reversing valve, Hallowell’s heat pumps easily become air conditioners in the warm months, operating at twice the efficiency of standard window-mounted ACs.

The Hallowell Story

Business Development Manager Randall Margraf sees the overwhelming nationwide interest every day. “I went from making phone calls to answering phone calls,” he said of his job in the past year. “I probably haven’t had that phone off my ear for more than 10 minutes today.”

Duane Hallowell formed the company with five partners in 2005, and spent the first year and a half in research and development. They looked for ways to get the maximum performance for the minimum energy investment, and investigated why Mainers don’t use heat pumps; after all, of 14 million heating units sold annually in the U.S., 3.6 million — a quarter of them — were heat pumps. But virtually none were in Maine.

“Right now, what we know and love is No. 2 heating oil,” Hallowell said. But after dealing with people in every state, he said anyone outside New England would think we’re foolish to use it.

Hallowell says his engineers, from the UMaine College of Engineering, have helped make his products enormous successes. His manufacturing employees, who build and test the units, and run them through a 126-point quality-control inspection, are also the best people he can find.

“If I surround myself with incredibly intelligent people, a lot can be accomplished very fast,” Hallowell said. “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you put the right people around the table together.”

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