In Bangor Corey Butterfield has already lit a warming fire to take the chill off a Maine fall evening. Credit: Courtesy of Corey Butterfield

Folks who live in Maine can agree to disagree on a lot of things, such as where to find the state’s best lobster roll or the drinkability of Moxie.

This time of year the debate generating some of the most heat is exactly that: When should a home’s furnace be turned on for the season?

It’s long been a matter of pride on just how far Mainers let the temperature drop in their home before heating, refusing to budge before the chill reaches a certain point or even until a set date. But for some Mainers, it’s increasingly becoming a matter of economics as the longer they wait, the less they will spend on heating fuel that has doubled in price in the past year.

Emily Scully grew up in Brunswick, and as a girl she and her friends were told there were legalities involved with heating one’s home.

“We were lied to as kids and told it was illegal in Maine to turn on the heat before Oct. 15,” Scully said. “We heard that among my peers and in our school fairly often.”

Scully had no idea when that particular bit of folklore began or who started it. But she was well into her 20s before she realized she was not breaking any law when she turned her furnace on before the middle of October.

“I was an embarrassing age when I realized this was not actually a law,” she said. “I was out on my own and discovered I could turn the heat on whenever I wanted to, but also, wow, oil is really expensive.”

As the heating season begins this year, Mainers have been hit with wildly fluctuating temperatures, making the decision of when to turn on a furnace or light a fire a bit tricky.

Maine’s weather seemed to go from full summer to autumn in record time earlier this month. Since then, the temperatures have ping-ponged from the low 70s or high 60s during the day down to the 30s at night around the state.

“We started using our first-floor fireplace in mid September when the chilly nights came about,” said Corey Butterfield of Bangor. “We’re fortunate to have a great stockpile of seasoned cord wood.”

As fall turns into winter, Butterfield will likely fire up his home’s two other wood heating stoves, albeit as much for warmth as for the cozy ambiance they provide.

The cost for home heating oil in Maine is averaging $4.44 per gallon as of Sept. 19, according to the Governor’s Energy Office. The most expensive heating oil is in the Portland area at $6 per gallon while the lowest prices are Down East at $3.91 per gallon.

Those prices are compared with a statewide average of $2.73 per gallon this time last year.

The rising cost has Jill Bousquet and her husband steadfastly refusing to turn the heat on in their Saco home anytime soon.

“Definitely with the cost of everything going up, including oil, we are a little tighter with our money,” Bousquet said. “We are a young couple, and we bought this old farmhouse in 2019, and there is a decent amount of space to heat.”

Bousquet said she and her husband wait to turn on any heating source until their indoor temperature can’t maintain 62 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, the thermostat is never set above 64 degrees, enough to ensure their pipes will not freeze.

“Our friends are always freezing when they come to visit us,” Bousquet said with a laugh. “But last year we had it set to 64, and we found we saved a lot in oil.”

On her Freeport homestead, Marciana Johnson and her family try to wait until there is a threat of their pipes freezing well before turning on any heat.

Johnson said they typically keep their house between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit and have already started wearing slippers, socks, sweaters and robes, in addition to adding an extra blanket to the bed at night.

In the meantime, some people are heating their homes in every possible way other than flipping on a furnace.

“Running a dehumidifier in a few rooms helps take the dampness and chill out of days,” said AJ Belsky. “A heated blanket at night under a mattress pad goes a long way, too, although I’ve heard that real Mainers consider that cheating.”

Belsky is also a fan of baking or slow cooking in the oven when the weather starts to cool to generate some warmth.

Bousquet said she and her husband close down the parts of the farmhouse they do not use in the winter to avoid heating them. As for their living space, she said every surface has one or two blankets on it.

“I make handmade blankets, and there are always some around to bundle up in,” she said. “Our animals tend to get more snuggly in the winter, as well.”

Keeping the curtains drawn on any north-facing windows while letting in as much light on sunny days as possible through the other windows is a great way to get some passive solar heating, Belsky said.

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures in the Bangor area are going to get up into the mid 60s during the day and then dip into the 30s at night through the weekend.

Those fluctuations will likely generate the ongoing heating debates around the state, and in households like Scully’s, there will be concessions to balance comfort against the costs of heating.

“We will keep the thermostat at 68 over the winter, and if I get cold, my husband will just tell me to put more clothes on,” Scully said. “I get it, but there are days I ask, ‘Can’t it be at least 70?’”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.