A brief appearance, in the 1990s, with plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey on PBS’s Emmy Award-winning home-improvement show “This Old House” helped lead Randy Sprague of Bar Harbor to his passion for European-built heating and plumbing systems.
“It’s really hard to find high-quality, proven heating equipment,” Sprague, proprietor of Randy Sprague Heating and Plumbing, said. “In Europe, they’ve had high fuel prices for so long that they’ve had to develop and make these more efficient products. I hooked up with the right people at the right time.
“In 1997, I got invited to put in a Veissman system in a cottage here on the island for an episode of “This Old House.” Richard [Trethewey] was the manufacturer’s rep, so I went to Germany and Toronto to see their facilities. A couple years later, I was a guest of Buderis [(a German heating systems manufacturer] and went over and visited their manufacturing plant. I was kind of an ambassador because we were a little ahead of the curve.”
In his shop in the Bar Harbor village of Town Hill, Sprague and three other full-time technicians spend 30-50 percent of their time installing new high-efficiency equipment for business and residential customers. The rest of the time, they’re fixing drips, leaks and clogs for customers whose septic systems have backed up or heat systems have stopped working.
For customers heating with oil boilers, he said, “we spend a lot of our time replacing oil filters and cleaning out the fuel supply system. Regrettably, the quality of the oil we get is pretty bad. It has a really high sulfur content.
“A lot of European products we can’t use because the quality of our oil is so bad.”
For other fuel sources (propane, electric, pellets), the European products work well here, but they’ve still taken awhile to catch on.
For example, Sprague said, “heat pump water heaters are all the rage now. Back in 1997, Veissman had a heat pump water heater at the facility up in Toronto. I asked what it was and was told it extracts heat from the air and heats the water.”
Heat pumps operate the opposite way air conditioning systems and refrigerators do, extracting heat from the air outside the system and expelling cold air.
“I said, ‘That’s really great! When are we gonna get that?’” Sprague said.
At the time, company representatives said they said they had no plans for U.S. sales, but these many years later, Sprague said, “they’re finally here.”
Mini-split heat pumps have been a good heating solution for some of Sprague’s residential and commercial customers, including the Bar Harbor Community Farm.
“For the longest time,” he said, “heat pumps [for heat or hot water] could only function down to 15 or 20 degrees outdoors and they were real energy hogs. They were expensive to operate electrically.” In the newer units such as the Fujitsu ones he sells, the outdoor unit is an inverter (instead of a condenser), inverting incoming AC current for use with the DC motor whose speed can be better controlled.
“In a smaller, energy-efficient home they’ll work really well” for heat, he said. “If you tie in to photovoltaics, because you’re using electricity, it complements the system so well. With that, you’re banking electricity all summer long” toward your winter heat supply.
Sprague is passionate about efficiency, perhaps understandably as many customers come to him for help figuring out how to make their homes more comfortable and affordable to run.
One place he sees great potential is in solar hot water systems. He prefers the German-made Viessmann Vitosol 300 evacuated tubes, but also touts the Maine-made Eos solar products paired with the Caleffi solar pump system.
“There are fantastic incentives to help people be able to afford solar hot water. Some federal tax credits came back and it was wonderful.” He points customers to Efficiency Maine for rebates to help subsidize the installation of mini-split heat pumps, solar hot water heaters and other products.
Solar hot water is expensive, Sprague admits, because it takes nine or 10 years to recoup the investment required for a new system. The Thirsty Whale tavern in Bar Harbor installed one such-year-round system recently.
“I really think we should look more towards seasonal solar hot water,” he said. “Simple solar hot water systems you use from April-September, no pumps, no controller. You could put in a system like that for a couple thousand dollars. They’re used in temperate climates, would be affordable for everybody. To make the system work in the winter around here, the systems have to be much more elaborate and require more maintenance.”
Asked what advice he has for homeowners about their plumbing, Sprague said, “I think the best thing people can do for themselves is to get educated and not be afraid to do some of their own work. On the islands offshore here, people are still pretty good. They can’t call the plumber and have him drop over.”
A good place to start, he said, is to “learn where your water main is and how to turn it off.”