It seems to Julie Isbill that windstorms have become more intense and frequent over the past 24 years at her home in Pennellville, a historic village near Brunswick’s Middle Bay. One result is more storm-related power outages.
But Isbill said she didn’t want a gasoline- or propane-fired generator. Instead, she recently invested in two Tesla Powerwalls, integrated battery systems charged by solar panels on her barn.
Backup power is just the latest step Isbill has taken to make her 161-year-old Greek Revival home more resilient to the effects of a rapidly changing climate.
Mainers historically have thought about readying their homes to stay warm in the winter and deal with snow and ice. Now the thought process needs to shift to year-round preparations. The challenge has become: How can Mainers climate-proof their homes? How can they make their houses more resilient to intensifying weather?
As have many Mainers, Isbill has insulated her attic and cellar, upgraded windows and installed an efficient wood stove. But, increasingly, her attention is turning to how to be more comfortable during hotter summer days and muggy nights, such as those last month that saw temperatures in the 90s and dew points topping 70 degrees.
Isbill has had to buy a window air conditioner for a now-too-hot apartment she rents out. She also has installed two-layer, cellular shades that can be pulled down on sunny days to keep the heat out.
“That works pretty well,” she said. “Unless we get three hot days in a row, which is probably in our future.”
That future may be on our doorstep. July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. June was the hottest June on record in the United States.
But it’s not just more heat confronting Maine homeowners. It’s the volatility, the whipsaw weather patterns that seem to be getting more common. Consider the past few months.
In early June, after months of below-normal rainfall, homeowners statewide began reporting dry wells. Despite the recent tropical storms, parts of western Maine remain in a drought. Lack of rain and snow also has contributed to a trend of increasing wildfires.
But the dry spell was interrupted Down East on June 9, when a torrential, 5-inch rainstorm washed out roads and flooded homes in Hancock and Washington counties.
Then the heat was dialed up in late June, when Portland topped 95 degrees. The city hit 97 degrees on June 28.
Conditions then flip-flopped. Portland experienced its second-wettest July on record, with 9.5 inches of rain. Flash floods were reported.
This month’s record-setting rains in the Northeast, the remnants of Hurricane Ida, were the latest reminder of the damage that can be caused by brief but intense downpours. The storm killed people from Maryland to Connecticut, a region that had been warned about potentially deadly flash flooding but hadn’t braced for such a blow.
These recent, summer events may have dulled the memories of severe winter weather. On Dec. 5, 2020, and March 29 of this year, a nor’easter and a windstorm toppled hundreds of trees and cut power to more than 200,000 electricity customers.
Because every home and every location is different, there’s no one formula for fortifying a house for a changing climate. But in general, experts say, climate-proofing is a multistep process that starts with identifying problem areas and coming up with cost-effective ways to address them over time in a sequence that makes sense.
For instance: Hot summer nights are making upstairs bedrooms uncomfortable.
The process starts with some basics. If the roof leaks, fix that first. The same goes for water that may seep into basement walls. It’s pointless to insulate if the material’s going to get wet, said Steve Konstantino, owner of Performance Building Supply in Portland.
It’s important to insulate both attics and basements – after sealing any gaps or penetrations that allow outside air to move through the building. This will help keep heated and cooled air where you want it year-round. And it may let you survive the summer with only fans to circulate air.
But if those measures aren’t enough, it may be time to explore air-conditioning options, such as an efficient heat pump.
“You don’t want to size your heat pump for a load that’s too big if you can weatherize and reduce it,” Konstantino said.
Another example: Heavy rains are flooding basements and crawlspaces.
Homeowners can’t stop the kind of townwide flooding that inundated parts of the Northeast early this month, but they can prepare for localized, heavier rain fueled by a warming climate. During a downpour, put on a raincoat and go outside, said Richard Burbank, president of Evergreen Home Performance in Portland. Walk around your house and study how the site is draining. Is water sheeting off the roof or across the ground and flowing toward the foundation?
“If you can passively drain the site, that’s a lot better than using something that runs on power,” Burbank said. “If you don’t need a sump pump to rescue your basement, you’ll be more resilient in a power outage if you let gravity do the work.”
For some homes, that might mean gutters and downspouts, according to Peter Horch, owner of Horch Roofing in Warren and Westbrook. Gutters sometimes get a bad rap in Maine because of snow-related ice dams. But that icy buildup is caused by inadequate roof ventilation and poor insulation, not the gutters themselves, Horch said.
If it’s finally time the replace the roof, he said, consider a standing seam metal roof, which reflects heat and sheds ice and snow. The downside is cost. Metal is more than twice as expensive as conventional asphalt shingles.
If you go with asphalt, he said, consider heavyweight shingles that last longer and are rated for wind loads up to 130 miles per hour. Those shingles allow for a so-called hurricane nailing pattern that uses six nails, which Horch recommends, instead of the standard four.
“Those two products will protect against a lot of things,” he said.
LIFE IN A HOT MAINE
A major consequence of more intense weather is losing power, which can go from an inconvenience to a catastrophe if water pipes freeze. Both Burbank and Konstantino say a first-step strategy is to insulate pipes and seal gaps where wind can blow into the house, such as where pipes run through a crawlspace. The goal is to be able to ride out a power outage for as long as possible, without your regular heat source.
Maine is the country’s most heavily forested state, so it’s not surprising that the leading cause of power outages is trees falling on power lines. There’s ongoing public and political debate about what some see as the shortcomings of Maine’s electric utilities and what it might take to make the distribution system more reliable as storms intensify.
But while that conversation goes on, more homeowners are buying generators that range from portable gasoline units to propane- and natural gas-fueled, whole-house systems that kick in the moment the grid goes down. Recently, a third option has emerged, solar-connected lithium-ion batteries such as the one at Julie Isbill’s house.
Battery options such as the Tesla Powerwall and Generac PWRcell aren’t inexpensive. They range from $10,000 to $25,000, minus a federal tax credit if they’re charged by solar panels. Standby fossil-fuel generators can cost less than half that much, but homeowners also will want to calculate the cost of fuel and maintenance over time compared with solar and batteries.
“If you’re worried about apocalyptic scenarios or massive storm damage, you’re still going to be dependent on the fuel truck getting there,” said Thomas Tutor, branch manager at ReVision Energy in South Portland. “Solar and battery is endless, as long as you size it right.”
That means sizing the system to handle a January ice storm, for instance. But more batteries cost more money, so customers and system designers need to decide how much of the house should be an essential, protected load. Refrigerator and heat, yes. Hot tub and electric dryer, probably no.
Increasingly, Tutor said, this calculus means including ductless “mini-split” heat pumps, which are being promoted by state government as a way to transition homes from oil and gas. They need a 220-volt power supply, so battery backup must be sized correctly.
And while heat pumps are used in Maine primarily for warmth, these highly efficient units have their technological origins as air conditioners. Hot summers combined with people working and schooling from home during the pandemic, Tutor said, has led to growing demand for heat pumps used for cooling.
This represents an evolution in thinking for longtime Mainers, who were prone to tough out the few really hot days, according to Konstantino, the building supplier.
“For years, people would say, ‘It’s only hot for a while. I don’t need air conditioning,’” he said. “No one says that anymore. I think that’s one of the reasons heat pumps have done so well.”
SAVING WATER AT HOME
Maine isn’t the Southwest – it’s blessed with freshwater resources. But this year’s drought and a surge of gardening interest during the pandemic triggered a surprise for organizers at the Portland Water District, which conducts a discount-price sale of rain barrels every spring.
The 55-gallon barrels can connect to downspouts to collect runoff from roofs. In a typical year, the district sells 250 to 300 barrels. This year, it sold more than 700.
“There was a huge interest in it,” said Michelle Clements, a spokeswoman for the district. “We just weren’t prepared for it.”
Conserving water is of special interest in Maine homes that are supplied by private wells. One key step is to switch out older faucets and showerheads with new ones that meet WaterSense specifications. They’re available at home improvement and hardware stores.
A WaterSense-labeled sink faucet or aerator uses a maximum of 1.5 gallons per minute, a 30 percent reduction from the standard 2.2 gallons. That could save an average family 700 gallons a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which runs the WaterSense program.
A WaterSense showerhead rated at 2 gallons per minute, compared with 2.5 gallons, could save a family 2,700 gallons a year, the EPA says. An added bonus is the cost savings on fuel used to heat the water.
GIVE FIRE SOME SPACE
Drought, along with a lack of late-season snowpack during milder winters, is contributing to more wildfires in Maine. The average number of fires has increased 33 percent over the past five years, according to the Maine Forest Service.
In 2020, a total of 1,157 fires burned 1,044 acres in Maine and damaged or destroyed 36 homes and 46 outbuildings, the agency reported. The leading cause has been escaped debris from brushfires, followed by equipment such as wood harvesters and campfires. More than 580 acres have burned so far this year, damaging or destroying 27 homes.
Maine’s high summer humidity helps prevent conditions that contribute to the massive infernos now burning in the West. But wildfires are an increasing concern in a state where thousands of homes and seasonal camps are tucked into the woods, far from fire departments.
To reduce risk, the forest service is promoting the national Firewise program, which prescribes a 30-foot “defensible space” around homes and outbuildings.
“We don’t expect you to cut every tree,” said Ken Nelson, a state forest ranger specialist. “But we just don’t want to see contiguous fuels from the forest to the structure.”
There’s a misconception, Nelson said, that fires in Maine spread across the crowns of tall trees. A bigger threat here is the thickets of resin-filled softwood saplings that often grow back too close to buildings.
Thin those small trees, Nelson advises. Rake dead leaves from under decks and near propane tanks. Clear pine needles from the roof in the fall. Move firewood piles away from buildings.
“Just do a little bit each year to create that defensible space,” he said.
That’s what residents are doing in Sprucewold, a seasonal community of old log cabins set among tall spruces and firs on a peninsula in Boothbay Harbor. In recent years, residents have cleared enough brush from their properties to generate more than 50 tons of wood chips, according to Ralph Kimball, who chairs the Firewise program at Sprucewold.
“Some of the trees were so close you could barely see the building,” he said. “It was that dense.”
More than three-quarters of cabins now have a 30-foot buffer, Kimball estimated. With the nearest fire hydrant a half-mile away, residents have become increasingly aware of the need to be proactive. Asked if a growing recognition of climate change impacts is playing a role, Kimball said he thinks it is, even among climate skeptics.
“Whether it’s a weather cycle or climate change, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s affecting the forest here, and that’s what we need to guard against.”