Maine auto sales magnate teams up with inventor for Hot-Tubes energy-saving venture

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Conserving money and energy is the goal of a new company called Hot-Tubes.

Founded by South Portland resident Bill Zelman and Cumberland resident Adam Lee, the company is developing what it calls “an inexpensive hanging tubular fan system that can be placed anywhere, bringing hot ceiling air down to the floor, lowering heating bills and making homes more comfortable.”

The project took off after a test run last winter yielded dramatically lower bills in Zelman’s home; he said his electric bill fell 20 percent and his gas heating bill was reduced 10 percent.

The pair decided to form a company to produce and market the invention.

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“We were just stunned by the results,” Zelman said. “We just sort of went for it.”

During the last year, Zelman and Lee tested dozens of designs until they settled on the final product. They had four goals from the beginning, Zelman said: the tubes needed to be effective, lightweight, attractive and affordable.

On Sept. 10, the pair launched the fan system via Kickstarter.com, a crowdfunding website that allows the public to help finance new products. Zelman said it made sense to use the website to see whether there is a market for Hot-Tubes before buying the materials and constructing them.

“The Kickstarter community is probably the best test market and study group we could ask for,” according to the product page. “A successful campaign would place Hot-Tubes with lots of motivated people now, giving us critical feedback this year. Without Kickstarter, Hot-Tubes might take years to catch on.”

They found out dozens of people were interested.

Lee and Zelman’s goal was to collect $10,000 in pledges. After just two weeks of the product’s placement on Kickstarter, that goal was met. As of Oct. 1, the campaign, which will run until Oct. 10, generated nearly $13,000 from 93 backers. About 150 Hot-Tubes have been ordered so far.

“That’s wild to me,” Zelman said of the number of backers. “We’ve had a great response.”

According to the Kickstarter page, Zelman couldn’t find anything on the market to redistribute the wasted hot air from his ceiling, except expensive fans, which can be noisy and inconvenient to install.

According to Zelman and the website, Hot-Tubes are quiet; affordable, starting at $65; and can be attached to almost any type of ceiling via a wire hook. They measure 92 inches in height, 6 inches in diameter and work with various ceiling heights.

Many of the parts and fabrication are locally sourced. The stitching, for example, takes place at a Scarborough company called Golden Thread Designs, while the main assembly takes place in Augusta. There is room for expansion as well: There are several local companies in Lewiston and South Portland that can accommodate assembly, Zelman said. The duo is considering a wiring company in Sanford, too.

Zelman’s wife and many of the family’s friends are artists who help with the designs and base materials. Zelman said it’s the first venture in which he’s focused on producing in Maine and said it simply made sense to do as much of it in the state as possible.

The first Hot-Tubes will ship by mid-November, he said. Another product, Cool-Tube lights, will be produced and shipped by December. The LED lamps are available in a variety of designs and sizes. Testing was completed last month, but the company will focus first on Hot-Tubes, for the winter season, before expanding the Cool-Tube line.

Zelman and Lee have been friends for a long time, though their backgrounds are markedly different.

Lee is the president and chairman of the Lee Group, one of Maine’s largest car dealership organizations. He has also served many environmental organizations, including the Efficiency Maine Trust, Maine Audubon Corporate Partners, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Maine Energy Conservation Board, Nature Conservancy Corporate Partners, Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Energy Council.

Zelman, who calls himself the “inventor, designer, overall production meister” at Hot-Tubes, practiced medicine in the 1990s and developed one of the first medical record computer systems. For 20 years, he ran the software company and, on the side, built battery-powered boats and bicycles.

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