LEWISTON — When the oil truck used to deliver to Montello Elementary School, Assistant Principal Jim Cliffe could smell the oil. He doesn't anymore.
In 2010 and 2011 the school converted from oil to natural gas for heat. He's satisfied. “The building is warm and comfortable,” Cliffe said. He's making fewer phone calls for a technician to check out a problem with the furnace.
When it comes to switching from oil to natural gas, Montello has lots of company.
As of this fall, all of the schools in Lewiston-Auburn, except East Auburn Community, are heating with natural gas. Both Lewiston and Auburn school departments say they're saving taxpayers a bundle, about 40 percent in heating costs compared to heating with oil.
In Lewiston, the natural gas conversion means the heating bill this year is projected to be about $600,000 instead of $1 million. “We've almost cut the bill in half,” Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said. The savings “is a major contributor to there being no increase in the local mill rate for education over the last several years,” he said.
As far as comfort to students and faculty, “there's no difference,” Webster said.
Lewiston no longer buys much heating oil. “The central office is the only building that remains oil-fired,” he said.
The story is similar in Auburn. That School Department also expects to see about a 40 percent savings in heating costs, Business Manager Jude Cyr said.
This past summer, five Auburn schools were converted from oil to natural gas. The heating cost for those five schools is expected to be $199,710 this year, instead of $492,700. The five schools are Edward Little High, Auburn Middle, Park Avenue Elementary, Franklin and the Regional Educational Treatment Center.
“Three summers ago, we did Sherwood Heights, Fairview and Walton (elementary schools),” Cyr said.
Auburn schools expect to use 45,000 gallons of heating oil this year, compared to 580,000 three years ago, Cyr said.
Savings to pay for converting to gas can be achieved in two years, according to the Governor's Energy Office, but administrators say the payback will take longer, four to seven years.
Auburn's Cyr said the Edward Little High School conversion cost $462,000, but that included a lot of work, “a whole new furnace and hot water system.” If a new high school is built, the new furnace can be moved, he said. Costs to switch to natural gas in other Auburn schools was between $32,700 and $45,000, Cyr said.
Lewiston-Auburn schools are paying for the conversions through the annual heating savings, loans and existing budgets.
Aside from savings, another advantage is that natural gas burns cleaner than oil. Cyr said he's seen evidence of that.
“Natural gas does not raise havoc on the equipment,” he said. The Washburn Elementary School boiler has used natural gas for years “and has had very little work. Contrary to other oil burners that need annual cleaning. Natural gas is a cleaner burner.”
He also likes that natural gas comes from North America, and there's a monthly bill for what was used, as opposed to bills when the tanks are filled.
Webster and Cyr said they heat their homes with oil because natural gas is not available in their neighborhoods. “If Unitil was on my street, I would use natural gas without hesitation,” Cyr said.
Natural gas leaks can cause explosions, but Webster said he was confident it is safe. Lewiston has an annual contract with Siemens, an outside energy engineering firm, that monitors schools. At any time of the day, Siemens and the Lewiston School Department can remotely check on and adjust temperatures.
“Natural gas is used across the country with excellent experience,” Webster said.