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Maine regulators to revisit onerous gas-conversion rule

The state agency that regulates heating systems and contractors has
put off action on part of a proposed burner-testing rule that the
natural gas industry says would have been burdensome, unaffordable and
without national precedent.

The action reflects Maine’s legacy as a state overwhelmingly reliant
on oil for home heating, and its current transition to other fuels,
including natural gas.

Following protests last winter from gas companies and some
contractors, the Maine Fuel Board voted this month to set up a study
committee to review a proposed rule that would have required
manufacturers to test all burners used to convert oil boilers to natural
gas and propane. The requirement is aimed at safe operations, as the
pace of oil to gas conversions grows in Maine. But critics say the sheer
number of burner and boiler models and their potential combination in
the field makes the testing rule unworkable. It would cost millions of
dollars, with no clear safety benefit, they say.

In comments to the board, Chris Green, president of Mechanical
Services Inc. in Portland, said existing Underwriters Laboratories
burner certifications, along with oversight from professional engineers
and licensed installers, already address the board’s safety concerns.

“Mechanical Services believes that is why no other state has required
such testing, and why (the American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
does not require that the burner and boiler be tested together prior to
installation,” Green wrote.

In an interview, Green was asked about insinuations that Maine Fuel
Board members had a bias against natural gas, favoring oil and propane.
Green said he had heard similar comments privately, but saw no evidence
of it and considered the board’s initial rule change to be

The nine board members are appointed by the governor for three-year
terms. A spokesman for the board, Doug Dunbar, noted that Maine law
requires members to come from various segments of the fuel industry, and
have certain expertise. For instance: Some seats require a valid
license as a master oil and solid-fuel-burning technician. Another calls
for a licensed propane and natural-gas technician.

The current board includes at least three people employed by oil
dealers and two working for heating contractors. One, by law, comes from
the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The new study committee will include an engineer, state inspector,
technicians and industry representatives. It’s likely to start work this
month, Dunbar said.

The burner testing proposal would have been especially onerous for
Summit Natural Gas of Maine, which is starting a subsidiary to help
homeowners switch from oil to gas. A large focus of its business is
expected to be converting existing oil burners to use natural gas.

Stacey Fitts, regulatory manager for Summit, said he thinks the
committee is a good way for the board to get more information. He
downplayed the idea of an anti-gas bias by board members, suggesting
instead that an education process is to be expected with the rapid
expansion of natural gas.

“I don’t cast aspersions on the people on the board; they’re doing
what they think is right,” Fitts said. “Given how Maine is situated,
it’s understandable that people on the board are on the oil and propane
side. As gas becomes more common, that bias will improve.”


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