AUGUSTA — Natural gas companies plan another big summer of installing pipe in Augusta and elsewhere in the Kennebec Valley as soon as the snow-covered, frozen ground finally thaws.

Competitors Summit Natural Gas of Maine and Maine Natural Gas plan to focus on expanding the backbone transmission lines their contractors installed along major routes last year. This year, they will install smaller lines to extend onto other streets and into residential neighborhoods.

“What happened this past year is different than what will be happening now,” said Michael Duguay, director of business development for Augusta-based Summit Natural Gas of Maine. “From here on out our focus will now go to residential.”

In the coming construction season, Summit plans to put in 85 miles of distribution pipe in the Kennebec Valley between Augusta and Madison. The firm estimates this season’s work will put Summit pipe in front of roughly 4,500 homes and 700 businesses.

Brunswick-based Maine Natural Gas plans to put pipe in front of more than 500 businesses and homes, most of them in Augusta, this season.

“We are not done. We plan to keep building pipe in Augusta wherever it is economically feasible,” said Dan Hucko, spokesman for Maine Natural Gas parent company Iberdrola USA, a Spain-based company that also owns Central Maine Power Co. “We have projects planned for the Mayfair area and other residential areas in Augusta. We have a goal in 2014 to sign up 400 more customers in Augusta — 100 commercial and 300 residential.”

While roadside digging and other construction work for the pipelines still is going to be disruptive, it’ll be so in a different way, officials said.

Much of it will be quicker, for one thing, with it taking as few as two or three days to put in a section of the smaller pipe coming off the larger main line, compared to the weeks it took to install some portions of the larger line underground.

WAITING FOR THAW

Duguay said Summit hopes to have crews back to work installing pipe in mid-April, or as soon as the ground thaws.

Maine Natural Gas has had crews doing installations through the winter and just last week connected the Bank of Maine Ice Vault, Spare Time Bowling and The Ground Round, all grouped together on Whitten Road in Hallowell.

Hucko said pipeline construction crews will start back up when the frost is out of the roads.

Maine Natural Gas’ backbone pipeline, completed last November, runs for 21.4 miles from Windsor through Augusta to MaineGeneral Medical Center.

He said Maine Natural Gas has signed up 236 customers in the Augusta area, with 134 already connected and heating with gas. Of those 134, 47 are residential, including some multi-family buildings, and 87 are commercial properties.

Summit has 100 miles of pipe in the Kennebec Valley, 68 of it steel transmission line from East Pittston to Madison, and 38 miles of plastic distribution lines in eight communities — 1 mile in Randolph, 2 miles in Hallowell, 4 in Gardiner, 15 in Augusta, 6 in Waterville, 6 in Fairfield and 4 in Madison.

In an interview with the Kennebec Journal last week, Duguay said Summit now will be more cautious about publicly announcing when it will bring its pipeline to different areas. Several newspaper stories have highlighted missed deadlines, particularly with regard to service at Augusta’s Cony High School, government buildings in Augusta and Madison Paper, the firm’s Madison anchor customer.

He said it’s difficult to know how long it will take to run pipeline because, unlike power lines, workers can’t see what obstacles they may face underground.

“This has been a really difficult project,” Duguay said. “Some days you get 20 feet of production. Some days you get 200 feet.”

Hucko said one reason Maine Natural Gas’ smaller scale business model focuses on delivering gas only where it is economically feasible are the conditions in Maine.

“Our business model works in Maine where the construction season is short and ground conditions (ledge) make construction difficult and expensive,” Hucko said in an email. “We are committed to continuing prudent expansion in order to keep our rates low for all of our customers.”

DIFFERENT APPROACHES

Summit has committed itself to reach residents and businesses throughout much of the Kennebec Valley, while Maine Natural Gas’ commitment is to expand where the company believes it is economically feasible to install pipe where there are enough customers to bring a return on its investment.

The state Public Utilities Commission-approved rate structures of both companies reflect that. Summit’s rates are higher because the cost of bringing pipe to more people, including those spread across less densely populated areas, increases its overall costs.

Maine Natural Gas’ rates are lower because it has lower infrastructure costs, but is also available to far fewer customers.

Hucko said Maine Natural Gas’ last rate increase occurred in 2011, and the company will not raise its rates in 2014. He said the company has to go through a lengthy process with the PUC to get a rate increase approved.

Summit, meanwhile, has a rate structure approved for 10 years, which officials said can be adjusted with the PUC’s approval.

Duguay said Summit still has some work left to complete its distribution backbone in Norridgewock for it to be complete all the way to Madison.

He noted even people in the Kennebec Valley who aren’t near the installed natural gas pipelines still might be able to use gas. He said starting in 2015, Summit will look to expand its pipeline system.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647kedwards@centralmaine.comTwitter: @kedwardskj