AUGUSTA — Gusty winds rattled the master-bedroom windows at the 181-year old Blaine House during last winter’s sub-zero cold snap, but Gov. Paul LePage said he never needed to turn on the oil heat. Despite poor weatherization, the governor’s sleeping quarters were kept cozy by a high-efficiency electric heater that doubles in summer as an air conditioner.

Now workers are installing 22 more of these units at the governor’s mansion.

“After this winter, it was phenomenal,” LePage said. “I’m sold on them.”

LePage is hot on ductless air-source heat pumps, which are emerging as the fastest-growing energy alternative in Maine. From nearly none two years ago, more than 5,000 have been installed, according to Efficiency Maine. The latest versions of the technology can warm homes and small businesses at less than half the cost of heating oil.

On Thursday, the governor and his energy advisers offered the Portland Press Herald and Kennebec Journal an exclusive tour of the project.

LePage’s enthusiasm is giving the units a high-profile stamp of approval, from a political leader who has been at odds with environmental groups about shifting state efficiency dollars from reduce electricity waste to funding cheaper sources of heat. And while LePage said he’s embracing heat pumps, he’s also encouraging residents to use state rebates for high-efficiency propane, natural gas and wood-pellet conversions.

“What we’re trying to do is lower the cost of heat for Maine families,” he said.

Efficiency Maine offers a $500 rebate for homeowners who buy heat pumps. Small businesses also have a rebate program. Much of the $7 million in the home energy savings program comes from the state’s share of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and is available first-come, first-served.

“I think it really shows that this new technology is going mainstream,” said Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. “We’re putting them in apartment buildings, and we’re putting them in the Blaine House.”

These heat pumps sometimes are called “mini-splits,” because part of the machine is indoors while the other piece is hung or mounted outside. They use refrigeration technology to extract heat from outside air. In the summer, they work in reverse to provide air conditioning.

The devices are popular because they cost roughly one-third that of a central heating system. They come in various sizes, but typical retail prices for single-zone models range from $3,000 to $5,000. Depending on how big a home is and how well it’s weatherized, the units can satisfy from 50 to 75 percent of year-round demand.

The work underway at the Blaine House is part of an effort this year to convert heating systems at state-owned facilities in the capital, mostly from oil to natural gas. The conversion will displace 1.1 million gallons of oil a year and pay for itself in energy savings in roughly two years, according the Bureau of General Services.

The Blaine House was a good candidate for a heating system makeover. The oil boiler in the basement was installed in the mid-1990s, around the time former Gov. John McKernan left office. It guzzled 5,074 gallons of fuel last year at a cost of $16,775.

The boiler’s burner will be converted this summer to also burn natural gas. It doesn’t make financial sense to buy a new, high-efficiency gas boiler, according to Jim LaBrecque, chief technology officer of Flexware Control Technology in Bangor, because gas only will be needed on the coldest days. LaBrecque, who helped design the system, said the heat pumps will do the job 75 percent of the winter.

The basic contract for the heat pump installation is roughly $68,000, plus some related building repairs. Along with the natural gas conversion, the total heating upgrade is expected to cost $115,000.

Workers from Augusta Fuel Co. are busy now completing the project. On Thursday, they were involved with the refrigerant lines connecting the indoor and outside components. The outside compressors have been located behind the mansion and amid shrubbery to hide them from view. One of the goals, LeBrecque said, was to remove the 26 window air conditioners that protruded each summer from the historic, public building.

Indoors, the heat pump “heads” are either mounted on walls or floors. They are appliance-like, louvered boxes that could be mistaken for any common heating or ventilating unit. On Thursday, the heat pump in the governor’s staff room was quietly emitting cool air, welcome on the warm morning.

Stoddard noted that his agency’s Web site has a searchable link for approved installers in Maine and that people should shop around for the best deal and service, as they would be any appliance.

“We want people to have a good experience,” he said.

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