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September 23, 2014

Lee Auto chair invests in energy efficiency startup

Contributed / William Zelman
Contributed / William Zelman

Adam Lee, the public face and chairman of Lee Auto Malls, has resisted investing in a great many deals over the years, real estate investments included. But he recently changed his mind when a longtime friend presented him with a simple premise for a product.

It's called "Hot-Tubes." And despite the product's unusual name, it plays into an issue that has been important to Lee for a long time: energy efficiency. And it's pretty much what you'd expect of a product with that name: it's a tube that is hot.

Lee and Hot-Tubes inventor William Zelman told Mainebiz that the product is a nearly eight-foot fabric tube that is placed upright in a room and carries warm air from the ceiling to the floor by using small, silent fans on the top and bottom. The process of moving air like that is generally known as destratification. The result, they said, is a room with a warmer, better regulated temperature and a decreased need for thermostat cycling.

"It was so simple I was skeptical," said Lee, who has previously served as chairman of the Efficiency Maine Trust Board, but after using one of Zelman's Hot-Tubes over last winter, he noticed an increase in his room's temperature and a reduction in his heating bill. "It heats up a pretty good area in the room. You're helping the hot air circulate."

Zelman, who is the founder of Portland-based medical software provider Powermed, launched a crowdfunding campaign for Hot-Tubes on Kickstarter two weeks ago in hopes of generating early buzz and capital for the startup's beginning stages, but also in hopes of getting the first batch of products out to early adopters this winter. The campaign also is raising funds for "Cool-Tubes," a night stand lamp that uses LED lighting and has different designs. With 17 days left, the campaign has raised $9,175 out of its $10,000 goal from 76 backers.

On the Kickstarter page, Zelman said after placing several Hot-Tubes around his 1880 house last winter, he saw a 20% decrease in his electric bill and a 10% decrease in his heating bill. "When the numbers came out it occurred to me, there's a lot of money to be saved," he said.

Zelman admits while he and Lee have experienced positive results, the product has to reach a wider audience to prove that it can be a game-changer. Regardless, though, he hopes the product will start a greater conversation about air-flow and heating ventilation issues. "We don't want to paint too rosy of a picture because it's been in two homes," he said. "It's gotta get out there."

Hot-Tubes has already received the endorsement of Dan Thayer, president and CEO of Thayer Corp., an Auburn-based company that specializes in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

"The principle of destratifing air with fans is a well proven principle that works effectively," he said in an endorsement posted to the Kickstarter page. "We have used the principle for decades in large commercial applications. The Hot-Tubes product is very innovative and simple. It is an elegant packaging of this principle in an attractive and easy to apply product. The savings estimates look credible and somewhat conservative."

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