NORTH YARMOUTH — The first cool mornings of September are here and some of the more than 75,000 Mainers with heaters made by Monitor Products Inc. are pushing the “on” button. Some units – oh, no! – aren’t responding.

Better phone the Monitor Man.

For 34 years, Ken Gaudin has been installing and servicing Monitor heaters in the suburbs north of Portland. He figures he put in 4,000 of them. Customers of Ken’s Monitor & Toyo Sales are thrilled to get through winter burning 300-400 gallons of kerosene in their superefficient units. An old-tech oil furnace could guzzle double that amount.

So it was a shock, three years ago, when the Japanese manufacturer, Hitachi, announced that it had stopped making Monitor heaters and would cease producing parts in 2014. The news hit Maine hard. The number of units installed here made Maine the top market for Monitor in the United States.

These days, air-source, “mini-spilt” heat pumps are the darlings of Maine’s energy world, along with utopian visions of solar-electric panels providing the power. But for Mainers on a fixed income, for condo dwellers loath to turn on their costly electric baseboards, that’s cold comfort.

They’re counting on the Monitor Man to keep their beloved heaters running. This year, Gaudin and a shrinking fleet of dealers and technicians are hoarding parts, refurbishing old models and scavenging key pieces from vintage units.

And suddenly, there’s welcome news. Crucial parts are beginning to be made again. It’s also possible that updated, Monitor-like heaters will be exported next year from China.

DEMAND WAS GREAT

Gaudin discovered Monitor heaters in 1981, when he owned a hardware store in Yarmouth. The store was freezing, and when a distributor came by with the then-new appliance, Gaudin decided to try one.

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Ken Gaudin reconditions a Monitor heater. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

The floor-mounted heaters warm a room fast. A quiet, four-speed blower shoots super-hot air directly in front of the unit, a feature soon recognized by sleeping cats and people with wet boots. The heater also was among the first to draw combustion air from outdoors and safely vent gases back through a double-wall pipe. Impressed, Gaudin bought two for the store and began selling and maintaining them.

The timing was right. Power rates were soaring in Maine during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and residents with electric heat were desperate for options. The heaters cost up to $1,500, for the largest size, but many people could warm a good chunk of living space for $500 per heating season.

“We just couldn’t install them fast enough,” Gaudin recalls.

For some low-income residents burdened by electric heat, Gaudin said, a Monitor heater was a lifeline.

“There have been many times when putting in a Monitor allowed a widow to stay in her home,” he said. “The heating bill was the tipping point. It made me feel good.”

But energy markets were changing. By 2009, average kerosene prices in Maine were rising, spiking at $4.29 a gallon in 2013. That sent many Northeast homeowners rushing to natural gas, wood pellets or heat pumps.

But now, markets have flipped, with some dealers offering cash-price kerosene below $2.40 a gallon today. That has reopened a sales window for Monitor’s lesser-known Japanese competitor, Toyotomi, which still makes the similar Toyostove Laser models. And it’s prompting thousands of Monitor owners to stay the course this winter – if they can keep their aging units operating.

Gaudin has geared up to make that happen. He’s in frequent contact with Webber Supply in Portland, the company that took over the Monitor inventory for now-defunct Nelson & Small, which was the regional distributor for the product.

Gaudin purchased loads of parts himself and encouraged his customers to stock up on essential replacement pieces for their models. In a barn, units from the 1980s and 1990s are stacked in long rows, waiting to be rebuilt or cannibalized.

Well represented is the Monitor 41. The size of a small suitcase, it can warm 2,000 square feet of living space, firing at 88 percent efficiency. Also in the stack is its little brother, the Monitor 22. These were the workhorses of the lineup, and Gaudin can talk about them with the respect and affection some men reserve for a truck.

He’ll recondition these classics and sell them for between $700 and $1,000. On his workbench stood a Monitor 2400, the last big model made in the late 1990s. He replaced the burner and will sell it for $1,000.

“You’ll get a minimum of five years and probably 10 years, without doing anything else,” he said.

Demand also is strong at Frederick Bros. Oil in Scarborough, which considered itself the largest Monitor dealer in New England. Nathan Frederick, the service manager, said Monitor’s departure has left homeowners far and wide seeking service and parts.

“I’ve sent parts to Alaska,” he said. “I have people who bring them to us in the summer from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire to have them serviced.”

But as dealers try to meet demand this winter, it now appears that the crisis may ease in the years ahead.

A former Monitor executive, Bogdan Blicharz, bought $2.5 million of Monitor’s inventory and is storing it in Bangor, Pennsylvania. He saw a business opportunity: Roughly 500,000 heaters were sold in the United States. His company, Heat Tech Distributing LLC, has contracted with factories in the United States and China to begin making parts, such as burners and combustion rings.

Heat Tech also will make parts for discontinued Monitor heaters that run on natural gas and propane, he said.

Blicharz also said a factory in China is producing samples of kerosene and gas heaters based on Monitor’s design, but with upgraded electronics and memory backup. He plans to test them this winter and offer new models next year for under $2,000. The brand will be called Monticello Heating Systems.

CALLING FOR THE MONITOR MAN

None of this really matters to Tracy and Don Booth. They just need the Monitor Man to make sure their Monitor 441 is ready for this winter. That brought Gaudin to their Yarmouth condominium last week. He cleaned the heater with a vacuum, replaced a ceramic-fiber gasket on the burner and changed the fuel filter at the tank, among other tweaks. He charged $160 for the hourlong visit.

Ken Gaudin talks with Yarmouth client Tracy Booth, whose Monitor heating unit he has serviced for many years.

Ken Gaudin talks with Yarmouth client Tracy Booth, whose Monitor heater he has serviced for many years. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

The Booths now spend winters in Florida, but the heater has kept the three-bedroom, two-story home warm for 15 years, without needing the electric baseboards.

“If we didn’t have Ken, I don’t think we’d have this machine,” Tracy Booth said.

Gaudin is 69 years old. He has no plans to retire. His daughter used to help with service calls, but she moved on and this year, he’s going solo.

Leaving the Booth home, Gaudin drove to a nearby senior condo complex. He stopped at Barbara Haight’s house to check on a little Monitor 2200. Haight said she burns roughly 300 gallons a year.

“This heater is going to last longer than I am,” she said to Gaudin.

He laughed and replied: “It’s going to last longer than both of us.”