News icon Mitchell Scholar Cole Ellis Helps Keep Maine’s Heat Pumps Clean

If there’s one thing Mainers take seriously, it’s their home heating systems. And increasingly, the heat source of choice in the Pine Tree State is a heat pump. In fact, according to a recent Bloomberg article, Maine leads the U.S. when it comes to installing energy-efficient electric heat pumps and heat pump water heaters.

“Nationwide, heat pumps outsold fossil fuel furnaces in the first half of 2023. But Maine’s installation rate is three times the U.S. average,” reports Bloomberg. With about 85% of those heat pumps having been installed in the state’s 570,000 households, roughly one in five new homes in Maine has a heat pump.

For Cole Ellis, the 2023 Mitchell Scholar from Searsport District High School, the steadily increasing popularity of heat pumps has meant one thing: opportunity.

“Over time, I recognized that there was going to be a market and a huge need for heat pump cleaning services,” he said.

So, in his junior year of high school and building on the knowledge he gained from assisting a technician with installing heat pumps for two years, Ellis launched Keep It Clean Heat Pumps to provide midcoast Maine homeowners and businesses with annual heat pump cleaning services. The small but rapidly growing company now has two employees (in addition to Ellis), two company vehicles, and 80 residential and commercial clients spread from Bar Harbor to Gorham.

For the rising sophomore Finance and Marketing Management major at Thomas College in Waterville, starting and expanding the business has been a chance to apply classroom learning to a real-world, profit-making venture—and to satisfy his own entrepreneurial spirit.

“Right now, I’m working out of my folks’ house, and I just purchased a utility van and a pickup truck to try to keep up with demand,” Ellis said. “In three years, I’d like to see the business in three locations, Ellsworth, Rockland–Rockport, and Searsport, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 employees. I would continue to work, but hopefully just managing by then.”

Among Ellis’ startup employees is his younger brother Ashton (right), who graduated from Searsport District High School in June 2024 and will be attending Eastern Maine Community College in the fall.

With the growth he has experienced so far and the state’s growing enthusiasm for heat pumps, Ellis says the goals should be within his reach.

“Today, I got a phone call from an individual who needed a cleaning and found out that Dead River Company recommended me,” he said. “To me, that’s very powerful.”

Aside from the expanding number of referrals from heat pump installers and both commercial and residential clients, Ellis said he’s seeing another important indicator of customer satisfaction: payment over and above the fee for services rendered.

“When clients routinely pay 20 percent beyond what’s billed, they’re really saying, ‘Hey, you did well beyond what my expectations were,’” Ellis said. “And that’s been the case across the board.”

Ellis traces the roots of his strong work ethic and business acumen to his childhood, growing up with four siblings on a farm in Searsport, where there was no shortage of hard work and “we harvested what we ate.”

With humble beginnings and not a lot of money, Ellis strived to provide more financial stability for his family. And the experience made him realize, “If you want something, you gotta work for it. Nobody’s going to give it to you.”

In middle and high school, Ellis became an entrepreneur and a savvy student of consumer behavior. As a three-sport athlete, he knew his teammates experienced low blood sugar in the 30 to 45 minutes between the final bell and the start of practice. To satisfy their hunger—and turn a small profit—he would hotfoot it over to Tozier’s Family Market and purchase bulk orders of chicken tenders for resale minutes later, at a slight markup, to his calorie-depleted classmates back at school. And to slake their post-practice thirst, he bought cans of soda by the case and sold them at a small premium.

“I was helping them, and they were helping me,” Ellis said with a chuckle. “It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

What the teenager did with the proceeds from being an unofficial one-man concession stand might surprise you. Rather than buy clothes, a car, or video games, Ellis purchased college courses.

“I made enough money my junior to senior year to pay for extra classes through the University of Maine System, which came out to, like, just over $1,000,” he said. “There was an Introduction to Business and Entrepreneurship course at the University of Maine Machias online that I was really excited about. I also purchased a microeconomics course and a psychology course. That’s what I was able to accomplish with just that little venture at school.”

It’s not just the growing number of heat pumps in Maine that’s keeping Ellis busy. It’s the dust and particulate that accumulate indoors—and the cobwebs and dirt outdoors.

In his first year as a Mitchell Scholar at Thomas, Ellis caught the attention of Mike Duguay, Executive Director of the school’s Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation, who encouraged him to enter Keep It Clean Heat Pumps in Greenlight Maine’s Collegiate Business Pitch Competition.

Since appearing on season 9, episode 2 of Greenlight Maine’s College Edition, where Ellis made his pitch for the $10,000 first prize, he says calls from people seeking a heat pump cleaning have soared. And with final exams now over, he plans to devote nearly every waking hour to meeting the demand until the start of his sophomore year.

“I don’t play video games, and I don’t go to parties,” Ellis said. “My fun is doing this type of thing. I work seven days a week on the business and five days on school.”

As for what motivates him to stay laser-focused on growing the business, Ellis says he has two near term goals: paying his way through Thomas and finding a new home.

“My girlfriend and I are looking for a house to purchase by the end of the summer,” he said.