More and more individuals have become aware of the environmental impacts and the extreme amounts of energy they use to heat and cool their homes. As a result, many families are actively working to shrink their carbon footprints. They are moving away from coal, oil, and gas heaters and many have converted to alternative sources of green energy. One great and relatively inexpensive way to do this is to convert a home’s heating a cooling system to geothermal energy.
How It Works
Traditional HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems take the air from the home, subject it to refrigerants, and pump the now cooled or heated air back into the home. All of this takes an incredible amount of energy. Geothermal cooling and heating systems save energy by directly harnessing the energy and temperature that naturally occurs in the earth. At certain levels beneath the surface, the temperature of the earth is kept constant. When the weather grows colder, a closed loop system of pipes takes the existing heat from deep inside the earth and draws it up into the home. Then, when the weather is warmer, the heat exchanger draws the heat from the air in the home and pushes it back down deep into the earth where it is dispersed.
What’s more is that the geothermal systems works in tandem with the hot water heater to create a closed system of water pumps, heat exchangers, and fans. The very heat that is pulled from the home in the summer can be pumped into the water heater to provide almost unlimited hot water. It essentially turns unwanted heat into desired heat. This closed system helps produce some of the most energy efficient temperature control available, making sure nothing goes to waste, and everything has a use.
If a family chooses to convert to a geothermal cooling system, they must bring in an expert company to do the installation. The company will determine the most efficient and economical installation possible. Because most system’s pipes must reach a significant depth in order to access the trapped heat of the earth, the installers must drill deeply, avoiding any major water, sewer, or electrical lines buried in the area. Newer technologies, however, allow geothermal installation companies to install the heat exchange loops in horizontal trenches, beneath local water sources, or in specially dug pits depending on the homes unique topographical and environmental surroundings.
The average cost of such installations can vary greatly depending on the home’s location, the amount of land available, the type of geothermal system, and the existing heating system in the home. The most expensive components of the system are the integrated water and air heat exchanger and the pipe installation. This can run several thousand dollars at the cheapest. However, some of those costs can be offset with various green energy tax credits offered by the government. Homeowners can actually offset up to 50% of their installation costs in the first year thanks to state and federal tax credits. That amount can increase over the lifetime of the home, as additional yearly credits are offered.
Making the switch from traditional forced air or baseboard heat to geothermal cooling and heating systems can end up saving homeowners thousands of dollars over the life of the home. Add to that the significant environmental benefits and it’s no wonder that more homeowners are converting to geothermal energy for their home’s comfort.
Geothermal Cooling & Heating: Advantages and Disadvantages
While geothermal energy has a number of advantages, there are also several disadvantages to the system. Here is a deeper look at some of the bigger advantages to converting to geothermal cooling and heating, balanced by some of the more notable disadvantages.
Reduced Use of Fossil Fuels
A great advantage to geothermal energy is the reduced reliance on fossil fuels. Traditional energy sources like coal, oil, and natural gas are finite resources. Their continued use causes a decrease in their availability, driving prices upwards and increasing the nation’s reliance on foreign sources of these fuels. By deriving heat directly from the earth, geothermal energy relies on a continually replenished resource. This decreases our reliance on fossil fuels and reduces the amount of impact we inflict on the environment. Plus, over time, the costs are much lower as the earth’s temperature does not fluctuate in response to demand.
Tax Write Offs
Homeowners who make the switch to geothermal energy can also enjoy a number of tax benefits. In addition to the initial cost matching benefits offered by the federal government in the installation process, state and local governments offer a number of write offs over the life of the home. Homes that use geothermal energy draw significantly less electricity from public grids, freeing up energy for others in the community and decreasing the maintenance costs to the local government. To encourage this, state tax departments are willing to pass some of these savings on to the homeowners.
One of the worst disadvantages of geothermal energy is the overall cost of the installation. Not only is there the often expensive geothermal unit that is installed near the water heater in the house, but there is also the copper pipe loop. These pipes must be drilled deep into the earth where the temperature is held constant regardless of the air temperature. That can mean up to a depth of 10-20 feet, though some systems require much deeper. The drilling alone can cost thousands of dollars, with an overall installation cost of tens of thousands of dollars. It helps if the home has existing ductwork that the system can use to distribute the cooled air, but if it doesn’t, that also must be installed.
Lack of Availability
The unfortunate thing is that geothermal energy is not available for all homeowners. Those who live in areas of very high infrastructure including sewer lines, gas mains, or underground installations do not have the option of converting to geothermal energy. Only those with sufficient land have enough space to contain the intricate pipe systems, but if the home is too remote, they may not have access to the specialized crews and equipment needed to install the unit in the first place. This combination of conditions can severely limit the numbers of types of people who can actually convert their homes to geothermal energy.
Geothermal cooling & heating is a great option if families can get it. Between the high costs and the lack of availability, however, it may be a while before everyone can enjoy this revolution in home climate control.
Top Benefits of a Geothermal Cooling & Heating System
Geothermal heating and cooling systems offer a wide range of benefits for home and business owners. From reducing a building’s carbon footprint to accumulated savings, switching to geothermal energy is a smart move for anyone looking for alternatives to traditional forced air heating and cooling systems.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, geothermal cooling systems may be one of the most environmentally sound ways to control the temperature of the home. No fossil fuels are burned, and it uses only a small bit of electricity to power the fan, water pumps, and heat exchanger. The system is incredibly efficient with very little wasted energy. While typical forced air systems waste a great deal of energy with heat loss, geothermal systems reduce the total energy used by up to 50% over electric systems. The systems are often used to heat water as well, making even more efficient use of the home’s energy.
All of this saved energy translates to equally beneficial cost savings. Half of a family’s electricity use goes towards the home’s heating and cooling. To save money in the hottest and coolest months, most families will forgo the comfortable temperatures they truly want. With geothermal energy, families can set the thermostat to their true desired temperatures without worrying about wasting money. On average, families who replace propane or natural gas heating with geothermal energy will cut costs by two thirds, while those with high efficiency air conditioning units will see their cooling costs cut by a full half. That can mean thousands off electricity bills in the first year.
Forced air heating relies on a single heat exchanger to pump out heat in the coldest weather. In the summer months, it uses toxic refrigerant chemicals to cool that same air and fan it out to the various rooms in the house. These methods require a great deal of energy to work against the natural temperatures outside. Because geothermal energy uses the consistent natural heat trapped inside the ground, it is much easier to cool and heat the home. Emergency heat is never needed to fight against freezing temperatures, and the heat of the home in the summer is easily trapped and used in the home’s hot water system or dispersed in the ground.
Noise and Appearance
The unsightly air conditioning units and noisy outdoor fans are also a thing of the past. Geothermal units do not need bulky and unsightly fans to take in air from outside to pump back indoors; they work with the already climate controlled air indoors. Plus, the majority of the work is done underground in the copper pipes of the unit’s heat exchangers. That means that homeowners can enjoy comfortable temperatures without having to tolerate noisy blowers and fans.
Geothermal energy is quiet, convenient, efficient, and becoming more affordable every day. Families who are interested in converting to geothermal energy should contact a local technician for an evaluation and price estimate on installation.
Frequently Asked Questions about Geothermal Cooling & Heating
Geothermal cooling and heating systems are relatively new alternatives to traditional home temperature control. There are many applications that have yet to be tested, but the technology is safe, secure, and incredibly efficient. Still, most people have questions regarding the use of geothermal energy in the home. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about geothermal cooling.
Are There Any Risks Associated with Geothermal Energy?
Unlike propane and natural gas tanks, geothermal heat exchangers do not use any fossil fuels for energy generation. They tap into the existing electrical grid and use the heat stored naturally in the earth’s crust. There are some risks, however, associated with the installation of geothermal pipes. Installers must drill deep into the earth’s surface, and often must create various trenches under the ground’s surface. If the topography of the land is uneven or there are a number of gas or sewer lines, or high pressure ground water in the area, it can be dangerous to drill. Drilling companies must take a number of precautions to properly install the geothermal unit and avoid damages to surrounding properties.
How Much Maintenance do Geothermal Cooling Systems Require?
Like all heating and cooling systems, geothermal systems require regular maintenance. Because the system uses existing ductwork and vents to transfer the heat through the house, most of the maintenance involves this complex network. Air filters must be replaced at least twice a year, and preferably every month, especially before the heating unit is switched on. Homeowners should do their best to keep vents clear of debris, and they should have the ductwork professionally cleaned at least once every three years. This keeps the air clean and free of dust, pet dander, mold, or other allergens. The heat exchange unit should run without maintenance for an average of 25-30 years.
What is the Environmental Impact?
One of the main reasons homeowners switch to geothermal is to lessen their environmental impact and shrink their carbon footprint. They choose geothermal energy because the system is far more efficient and uses much less energy than traditional heating and cooling methods. For every hour of use, geothermal produces one fewer pound of carbon emissions than forced air does. That can add up to thousands of pounds of CO2 kept out of the air each year, or the equivalent of planting 6000 acres of trees.
How Much Room do I Need for Installation?
Previous generations of geothermal HVAC units took up a great deal of space. Homeowners needed to set aside almost an entire room and drill almost as deep as most freshwater wells. Today, though, a geothermal unit can fit right alongside the home’s water heater, while pipes can run in a much shallower trench alongside the home. Depending on the needs of the home and the space available, geothermal units can be designed to fit any home.
Installers and technicians with geothermal energy systems have spent years finding new ways to install and operate efficient and environmentally sound cooling solutions. They can work with almost any existing home or help builders construct an entirely new unit with the most effective temperature control systems available. In time, they should be able to reduce emissions even further and bring down the price tag, so that all homes can enjoy.