Geothermal heating and cooling systems have been successfully implemented for at least 70 years in the United States, but for many homeowners, they are still a “new” option.  And when an energy efficient technology is new or more expensive, regardless of the benefits, it becomes a novelty of sorts for those with an adventurous spirit and plenty of money, leaving the rest of us paying our higher energy bills. (See related post: “10 Myths About Geothermal Heating and Cooling.”)

The US now has a corp of skilled geo-exchange engineers and tradesmen, thanks in part to the stimulus act of 2009, and homeowners now have more access to information about designing an energy-efficient home. Still, even with an impressive 30 percent tax credit implemented at the federal level, U.S. homeowners need to pay the up-front cost and find a trustworthy contractor to install a geothermal HVAC system.

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the north report that nearly 40 percent of heating systems replaced are going geothermal, according the Canadian GeoExchange Organization; and Canada does not have a national incentive program like we do in the U.S.  Wondering why? Perhaps it could be in part because of services such as GeoTility that take on the burden of installing the underground loop or well system (which can serve an entire neighborhood), charging a one-time connection fee and then a predetermined monthly charge, significantly reducing first costs for both new homebuyers and those choosing to upgrade to geothermal heating and cooling.

Graphic courtesy Bosch TT

Graphic courtesy Bosch TT

Geothermal utility services like GeoTility have had limited availability in the U.S., but are now entering the picture for more of us because of new arrangements such as a recent agreement between Bosch ThermoTechnology and Orca Energy (a sister company to Canada-based GeoTility). In its announcement, Bosch said the agreement  “solves one of the most persistent challenges facing the geothermal industry: how to overcome builder and homeowner resistance to the initial capital cost barrier of installing the ground heat exchanger [or well]. “

Most of us would prefer to pay a monthly fee for an item that could be classified as utility infrastructure, such as the earth-coupled portion of a geothermal heating and cooling system.  (Brian Clark Howard and I allude to this in our guide to geothermal HVAC.) After all, geothermal loops provide very real energy that is fundamentally no different than electricity, except that it is already in the form of BTUs, ready for use by the geothermal heat pump for cooling or heating needs. Most of us have become accustomed to using municipality-supplied city water, sewer, and other utilities. Some of us might say, “Let someone else worry about what’s underground, and I’ll just pay the monthly fee.” (See related quiz: What You Don’t Know About Electricity.)

A first-of-its kind survey, which was conducted last fall by the National Association of Home Builders’ research subsidiary, showed that a majority of people who own certified green homes considered energy efficiency important in their decision-making, and are happy with the home’s energy performance after it is built. Within this group of green homebuyers, tax credits and other financial incentives played a relatively insignificant role in the decision to build a green home; but overwhelmingly, the respondents said they enjoyed lower utility bills, and either didn’t spend more up-front on their home or got benefits that outweighed any additional cost.

Geothermal heat pump and hot water heater (Photograph courtesy Jay Egg)

Geothermal heat pump and hot water heater (Photograph courtesy Jay Egg)

For new construction, then, the decision on whether or not to go geothermal may be just that straightforward.  For retrofits, it may take some diligence and creativity, but homeowners who want geothermal will be able to get it.

Tell the geothermal industry what you think. Would you like to see geothermal utility services come to a neighborhood near you?  We’re listening. (See related quiz: What You Don’t Know About Home Heating.)

Jay Egg is a geothermal consultant, writer, and the owner of EggGeothermal. He has co-authored two textbooks on geothermal HVAC systems published by McGraw-Hill Professional. He can be reached at jayegg.geo@gmail.com .

Comments

  1. Jay Egg
    March 26, 2014, 5:19 am

    Erik in Duluth, MN,
    Yours is a perfect example in showing the fact that geothermal cooling and heating is going mainstream in the United States. What you’re doing for homeowners in SouthCliffe, Kennewick, Washington illustrates well the affordability aspect of geothermal cooling and heating systems.

    You’ve also indicated the ample supply of skilled geothermal HVAC tradesmen of professionals available to complete the work. We have a core of competent geothermal professionals and tradesmen that is growing rapidly. I for one applaud your efforts and success in one of countless geothermal projects that are bringing geothermal systems within reach for homeowners in the US. Let’s keep getting the word out!

  2. Erik Hallstrom
    Duluth, MN
    March 25, 2014, 9:21 am

    Jay,

    The “soon” part of your article is currently happening in Kennewick, WA, where a 400+ lot subdivision is being built that will be the largest geothermal development in the US. The project is called “SouthCliffe” and the geothermal loop fields have been installed when the utilities were put in. Each lot has the loop pipe ready to connect to the geothermal equipment in the house when it is built.

    There is a lot of excitement with this project as the homeowners will see very low heating and cooling bills and the installation cost has been drastically reduced. I believe this will become more common as developers learn how easy it is to provide this valuable utility.

    Key to these projects is the design and marketing of the geothermal system. ThermLink provides the design and supplies the ClimateMaster geothermal equipment and the installations are completed by several HVAC installers trained in geothermal.

  3. Jay Egg
    March 19, 2014, 1:30 pm

    Beverly Cheney -Sarah’s Mom,

    This is the kind of blog post that I love to answer! First of all thank you to Sarah for all of the wonderful artwork! After all, she did much of the artwork in two books; “Geothermal HVAC, Green Heating and Cooling”, and “Modern Geothermal HVAC Engineering and Control Applications” (both from McGraw-Hill).

    There are several communities under consideration for geothermal with various developers in Florida. Beyond that, I would love to share some of the reasons why your husband and you might wish to consider geothermal:
    1. Elimination of outdoor equipment (and related noise)
    2. Storm proofing (geothermal equipment is sheltered from storm events)
    3. Longevity of system (a result of all indoor equipment)
    4. Elimination of fossil fuel consumption (on-site)
    5. Superior comfort in heating and cooling modes
    6. Enabling thermal load sharing (pool, DHW, air-conditioning)
    7. Efficiency of system (up to 40 EER)
    8. Impressive incentives and financing (30% federal tax credit)

    You might say that geothermal heating and cooling is like a well built appliance or automobile for which you would choose to pay a premium. In the case of geothermal, you get a marvelous host of benefits for the extra investment up front.
    Keep me posted on your progress; I’m here to help!

  4. Beverly Cheney
    New Port Richey Fl.
    March 18, 2014, 1:44 pm

    Hi Jay
    My Daughter is Sarah Cheny.
    We live in New Port Richey Fl. I wish Geo Thermal would pay for itself here. My Husband does not think it well. I am always looking ways to use our energy less expensive. I would apprectiate any help you could give.
    Thanks
    Beverly Cheney Sarah’s Mom

  5. Jay Egg
    March 17, 2014, 10:52 am

    Christian in San Diego,

    I will be posting more information as to your question of whether a geothermal utility will come into an existing neighborhood. More to come…

  6. Jay Egg
    March 17, 2014, 10:50 am

    Gerald McClain in OK
    Thank you for sharing the information about the development in Hope Crossing, OKC, and for your enlightening endorsement of geothermal heating and cooling technologies. There are many geothermal neighborhoods in operation, and are going to see a lot more neighborhoods like Hope Crossing in short order.

  7. Jay Egg
    March 17, 2014, 10:43 am

    David Neale in NY

    Excellent questions and comments. I believe and I certainly expect us to get to the point at which the geothermal hookups are made readily available to home owners. You can be assured that I’m watching and listening for those developments.

  8. David Neale
    NY
    March 15, 2014, 12:12 pm

    The utility approach to wider adoption of geothermal heat pump systems has been discussed for several years in the industry. Not least because of the success of the analogous PPA model in the Solar Electric industry.
    The successful Geotility model is somewhat different to the passive investor model of the BOSCH/ORCA partnership. Low cost of capital sources show little interested in these opportunities unless there is a plausible revenue stream of sufficient size. ORCA presumably is looking for new home construction projects of 200-300 homes, at which point investors become available. And while packaged to look like a utility it really becomes more like standard green project financing with owners/tenants paying flat rates for the borrowed capital to a third party, ORCA (I’ making assumptions based on presentation they have given).
    The real question might be when will BOSCH or one of the other larger geothermal manufacturers engage with Utility or perhaps a national Energy Services Company, to develop a standard utility asset model of ownership. One where an individual can call to schedule hook-up and get billed for the energy they use, much like they would a fuel-oil or propane delivery company who put a tank on their property for free and charge by the gallon for it.
    Thanks for posting the article for discussion.

  9. Gerald McClain
    Stillwater, OK
    March 14, 2014, 11:57 am

    Excellent article. Install your own utility by installing a ground source heat pump system (gshp). Get free energy from under your feet from your own utility. Ground Source Heat Pump systems or Geothermal Heat Pump systems use 3-4 parts of free energy from the ground and 1 part electric energy to run the system. Saving of 50-70% of energy for heating and cooling and hot water for your home or business. Before installing solar panels install a ground source heat pump system and only need to install half as many solar panels. Most zero-energy homes first install a gshp system. Works like a refrigerator and sounds like a refrigerator. Quite comfort no outside compressors making noise. GHP systems work for 24 years as compared to a conventional system which works for 14 years before it must be replaced. Why? All mechanical components are in the building and not outside except for the ground loop which is warranted for 50+ years. For example I have a 6000 sf home that has 2 ton, 3 ton and 4 ton Heat Pumps and it cost on the average of $80 per month for electricity… heating, cooling, and hot water…I know it works. Reason GSHP systems do not get as much press is that it conserves energy rather than makes energy. You input 1 unit of energy and get 3-4 units of free energy from the ground and end up with 4-5 units of heating, cooling and hot water. Geothermal heat pumps is not hot rocks to produce steam to generate electricity. Geothermal heat pump systems use low temperature of the earth (62 degrees in Oklahoma) rather than air temperature of 110 degrees or -10 degrees for heating cooling and hot water. Hope Crossing in OKC has installed 300 of 500 planned Habit for Humanity homes with ground source heat pump systems to make the utility cost very low for owners. I appreciate GeoTility in offering to put in a utility for a home owner and charge a monthly rate. SolarCity uses a similar plan for solar panels, but should be installing gshp system first to save homeowners from having to install so many solar panels. Homes increase in value and appearance when using a GSHP system rather than wind turbines and solar panels. Nothing ugly outside your home. GSHP system produce the least-cost, most rapidly deployable mechanism for reducing energy consumption and improving air quality. Energy conservation using a GSHP system is better than energy producing systems.

  10. Christian Walters
    San Diego
    March 14, 2014, 11:36 am

    This sounds encouraging. Will a geothermal utility come into an existing neighborhood? Can I have a geothermal heating and cooling unit installed in my home and have a company like Orca provide the loop or well? Thanks-Christian