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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Geothermal Heating Systems - The Environmental eZine

When some people think of geothermal they think of harnessing the power of volcanoes, drilling holes in the Earth's crust and pouring water in to create a steam vent to turn a generator. Technically such things are possible, but they're also largely unnecessary. A lot of heat can actually be derived just by drilling down a little and using nothing more than air circulation to get heat. Hence the marvel of geothermal heating systems, a growing trend amongst home-owners.

My sister and her husband are thinking of buying a geothermal heating system for their home. Price estimates vary, but thanks to incentives by the Ontario and Canadian governments they will be able to get one for relatively little and save a bundle on future heating bills. Pending their success my parents and other family members may follow suit.

They're not hippies either. They just like to save money and have clued in that their heating bills could be a lot lower if they made the investment. (This article may be updated later after they install and see the results.)

How Does It Work?

Geothermal heating systems (also known as ground source heat pumps, GSHPs, earth energy, or geoexchange systems) are an ideal way of reducing home energy costs. These systems are incredibly environmentally friendly as it uses the natural heat of the Earth with no emissions or toxicity involved.

A series of pipes are drilled down into the ground to create a circuit. Air is then pumped through the circuit using a small electric fan (so there is technically a small amount of energy used to make the system work). The circulating air goes down into the ground cool and comes up warm. This is a similar concept to building your home in a deep cave, where the air temperature is constant all year long, but without the obvious problems of living inside a cave.

They can be combined with radiators but it is thought that under-floor heating works best, as it uses a lower temperature. In the summer the system can also be used like an air conditioner to pump cool air into the house.

The same pipes can also be used to heat water for home use.

Choosing a Vertical or Horizontal System

When choosing a heating system there are four common loop systems - vertical, horizontal, slinky and pond.

A vertical closed loop field is made of up vertical pipes in the ground, in a hole usually 150 to 300 feet deep. Here the pipes are joined by a U-shaped cross connector at the bottom of the hole.

In comparison a horizontal closed loop field is composed of pipes that run horizontally in the ground and run 400 to 600 feet long, where U-shaped coils are placed horizontally inside the trench. Horizontal loop fields are very common and economical if there is plenty of adequate land available.

A slinky closed loop field has pipes which overlay each other, whereas a closed pond loop is attached to a frame and located in a body of water.

The Benefits of Geothermal

GSHPs are also a great way of decreasing domestic costs such as home insurance because they help reduce building insurance premiums. Home insurance costs and contents insurance benefit from geothermal systems too because it is low maintenance as there are no hazardous gas emissions or flammable oils. There is no need for regular servicing or yearly safety checks either.

Quiet operation with no noisy outdoor units means a less disturbing atmosphere for both neighbours and the environment.

There are also government grants available for the installation of a domestic ground source heat pump. Check out what your local provincial, state or federal government is doing to see if you're eligible for a grant, tax refund and/or incentive.

However, despite all the advantages, there are problems with the product. For a horizontal system a household will need space to lay the pipe system down in trenches, and for a three bedroom house that means 2x50 metre long dugouts, therefore it is not ideal for dense suburban neighbourhoods, meaning homeowners may have to get a more expensive vertical system which requires drilling deeper.

Another problematic issue is the efficiency of a heat-pump system, which needs insulation to work, thus making under floor heating in old or badly insulated houses unpractical.

However, a major selling point of geothermal heating system is that they reduce heating and cooling costs by about 50% and usually cost between $10,000 and $20,000 USD. The heating systems are usually eligible for most state, federal and utility credits and encouragements.

The financial rebates and savings of the heating product is also rewarding for the more environmentally friendly homeowner. The rebate programme and the ensuing installation of heat pumps would cut an average four metric tons of carbon emissions per year per unit, due to high energy efficiency of geothermal heat pump technology.

“If you multiply those reductions by the average unit life of 24.4 years, that means 97.6 metric tons of emissions could be eliminated over the lifetime of each unit, and 234,240 tons over the lifetime of the 2,400 units sold through the rebate program.” - Bruce Ritchey, CEO of the geothermal heating system manufacturer WaterFurnace.

Geothermal Energy in the USA

In an attempt to help the United States gain control of the economy, create jobs and save energy, President Barack Obama signed in February 2009 a federal Economic Stimulus Package, which focuses on renewable energy sources.

President Obama has spoken frequently on energy matters, including during the 2008 Presidential debate with John McCain on October 15th, 2008 when he said: “We can't drill our way out of the problem. That's why I've focused on putting resources into solar, wind, biodiesel, geothermal.”

The White House believes that by making low interest loans available, it could generate at least an extra 200 heat pumps sales per month and kickstart a trend towards more geothermal energy.

Bruce Ritchey, CEO of the geothermal heating system manufacturer WaterFurnace, says the new bill will be a huge advantage to the country: “Every state should take at least five percent of the funding available through the energy efficiency portion of the stimulus package and invest it in a geothermal incentive. I can't think of a faster, more cost effective, greener way to put people back to work, save fossil fuel, reduce carbon emissions and save homeowners thousands of dollars per year for the next 24 years. It's the stimulus that keeps on stimulating.”

There are many advocates for such an energy saving product and Ritchey is at the forefront of such an environmental campaign, concluding: “Every state should invest it in a geothermal incentive. I can't think of a faster, more cost effective, greener way to put people back to work, save fossil fuel, reduce carbon emissions and save homeowners thousands of dollars per year for the next 24 years. It's the stimulus that keeps on stimulating.”

Geothermal Heating Systems - The Environmental eZine

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