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Geothermal heat pumps are becoming the little home heating
and cooling energy source that could.

Geothermal heat pumps are becoming the little home heating
and cooling energy source that could.

The systems are on track to survive the fall and winter
price drop in oil and gas to maintain 10 percent growth for 2008, thanks to a
new alternative energy tax credit. Geothermal systems account for 1 percent of
the national residential heating and cooling system market.

The Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium estimates 60,000 of the
new systems were installed nationwide in 2008 compared with roughly 55,000 the
year before. The group is predicting the growth rate will stay at roughly 10
percent for 2009.

J.K. Mechanical Inc. in Lancaster County
easily beat that growth rate, said sales manager Bill Landis.

The Pequea
Township firm installed
300 systems in 2008, a hefty 50 percent hike over the 200 installed in 2007,
Landis said. And he expects to install another 300 in 2009.

“Geothermal means a lot to our bottom line,” Landis said.
“In 2008, it was 50 percent of our business. Three years ago, it only accounted
for 20 percent of our sales.”

Geothermal heat pumps are designed to take advantage of the
natural warmth of the ground (see “How it works,” this page). The system saves
energy because heat is extracted from the earth, which is getting the heat from
the sun. Solar energy is stored year round in the earth. Electricity powers the
heat pumps.

“You can get $5 of heat from $1 worth of electricity,”
Landis said.

The system can also provide cooling, since in the summer, it
extracts heat from the home and places it in the earth or uses it to pre-heat
water for a hot-water tank.

“The Environmental Protection Agency says there is no better
way to heat or cool your home,” Landis said. “Using geothermal heat pumps for
heating and cooling is equal to the greenhouse gas reduction of planting an
acre of trees.”

While the geothermal systems have extraordinary
environmental benefits, there are two primary reasons the systems haven’t been
used more, he said.

One is that there has been a lack of public awareness.

“There are no multi-billion (dollar) companies in the
industry so you’re not seeing geothermal systems in Super Bowl ads,” he said.

More significant are the upfront costs, which can run
anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000, typically double that of a traditional HVAC

The higher first costs, though, can lead to significant
savings over time. Geothermal reduces annual heating and cooling energy bills
by 60 percent to 70 percent versus oil or propane gas and by 50 percent
compared with natural gas, Landis said.

He said the systems typically pay for themselves in about
four to six years.

 Putting in a
geothermal system in residential new construction makes a lot of sense because
the initial outlay can be included in an initial mortgage payment. The increase
in monthly mortgage payments will be more than offset by the energy savings,”
he said.

The tax credit, enacted late last year under the Emergency
Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, gives homeowners a federal income tax
credit of up to $2,000 for a portion of the cost of a new geothermal system.

Ron Hill, HVAC manager of R.E. Sanders Inc. in York, which put in 16
units last year, said it is that annual energy savings can be hurt
substantially if a system is poorly installed.

“If geothermal is not put in right, it is not going to work
right. You just have to know how to size your duct work and the underground
water and antifreeze loop. The equipment has to be sized correctly to the
house, or your yearly operating costs are going to be a lot higher than they
need to be,” Hill said.

Barry Kindt, president of SECCO Home Services, a geothermal
installer based in Lower
Allen Township,
has had a geothermal system in his 1836 vintage sandstone-walled home in
Lewisberry since 1990.

One of the things the Cumberland County
businessman likes the best about it is there is no oil residue or smell.
Despite the age of the system in his home, he has never had to replace any of
the mechanical equipment.

Since he installed the system in his home, state-of-the-art
geothermal systems have evolved. Today’s systems need shorter and
smaller-diameter wells

“(Geothermal systems) are absolutely wonderful to install in
a mature neighborhood where you have oil and furnace or gas or existing
air-to-air heat pumps because you don’t have to destroy your yard with a big
piece of well-drilling equipment coming in,” Kindt said.

How it works

The typical home geothermal heat-pump system, which heats
water and heats and cools air, consists of one or more wells, each about 3-6
inches wide and 300-500 feet deep. Into each well is placed two plastic pipes
with a U-bend in the bottom that connects them. The pipes contain a
water-antifreeze solution. A stone mixture surrounds the pipes. The liquid is
circulated from the hole to the geothermal heating and cooling unit, which is
about the size of a typical furnace.

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