- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Beth Martin has seen heating bills that exceed $300 during some harsh Ohio winter months. Miss Martin, a suburban Cincinnati resident, works in the billing department of the area’s electric cooperative, which provides electric and other services to about 10,000 members in southwestern Ohio.

When it came to installing a heating and air-conditioning system in her newly built home, she chose a geothermal mechanism.

“A lot of people don’t think of the cost in the future,” Miss Martin says. “It’s just what’s cheaper right now that they think about. Then they get shocked with the heating bills down the road.”

Miss Martin is among a growing number of geothermal users, more than 650,000 nationwide. About 325 members from the cooperative to which Miss Martin belongs use a geothermal system, and that number is climbing each year by 12 to 15 new users.

There are two basic types of heat, ventilation and air-conditioning systems (HVAC): those that require a flame to operate and those that do not. Most central systems create heat by combustion, using a furnace to burn a fossil fuel such as oil, natural gas or propane. More advanced, noncombustion systems operate by moving heat from one location to another.

Geothermal systems use the earth to heat and cool homes and help provide hot water. In the winter, a water solution circulating through pipes buried deep in the ground absorbs heat from the earth and carries it into the home. The process is reversed in the summer: Heat is extracted from the air in the house and transferred through the heat pump to the ground-loop piping. The water in the ground loop then carries excess heat back to the earth.

Although they are considered cleaner and more efficient than other HVAC systems, geothermal units cost almost twice as much upfront. Systems average between $12,000 and $16,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home. Miss Martin’s average, year-round bill for her 3,000-square-foot home is $175 per month.

Compared to other homeowners, who use a heat-pump/forced-air system, Miss Martin says she will save thousands of dollars in the long term. Ed Reid, president of a southwestern Ohio HVAC company, says it’s hard enough convincing a new-home builder to buy a high-efficiency, noncombustion system, let alone persuading them to go geothermal, because of the cost.

“It’s all a cost issue,” Mr. Reid says, adding that geothermal systems are highly efficient. “But people would rather have a pretty front door than spend it on a heating system.”

The Greater Washington area isn’t a hot spot for geothermal systems. The heating and cooling units require a bit of land to operate and work better in extreme climates. It doesn’t help that given the region’s transient nature, it’s unlikely people want to invest in a system that will pay dividends for the next person to own the house, not themselves.

Homeowners in more rural parts of Maryland and Virginia are likely to find geothermal energy more attractive. An example is Phil Malone, 45, of Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland

In April, Mr. Malone and his wife, Lisa, moved into a new, environmentally friendly home of his own design that is heated and cooled via a geo-thermal system.

“Geothermal was my way of building a house that’s very comfortable without using a lot of electricity,” Mr. Malone says. “It’s pretty cold up here.”

Last winter, his town endured 54 inches of snow over a two-day span, he says.

“It’s quiet. You don’t have that unit humming away all night,” he adds. “It sits there like the refrigerator and does its job.”

Mr. Malone understands that most homeowners near the Beltway aren’t seeking out the system. Neither are local home contractors.

“If you go to a builder and say, ‘I wanna put in geothermal heat,’ they look at you funny. They either don’t know what you’re talking about or they don’t know how to install it.”

He chose the system for environmental reasons, but says he doesn’t mind the savings he’ll generate.

“You can burn a lot of electricity heating a house up here,” he says.

Mr. Malone’s Web site, www.ourcoolhouse.com, details many of his new home’s efficient modifications.

Mr. Reid says installing a geothermal system is “pretty involved.” Vertical installation requires excavation down 30 to 50 feet, and from two to four holes may be drilled. Additional digging often is required to link the underground piping, Mr. Reid says.

“They work better for new construction,” he says, “because if you have an existing home, you have to dig everything, and it tears up the property.”

Jill Johnson, marketing representative for the southwestern Ohio cooperative, says the payback period on a geothermal system is about four to six years.

“Then it will eventually start making you money,” Miss Johnson says.

According to her, other benefits to using a geothermal system include:

• Total energy savings. Compared to a natural gas or propane furnace that may be 60 percent to 90 percent efficient, a geothermal system is 300 percent efficient.

• Free hot water. A device called a “desuperheater” transfers excess heat from the pump to the water heater. In summer, therefore, hot water is free; in winter, water heating costs are reduced.

• Low maintenance. The piping is underground or underwater, so there is little maintenance required.

“It’s clean. It’s environmentally safe. It’s a great heating and cooling system for practically any home,” Miss Johnson says.

Staff writer Christian Toto contributed to this story.


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