Thursday, July 17, 2008

Going Green: The Geothermal Installation, Part 1

Like Kermit the Frog says, it’s not easy going green.

This was going to be the summer to replace the furnace in my house. It was installed in 1958 or early 1959 when the house was being built, so it’s basically 50-years old. For years, we’d hope it would limp along through yet another winter. It never failed but it was becoming increasingly inefficient. Getting replacement parts for it might involve looking for a museum, not a distributor. The time had come to say good-bye.

And replace it with what?

Between everybody talking about “global warming,” “reducing your carbon footprint” and the price of oil only likely to keep going up, I decided there was no time like the present to look into alternative energy sources. I was told a new oil furnace might cost $8-10,000, and since I was paying about $3200 to heat my house this past winter (and still only keeping it at a chilly 64° – it’s a big house), I thought it was time to look into something that would also reduce my dependence on fossil fuels, doing one small bit for the environment. Using a few compact fluorescent bulbs around the house is one thing but there has to be more to it than that.

On the one hand, I didn’t like the idea of putting solar panels on my roof – I’ve been through too many weeks of spring and winter here in Central Pennsylvania where we barely see the sun, anyway – but I figured if geothermal heating was going to work, you’d either have to be built over a hot spring (like Reykjavik) or you’d have to have lots of ground with a deep pond on it.

Then one evening I stumbled on an article at the New York Times about a recently renovated row home with a tiny postage stamp of a yard that was putting in state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling. An hour and much googling later, I realized, if it could work for a city home on a tiny patch of land, it might actually be a very applicable form of energy for me, since I’m sitting on 3/4s of a suburban acre. And I wouldn’t need to harness a geyser in my basement.

The principle is very simple: once you get beneath the surface, the ground is a constant temperature, year round – basically 55° – no matter what the air temperature is. So in the winter, it’s probably warmer than the air; and in the summer, cooler. There are several ways you can make use of this: you can dig trenches and lay out an array of closed-circuit pipes with water circulating through them; you can dig wells with pipes connected by u-bends that the water would circulate through; if you have a pond, you can run the pipes out into the water, but since I don’t have access to a pond, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about this one.

These pipes then enter your basement and connect to a heat transfer pump which takes the given temperature from that water (warmer in winter, cooler in summer) and transfers it into heat or air-conditioning that can then be distributed through your house. Since I already have “forced hot-air” and the ducts for central air-conditioning (installed in 1980), it seemed a natural, here, assuming the rest of it was feasible.

There were actually a few companies in the mid-state that installed geothermal heating and cooling systems. None in Harrisburg that I could find, but I contacted a couple, had them come up for interviews and give me estimates. I went with Groff’s Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing in Willow Street. Their sales guy explained how it would work and told me, rather than trying a series of trenches, it would be better with two 250'-deep wells but I would need to contact my own well-driller for that: then they’ll do the internal installation - we scheduled it for later this month.

Since my mother kept everything and in this case I could even put my hand on it within five minutes, I found who drilled our original well in 1958. They are, not surprisingly, no longer in business. My friend N’s father had worked for a time with Kohl Brothers as a well-driller back in the ‘40s but not surprisingly they no longer do any residential drilling. However, they did recommend a company in Boiling Springs that had been started by a guy who used to work with them – G & R Westbrook. So I gave them a call.

I talked with Mr. Westbrook’s grandson, Ryan, who said they were working on a number of projects in the Lower Paxton and Linglestown area, so he’d stop by and check out the lay of the land. This, actually, is very important to a well-driller, more crucial to him considering the size of the truck and the fact it has to be kept level. The bane of my existence when I mowed it for my folks during the early-‘80s through mid-’90s, long after I hoped to be done with yard-work (this, I said, was why I rented in the first place) this lawn has nothing that could be described as level. Two wells at the lower end of the house, by the basement entrance, would work – otherwise hemmed in by an old maple tree, the property line, the sewer line that had been installed in the ‘80s (as I recall) and the remains of the old septic tank, but relatively level.

Groff’s estimate for the internal workings was around $9700. Westbrook’s estimate for the two wells was $6000. That’s a lot of money – not to mention the fact the day after I agreed to go ahead with this, I was terminated at my job and now found myself unemployed.

But I kept thinking:

Geothermal installation = $9,700 + $6,000
New Oil Furnace installation = c.$8-10,000 + $6,000/two years’ worth of oil (at least)

So in two years’ time, basically, it would pay for itself. Right? And I have to install a new furnace now, anyway, right? So...? This IS going to work, right!?!

So far, I really hadn’t talked to anyone who’d actually installed the system in their homes. Most of what I read was either from environmentalists or were endorsements posted by companies that installed the technology.

Then Ryan told me his grandfather started installing geothermal systems in 1985 and put it in his farmhouse. It took a little tweeking then but it’s fine and he’s been very happy with it ever since – and he spends about $400 a year in heating and cooling costs. Let me repeat that – $400 a year! As opposed to the $600+ a month I was paying for fuel oil for half a year? Not to mention the spike in my electricity usage during the summer for the a/c...

Since they were going to be drilling near the property line, Ryan wanted to know where my neighbor’s well was. Now, I hadn’t actually met my neighbors yet, despite the fact I’d moved back in here in April of last year (okay, so I’m not very sociable and tend to be something of a loner – which partly explains how I survived 18 years working the evening shift on the radio). So I introduced myself and found out their well was closer to the property line than I had guessed (mine is in the front of the house; theirs was off to the one side). There was some concern that the drilling might agitate the underground water aquifers and muddy his well-water. Since he’d recently put in a new pump, this was more than just dealing with cloudy water that might take a day or two to settle. I was also concerned about the noise and how much the house might actually vibrate: my cats would probably freak out; how would his dog handle the noise?

We then talked about geothermal: ironically, just a week before, they had just replaced an oil furnace and air-conditioning unit. He had thought about geothermal but what he found didn’t seem practical. Like me, he assumed it wouldn’t really work. I’m sorry I hadn’t gone to talk to him about it in May when the guy from Groff’s had come up to check out my place. He might have decided to go green, too.

The well-drillers showed up Thursday morning to begin the first phase of the installation. Tomorrow, I’ll post a series of pictures about it and describe what it was like.

To Be Continued...

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