Friday, August 08, 2008

Going Green: The Geothermal Installation, Complete

This past week, there have been so many things I wanted to sit down and blog about, not that I was so busy (or so successfully busy) composing or, for that matter, doing much of anything. In addition to some progress on the new violin and piano piece which almost seems to be writing itself if it weren’t that I’m spending so much time working on it, I’m also closing in on the last quarter of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, having read the chapters on the Battle of BorĂ³dino a couple nights ago. The 196th Anniversary of that decisive battle is coming up a month from now (18 days, by the Old Calendar): I wonder if the town will be besieged by re-enactors – actually, the do have BorĂ³dino Re-enactors!.

Tonight, it’s off to Mt. Gretna for an 8:00 recital by violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Natalie Zhu which will include the dramatic 3rd Violin Sonata by Brahms and the violin-and-piano version of the Chaconne John Corigliano composed out of material he used in the film score for The Red Violin, originally for violin and orchestra. John Clare, friend and fellow WITF Castaway, is flying in from San Antonio to give the 7:00 pre-concert talk!

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A week ago, it became official: the geothermal system installation is now complete!

The guys from G. & R. Westbrook came back the week before and dug the trench connecting the wells they’d dug the previous week – you can read that post, here – to the house.

The path they’d chosen would go across the front yard to the lower end of the basement in an open space long vacated by some shrubs my folks had planted 49 years ago. Not long after we had moved in, a groundhog decided this would be a good spot for a burrow. After several summers of us filling it in and him digging it out again, the groundhog (or some descendant) finally won. There’s an equally cavernous hole off the back porch with a similar history, leading us to assume that, underneath our basement floor, there was a vast warren of groundhog dens and burrows complete with front and back entrances into which, somehow, the entire house might one day sink.

The day Westbrook came to dig the wells, we were standing out front, reconnoitering the location when someone noticed a groundhog sticking his head out of the hole wondering, no doubt, what all the noise was as they brought the well-drilling machinery up onto the lawn. Curiously, in the past year I have seen a groundhog out back only three times and one out front for the first time only the day before, so I’m assuming this hole had not exactly been in the same family for whatever passes for however many groundhog generations.

They pointed directly at the curious groundhog and said “Well, I guess we’ll be taking the trench right through that groundhog hole, if you don’t mind.” It may seem like an expensive way of getting rid of a groundhog, but hey...

So on the second Thursday, they began digging the trench out front, starting at the groundhog hole, and then drilling holes from the inside of my basement wall to the outside: if you look carefully at the photo, it may look like just two round holes in a wall, but that’s light and dirt on the outside, there. (These will, no doubt, not qualify for that exciting new TV game show, “Hole in the Wall,” where, to quote an article from the New York Times, “contestants contort themselves into awkward positions to squeeze through a wall that approaches them on a conveyor belt.” Mmmm, now doesn’t that sound riveting?)

The rest of the trench digging was fairly unadventuresome, unlike the well-drilling itself with its various stages and different visuals. This was, after all, just digging a four-foot deep trench from Point A to Point B, laying in the tubing (since they’re flexible, “pipes” doesn’t seem to be the right word) and taking them through the wall into the basement where they’ll later be connected to what will, the following week, replace the old furnace.

By late afternoon, the guys had filled in the trench and leveled off the yard (as level as my yard is, in the first place), the only visible indication something had been done becoming a large brown patch of dirt in the middle of my otherwise green but not entirely grass lawn. Of course, August will not be the best time of year to be planting grass seed, so I apologize to my neighbors who will have to look at this scar for several more weeks.

Any day now, I expect the groundhog to return and reclaim his burrow.

Incidentally, the owner’s son Wes told me about one way to get rid of a groundhog. (There is even one way? It seemed nothing ever works – even if you cage them and transport them to some new habitat miles and miles away, there will always be new groundhogs in the market for new places to build.) You take an onion and throw it in the hole.

And then...?

Well, it seems they hate onions and so they’ll just abandon the hole.

That’s it? As luck would have it, I happened to have two over-ripe onions waiting to be disposed of in my fridge – where things were going “green” long before it became ecologically fashionable – and so I tossed them, bomb-like, down the two entrances off the back porch. Since I’d only seen a groundhog there a few times earlier in the spring, who knows how successful it is or when the effect of the onion will have worn off, but anyway, I “composted” the onions and presumably used nothing as lethal or longer lasting as a chemical spray or “varmint bomb.” Or a rifle...

Now we were ready for the last phase of the installation: the removal of the old technology and the installation of the new.

This had been scheduled for the last day of July and the first day of August (continuing, if necessary, the next Monday). During this time, I was not looking forward to a day or two without air conditioning. Considering I was only going to have the furnace for a few more months, I opted not to take the annual maintenance package ($200 for the furnace and $100 for the a/c, btw, an additional saving considering several people, now, have told me once they’ve converted to geothermal, instead of spending thousands on oil and on additional electricity for a/c, they’re spending maybe $400-500 for their heating and cooling all year).

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

On Saturday morning, wouldn’t you know, as it approached 90 outside, the motor that runs the central fan for the furnace and air-conditioning conked out. It wasn’t until later that I figured it was probably just a fan-belt but probably not worth a couple hundred dollars for a weekend emergency house call. Fortunately for me (and the cats), my friend N was able to figure out it was, in fact, not just a fan belt but a pulley on the motor that had come loose. While it was too late to find the right-sized fan belt that evening, I managed to track one down Sunday morning (cost: $11.99) which N was able to replace, tighten the pulley and restore the old furnace to its usual air-conditioning capabilities. And just in time for us to leave for SummerMusic at the Glen Allen Mill to hear Mozart and Beethoven!

It occurred to me, then, that not only was the furnace going to be 49 or 50 years old this fall (I can't recall when it was actually installed: the house was ready to move into in the Fall of 1959 but the roof was on by the previous fall, so...), the central air system had been installed in August of 1980. What are the odds a 28-year-old a/c compressor would soon need to be replaced, too?

Then Thursday, the 31st, arrived and with it the guys from Groff’s. I was told they’d arrive between 7:30 and 8:00 – this is a.m., a time of day previously unknown to Dr. Dick except on sleepless nights but now, having gotten used to this retirement thing, finds it completely comfortable, after going to bed when he feels tired and waking up when he feels like it. I am occasionally at the piano, now, by 7am! It is just one of many things, if you'd told me a few months ago, I would not have believed...

But I noticed this white, unmarked panel truck parked across the street from me at 7:15. With a dog in the truck’s cab. Wondering if they’d gotten here way early and what they were going to do with the dog during this process, I walked down to see what was going on. This, it turned out, was the guy who was delivering “the unit” (as it would be called, in place of “furnace” or “heat pump”) who had not one but two dogs navigating for him. He was just waiting for the installer-guys who were, apparently, running late. Well, later than he was. He had two more deliveries to make for installations further to the east.

By 8:00, apologizing for having gotten stuck in traffic, the two installer-guys arrived and wheeled the new “unit” down over my back yard (less hilly) to the lower end where the basement opens out onto the side yard. There, it was discovered the skid it was on was too wide to get through the door. Well, a chain saw and a few slices later, the skid was now reformatted to make it with 1/4" to spare...

Of course, the first thing they had to do was dismantle the air-conditioner. Of course. Now, I had run the thing, sort of like offering it a last meal, all night long, something I never do because it’s just too expensive. The object of this extravagance was to build up as much cool air inside the house as possible: if they weren’t finished until Monday, it was going to be a long, hot weekend.

Then the furnace went. Odd, when I was taking these “before” pictures that morning, I felt sad as if I’m losing an old friend who’s done nothing worse than becoming outdated by new technology. He’d worked hard and well all those decades, keeping my folks’ house warm or cool, but there was no reason to wait until he could retire gracefully before bringing in a replacement.

As they unceremoniously escorted him from the building – oh wait, maybe I don’t want to continue this analogy... hmm...

As they took out the old unit, I snapped some photographs for the scrap-book (scrap-folder?) while they complained how heavy and cumbersome it was to remove (they apparently don’t build furnaces like they used to). Perhaps they’d originally built the house around it? Could be... And maybe they had more than two guys dragging it off their truck? It took an immense effort to roll it end-over-end, clanking and banging all the way, to get it onto the trailer behind their truck.

I was able also to get a shot of the “new” fan-belt as the motor hung gracelessly out through the opening like a disemboweled liver. Since the belt was only four days old, it occurred to me maybe I should retrieve it, then wondered what I would ever need a 44" fan-belt for again?

The rest of the day was fairly routine: into the now empty corner, they began setting up the New Unit and by early afternoon they were finished for the day, coming back Friday to, hopefully, finish the job. I was concerned but also knew there was nothing that could be done about it if they couldn’t finish up by Monday.

They returned at 7:30 the next morning and resumed work in the basement. By 10:30, they were working on replacing the thermostat which took a while longer because, it turned out, the unit was supposed to be pre-programmed at the shop before they sent it out but this turned out not to be the case. Time-consuming more than anything else, by noon, they had various cables, wires, vents and tubing all connected and ready to go. Within minutes, cool air was wafting up through the air vents.

It worked!

Now, as the one guy explained to me how it works, we set the thermostat for 74 just to get it cooled down: it may take a while, he warned, since it had gotten up to 80 (it had been 84 the weekend of the fan belt).

By 12:45, they were done and cleaned up, driving the truck away.

The air was already feeling cooler than what 80° should feel like. I went down to take pictures of the New Unit which occupied maybe 2/3s of the furnace’s space. Tubing from the former holes-in-the-wall now snaked up and across the rafters, over the old ductwork, and down into the unit itself. The water in these tubes, kept at a moderate 55° by the earth’s steady temperature, will then interact with the pump mechanism in the unit (since it’s not really a ‘furnace’ by definition) to either heat or cool the air circulated through the house. This is much more efficient than transferring it from the air, as most people imagine when they hear the term “heat pump” – if it’s freezing outside, there’s not a lot of heat in the air to transfer, meaning it either works extra hard to keep you warm or it just doesn’t work at all. Likewise if you’re in the midst of a 100° heat-wave: it’s not going to cool you off very well. Unlike dealing with solar panels and lots of cloudy days, the ground temperature is steady and the water-flow is constant for this enclosed indoor unit. It just seems like such a logical choice.

Obviously, if you’re going to spend about $16,000 on it, you may not want to replace an oil or gas furnace just to put in newer, greener technology. If you’re building a new home or, like me, having to replace an old furnace with something, this is a good time to look into the possibility.

For me, the real proof, financially, will come when I get the next electric bill which could be $75-100 higher than a standard non-a/c bill (depending on the number of heat waves) and, of course, comparing next summer’s bills to the past two years’.

But the important thing is, I am no longer dependent on “foreign oil” or on a disappearing fuel that is depleting the planet’s natural resources. I am using my own dirt to heat and cool my house!

Now if I could use that to run my car...

Speaking of which, it’s time to run down to the airport to pick up John Clare! Looking forward to his talk tonight, and to catching up with him since he moved to KPAC in San Antonio – and then to some great music making! I’ll be blogging about that, later!

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