Friday, December 26, 2008

On the 2nd Day of Christmas: A Geothermal Update

Considering this past summer I replaced the old oil furnace with a new geothermal heating and cooling system which I blogged about here, here and here, several people have been asking me how it’s going.

So far, the geothermal heating has been working just fine, thank you, aside from that scare back in November when I woke up with no heat (computer error in thermostat, not the technology).

I’ve just gone over my electric bills to compare them to last year while reminiscing over the fuel-oil bills from last winter.

Now that all of my heat is created through electricity – the water circulating through the pipes that is heated or cooled by the ground in my front yard never needing to be replenished or changed, no fuel to deliver, no additional payments to be made accordingly – I’ve compared this last bill (for November – this month’s will arrive next week or so) to the comparable one from a year ago (still with the oil-furnace) and observed a change. At first, I was thinking, OMG, look how much it’s jumped in average daily kilowatt usage, not to mention the sticker-shock of seeing a bill for $139.64! Yikes.

But wait... let’s think about this: how much of this is additional usage of electricity used to generate the heat that used to be supplied by fuel oil last winter? Let’s compare...

Now, granted, the old furnace with its 50 years of excellent service courtesy of the folks at Service Oil here in Harrisburg, was becoming increasingly inefficient. Plus there was the hope it might be able to make it through another winter. If I had replaced it with a new oil furnace and given the fact the rates are lower so far this winter than last (($3.09/gallon in November ‘07 as opposed to $3.99/gallon in March’08), I’m sure I would not be spending $457.41 in fuel oil this month (that was the lowest bill of the season, by the way: the last one was $670.49). But it would still be pretty high, especially considering much of the time I was keeping the thermostat set between 62° and 65° degrees and freezing. This winter, I’ve been keeping the house between 67° and 69° and feeling quite comfortable.

Looking back at the months since Groff’s installed the geothermal system (including the month before it was installed, just for the usual comparison and giggles), I noticed these changes, compared to last year’s electric bills:

July 2007 = 37 kilowatts/average = $111.49 (w/old central air-conditioning)
July 2008 = 44 kilowatts/average = $143.03 (w/old central a/c - a very hot month)
- - - - -
August 2007 = 42 kilowatts/average = $120.91 (w/old central a/c - not as hot as July)
August 2008 = 28 kilowatts/average = $90.84 (the Geothermal System, w/its own central a/c technology, fully operational August 1st - the bill, unfortunately, included the last three days of July which made heavy use of the old a/c system)
- - - - -
September 2007 = 31 kwh/ave = $94.04
September 2008 = 22 kwh/ave = $80.14 (very little geothermal a/c use, just a little geothermal heat on some chilly mornings)
- - - - -
October 2007 = 26 kwh/ave = $84.28
October 2007 = 31 kwh/ave = $98.76 (started using geothermal heat)
- - - - -
November ‘07 = 30 kwh/ave = $ 92.22
November ‘08 = 49 kwh/ave = $139.64 (constant geothermal heat - interestingly, the average daily temperature was the same for both years)

So in this past month, that means I spent an additional $47.42 this year, much of which would be attributed to the increased use of electricity to fire up the geothermal “furnace” or “heat-transfer pump.”

Compared to the fuel oil bill for the same month last year of $457.51, the increase in my electric bill is 10.37% of what I spent last year on one month of fuel oil alone.

Adding up the savings from August and September and adding that to the increases from October and November, that means basically I’ve paid, for four months of geothermal usage, $19.93.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

During the Presidential campaign, there was a great deal of talk from both candidates about “renewable energy sources,” stressing solar and wind power, talking more about “clean coal” (which seems oxymoronic in so many ways) than about geothermal.

So I read this in the New York Times on-line edition last night about how these Green technologies fare during the long cold winter months.

Aside from less sunlight during the cloudy cold days of winter, it seems you’ll need to get out there and shovel not just your driveway and sidewalks but also your solar panels. They appear not to work if they’re snow covered.

So what are people doing on cold cloudy days when those panels on their roofs are covered with snow? Do they have to get up on their roof to wipe off the snow or is there a defroster that warms the panels and melts the snow which would involve additional electricity or heat which the panels are supposed to be generating?

A bus stalled in the middle of the night last winter while driving down a Colorado highway – the culprit was the biodiesel fuel that congealed in the cold weather. The bus company decided not to use biodiesel fuel between November and March.

Wind turbines can freeze up and spew large chunks of ice in all directions. Technically, they slow down and stop when they ice-up. So that means they don’t operate well during particularly cold, stormy times. This means not only are they not producing energy, workers have to suit up and go out in all manner of bad weather to fix them.

Nowhere does the article mention geothermal technology.

For those of you who might be new to the concept – and one of my neighbors misunderstood it and dismissed it, instead installing a new oil-furnace for a little bit more than it cost me to install the geothermal heat-pump (not including the well-drilling cost) – basically, water circulates through pipes buried four feet below the ground. The ground there is about 55° throughout the year, regardless how hot the summer is or how cold the winter is. This water then circulates through a heat-transfer pump that converts it into heating or cooling for my 1800-square-foot house. It needs no additional fuel and runs solely on electricity. It is quieter and cleaner than my old oil furnace, even when it was in peak condition, and there is no additional soot or greasy film being produced as has happened in apartments I lived in with other forms of oil furnaces.

By the way, a “heat-transfer pump” in a geothermal system works differently than one that takes its source from the outside air: if the air outside is below freezing, it’s not a very efficient way to keep your house at a reasonably comfortable temperature. Most of the people who groused “Bah, Heat-Pumps” were talking about air-transfer heat pumps: one website describes them as “often used in moderate climates, [they] use the difference between outdoor air temperatures and indoor air temperatures to cool and heat your home.” A geothermal heat-pump is taking it from water heated or cooled in the ground where the temperature is more or less constant.

Granted, it may not be cost-efficient to just go wild and replace that recent oil furnace, though some people are doing that in order to install a gas furnace, trading one fossil fuel for another. If you find yourself needing to replace an old system with something new, then sure, consider Geothermal! If you are a brave soul and building a new house in this economy, you ought to consider as much Green Technology in the process as you can: it may cost more up-front, but in the long run, you will save more, not to mention helping the Earth.

You don’t get it from a centralized energy-producing company delivered to your house, you don’t need to be built on top of a hot spring, you don’t need a pond in your backyard. All you need is enough ground to sink a few wells into the earth for the water pipes - my front yard has a patch less than 5 feet by 10 feet for two wells (yeah, they’re 250 feet deep, but it's still your ground) plus the trench dug up to the basement wall.

As I said before, basically I am using my own dirt to heat and cool my house.

Aside from the slight increase in electricity this is generating, my house is not producing, say, all that coal ash that needed to be hauled away (I remember the furnace of the house I spent my first 10 years in with its coal-furnace - a technology that appears to be making a comeback) or putting all the stuff you get from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere.

I am not at the mercy of foreign oil-producing nations or of oil companies who jack up the price of gas, post huge profits, then give CEOs vast bonuses.

The only thing I’m at the mercy of is the electric company which, according to plans, is set to charge up to 40% more once the “rate caps” are lifted here in Pennsylvania. I doubt it will go up as high as fuel-oil expenses had been or might still, but of course there are still numerous ways the tax-paying citizens will be screwed, regardless.

(Don’t you love hearing at Christmastime how the big Wall Street banks, limping along on their share of the 700 BILLION dollar bailout given them by the government were still paying out hefty bonuses to their executives flying around in corporate jets? Yeah, that would test even Mrs. Cratchet’s Christmas spirit, don’t you think? But I digress...)

So I was reading the New York Times article just like I was doing during all those campaign ads and the debates, shouting back “GEOTHERMAL, you guys, TALK ABOUT GEOTHERMAL!” Jeez...

You can read the New York Times blog, Green Inc, to find out a little more about it, too. Only two posts labeled geothermal? Neither of them, actually, refer to the kind of system I have installed in my house! Hmmm... (By the way, here is another New York Times article about a highly efficient form of design, a “passive house” built in Germany.)

So, Merry Christmas – and whatever technology you use, I hope you are staying warm and healthy and happy.

- Dr. Dick

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