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Geothermal HVAC is coming of age

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Geothermal HVAC is coming of age

By Jay Egg

Among all of the renewable energy technologies, geothermal HVAC seems to get the least respect. Why is that? As I flew into New York’s LaGuardia Airport recently, I could see acres of photovoltaic cells spanning the rooftops of various buildings. Their presence seem to cry out, “Look at me, I’m doing good.”

And indeed, they were generating electricity from the sun, at least while it was shining.

Traveling by car from San Diego to Bakersfield, I lost count of the number of windmills within the first few miles of entering the “wind generator corridor” along Highway 58. Suffice it to say, there were thousands of them. It must’ve been a slow day, because only about 20 percent were lazily spinning as I drove through Tehachapi.

In both of these instances, I wondered how many geothermal HVAC systems were installed providing heating and cooling to the buildings I was driving past. There is really no way to tell how many geothermal systems are installed in an area. Not without a little research anyway. If you’re not present during the drilling process, there is nothing to see. Geothermal HVAC systems are out of sight and out of mind.

So, it seems that if you are part of the green movement, you want to install a renewable energy technology that displays your “green-ness.” Imagine three building owners sharing their thoughts on doing their part for the environment. While the photovoltaic and wind mill clients have shining beacons to their credit, the building owner with the geothermal HVAC system has nothing to show except for superior comfort, low energy bills, and a system that will last two to three times longer than standard HVAC systems, because all of the equipment is placed indoors.

The headline of a New York Times article published after Superstorm Sandy read, “Geothermal Systems Arise as a Storm Proof Resource.” Why are they storm proof? It’s because the equipment was not exposed to the treacherous fury of Mother Nature. While cooling towers and air-cooled condensers were blown away, the geothermal systems continued to operate.

So what’s the downside to a geothermal HVAC installation? Well, let’s see. Geothermal HVAC systems are:

1. Not affected by cloudiness or darkness
2. Not affected by wind speed
3. Operate 24 hours a day seven days a week, regardless of weather and temperature conditions
4. Last longer, often two to three times the lifespan of a standard HVAC system because of their sheltered, indoor environment

Okay, you got me. All of those preceding items are pluses for geothermal HVAC technologies, especially when compared with solar and wind technologies. So really, where’s the downside? Why doesn’t everybody have a geothermal HVAC system? After all, they have been formally offered for at least 30 years as a high-efficiency renewable technology.

Let me answer the question above with a quote from my first book, “Geothermal HVAC, Green Heating and Cooling,” published by McGraw-Hill Professional in 2010:

Ted Chittem of Air Perfect, Inc., Milford, Conn., told us, “It is not hyperbole for me to say that at least 85 percent of systems being installed are being installed poorly, and don't even meet the minimum specs of the manufacturer… All the nice data that people read on brochures can be meaningless, because that might only hold true in a lab. In the real world, you have guys whose idea of charging system is putting their hands on the pipe, and when it feels like a Budweiser they’re done.”

I don’t know the accuracy of Ted’s figures, but I can tell you that as a geothermal consultant, much of my work involves remediating geothermal HVAC systems that have failed perform to specifications for which they were designed. I can tell you that these issues are not normally a result of negligence on part of the engineer or contractor. Much of the shortcomings experienced are results of flawed or incomplete data from which engineers and contractors work.

I became involved with geothermal heat pumps as a contractor in 1989. The following year, I attended a workshop at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, put on by the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA). Part of the training program, which is designed to certify geothermal designer/installers, included covering some of the barriers affecting widespread implementation of geothermal HVAC technologies. These barriers included:

1. High first cost, both for the loop field and equipment
2. Public distrust of geothermal HVAC systems
3. Lack of trained geothermal personnel 
4. Poor installations resulting in further distrust

Now that it’s 2013, one might think that 23 years would have facilitated solutions to each of these problems. However, a recent DOE report, “Research and development Road Map: Geothermal (Ground Sourced) Heat Pumps,” lists the challenges to greater use of geothermal systems as if it were citing challenges from 25 years ago. The same points continue to afflict the geothermal HVAC industry, and beg the question, why have these not been fixed?

We are indeed fortunate that geothermal HVAC is becoming more and more recognized as a renewable energy technology, along with solar and wind power. As noted, there is still a way to go, but the fact remains that geothermal has greater potential for reduction of energy consumption than solar or wind power. Geothermal, solar and wind systems have similar tax incentives. However, geothermal has not earned a good reputation by many accounts. Not yet, anyway.

The reasons for these challenges would fill volumes. I know; I have been party to writing two volumes on the subject. So where is geothermal HVAC headed, if for 25 years we have faced the same set of challenges hampering our progress? I am pleased to say that we are entering into a new day when it comes to geothermal systems. In coming issues, I’ll provide insights on a range of geothermal HVAC topics and help you see the advantages of getting into the geothermal business and what you need to know to grow with it. Because it is growing. And, I am a firm believer that we will see the geothermal HVAC industry move beyond past challenges to become the gold standard of heating and cooling.