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Geothermal Heat Pumps

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Fall is a good time of year to reevaluate your home heating system and determine if any repairs, replacements or new system installations are necessary. Keeping your family warm and well-protected during the winter months will greatly benefit you in terms of providing comfort, warding off illness, and maintaining your home throughout the colder weather. There are several home heating systems available today, but one that keeps growing in popularity is geothermal heat pumps. In fact, approximately 50,000 heat pumps are reportedly installed in the U.S. each year. But what should you know about geothermal heating and cooling systems to determine if they're right for your home? What types of geothermal pump systems are available? And how do you go about installing a geothermal heat pump?

What are Geothermal Heat Pumps?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "geothermal heat pumps have been in use since the late 1940s," but they've really taken off in recent years as a push towards green living and sustainable building practices have been introduced on a nationwide, even global, scale. In the simplest terms, geothermal heat pumps utilize the earth's ability to maintain a constant temperature, and make use of this capability to regulate heating and cooling within a home.

Because the ground is compact and well-protected, the air inside isn't as subject to change along with seasonal temperatures. Geothermal heat pumps use the earth's natural, constant temperatures to provide both heating and cooling services to homeowners.

Typically, the geothermal pump has a system of pipes that loops from the home's indoor unit to underneath a section of ground. The pipes can contain either water or antifreeze, which helps absorb and transfer the ground temperature to inside the house. In winter, warmer underground air heats the water in the pipes. Once this heated water is transferred inside the home through the pipes, an evaporator coil converts it to heated air. In summer, the geothermal pump system reverses this effect and, like a refrigerator, warm air is pushed out of the house while cooler underground air is transferred into the home.

Benefits of Geothermal Heating & Cooling Systems

There are many benefits to using geothermal heating and cooling systems in your home. Some of the main benefits include:

  • Reduced energy costs
  • More efficient heating and cooling
  • Reduced overall energy consumption
  • Quieter, less obtrusive system operation

Obviously, lowering our energy bills without sacrificing heating or cooling services is one of the greatest benefits to installing a geothermal heat pump. Some homeowners might get hung up on the initial installation and building costs—which, yes, can carry a higher price tag than with a standard forced air system—but the long-term savings and cost effectiveness should far outweigh the initial expense. The Department of Energy estimates that the initial costs of purchasing and installing a geothermal heat pump will be "returned to you in energy savings in 5-10 years". To put that time frame in perspective, the life of a geothermal heat pump system is estimated to be 25 years for the indoor component of the pump system, and 50+ years for the underground piping parts.

Geothermal heat pumps can also equal free hot water for homeowners, with the installation of an additional device called a "desuperheater". The desuperheater takes the excess heat generated from the pump compressor and transfers it to the hot water tank. In the summer, this device will provide completely free hot water; in the winter, a desuper-heater can cut water heating costs in half.

Another benefit to using geothermal heat pumps is the resulting reduction in total energy consumption. The Department of Energy states that using a geothermal heat pump for your home's heating and cooling needs can mean using 25%-50% less electricity than a standard heating system, as well as reducing emissions and consumption up to 44% compared to air heating pumps, and up to 72% compared to electric air-conditioning and heating systems. In other words, you will be cutting your bills while simultaneously reducing your carbon footprint and lessening your family's energy emissions—what's not to like about saving money and helping the environment at the same time?

The aesthetics of geothermal heat pumps also greatly overshadow older heating and cooling systems, which can be quite obtrusive, clunky, and can cause noise pollution. But with geothermal heat pumps, there are no loud outside units, and the indoor system parts (particularly for two-speed geothermal pumps) are reportedly so quiet that their operation is almost imperceptible—but it outputs heat just as well, if not better than an older system does.

Types of Geothermal Heating Pumps

The four main types of geothermal pumps are horizontal, vertical, pond/lake and open-loop systems. The first three types can be further categorized as closed-loop systems. The difference between these two is that closed-loop systems use closed piping that runs underground and uses a separate water or antifreeze source to transfer the hot or cool temperatures. An open-loop system has piping that loops underground but utilizes a groundwater system or surface body of water during the heat transfer. Let's compare these types a little more in depth.

Closed-Loop Systems

One of the most common forms of closed-loop geothermal pump systems is horizontal. Horizontal closed-loop systems are convenient for homes that have a good amount of land or yard space. The pipes are built into trenches that are at least four feet deep. The two separate pipes can be laid at six feet and the other at four feet; or both pipes can be laid side by side at about five feet below-ground. Another possible piping arrangement, known as The Slinky™ method, loops the pipe around several times if smaller trench space is required.

Vertical closed-loop geothermal systems are ideal for larger office buildings, schools and other commercial spaces where there isn't a lot of ground space. This method can also be effective for spaces where there isn't much soil present, or where the trenches need to cover less area to prevent interference with landscaping, or other pipelines or cables. Holes are drilled deep down into the ground for vertical systems (about 20 feet apart) and around 100-400 feet deep. They are then looped and connected at the bottom of the trench.

Pond/lake closed-loop systems are only possible if installed on an area of land with an existing body of water that meets the requirements for depth, volume and water quality. The pipe is looped in circles at a depth of eight feet or greater—in shallow water, the pipes and water can freeze in the winter. Pond/lake geothermal pump systems are generally considered a low-cost installation option because the digging and drilling work is more minimal.

Open-Loop Systems

Open-loop geothermal systems generally share the same installation and construction methods. The biggest difference separating open-loop systems from closed-loop systems is that open-loops are "open" to utilize water from a surface body of water or a well system, as opposed to being "closed" and drawing from another source. Open-loop geothermal pump systems can only be implemented where there is a large supply of water that is clean enough and large enough to be used for these pump purposes. Homeowners interested in installing open-loop geothermal pump systems will also have to confirm that the pump installation and related water usage will be in accordance with local laws and groundwater regulations.

Installing Geothermal Heat Pumps

The installation process for geothermal heat pumps is very specific and slightly complex. In other words, DIY geothermal pump installation is not recommended. Firstly, the process is so initially expensive that to chance any amateur mistakes or installation errors would be unwise. Without a doubt, the best way to ensure a successful geothermal pump installation, be it for a closed-loop or open-loop system, is to hire a licensed geothermal contractor to complete the project. DIY home remodeling can lead to problems even with much simpler projects; in the case of geothermal pump installation, DIY should really be out of the question

Only trained specialists know the proper requirements for setting up pump systems in accordance with EPA and Department of Energy guidelines. A geothermal heating contractor will not only perform the installation with ease and efficiency, they will be able to help you select the right materials, the best location for your pump system, and even customize your geothermal heat pump to you and your family's needs and specifications. Geothermal experts will also help educate homeowners on the correct way to operate their geothermal heat pump, and give them instructions and cost-saving tips to get the most out of their newer, "greener" home heating system!

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