Waifs down a mossy path: Dries Van Noten’s clothes for next spring.

Mrs. Shayne’s Adventures in Geothermal, Part 1

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Dear Kay,
Our upstairs heater went out a few weeks ago. I called the guy. He came, handed me a piece of paper with an estimate scrawled on it, and said, “We can do it on Thursday if you want us to.”
Someday soon, I may look back on that day with regret and nostalgia, because at this point, we seem to have departed on a journey in HVAC that feels like Captain Cook heading off for the Hawaiian Islands.
We, and by “we” I mean me, with Hubbo chiming in occasionally with phrases like “maximum ultimate cost analysis” and “good luck with that,” have decided to switch out all our natural gas/electric heating/AC systems for a geothermal system.
If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, feel free to ditch out right now and go browse our archives for knitting stuff. (Here’s some choice 2008 action for you.) But if you hear the word geothermal and think hmmm I semi-know what that is, sort of, then come sit here by me. You can be an armchair participant in our little adventure.
What Is Geothermal, Anyway?
The basic idea with geothermal is that you use the earth’s steady temperature to help heat and cool your house more efficiently. Consumer Reports gives a pretty good summary here. Basically, if you start with air that is 60 degrees instead of 90 or 20 as you do with traditional systems that work with the air outside, it takes less energy to get it to the 70 degrees that you want it to be. The geothermal system uses a lot of fairies and leprechauns to make that 60-degree air show up from the underground, or as we like to call it, heaven.
The up-front costs are high, but the monthly energy bills are said to be lower, enough so that over the millennia, the system will pay for itself. When that break-even happens is probably the least knowable part of this. All I know is that this system will reduce our carbon emissions by some significant amount, we will save 798 trees in 20 years, and our yard is going to be a big damn mess next week.
At this point, I’ve spent weeks reading about geothermal, talking to people who’ve had it installed for a while, some who just had it installed, and some who tell me about the 50-foot fireball that came off the drilling rig when a hydraulic hose popped off. I’ve also heard about my geothermal guy’s pet moray eel, a quarry fire, and a lot of other harrowing stuff. But I’ve concluded that it’s worth giving it a go. We need to replace our systems anyway, and I do not have enough going on in my daily life, obviously.
The Math
Geothermal makes economic sense only if you’re in need of new system, if you’re planning to stay in your house a while, and if your house is configured well for a retrofit. The math does not work if you’re just willynilly ripping out your old stuff because you like the idea of geothermal. We’ll eventually break even on the geothermal part of our new system–7 to 10 years, we think, sooner if we’re lucky–but not on the entire system. Which is OK, because as I say, we have to replace them anyway. Also: the federal tax credit of 30% is a huge factor in all this. We would not be doing this without that big incentive from the U.S. government. Our tax dollars at work! In our own home!
The Exciting Part Begins
So. Yesterday the drilling guy came out and spray painted five white circles on the ground right outside my office window. This is where they’ll be drilling 150-foot-deep holes, into which they’ll run pipes that will make a closed loop filled with Kool Aid or Gatorade or vodka that will carry Earth’s temperate temperature into some gizmo heat pumps that will deliver beautiful heat and cooling to our house. That is the fantasy that I will cling to.
I’m told that this will all be done by Thanksgiving. If it’s not, I’m totally going to tell you who we’re working with and rag on them without pity until it’s finished. If it goes well, we will rename the blog for this company, and I’ll invite you all over to stand around one of my air vents and watch all that beautiful, efficient air spewing out all over the place.
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So stay tuned. I have a blanket that I’m working on to cool my nerves. If this thing doesn’t work, I’m going to need a lot of blankets.
Love,
Ann
PS All you geothermal veterans, please feel free to share your experiences. (Moth Heaven, I’m looking at you.)

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60 Comments

60 Comments

  1. This is so awesome! Good for you for being in the vanguard. My parents were the first people they’d ever heard of to install solar-powered water heating on their house (they built the house with a wonky roof that would capture the most sunlight) way back in the early 80s, and they never regretted it for a second. If you have a moment during what I am sure will be many conversations with your geothermal guys, I wonder what their thoughts are on the economics of doing this when building a new house?

  2. Bronwen, new house construction is absolutely the best way to do this. It can be installed most efficiently when the yard’s all plowed up anyway, and it takes advantage of the fact that SOME kind of system has to be installed.

  3. My parents had geothermal (new construction) and loved it. It took my father YEARS to stop regretting his decision not to go with it again when they moved to their current home (also new construction).

  4. Much of Alaska is converting to geothermal since it’s a lot less in cost compared to heating oil and a bunch of other mumble jumble that I wont get into here. Good luck, I know you wont regret it!

  5. We put it in our house when we built 10 years ago. Our need is more on the air conditioning side. We also use it for our hot water heater. It has worked well for us.

  6. We installed geothermal when we built a new home in Kentucky in 1992. LOVED IT. We no longer live there(Kentucky), but would do geo again with a new build in a heartbeat. Super fantastic savings and we never had the first problem/issue. Hurrah for you, Ann!!

  7. Our next-door neighbors will be having a geothermal system installed in the next few weeks. I thought it sounded interesting until I read your *50-foot fireball* mention!

  8. Good Luck! I think it will be a wonderful thing once it is all said and done. I would love to have it at my home, but my husband thinks it takes too long to break even. Would you consider taking pictures of the process? and posting them? I would love to see them (I suspect others would too)! You could even strategically position some hand knits in the vicinity too if you want to keep in tune with the blog.

  9. Wow! When you said “geothermal” I thought you meant using hot water springs to heat your house and water, as they do in Iceland – which surprised me, because I hadn’t heard that Tennessee was a hotbed of volcanic activity, ha-ha.
    But the system you’ve described here is totally new to me. Plenty of solar-power generated here in Calif (including my own roof), but this ingenious approach to heating/cooling hadn’t come to my attention. Keep us posted!
    ps: so was the fireball a result of hitting a gas main?

  10. Good luck! And good for you. My BIL is having the same thing done to his house.

  11. Please post pics on this. I LUV energy efficiency blog posts!

  12. Jan, Gretchen: the fireball was from a hydraulic hose coming loose and spraying all over the drill rig, which apparently runs at about 2000 degrees, so it likely just gummed up the works. Incredibly, nobody was hurt. I told the drilling guy he had to use a brand-new rig with the fanciest hoses he could find. He of course said yes.
    Re hitting a gas main, all the utilities come out before drilling begins and mark their lines. So if they hit a gas main, somebody has seriously not done his job. I am personally hoping for light, sweet crude oil. Or at least water.

  13. We installed a full geothermal heating and cooling system with 5 trenches and loop fields about 6 months ago. Last winter we were paying $900 a month for propane to heat our house and now our electric bill has just barely risen. We’re very happy but here’s a couple things I learned.
    1. Make sure the solution they use is safe for the environment in case you ever get a leak in your loop fields. I think ours is sucrose or some kind of sugar water.
    2. Start planning now for a back up generator. If you lose power you lose heat which is a problem since I live in the northeast.
    3. Be picky about the new sounds that you hear. Our air conditioning is pretty quiet but the heat sounds like some kind of horn blaring. We’ve had our geothermal guys out twice to fix it at no charge.

  14. I’m praying for you, sweetie. Either way, think of the blog fodder. ;^)

  15. We retrofit our house with a horizontal loop system about 16 months ago. Works like a charm, but it absolutely wrecked our yard. So my advice is: make sure they backfill any digs with the appropriate material — especially near the house, where water drainage issues could be damaging — and make sure they compact the backfill so you don’t constantly have to refill with dirt.

  16. It all sounds very interesting, indeed. And it is surely blog fodder — my plain old gas furnace died mid-February this year and I blathered on about that for days.
    That blanket looks colourful and not really tweedy – we do need more pics of that!

  17. We had geothermal put in to replace the electric baseboard heat when we added on and remodeled this vintage 1976 house in 2001. Unlike you, we had a second well drilled (only 50 ft from the lake but it ended up to be 285 $ft$ deep) and used the water from that; we discharge it into the lake. Tragically, we used a contractor who turned out to be not the best. The hydron module (the heart of the system; you will get to know
    these things) has failed twice, the initial discharge hose was not buried properly and froze up the first winter, thereby rendering the entire geothermal part of the system useless until spring (we heated this 3500 sq ft house with the equivalent of a giant electric space heater for 3 month$). We are now in the process of choosing a different contractor to replace the hydron.
    A good system, just chose the right contractor.

  18. We purchased a house with a geothermal unit in it, as all the houses in our housing community have one (is my Oregon showing? Lol) we love it, as long as it is working. See, in the grand scheme apparently the builders bought the cheapest units available and the company doesn’t exist anymore. You can see how this became a problem six months into home ownership. However, that aside, it costs less to heat or cool my entire house than it did my apartment, which was incredibly smaller. Go geothermal!

  19. It’s interesting at a distance, I get to see the process without the noise and the mess. From close up I imagine it has its downsides. We had solar pv installed at the end of last summer, it made us very aware of what appliances eat power and fanatical about turning things off. Of course it made no difference to my son who still walks through the house turning on all the lights and then wanders off and leaves them all on.

  20. Yay you! Putting tax dollars to work for all of our good (saving 798 trees, keeping burnt fossil fuels out of the air we breath, etc). We added solar and looked briefly into geothermal when we were replacing the furnace, but it didn’t make sense for our location. But if I ever have new construction I’m going for it for sure.
    Also, I don’t have a hydraulic hose fireball story, but I did witness a dumpster fire behind our local AC Moore today — which almost qualifies as knitting content?

  21. Poor Ann. It’s fortunate that November is being fairly temperate in Tennessee this year. No frost yet in Memphis!! May it stay warm till the geothermal is operating.

  22. Oh, boy! Serious fodder for the blog, and for me, rates right up there with Olive updates. (I was thinking the white circle was a mysterious alien dust circle… who knew how technical!) Please do let us know how the geothermal journey goes.

  23. The geothermal in the house is now about 20 years old. The house is about 3600 sq ft of climatized area. So far this year the weather has been such we’ve either had the heat on or the air on, then the heat back on. Keep in mine we’re all electric, hot water heater, cooking stove and HVAC. My bill hasn’t hit $200.00, yet.
    So yes, you’ll have to deal with the drill rig in the yard for a bit and there’s bound to be mess in the house from the change out, but will it be worth it? I think so.
    The next thing we’re considering? A solar/wind system. We’ve cut down our usage, now to get completely off the grid!

  24. Ann we have heat. We have extra space. We even have yarn and crafty things to keep you busy. If it all comes apart, come on North to H’ville and visit a while. We’ll make you a cup of hot tea and help you forget you are digging 150 foot holes through a layer of limestone. We also have blankets and quilts coming out our ears if you need them. Good luck.

  25. I haven’t seen residential geothermal, and look forward very much to your reports! I admit the Thanksgiving deadlline threw me for a second, but that’s only because it took me longer than that to get a light in the goatshed.
    Go, Shayne-folk, go! :)

  26. Ann,
    My neighbor did it! You may know Joe and Catherine…

  27. Will have to look at this as we have looked at solar, which is totally never going to pay itself back due to the neighbor’s trees blocking the best parts of the roof. We do have an artesian well, don’t know if that helps or not.

  28. This is so cool! (literally but also, truly). Looking forward to updates. All I can tell you is we once stayed for a week in a geothermal house Colorado and it was amazing. Also, so much quieter than any heating/cooling rig we’d ever encountered.

  29. Good luck, Ann! (you’re a brave woman! :-))

  30. you may need to call hgtv and have holmes
    on homes come out to do an inspection
    the blanket is lovely

  31. We have it & have had a new unit put in to replace the first one. It will take much longer to do than they tell you – but we really like it! We live in Indiana & our house is toasty in the winter & cool in the summer. Since we have upgraded it is even better. The first one we had lasted for about 16 -17 years & was too small for the house – the new one is better! Good luck with everything!

  32. WOW!!! I’m impressed. You should be able to blog on this for years to come. Just in case it takes longer than they said, I’ve got a couple of extra bedrooms here in Texas and they are warm (or cool as needed).

  33. I’m fascinated! Geothermal. So Icelandic! You’ll have to knit a Lopi in its honor!
    We contemplate going solar, but our energy use is low enough that it’d take a long time to earn it back. However I do now drive an electric car and long to be as cool as our other two friends who drive Leafs AND are solar.

  34. We have an open geothermal system. Was a retrofit to the house, but done before we bought it. It’s great in the Ohio winters, but we really love it for the AC. Our bills are pretty level. In extremely cold weather, (below zero for extended time) the electric supplemental heat kicks on and the meter starts its crazy spin. That’s when we pump up the propane logs in the fireplace. Much cheaper and better ambiance. ;-)

  35. You are admirably fearless. I am imagining Merle Hazard: he’ll be singing your praises while wailing about the mud.
    Not that Mr. Hazard wails. Didn’t mean to imply…

  36. We finished renovating our house last year and have a geothermal system too. We love it! Ironically, the cost of delivery the utility company charges is twice what we actually use (both electricity and natural gas). And there is no way to reduce that cost since it is Con Ed’s profit center. Grrrrrr!

  37. We have it at our house in the Catskills. Not only is it much more reasonable monthly than oil, etc. what I really love about it is that it never feels like heat or A/C in that gross way. It just always feels like the whole house is always magically the right temperature.

  38. My grandparents in Michigan had geothermal put in their house (built about 1980) a while back and they seem quite pleased with it overall. My dad and step-mom had it put in their house (built about 1870) a couple of years back. When they drilled it was discovered that their house sits over an underground river and they were able to install the simplest kind of system with minimal yard-tearing-up. Maybe you’ll get a pleasant surprise too!

  39. A good decision, in my book. I had it in my old house and miss it badly in the current abode. I had an awful case of sticker shock with the new utility bills! You’ll love it, especially the free hot water in the summer.

  40. Good for you Ann, please keep us all updated about how it goes.
    We had solar pv put on our roof in the UK earlier in the year. A great decision partly because of the current tax breaks for it here.

  41. Where I live in Canada, my province is a world leader in geothermal technologies and it’s very very common here. So much so that one of Winnipeg’s largest tourist attractions has gone to geothermal to heat and cool the entire site (several city blocks) and will soon loop to include the new Human Rights Museum and a nearby hotel. Yay you for choosing low-carbon!

  42. Please . . . more photos of the knitting!!!

  43. We looked into geothermal for our smallish 1920s house. But there was one thing that made it way too expensive and a PITA: we have no ductwork in the house. Taking out the radiators and finding non-existant closet space for ductwork doubled the price.
    In the end, we covered the back roof with solar panels. We have newish window a/c’s, and this summer our most expensive electric bill was $12 (includes the $8 connection fee to the power co.)! We are paying off the solar loan with the money we would have spent on electricity, carbon offset shares, and that handy tax credit. Trying to think of it like a car and paying it off in 3 years.
    This week I wish we had gone for the geothermal system. We found 2 squirrel nests under the panels and they have chewed the wires to one so it isn’t producing. We have to figure out how to squirrel-proof, and it looks like it won’t be cheap. Grrr!

  44. Back when I was in college, we studied heat pumps (now called geothermal apparently) in Thermodynamics. And it turns out that the fancy downtown Chicago high-rise apartment building I’m currently staying in is all geothermal. Guess that explains the super-hot water. I’m hoping the system can overcome the heat loss through the floor to ceiling windows.

  45. we went Solar last week. Yes, we live in the North of England but we are generating electricity already. The scaffolding is still blocking the way to my chicken coop though.

  46. The gas heater checkers visited our house recently and told us we needed a new upstairs unit. We get our new one tomorrow. We jokingly said that we should get geothermal but we aren’t planning to stay in this house for the long term. So, I can’t wait to live vicariously through your experience. Thanks!

  47. I’m so jealous! We’d LOVE to have geothermal heat, but we usually only stay in our house for 3 – 5 years, then we move on. (Hubby is a builder & loves his job. LOL) Can’t wait to read about your experience.
    Gorgeous blanket, btw.

  48. I’m looking forward to hearing more about how it works out for you. We (in MInnesota) had a new furnace and AC put in a few years back and were toying with the idea of geothermal at the time. We didn’t know if we could afford it, because of my husband being in and out of contract engineering jobs, but I’ve felt guilty ever since that we didn’t look into it any farther. However, my husband has an acquaintance who had it installed recently and said his electric bill increased astronomically…??? It sounds so good to me but I really would love to see what more people think about it. Kudos for giving it a shot.

  49. Do a geothermal survey so you know what’s down there before you drill. Make sure your driller has a good plan for the slurry, water and clay or whatever soil type is way, way down there and is going to com up. You do not want that stuff on your lawn; nothing will grow in it.
    You will especially love this during the summer. Some places require a back-up heating system which you probably have.

  50. My brother in law installs it in Saskatchewan. Its great in our cold cold climate.
    They put it in their house and my sister loves it. A lot.

  51. I’m pretty sure our old old house isn’t a good fit for geothermal, but after adding insulation our first winter here I think our next step will be solar power. Even if it doesn’t supply all of our energy needs, I will be pleased to lower our reliance on the energy grid.

  52. Our geothermal system drilling starts next week. We didn’t get painted round circles, we got orange flags. It worked for us because we are winterizing a summer cottage into a year round home and need to add all the duct work and everything. It will net out at exactly the same price as a good conventional system after the rebates and incentives. I’m very excited! Bring on the drilling.

  53. Done by Thanksgiving!
    Bwahahahahahahaha!

  54. My parents have had two houses here in SC with heat pumps. . . great savings in the summer; winter is not as much of a problem. But we were always appropriately warm or cool and Dad was very happy with the bills.
    Best — love the blankie.

  55. Oh so good luck with that! Crossing my fingers that you got the right contractor.
    But the blanket, the blanket, how can you show it without talking about it??

  56. My parents have a 1920s house in San Francisco with an old gravity furnace. We all love it (even if it’s very un-green) because it provides soft and silent heat. It sounds like geothermal has these benefits too. Gentle heating like that of a gravity furnace is just so much better than the noisy hot air that blasts out from forced air systems. i hope the installation goes smoothly because it sounds like it will be wonderful (for you and the planet) if it works as predicted.

  57. Congratulations! The geo is great in so many ways!
    I installed geothermal 5 years ago in Wilton, CT. We were putting an addition on our 1775 house and I wanted it to be as green as possible (we were using oil). I actually had to fight with my architect who felt it wouldn’t work here. (He now uses it in Vermont)
    We have slinky fields instead of wells and NO exterior compressors for the AC – one reason it is often used for historic buildings. We already had a high velocity AC system with two air handlers – attic and basement in the old part of the house so that was easy to retrofit for AC. Because the coil sin the air handlers were too small we couldn’t’ reuse the cooler heating fluid from the geo units to heat the front (old section) of the house and installed a small propane boiler to provide hot water to those coils and which also boosts domestic hot water production in the shoulder season when the geo isn’t working.
    In the addition we installed radiant floors which OMG are heaven. That is much more efficient than hot air. My DH makes me turn the heat on just so he can walk on the floors!
    Good luck! And email me if you have any questions!

  58. We had Geothermal installed two years ago. I figured on a 12 year pay back but have since readjusted my figures based on our real costs and now expect the system to pay for itself in 7 years! We are more comfortable than ever and it’s such a clean heat, you will love it!

  59. We had geothermal installed 10 years ago and have never regretted it. Had oil heat before and the savings was instantly over 50%. Be sure and sign up for the every 6 months inspection. They can catch anything going sour before it becomes an issue. The warmth is nice but that air conditioning is fabulous. Good luck and enjoy.
    Terri

  60. I applaud what you are doing but I must make one important correction. This in no way using our tax dollars. This is allowing you to pay less taxes and use more of your own money on a project the government wants to encourage. Words matter.