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Ground source heat pumps are an extremely efficient form of space heating and cooling.They use little energy, have a long lifetime andthey need little maintenance. They can alsoprovide hot water. They do, however, require asignificant upfront capital investment and witha payback period of anywhere from five to 15years, they are not a viable option for everyone.Also called geo exchange systems andpopularly known as geothermal heat pumps,ground source heat pumps (GSHPs) are fairly common throughout North America andEurope. GSHP technology is not new but theiruse is relatively new to Australia, with systemsmainly installed in commercial applicationsover the last 20 years. It has only been in thelast few years that GSHPs have been morecommonly used for residential purposes.To understand geo exchange or GSHPsystems, it’s helpful first to know that GSHPsystems used to heat, cool or provide hot waterfor a home or other building are different tothe more commonly understood geothermalelectricity. Both geo exchange systems andgeothermal energy systems for electricity and direct use make use of heat energy storedunderneath the ground. However, geothermalenergy typically refers to the use of heat frommuch deeper – up to five kilometres – below the earth’s surface. To generate electricity, thisheat is brought to the surface in the form of water or steam and moved through turbinesto generate electricity. A GSHP system, onthe other hand, simply exchanges heat energy with the ground at much shallower depths of between one and 100 metres below the surface.
How tHey work
Exchanging heat energy with the ground,GSHPs move heat into, or out of, a building.They work just like a refrigerator, which usesa circulating refrigerant and a compressorto move heat from inside the fridge out intothe room, lowering the temperature insidethe fridge. All GSHPs consist of a loop field, acompressor and refrigerant. This system thenconnects to a heating, cooling and/or hot watersystem of choice.Paul Ledwith runs Melbourne heatinginstallation company Geo Climate Systemsand says GSHPs are much more efficient thanvirtually everything else on the market.The key to this efficiency lies in theGSHP’s exchange of heat energy with theground as opposed to the air exchange thattakes place in traditional heating and coolingsystems. GSHPs make use of the fact that thetemperature some metres below the earth’ssurface is fairly constant over the whole year.In Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, forexample, this temperature remains betweenabout 15 and 18 degrees Celsius throughout theyear, between 22 and 23 degrees in Brisbane,approximately 14 degrees in Hobart and 31degrees in Darwin. A GSHP is such an efficientheating and cooling option, therefore, becauseit only has to work to bridge the temperaturegap between the generally comfortable groundtemperature and the desired temperatureinside a house. This means that to heat a hometo 19 degrees Celsius on a five degree winter’snight in Sydney, for example, a GSHP takesthe constant ground temperature of about 17
A ground source heatpump uses the relativelyconstant groundtemperature to warm thesystem’s circulating liquidin winter, and cool it insummer. It’s then used forfunctions like heating andcooling the home andproviding hot water.Image courtesy
Your Home Technical Manual
degrees as its starting point and only has towork to heat the air within the house by twoto four degrees. A conventional electric heatpump (such as reverse cycle air-conditioning)in the same house, on the other hand, wouldtake the outside air temperature of five degreesCelsius as its starting point and would need towork harder, using more electricity, to heat theair within the house by 14 degrees to have thesame effect.With this reduced workload, GSHPsachieve significant energy savings, reducingelectricity bills and carbon dioxide emissions.Dr Donald Payne is Scientific and Policy Director with ground source heat pumpsupplier and installer Direct Energy andan Australian Geothermal Energy Grouprepresentative. He says that while the amountof electricity used by GSHPs varies greatly between households because of different usagehabits, electricity use savings are typically 30to 70 per cent on the amount of electricity thatwould be used by an air-source system.He explains in more detail that the energy savings achieved with a GSHP are about 50per cent compared to an electricity-drivenconventional refrigerated air conditioner;about 70 to 80 per cent compared to heatingwith LPG; about 30 per cent compared toheating with natural gas; and about 70 per centcompared to the traditional delivery of electrichot water.GSHPs, however, do require a seriousupfront capital investment. System installationcosts vary depending on the type and size of thesystem. As a rough guide, the initial cost for theloop field and heat pump of an average-sized(14 kW) direct exchange system starts at about$10,000 to $15,000 beyond the cost of a typicalreverse-cycle air-conditioning system. Becausedrilling is the major cost in a GSHP system,deeper drilling depths or greater system sizeswill increase this cost.Once a system is installed, either in anew building or retrofitted into an existingbuilding, both Dr Payne and Ledwith say little maintenance is required. They add thatthere is very little that can go wrong with aGSHP. Perhaps as a testament to this, systemsgenerally have warranties of 20 years and theground infrastructure is built to last decades.Dr Payne says the significant reductionin peak-load power delivered by a GSHP isthe key driver for their popularity overseas.It is also a key driver among policy makers inAustralia. He says a good way of characterisingGSHPs and the industry’s development is by comparing it to solar photovoltaic technology about 10 to 15 years ago. There are currently no government rebates or subsidies availablefor GSHPs. However Dr Payne says that overthe next 10 to 15 years, rising electricity and gasprices and greater awareness of the efficienciesand effectiveness of GSHPs, as well as bettereconomies of scale, should bring their costdown.
types of GsHps
GSHP systems differ mainly in the type of loop field they employ (the pipes and theirconfiguration), and the liquid circulatingthrough it.The loop field can be a vertical groundloop or a horizontal loop field placed about 1.5metres below the ground or in a body of water.Standard vertical water loop geo exchangesystems circulate water through high-density polyethylene pipes underground. Theseare the most prevalent systems around theworld as they were the first GSHPs to becommercialised. They require digging holesdown to about 100 metres.In direct exchange systems, refrigerantcirculates directly through copper pipesunderground. Typically, these systems involvedigging holes down to about 30 metres.Depending on the heat pump’s design,both the standard and direct exchange systemscan perform more than one function, suchas heating, cooling, and/or hot water. DavidManoni from Geothermal Western Australiaexplains that one of their direct exchangesystems can perform two functions at any onetime, where fan-forced heating and cooling isone function, hydronic heating is another, anddomestic hot water is another. So the systemmight provide fan-forced heating and coolingas one function and hot water as the secondfunction. Alternatively, the system couldprovide fan-forced air-conditioning as onefunction and hydronic heating as its secondfunction.Manoni adds that in cooling mode, adesuperheater device can be added at relatively small cost to supply “free” hot water. Thishot water is free, he says, because while a heatpump compressor is working to cool a buildingby extracting heat from within it, instead
Ground source heat pumpswork by exchanging heatenergy with the earth atdepths of one to 100 metres,using a loop eld which canbe installed horizontally orvertically. Images courtesyGeo Climate Systems andWaterFurnace (left) andDr Donald Payne (right)
ground source heat pumps
Harnessing the warmth of the earth, ground source heat pumps are a popular choice to heat homes in North America and Europe. A handful of home ownersin Australia have also embraced the technology.