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H e a te rs

Geothermal Heating and Cooling Systems






Geothermal systems are suitable anywhere Page 2

Steps to take if you decide to start using this building technology Page 2

What it takes to incorporate geothermal systems Page 2

Real-world demonstrations from Ohio and Oregon Page 3

Average costs of geothermal systems... Page 3


ground loop, system configuration, and other design considerations.

Benefits (+)/Drawbacks ()

+ Efficiency: Geothermal systems use the constant temperature of the ground which produces higher efficiency than air-source heat pumps. + Quiet operation: There is no outdoor unit. + CoMfort: Geothermal systems can have higher air delivery temperature compared to air-source heat pumps. They work well with radiant heating delivery, which is an efficient and comfortable method of distribution. + Indoor air quality: The electric device does not rely on fuel combustion within the home to provide heating. EXpense: Geothermal systems cost substantially more than conventional heating and cooling systems. Contractor Availability: Although the number is growing, some locations have a limited number of experienced geothermal contractors.

OPerational Cost

According to experience compiled by the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, operational cost for a geothermal system is about 25 to 50% less than conventional systems, depending on local fuel cost and the type of conventional system to which it is compared.

Geothermal systems work like conventional heat pumps in that they concentrate a low temperature energy source into a higher temperature and they can operate in reverse to provide cooling and heating. However, geothermal systems rely on the constant temperature of the earth as an energy source, rather than the outside air, and are therefore more efficient and produce higher temperature heating air than air-source heat pumps, especially across a wide range of exterior temperatures. Geothermal systems consist of three componentsthe ground loop, the heat pump, and a distribution system. A flow center connects the ground loop with the heat pump, which is connected to the distribution ducting and/or hydronic system. A desuperheater can be added to most geothermal systems to heat water from waste heat in cooling mode. Dedicated water heating systems, in which the geothermal system will operate for water heating independent of heating and cooling demands, are also available. There are two types of ground loops used in geothermal systemsopen and closed. Open-loop systems draw well water for use as the heat source or heat sink, and after use, return the well water to a drainage field or another well. In a closed system, the ground loop consists of polyethylene tubing filled with a non-toxic antifreeze solution. Loops can be configured in trenches horizontally or in vertical wells. About 200 to 1,000 feet of pipe is needed for each ton of capacity, depending on soil type and type of loop. A pump moves the fluid through the ground loop and through a heat exchanger where it provides energy for the heat pump.
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Code AccePtance

Making the Switch

You will need an HVAC contractor who is experienced with geothermal system design, installation, and servicing. Depending on the type of water loop used, a well driller may be needed to dig one or more wells. In some cases, trenches are dug instead of wells for the ground loop. Inspectors may need to be on site during the well drilling operation, so coordination between trades and inspectors schedules may be needed.

Builders and developers should consult local code officials early in their planning process. Although indoor equipment is similar to conventional air conditioning equipment and should not present any new issues with code inspectors, the ground loop may be subject to local codes that builders are not familiar with. Some jurisdictions regulate drilling for vertical ground loops (open or closed); open loop systems typically must comply with applicable water well regulations.

Results from the Field

Geothermal systems can cost about $5,000 more than similarly specified conventional systems. Energy savings were between 31% and 72% over conventional systems, with payback period from 4 to 12 years.


Initial Cost

Geothermal systems, on average, cost up to three times as much as conventional heating and cooling systems depending on the type of

Warranties on equipment vary with manufacturer and are about 1 to 10 years depending on the part. Warranties on the ground loop typically run 50 years.


Geothermal Heating and T a n k les s W a te r H e a te rs Cooling Systems

FOOD FOR THOUGHT This section provides some things to think about before switching to this building technology make sure its the right choice for you.
Due to the high initial cost of geothermal systems, it is important to improve the building shells efficiency by air sealing, using high levels of insulation, and using climate-appropriate windows. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal systems are suitable for use anywhere in the United States, however, local geology must be considered. Some areas may be unsuitable for drilling. Special grout and backfill material may be needed to improve thermal conductivity with the ground in extremely dry areas where heat exchange with the soil is difficult. Work with a certified installation contractor and designer. Geothermal systems are suitable for new homes or existing homes. If installing in a retrofit situation, however, it is important to evaluate the existing distribution system and make improvements (e.g., sealing ducts) to get the best performance from the system. Its also a good idea to consider making improvements to the building shell before investing in geothermal system capacity.

MAKING THE SWITCH What is required to transition from your current building practices to using this technology?
Find an HVAC contractor that is trained and certified in geothermal system design and installation Improve the efficiency of your building shell to minimize system capacity needs and, hence, first cost. Provide detailed plans to the contractor for load calculations and system specification. The contractor will want to know any plans for radiant heating, water heating, zoning, or other custom features. Talk with the contractor about any local well drilling or code issues. Determine where the equipment will be locatedthe drilling company will need to make a connection indoors when the well is drilled.

THE BASICS continued

TECH CHECK Below is a checklist of steps to follow in order to implement this technology in each of your projects.

Find a local contractor. The International Ground Source Heat

Pump Association includes a directory of certified designers and installers: with your local area to determine any local code requirements or other local issues.

Discuss your particular situation with contractors who are familiar Discuss the contractors method of sizing equipment and

There is no outdoor unit with a geothermal system. Rather, the heat pump is coupled to a ground loop which is buried in the earth. Fluid in the ground loop is used to collect thermal energy from the ground (in heating mode) and deliver this energy to the heat pump. In cooling mode, thermal energy is taken from the house and dumped into the ground via the loop. Because the nearly-constant temperature of the ground serves as the energy source or sink, geothermal systems produce a higher delivery temperature at a much higher efficiency than air source heat pumps, especially in very cold or very hot outdoor temperatures. The higher delivery temperature eliminates the problems of discomfort due to lower-than-skin temperature supply air of typical air source heat pumps. Geothermal systems are also quiet due to no outdoor unit, and relatively inexpensive to operate due to their high efficiency. Also, because the electric device does not rely on fuel combustion to provide heating, there is no operational expense for heating fuels, and overall indoor air quality is improved. Due to their increasing popularity and use, geothermal systems with closed ground loop have become generally accepted by code officials. Openloop systems, on the other hand, are less common and may increase the complexity of the system and difficulty of obtaining permits.

distribution systems. Be sure that contractors use industry sizing standards such as Manual J (load calculation) and Manual D (duct sizing) using your set of plans and information about the site. an Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) that meets ENERGY STAR standards.

Select a system with a Coefficient of Performance (COP) and



Geothermal and T a n k les s W aHeating te r H e a te rs Cooling Systems

RESULTS FROM THE FIELD This technology has been used by other builders in real-world building situations learn from their experiences. Cleveland, OH, Bob Schmitt Homes (1999 U.S. DOE/GHPC Field Study + subsequent PATH TechPractice)
Five geothermal systems from three manufacturers, two with horizontal loops and three with vertical loops, were monitored for one year. Operational efficiency was found to be on par with manufacturers data. For the three systems whith desuperheaters (two had dedicated geothermal heat pump water heaters), the desuperheaters produced 9%, 14%, and 47% of domestic hot water needs. The two systems that did not produce as much hot water as anticipated experienced high energy losses from a control scheme which required pumping water regularly from the storage tank to the geothermal unit to determine if heating was necessary). Thermosiphoning was found to be a source of energy loss in one of the desuperheater loops. The builders geothermal systems, at the time of the study, cost about $5,000 more than traditional HVAC equipment cost. First step in making geothermal systems cost effective is to improve energy efficiency of building envelope. Drilling wells for several homes at the same time can reduce costs associated with well drilling. Indoor equipment installation is similar to traditional HVAC equipment installation.

Drilling wells for vertical loop geothermal, LCCTC Field Evaluation. Source: NAHB Research Center photo.

Multiple U.S. and Canadian locations, Oregon Institute of Technology (Summary of Case Studies conducted in 1995)
Examined 184 geothermal systems. Annual average energy savings over conventional heating and cooling systems were found to be between 31 and 71%; annual utility cost savings between 18% and 54%. Simple payback, depending on conventional technology to which the comparison was made, was found to be between 4.3 and 11.6 years. Geothermal well after installation and before construction of house, Weingarten Field Evaluation. Source: NAHB Research Center photo.


Systems cost in the range of $5,000 to $8,000 per ton, depending on local drilling requirements, and system design.

This is a detail of a typical geothermal heat pump system.


Geothermal Heating and T a n k les s W a te r H e a te rs Cooling Systems

DEFINITIONS Closed loop Open loop

A geothermal ground loop system in which the fluid (typically a glycol solution) recirculates continuously. The majority of new installations are closed loop. A geothermal ground loop system in which water is drawn from a well, circulated through the heat pump heat exchanger, and released in another at a higher temperature (in cooling mode) or lower temperature (in heating mode) than the supply well.

RESOURCES General information about solar thermal systems and their installation in homes: ToolBase Services
Information on this building technology and many others brought to you by PATH and the building scientists at the NAHB Research Center. Resources include: Measured Performance of Five Residential Geothermal Systems add link for Additional TechPractices Case Studies: Bob Schmitt Homes, Cleveland, OH RBG Residence, Kingston, NY More at

COP (Coefficient of Performance)

A measure of the steady-state performance of a ground-source heat pump in heating mode. It represents the ratio of useful heating output to purchased energy input. To achieve an ENERGY STAR rating, a closed loop system needs to have a COP of at least 3.3.


An add-on device that uses the heat from harnessed from the heat pump compressor to heat domestic hot water supplies.

EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio)

The instantaneous efficiency of a ground source heat pump in cooling mode. It represents the amount of cooling provided relative to the electrical energy input. To achieve an ENERGY STAR rating, a closed loop system needs to have an EER of at least 14.1.

Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium

Maintains a wealth of information on its website including information about state and federal financial incentives, case studies, and a database of contractor members. 1050 Connecticut Avenue, NW Suite 1000 Washington, DC 20036 (888) ALL-4GEO (888-255-4436)

International Ground Source Heat Pump Association

Maintains a directory of certified designers and installers of geothermal systems. 374 Cordell South Stillwater, OK 74078 (405) 744-5175 The Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) is dedicated to accelerating the development and use of technologies that radically improve the quality, durability, energy efficiency, and affordability of Americas housing. Managed by HUD, the PATH partnership includes the homebuilding, manufacturing, insurance and financial industries, and Federal agencies concerned with housing. PATH addresses barriers to innovation, provides information on advanced building technologies, and advances housing technology research; making affordable, quality American homes a reality. For more information on the PATH program, visit


Includes product and manufacturers lists. pumps

Air Conditioning Contractors of America

2800 Shirlington Road, Suite 300 Arlington, VA 22206 (703) 575-4477

Produce Manual J (load calculation) and Manual D (duct sizing).

TechSpecs are prepared for PATH by the NAHB Research Center.

400 Prince Georges Boulevard Upper Marlboro, MD 20774