Now that the heating season has come to a close in the Northeast, I've been eager to get an update from my neighbor who had a geothermal heating/cooling system installed last fall.
This past week we got together for a walk and a cup of coffee, and, after discussing kids' schoolwork and social lives, our talk turned geothermal. I had a lot of questions, but what it mostly came down to is this: Are you happy with your decision to invest in geothermal energy? The answer was definitely yes, but with a few caveats.
Just a refresher (see earlier EM story): My neighbors needed to replace their old oil-burning furnace. Rather than invest the $9,000 in a new heater, they decided to make a radical shift to geothermal heat.
The cost was about $33,000, but a 30 percent government tax credit brought the total closer to $23,000. Remember, for that amount of money they're also getting a complete central air-conditioning system for the summer. That alone would have cost as much as $20,000.
Nearly half of the initial cost was to have duct work installed in their older home. So, for people building a new home or living in a house with existing ducts, the cost of this system probably would be closer to $12,000 to $13,000 after the government chips in.
My friend said that they set their thermostat around 71 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit on most winter days, and lowered the setting a bit at night. The geothermal system often could not meet their temperature requirements, especially when the weather turned really cold. An auxiliary electric-resistance heating system built into their unit had to carry the extra heating load. So, even though they eliminated their oil bill this winter, their electric bill rose.
In the winter of 2007-2008 my neighbor's heating oil bill was around $4,000. This winter they paid nothing for heating oil, but roughly $3,200 for electricity, mostly because of their auxiliary heating system. The good news is that next winter they expect a much lower electric bill due to some refinements they made to their heating setup late this winter. As my neighbor pointed out, this whole system is a kind of work-in-progress.
A significant glitch they had to address as the cold weather set in was the distribution of heat from their new system. The temperature in their partially finished basement hovered in the upper 50s earlier this past winter. That's too cold for its intended use as a playroom, unless you plan to play Eskimo. In fact it was chilly enough that my friend was afraid her pipes might freeze. This was a big disappointment after such a big investment, and they needed a solution.
It was suggested that they put another duct in the basement area. They already had one, but it turned out that wasn't enough. Additional duct work would have been messy, expensive, and disruptive. They were also afraid that it would draw too much heat from the upstairs, which was a more comfortable temperature.
Their contractor gave them a neat solution. He suggested that they install baseboard hot water heating units in the basement and redirect heat from their hot water heater, which is also warmed by geothermal energy. It seems that they have excess hot water, and rather than let it sit there in a tank they decided to put it to good use—warming their living space. So, the hot water that came out of their kitchen and bathroom spigots was also running through their baseboard units and helping to heat the lowest level of their house. Problem solved!
But that was in the colder months. Now that summer is almost here, I'm looking forward to checking how the system works to cool the house!