In too deep
October 1, 2011
WYANDOTTE, Mich. - While geothermal heating and cooling systems have been around for decades, they’re still not well known to most U.S. homeowners.
Despite the ability to shave more than 30 percent off the typical utility bill when compared with conventional HVAC units, high up-front costs and lack of understand of how this technology works have kept it from being more than a niche for environmentally minded people with money.
But that image could be changing, thanks to a project in this blue-collar, waterfront community south of Detroit.
Wyandotte, Mich., is in the early stages of a federally funded, $560,000 neighborhood stabilization initiative to install geothermal HVAC systems in several lower- to middle-income houses in the city. Working with a private contractor, the city is installing the ground-source wells the geothermal units will tap underneath easements. The wells, up to 400 feet deep, will have the capacity to serve several homes.
Closed-loop pipes carrying water run to and from the houses, into the ground where temperatures are a constant 55°F or so. Depending on the season, the water is heated or cooled to the desired temperature. Such a system allows for efficiency ratings impossible with most conventional HVAC systems - up to 70 percent in some circumstances, experts say.
Lower costs“Geothermal seems to be a great way to lower people’s energy costs,” said Pamela Tierney, energy systems program manager for the city of Wyandotte. “They’ll definitely notice a reduction in their utility bills.”
One of the early contracts for the project - among the first of its kind in the country - was awarded to Cappy Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. The Livonia, Mich., contractor would install geothermal heat pumps in two of the homes slated for renovation and connect them to the well.
“Our scope of work was to pick up the system from the well and bring piping from the field into the home and out again, making the connections in the house and performing all the sheet metal and geothermal work inside the home,” said Jeff Caplan, owner of Cappy Heating, which has specialized in geothermal projects for more than a decade.
Any new ductwork needed for the Wyandotte houses was made in Cappy’s sheet metal shop.
With geothermal HVAC, “Ductwork is very critical,” Caplan said. Sizing is especially important when using ground-source heat pumps.
Caplan selected WaterFurnace International Inc.’s Envision series of heat pumps for his portion of the Wyandotte project. The units are available in seven single-speed sizes and five dual-capacity sizes. They use R-410A, which is certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to not harm the Earth’s ozone layer. The units are microprocessor controlled and have on-board diagnostics and easy troubleshooting, according to the manufacturer.
But all the homeowners will likely care about is that it works and saves them money. Still, geothermal does more, Caplan pointed out.
Comfort“In addition to savings, a geothermal system provides precise distribution of comfortable air all year long, eliminating hot and cold spots throughout the home and providing quiet operation,” Caplan said. “And it’s good for the environment because it emits no carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or other greenhouse gases that contribute to environmental air pollution.”
Caplan is quick to add that he’s a big believer in geothermal technology - he has such a system in his own home.
“I put my money where my mouth is,” he said.
If this pilot project is a success, city officials say they hope to expand geothermal energy to homeowners throughout the city of 25,900. The city was awarded $7.8 million in federal stimulus money earlier this year and plans to use some of it to convert up to 48 new or rehabilitated houses to run on geothermal power.
“It’s kind of a sleeper technology,” Tierney said. “People are starting to realize that it is viable and it’s a good thing to do.”
Besides the environmental benefits, the city has another reason for encouraging the use of geothermal heating and cooling: Wyandotte is one of a handful of cities in the state that owns its own power plant. Officials such as Tierney are hoping that as use of geothermal spreads among residents, Wyandotte will be able to lower its energy load and avoid having to buy electricity from other utility companies in the region during times of heavy demand.
“Long term, it could definitely help our base load,” she said.
As a longtime geothermal HVAC contractor, Caplan said he is excited by Wyandotte’s plans.
“The benefits to individual homeowners and the community in general make this an exciting project,” Caplan said. “And by approaching installations in this way, working with the city, people who are interested in being efficient in their heating and cooling can install a geothermal system without incurring the up-front cost associate with drilling. Coupled with the tax credits, it provides an incentive that is hard to ignore.”
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