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Why choose a geothermal heating system?

By / November 3, 2009

Tony Silverio, center, explains the economics of geothermal heating and cooling to Alexandra Marks and Martin Sheridan.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/The Christian Science Monitor

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As an indication of how completely antediluvian I was in terms of my Green IQ (a term I thought I’d just made up, but is actually all over the place, I had not even known that geothermal heating and cooling was a viable option in the Northeast until after we’d already bought Sheep Dog Hollow.

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Martin and I were standing outside the house with Dale King, the previous owner who is also our lead builder and who lives down the road. (More on Dale later.) I was talking about how we’d like to renovate as “greenly” as possible but also maintain the historic nature of the house.

I didn’t like the idea of having huge, high tech solar panels glinting on top of the elegant old white clapboard frame.

“Why don’t you look into geothermal?” he suggested.

“We’re not in Iceland,” was my first thought, which I fortunately kept to myself. Instead, I took his advice and was stunned not only by how much common sense geothermal energy makes, but also that there’s a nascent but fast-growing geothermal industry here in the United States.

In a nutshell, geothermal energy consists of using the constant temperatures stored naturally underground to heat and cool your house.

You drill a few wells, run pipes through them, and then circulate a liquid through those pipes. As the liquid travels through those pipes underground, it heats up to at about 55 degrees F. – the steady temperature that the earth naturally generates between 10 feet and 300 feet down. You then hook those pipes up to a heat pump in your basement.

In the winter, the heat pump compresses the liquid to increase its temperature to about 75 degrees F., which is then used to heat the house. In the summer, the circulating 55 degree F., temperatures are used to air condition the house.

You do need an energy source to run the heat pump – you can use electricity or natural gas, but other than that, the main source of your heat and air conditioning is the ground beneath you.

Say goodbye to that oil company and the thousands of dollars you pay them each winter to keep your house warm.

I immediately began researching local geothermal companies and was delighted to find several in the area. I contacted them and got several quotes. My first reaction upon seeing them was “YIKES!” as I’ve mentioned before.

The initial upfront costs for just the equipment ranged from $55,000 to $75,000. And then there’s the cost of drilling the wells. Our first estimate for that was around $28,000. We’re talking $20,000 to $30,000 more than a high-efficiency oil burner system for a house of a comparable size.

From an economic standpoint, in the short term at least, it made sense to forego my geothermal dreams.

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