Dream House

I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford to build myself a new house (well...perhaps myself and the bank). Having been to several 3rd world countries and knowing that there are lots of people in the world who don't even have housing, I felt a few pangs of guilt about this. I had a decision to make: rehab the old or build new. The cost to rehab my old house was going to be substantial. It was October of 2009. My husband had passed away in August from liver cancer. I was in the depths of grief and sorrow. I needed a project. I decided that if I had to plunk down a lot of money anyway, it was better to build new. I also decided that if I was going to build new, I was going to build green. My new house will be both beautiful and "green". I will share the journey and the adventure with you.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Geothermal for heating and cooling

     Spring is slowly arriving. Last weekend it hit the 70 degree mark while this weekend there were a few snow flurries. I know I have been slow at getting the blog postings out of late. The actual building of the house has been on pause mode while I have furiously debated to myself what colors and stone to put on the exterior and the what the color the roof should be. Its such a permanent decision. I am now debating between using some real stone on the exterior (about $2.50 extra per square foot from the Fond du Lac Stone company) instead of the cultured stone. Cultured stone is ground up gravel stone that they add color and shape to in a factory. The pictures on the last blog are cultured stone. Here is a picture of real stone. The stone I would use comes from a local quarry in Fond du Lac. Real stone actually has less color than cultured stone; however, there is a different "energy" coming from real stone, which I like, because it comes from our mother earth.

     The other event of the week was that a sheriff pulled into the driveway while my brother-in-law happened to be out there. I wasn't home yet, but my sister was. She saw the police car. Her first thought was: "Oh, God. Kristin has gotten too many speeding tickets!" This was not the case, however. It turned out that the owners of the empty lot next to me want my pier moved off of their property. I wasn't aware that it was even on their property. They threaten to take me to court if I don't move it soon. I called the sheriff and was appropriately apologetic and plan to have it moved ASAP. At the time, there was still ice on the lake. Now the ice has melted, so I have arranged for someone to put the dock into the water within the next couple of weeks.
     One of things I have been researching in terms of alternative forms of energy is geothermal, also called a ground source heat pump. Somewhere between 4-8 feet below the surface of the earth, the temperature maintains a nearly constant temperature of about 50 degrees farenheit. Here in Wisconsin, you have to dig down about 8 feet to reach far enough below the frost line to achieve that constant temperature. In traditional heating and air conditioning, it is the air in our homes that is either heated by natural gas or propane or cooled using freon and electricity. In geothermal, it is the heat stored in the earth that is transferred through pipes containing a water and ethanol solution to heat your home. For cooling, the hot air from your house is transfered back into the earth. The unit that does this is called a heat pump that uses a compressor and a blower motor to heat and to cool the air based on what the thermostat tells it to do. The geothermal heat pump operates using a small amount of electricity  to transfer the heat back and forth from the earth to your home. The technology is the same as that used in refridgeration (only operating in reverse to heat your house) and has been around for many years. There are several ways to install the piping. The cheapest is called a pond loop. This can be done if you have your own pond in your backyard. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Wisconsin does not allow geothermal piping in any public waterways, such as Lake Winnebago. The pond loop option is out. Geothermal piping could also be attached to a well (but its sealed from the groundwater) but they don't allow that either here in Wisconsin. The other types include a vertical loop and a horizontal loop. The horizontal loop is cheaper than the vertical loop but requires more land.

  Some of the advantages of geothermal include:
* Its super efficient. An efficiency rating is the ratio of heat generated versus the amount of energy used to produce it. The top efficiency rating of a furnace is about 95%. Geothermal systems have efficiency ratings of 400-500%.
* It is quiet--there are no noisy "on" cycles with blasts of hot or cold air, the temperature remains constant.
* There are no carbon monoxide concerns
* There are no noisy, unsightly outdoor condenser/AC units outside
* Geothermal systems reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 70%
* The heat that is formed when running the compressor motor is recaptured and used to heat  water in a holding tank. This is then added to your hot water tank. This means your hot water costs are reduced. Some people choose to use the water in radiant floor heat too.
*Geothermal heat pumps last an average of 25 years in comparison with convential furnace units that have  an average lifespan of 13-15 years. A filter is changed yearly which costs about the same as a furnace check ($79.95 for the service check, $38 for the filter): quote from Black Haak heating.
* The ground loop piping has an indefinite life expectancy. Barring an earthquake, you will not have to replace it for at least 100 years. It does not leak. The pipes are joined by thermal fusion. The substance it is made out of is the same substance that natural gas pipes are made of.
*Geothermal systems have demonstrated increased air purification and dehumidification in comparison with conventional systems
     So the big question, of course, is cost. A number of people I had talked to, including people in the business of HVAC, said that the cost was prohibitive. However, I decided I should research it further before making my final decision. I really would like to use alternative energy to heat and cool my house. I had picked up a brochure on geothermal from Black Haak Heating at home show a couple of years ago, and had remembered talking to the owner, Jim Haak (very personable and easy to talk to), about it.
     I have had about 4 bids on installing conventional heating and cooling systems. The bids ranged from about $12,000-$14,000 for your basic high efficiency furnace and airconditioning unit with the ductwork installation etc.,  to approximately $15,000 to $17,000 if I added in things like zoned heating. Installing geothermal (which include both AC and heat) and its ductwork into my home will cost about $15,000. The cost for the installing the horizontal ground loop piping is about $6000 for the 6 ton unit that is needed for my home. The cost to excavate the ground is about $2800. I get some discounts from the manufacturer and Black Haak for being a parade home. My total cost will run about $22,000. Its a difference of $10,000. Currently there is a 30% tax credit until 12/31/2016 on the entire project.
    The company that I got the quote from is Black-Haak heating and cooling. They have an engineer working for them who reviews the building plans, does the heat calculations and determines the size of the unit. Its critical that the right sized unit is installed. This requires that engineer to calculate it for best results, not just an estimate by the HVAC technician. They also have a computer program that calculates cost savings per year. Mine was estimated to be about $950/year in savings for heating, cooling, and hot water costs. For new home construction, installing geothermal seems like a no brainer to me. Its a great investment. By going with geothermal, I will save on my heating, cooling and hot water costs, use a free source of energy from the earth, and save on maintenance costs. My pay back will be within 5 years (closer to 3-4 years given my cost estimates). Sounds like a great investment to me and I am going for it.  For what is known as a retrofit (an older home) the payback would be closer to 7-10 years. Below are links to the heating company that I will be using, which is very reasonably priced, and to Geocomfort which is the company that makes the geothermal heat pump.
OK blog followers--Lets face it Rory would have been proud of my venture into an HVAC discussion of geothermal. He was a HVAC man himself and would have been excited about installing geothermal too.
A future blog post will discuss solar electric.


  1. You need an air conditioner to keep the your home feeling cool and refreshing. The last thing you want is for your air conditioner to break down in the middle of summer - talk about uncomfortable! To avoid dealing with the sweltering heat during some of the hottest months of the year, make sure that your air conditioner is properly maintained.

    New Furnace Installation Thornhill

  2. Geothermal heating and cooling systems make very good use of this stable environment to produce very efficient heating and cooling.

    Heating and Cooling Thornhill

  3. I agree! I love my geothermal system. The one thing that I did have to add to it was a capacitor. Initially, my lights would often dim when the geothermal kicked in. Adding the capacitor resolved that. Howver, I wished Black Haak Heating company had informed me about that as a potential problem when they were selling the unit to me.