Geothermal Exchange Units Can Warm You Up or Cool You Down

by Carla Occaso

MONTPELIER — Douglas Becker heats and acquires electricity for his home without using fossil fuel. Instead, he uses wood, sun and water. Water?

No, he doesn’t have a hydroelectric dam or a water wheel. Instead he has installed a geothermal exchange system. The system uses water pumped through a loop of plastic pipe and a “heat exchanger in the geoexchange unit,” according to information put out by the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, to either warm up or cool down — depending on the season — the air inside the house. The unit absorbs heat from inside the house in the summer and carries it to the ground, returning cool air to the home. In winter, it takes heat from the earth and transfers the heat into the cold house.

“One of the things that I really like is that not only does it heat my house, it heats my hot water. Whether I am heating or cooling. I can switch a switch from heating to cooling — it is nice to have that option —(and) even if it is cooling (the air), it is still heating my hot water,” Becker told The Bridge by phone July 8.

Installing a geothermal unit requires plenty of water. Becker had an advantage there, because he had dug a 200-foot well during a drought about 10 or 15 years ago. That well allowed Becker to avoid the additional and considerable expense of drilling a deep well just to support the geothermal system.

Becker was also well poised to install a geothermal heat pump because, in addition to having the deep well, he had two solar panels on his roof that produce more than enough electricity to power the unit. And he used wood as his primary source of heat.

“I wanted a bare bones central heating system. I never had that because I always heated with wood. I cut my own wood, but as I get older I am not going to be doing that,” said Becker, age 59. He landed on the geothermal idea while talking to the HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) specialist at his place of work. Becker works as a culinary arts teacher at Green Mountain Technical and Career Center in Hyde Park.

However, Becker said he wouldn’t have made the move to install one until, two winters ago, he called for his usual supply of kerosene that he had used as back up heat and the supplier said they could not deliver it if the tank was in an enclosed space due to a new company regulation. So, rather than go to the trouble of moving the tank, Becker looked into getting a geothermal exchange system.

He quickly discovered geothermal heating unit installers are few and far between in Vermont. After requesting bids from the few who do exist, Becker found Jim Ashley of West Danville. At a price of around $30,000, Becker said he went for it. Ashley had a background that fed into developing this kind of alternative energy business.

“I used to work for the state (doing) well driller licensing and records and environmental conservation,” Ashley told The Bridge during a face-to-face interview July 8. Ashley said he retired from his job working for the State of Vermont in 1996 during a staff reduction. His father and extended family had long been in the air conditioning business, and he, a hydrologist with an interest in environmental conservation, started to develop his geothermal business. He started up Green Mountain Geothermal about 12 years ago.

He describes the geothermal process this way, “It is something that takes heat or cold, enhances it or moves it to another location. We are taking heat out of 50 degree groundwater. We take 6 degrees out through the refrigeration process. We capture that heat, upgrade it through a compressor, then are able to discharge heat from the hot refrigerant to heat our homes and businesses.”

Sounds simple, but it requires quite a bit of digging and specialized expertise. In fact, the cost is prohibitive to many potential customers, Ashley said, which has led to trouble increasing his small customer base. Because banks treat the kind of loan people need to purchase a heating unit more like a mortgage than a car loan, the process can be lengthy if the customer doesn’t have the money on hand in savings, Ashley said.

But here in Montpelier, Becker sounds like a happy customer. Since he and his wife put in the solar panels, they have excess power and have enough left over, even after providing electricity to the geothermal exchange unit, to sell back to Green Mountain Power.

Becker describes this past winter: “On the coldest day we used maybe 20 kilowatts, but we were producing 25 kilowatts in a day. We have always made more kilowatts in electricity than the system could use.” Still, the system is unfamiliar to many people locally, Becker said. “Here in Vermont it has not been embraced as much as other sources of heat,” Becker added.

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