Dave Connelly doesn’t. Eight years ago, he had a geothermal system installed at his Bricktown home, and since then his heating and cooling costs have been cut in half.
Connelly, an attorney who has represented homeowners facing nightmarish contamination from leaking oil tanks, says that getting rid of his old oil furnace and tanks means peace of mind. Other homeowners are excited about how clean, quiet, healthy, safe and steady geothermal systems are. Still others, including Dr. Paul Berman of Hillsdale, love them for the way they help the environment.
“I’m concerned about global warning and our dependence on foreign oil,” notes Dr. Berman. “These issues were at least as important to me as saving on energy bills.”
Helping the Planet
Ray Mayer of Able Environmental, Point Pleasant, is also a dedicated environmentalist. He has been installing geo-systems since the 1970s and happily points out how they help the planet.
“With such a system, there’s no chimney,” he explains, “and no flame, smoke, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide or fossil fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy endorses geo-systems for a cleaner environment and big electricity savings. Even the smallest system is equal to planting an acre of trees or removing two cars from the road.” According to Mayer, 100,000 installations will save 37½ billion BTUs of energy and $750 million in heating, cooling and hot water costs during their 30-year lifespan, while reducing pollutants by 2.160 million tons.
The purity of geothermal heating and cooling is of personal interest to Mayer. He was diagnosed with asthma and immediately started researching ways to reduce his exposure to elements that would aggravate his condition. Because of this, he says he became New Jersey’s first certified geo-exchange design-build specialist. Since then he has installed thousands of geo-systems.
How It Works
A geothermal heat pump doesn’t warm the house by burning fuel, the way a furnace does. In winter, it collects the earth’s natural heat through a series of pipes, called a loop, installed below the surface of the ground or immersed in a pond or lake. Fluid circulates through the loop, carrying heat to the house.
There, an electrically driven compressor and a heat exchanger concentrate the earth’s energy and release it inside the home. Ducts distribute the heat to different rooms.
The process is reversed in summer. The underground loop draws excess heat from the house and releases it into the ground.
The geothermal loop that’s buried underground is typically made of high-density polyethylene, a tough plastic that’s extremely durable and allows efficient pass-through of heat. The joints are fused, so the connections are stronger than the pipe itself. The fluid in the loop is water or an environmentally safe antifreeze solution that circulates through the pipes in a closed system.
Where does the earth get the heat? Why, the sun, of course. Mayer calls the earth “a giant solar collector.” It absorbs the sun and acts as an insulator to retain this energy and store it,” he says. “It’s the only solar energy system that works when the sun isn’t shining.”
One Sea Bright homeowner has taken solar power one step further. While most owners of geo-systems use electricity to run the pumps, he installed solar panels on the roof of his three-bedroom ranch.
“I hadn’t ever considered going geothermal,” he says. “In fact, I knew nothing about it. But then my oil furnace went belly up, and the fellow who was going to put in a new one, suggested a geo-system. He pointed out that I already had a well, which would eliminate some of the excavation costs, plus my neighbor was involved in a major clean-up after an oil tank leak. So I made the leap. I am happy I did.”
Geothermal heat pumps are durable and require very little maintenance, say homeowners who’ve lived with them for years. “Just clean the filter before the heating season,” says Connelly.
David Goldsholl of ENRGi in Glen Rock, which installed Dr. Berman’s system, says that geothermal heat pumps have fewer mechanical components than other systems and are generally underground, sheltered from the weather. The components inside the house are small and easily accessible for maintenance.
Unlike traditional air conditioners, geothermals have no outside condensing units, so there is no noise. “And no sudden blasts of cold air,” enthuses Phil Voorhees, who had a geothermal system installed two years ago when he built a new home in the Wayside area of Ocean Township. “I think this is what won my wife over. Originally, she was skeptical. Now she is almost as much of a believer as I am. We set the temperature at 72 degrees, and that’s what we get, without furnaces or condensers kicking in.”
Installing a geothermal system isn’t cheap. Costs vary, depending on location, system enhancements, construction and/or complexity, but Mayer says they run anywhere from $13 to $25 per square foot of conditioned area, with an average system coming in at $19 per square foot.
The cost of a basic installation in a full basement, one-story existing home with acceptable ductwork starts at $34,000, he notes, which is about 10 percent less than in new construction. Once geothermal is installed, the average annual costs of heating, cooling, and hot water are about 30 to 50 cents per square foot, which in a 2,800-square foot home is $70 a month.
As if such palatable utility bills weren’t enough of an incentive, the federal government has come up with an attractive monetary nudge. Tax credits for 30 percent of cost, with no upper limit, are now available for new and existing homes for geothermal heat pumps.
The Future Is Here
Geo-systems may sound like a Jetsons-type innovation, but it isn’t. Goldsholl calls it a simple technology. “It’s just that people here in the Northeast knows so little about it,” he says. “Even builders don’t know about it.”
Mayer agrees. “Folks down South use heat pumps a lot, which are quite different from geothermal heat pumps. But I think this has given people the impression that geo-systems can only work in southern locales. That isn’t so. The Midwest has lots of geo-heated and cooled homes. The thing to remember is that at depths of 30-plus feet here in New Jersey, geothermal heat energy is constant at about 50 degrees.”
Since much of New Jersey is riddled with limestone, is it difficult to install geothermal in this type of soil? Not at all, says Mayer, noting that he’s added geo-systems to many homes in northern New Jersey that are built on granite, which is much harder than limestone.
Voorhees is such a geo-system devotee that he feels it ought to be required in new homes.
“As long as you’re starting from scratch, you might as well install a system. That makes so much sense,” he says.