GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP BUYERS GUIDE
Geothermal heat pump customers too often make the huge, and costly mistake of jumping into a major energy equipment purchase without first doing enough research.
Geothermal heat pumps, by far, consume less energy to heat or cool a building than any other form of climate control. But the huge energy efficiency gains offered by these systems are offset by far higher prices than more conventional heating and cooling equipment.
Even though geothermal energy systems can cost several times more than conventional equipment, they return the extra investment with drastically lower heating and cooling bills. And they continue paying the investor back year after year.
Do geothermal heat pumps pay back enough to justify the higher price?
That's a bit of a tricky question to answer, but it's a question that must be answered before putting your hard earned money on the line. And if you don't make a good choice now, you will pay for it year after year.
Before we discuss price, let's look at the equipment we're considering. Once we demystify the equipment, it will be easier to understand the other things that go into a purchase decision.
HEATING AND COOLING YOUR HOME
Most homes use either electric heat or a furnace that burns either gas, oil, or wood for heating in the winter. In the summer, most homes use a conventional mechanical air conditioner for cooling. Different equipment efficiencies are available with higher efficiencies costing more money.
Some air conditioning systems offer a heat pump option that allows your air conditioner to reverse the cooling cycle and pick up heat from the outside air and use that heat to warm your home when it's cold outside. (How it does this is explained below.)
The heat pump option, down to about a 32 degree Fahrenheit outside air temperature, costs less to operate than conventional electric heat or a furnace that burns either oil or propane.
The next step in efficiency improvements is a geothermal heat pump.
WHAT IS A GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP?
Simply described, a geothermal heat pump uses the ground (or water, in the case of a water sourced system) rather than outside air to either remove heat from a building in the summer, or as a heat reservoir from which to carry heat into a building in the winter.
There are two basic types of geothermal heat pumps. A ground source geothermal heat pump (or ground source heat pump), as you will see below, uses the temperature of the ground to gain high energy efficiencies for the system.
A water source geothermal heat pump (or water source heat pump) uses water in a pond or stream. To simplify this discussion, the term geothermal heat pump will refer to ground source heat pumps.
In the summer, your air conditioning system boils refrigerant at a low temperature and pressure inside of a coil to remove heat from your home.
As the refrigerant boils into a vapor (like a pot of boiling water except at a much colder temperature), the vapor is carried to the compressor where it is compressed to a high temperature and pressure.
(Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
If you go outside in the summer and feel the air being discharged from your air conditioner condenser (That's the radiator looking box with a fan on it.), you immediately feel that the temperature is hotter than the outside temperature. That extra heat is the heat that's being removed from your home.
As heat is removed from the high pressure refrigerant vapor circulating through your condenser, it condenses back into a liquid. The liquid is carried back into your home inside the refrigerant tubes and metered through a valve back into the evaporator, or low pressure side of the system where the pressure again drops and allows the refrigerant to boil at a low temperature.
(If you want more details on heat pumps, check out the Wikipedia resources at the bottom of the page.)
WHY CONVERT TO A GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP?
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in the lower 48 states of the United States, ground temperatures range from about 45 degrees in the North, to about 75 degrees in the deep South all year round.
A geothermal heat pump has its condensing coils in the ground to take advantage of that relatively cool soil temperature. Using soil to cool the refrigerant, rather than using air that can be well above 95 degrees as in a conventional heat pump, allows your air conditioner to run much cooler, with lower pressures, and use less electricity than it could with an air cooled condenser.
In the winter months a ground source heat pump uses a reversing valve and a series of connecting pipes to reverse the cooling process.
The coil that's in the ground becomes the evaporator where that boiling, cold refrigerant picks up the heat (45 to 75 degrees all year round) that's in the ground, carries it back to the compressor where the vapor is compressed into a high pressure, high temperature vapor that is moved into your home where is condenses back into a liquid.
As the vapor condenses, it gives up heat to your home. And the same coil that cooled your home in the summer, now warms it in the winter.
Using heat from the ground rather than winter air gives your heat pump greater energy efficiency. An air source heat pump is only efficient down to about 32 degrees outside temperature. When the outside air temperature drops below 32 degrees, the system shuts down the heat pump and energizes those expensive to operate, electric heating coils.
The main reason to consider converting to a ground source heat pump is to save energy, and money. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a ground source heat pump will save between 30% and 60% of your annual heating and cooling expenses, depending mainly on where you live.
IS A GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP WORTH THE EXTRA COST?
Depending again on where you live, there is a wide cost difference for installing a ground source geothermal heat pump, and a wide difference in system efficiency.
Another big factor affecting price is whether you are building a new home, or retrofitting to replace an old system in an existing home.
Retrofitting involves the extra expense of tearing up your yard and then putting it back to original condition. It may also involve tearing out and replacing fencing to allow construction equipment access to the area in which you will be placing the ground coils.
Even if you are building a new home, a ground source geothermal heat pump will cost more than a more conventional, air source heat pump, often a lot more. Estimates vary widely but, again depending on where you live, ground source geothermal heat pump costs can be double, triple, or even more than triple the cost of a similar sized air cooled heat pump.
But even with the high cost, those annual energy savings of 30% to 60% give you a payback period of about 3 to 10 years.
So, the amount of time it takes your system to pay for itself depends on total installation costs, ground temperature, geographical location, and the type of heating system you're replacing (electric, gas, oil, etc.).
IS YOUR HOME READY FOR A GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP?
Before you make a final decision regarding a geothermal heat pump, you must take a close look at the overall energy efficiency of your home.
If your home isn't well insulated, or has poor quality storm windows (or worse, single pane windows), or isn't properly calked, you will need a larger, more expensive heating and cooling system to adequately heat or cool your home.
In addition to being more expensive to buy, that larger system will cost more to operate. The heating and cooling system in a poorly built home will switch on more at the thermostat, stay on longer when it is running, and use more energy every minute it runs.
Every dollar you spend improving the energy efficiency of your home will pay you back with lower heating and cooling bills; and it will do this month after month, year after year.
If you're on a budget (And who isn't.), invest in energy efficiency BEFORE you decide on a heating and cooling system.
The U.S. Department of Energy has an excellent do-it-yourself home energy assessment page at the
Home Energy Assessments
WHAT'S THE BEST BRAND OF GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP?
Simply stated, you want to buy the brand that offers the best of two criteria. You want a unit with a high efficiency AND you want a unit with a high level of reliability.
You don't want a unit that, when compared to other geothermal heat pumps, has a super high efficiency but also has a reputation for frequent break-downs. If you end up with a unit like that, you'll spend far more on repairs than you'll save on energy.
So, how do you get the best of both worlds?
. Energy Star is the U.S. Department of Energy consumer awareness division that rates and compares energy efficiency of just about every energy consuming product in America.
If you go directly to the
Energy Star Heat Pumps
page you'll find a ton of information including links to energy rating comparison sheets that show the ratings of virtually every geothermal heat pump sold in the U.S.
When you find some systems that look good, your next step is to do a Google search to determine the reputation of each of the units you are interested in. Enter the brand name of the system along with relevant search terms to find the information you want.
Say you find a brand called "My Brand Geo Pump". If you plug that name along with each of the search terms shown below into a Google (or other) search box, you'll find mountains of information on the brands you select. Here are some search keyword examples to get you started.
My Brand Geo Pump reviews
My Brand Geo Pump comparisons
Better Business Bureau reviews for My Brand Geo Pump
My Brand Geo Pump problems
My Brand Geo Pump complaints
My Brand Geo Pump scams
My Brand Geo Pump quality rating
It's a good idea to do the same kind of searches for the company that manufactured the units you are interested in.
As you shop different units, keep an eye out for quality assurance ratings or quality awards they may have earned.
If you see a reference to
ratings or compliance, it means that the manufacturer has made a dedicated and ongoing effort to assure high quality for its customers.
Other good indication of high quality are high Consumer Reports ratings, the
Good Housekeeping Seal
, or recognition from other recognized quality rating organizations.
Using the steps outlined above, it shouldn't take long to have several candidates that provide both high energy efficiencies and low maintenance and repair costs. The ideal combination.
FINDING A GOOD CONTRACTOR TO INSTALL A GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP
Once you have some brands in mind, you're ready to get contractor bids. But before you start calling contractors, do some more research to be sure that you only call contractors with excellent reputations.
[NOTE: If this all seems like a lot of research, well, it is. And it is also research that will keep you from making some horribly expensive mistakes. So, hang in there, the pay-backs for your time spent doing all of this research make it well worth the effort.]
You never want to skimp on contractors. You are money and aggravation ahead if you spend a little more and contract with a company with a great reputation. That said, paying a huge price for a contractor does not guarantee that they are good, just expensive.
I've seen it over and over again that the best contractors end up somewhere in the middle of the price range for a given job. They don't have to discount to grub for work. And they never stick customers with excessively high charges. They charge a fair, profitable price for their work. Fair, but not cheap, pricing very often goes hand in hand with good, honest, quality minded contractors.
You also don't want to risk this kind of job on a mom and pop size company that's just getting started and possibly lacks the proper equipment to do the job well and in a timely manner. You absolutely want someone with experience.
With those things in mind, you're ready to start looking for a contractor.
Start by checking
10 TIPS FOR HIRING A HEATING AND COOLING CONTRACTOR
at Energy Star. While most of the items in the list are already listed below, the Energy Star page also links you to a lot of other important information.
Ask your local power company for contractor recommendations. Also talk to neighbors, friends, and family in your area. When you ask, be sure to ask who you should avoid, as well as who they might recommend.
Do your own research, too. Your online Yellow Pages often include reviews for contractors in your area.
Cautionary note: Good reviews do not guarantee good results. There are, sadly, a lot of unscrupulous folks who will write a great review - - - for themselves! You will even occasionally find a product or service with several glowing reviews, all written by the seller, or by friends, family, or even employees of the seller.
If you see a service with one or more fantastic reviews, and a number of bad reviews, you know you want to take your business elsewhere. Still, a lot of companies show up with just one, or even no reviews, and some of them are excellent companies. If at all possible you really, really need to get the opinion of people who have done business with the contractor.
Use the names of contractors you are interested in along with those same search terms mentioned above. If one of your contractor's company name is, say, "My Contractor", your keyword list would look something like this:
My Contractor reviews
My Contractor comparisons
Better Business Bureau reviews for My Contractor
My Contractor problems
My Contractor complaints
My Contractor scams
My Contractor quality
Finally, if you need more recommendations after completing those searches, and if you want to have the best chance of reading real, honest reviews, check out Angie's List..
Angie's List goes to great lengths to prevent the kind of fake reviews discussed above. They also take a lot of the guesswork out of finding good service companies by providing members with thousands of unbiased ratings and reviews from actual customers. While there is a small charge for using the site, you'll find the information priceless, and guaranteed.
QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK CONTRACTORS
Now that you have a short list of contractor candidates to install your geothermal heat pump, you will want to ask the right kind of questions to assure that you get everything you should get for a good installation, and years of dependable, trouble free, economical service.
Questions you should ask include:
1. Ask for their credentials, licenses, etc.
2. Are they insured? Do they have liability and workers comp insurance?
3. Ask for certificates such as EPA certifications to handle refrigerants. Those are required by law. Ask what other professional certifications their workers might have.
4. What affiliations does the contractor have? None are absolutely necessary, but they do demonstrate a willingness to be part of a greater organization that sets high professional and ethical standards. Examples include:
Better Business Bureau
Chamber of Commerce
Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA)
National Association of Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors (PHCC)
American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)
5. How long have they been in business? How long at current address?
6. References - Get a bare minimum of three to five references. Get the phone numbers and call the references. If a contractor is not comfortable with handing out phone numbers of customers, ask him to call them and get permission to give you the phone number.
7. A good contractor should be qualified to do an efficiency review of your home. That should be part of the process used to determine the size of geothermal heat pump you require. Some contractors may use a simplified type of efficiency review that involves checking attic insulation levels, calking, and condition and type of insulated windows. Others may suggest a more complex inspection using infra-red cameras, air leakage studies, and more. There could be a fee for a detailed efficiency review, but you also may be able to deduct all or part of that review fee from the cost of your new geothermal heat pump. In addition, local electric companies often offer detailed energy efficiency studies for low cost or maybe even free.
8. Get a written, detailed, explanation of the expected pay-back period for the geothermal heat pump. The details should include expected efficiencies based on your average ground temperature, installation costs, your electrical usage in kilowatts, and a comparison to your heating costs using your old heating system. You will need to provide the contractor will several years of utility bills if you want a detailed pay-back analysis. Don't forget, your contractor is the one selling the unit based on energy savings, so he ought to have a good idea of what those savings should be.
9. Ask if the contractor owns a geothermal heat pump. If he does, ask to see it so you can see what the finished product looks like. If not, find out why. It could just be that a geothermal heat pump doesn't have a decent pay-back period in your area.
10. Does the contractor have any special offers or discounts at the present time? Does he expect any in the near future?
11. Ask about power company rebates and Federal, state, or local tax incentives or rebates for energy efficiency improvements.
12. Can the contractor arrange financing? If so, be sure to compare the total financing costs with those offered at your local bank.
13. What kind of WRITTEN warranty do they provide?
14. Be sure to get all estimates and details in writing. Read and understand everything on the estimate and contract. When in doubt, ask your attorney.
and you'll find a wealth of great HVAC and geothermal energy consumer information.
Wikipedia has excellent discussions on both
Geothermal Heat Pumps
You'll find another treasure trove of HVAC information and dozens of articles dedicated to working with contractors at Angie's List. After clicking either of the large "Find Local Reviews" buttons, go to the bottom of the page and click any of the links you want to browse. Of special interest are the links to "Articles", "Local Guides", and "Consumer Reviews by Category"
Spend some time on research now, before you put any money on any geothermal heat pumps. Remember, you will have to live with the decisions you make now for many, many years.
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