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Old Heating Idea Heats Up

JULIE V. IOVINE / New York Times 4jan01


Meg Henson for The New York Times

IF it wasn't bad enough that the fashions and haircuts of the 1970's are back, now we have loose-cannon gas and oil prices.

During the 70's energy crisis, the environmental movement offered unwieldy solar panels stuck on the sides of houses, radiant rocks in the basement and monstrous metal windmills grinding in the breeze.

Geothermal heat pumps using earth's constant temperatures to heat and cool air pumped through buildings didn't get the attention that flashier energy choices did. But while solar panels and windmills for the home dropped from favor as fast as Dr. Scholl's sandals, more efficient and economical geothermal systems have steadily gained ground among homeowners and even the environmentally indifferent.

"It's a brilliant strategy," said William McDonough, an architect known for his environmental work. "Imagine your building with roots. It's as local as you can get. And all sustainability, like politics, is local."

Converts include President-elect George W. Bush, who installed a geothermal heat pump on his Texas ranch during the election campaign. Howard Newton, a consultant on the job, overheard him explaining to Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell that geothermal heat is "environmentally hip."

In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency proclaimed geothermal heat pumps also known as ground-source heat pumps to be the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean and cost-effective heating and air-conditioning systems available. Sara Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, a nonprofit trade organization, says that more than half a million geothermal systems have been installed in the United States, half of them in homes. The annual growth rate since 1994, Ms. Quinn said, has been 20 percent.

In 1995, Dr. Jeffrey Palmer of East Hampton, Conn., invested $26,000 in a geothermal pump for his 3,500- square-foot home, partly because of his daughter's allergies. His heating bills now average $800 a year, in contrast to about $1,500 for his neighbors. His air-conditioning bill never exceeds $74 in summer. Of his low bills, Dr. Palmer said: "I used to brag to all my neighbors. Now that oil prices are going up, I don't want to make them really mad."

For all its promise, geothermal is still unsung and generally unfamiliar to homeowners, especially in Manhattan. Part of the reason is, of course, cost.

In Manhattan, Adam Yarinsky of Aro architects, a firm interested in putting new technologies and experimental materials in the home, said: "I bring it up on every project, and everyone laughs at me. I know it's there theoretically, if only there were some way to take advantage of it."

This is one trend in which the suburbs are leading the cities.

In fact, the most common residential geothermal pumps lend themselves best to homes with plenty of yard for digging wells. Geoexchange technology uses basic plumbing equipment and traditional air-conditioning ducts combined with ground loops buried horizontally or vertically to exploit the constant 55-degree temperatures found in soil and water below the frost line, four to six feet down. A simple electric compressor circulates refrigerant the way a freezer or window air-conditioner does, then cools or heats the air to be distributed through the house. The same ducts used by the air-conditioner in summer distribute hot air in winter.

That means no oil deliveries, no boilers, no noisy outdoor condensers and no pollution. Andrew Collins, a consulting engineer and advocate of geothermal systems for the home, said that geothermal "started with the Army needing to house a lot of folks used to having heat and air- conditioning." He added, "It went in fast and had only one appliance to maintain."

The expensive part is drilling to put in ground loops. The loops are filled with water or water mixed with a nontoxic antifreeze. The longer the loop, the more heat it can gather from the earth.

People think Manhattan is inhospitable to geothermal energy because it is built on bedrock. But granite is excellent for transferring heat. The gravel and sand of Brooklyn and Queens are even better.

Without bedrock, wells are typically drilled about 250 feet into the ground, and three are needed to accommodate the 1,500 feet of pipe used by the average 2,500-square- foot home. It costs about $2,500 to drill a single well. Cost efficiency dwindles with increasing size. Carl D. Orio, the president of the Water and Energy Systems Corporation in Atkinson, N.H., and a consultant on geothermal installations since 1974, worked on a 35,000-square-foot home in Sands Point, N.Y., which needed eight wells, five of them just to supply heat and air-conditioning for the master bedroom.

SMALL surprise that geothermal energy is perceived as only for the rich. Installation for a suburban house can cost $3,000 to $5,000 more than conventional heating and cooling systems in new homes, which generally cost less than $20,000. The geothermal payback can take at least three years. Some utility companies provide grants or rebates to encourage homeowners to go geothermal.

Sy Soobitsky, a teacher in Higganum, Conn., took advantage of a Northeast Utilities program, which offered him $6,000 to offset his $22,000 installation bill. "We're more than happy," he said. "I was a believer all along, but I never thought it would be possible financially."

Mr. Soobitsky said that his bills for heat and air-conditioning average about $180 a month. In the summer, there is a bonus. The circulating water absorbs the house's heat and can, in turn, heat his water supply free.

On a frigid morning last week, Mr. Soobitsky said he was thankful for an electric heater, which turns on automatically when temperatures remain below freezing. Geothermal heat tends to be frustratingly even, and complaints focus on its inability to make a room toasty warm.

Others find the dry air unappealing and have installed radiant heat floors (still powered by geothermal energy). And the ducts tend to be placed where they are best for air- conditioning, not heat: up high. "I object to using the same air ducts," Mr. Collins, the consulting engineer, said. "Coupling it with radiant floors is a marriage made in heaven."

In Manhattan, wells are driven straight through bedrock, sometimes as deep as 1,500 feet, to reach the constant temperatures of groundwater. The first high-profile installation was in 1997 at the East 64th Street town house of Theodore W. Kheel, the labor negotiator and philanthropist, who wanted to showcase advanced environmental design. The project proved overambitious, and Mr. Kheel abandoned it after two 1,500-foot wells were drilled at a cost of $100,000. Tommy Mottola, the chairman of Sony Music Entertainment, was the next resident, and three weeks ago, said Mr. Orio of Water and Energy Systems, who was the consultant on the job, the geothermal pumps were activated for the first time.

A handful of other homes in New York are about to go geothermal. Last week, a geothermal well was struck for a brownstone on West 86th Street. And drilling will begin next week at new town houses on Reade Street (see article, page 7 of this section). John L. Petrarca, the developer of that project, plans to convert a loft building on Laight Street to geothermal. And in Battery Park City, a 26-story "green" apartment building will be partly geothermal.

The technology does not lend itself to high-rises (it would have taken as many as 300 wells to supply the entire green building in Battery Park City), and finding room to drill presents a special challenge in crowded cities. Since it is hard to maneuver a drilling derrick behind a town house, the sidewalks are the way in. Recent drillings have been made easier because the homeowners, having inherited old coal cellars, also had rights to the sidewalk.

And then there are subway tunnels. But "we certainly don't want to go near them," Mr. Orio said, adding, "Luckily, we have all the maps."

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