Get Your Geothermal by 2016!

As I mentioned last week, our central heat installation is dependent on this backyard renovation. Why, you might ask, does our HVAC have anything to do with the backyard? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

Our house has no ductwork and no central heat, and of course no air conditioning. You may think we’re crazy, but Aaron and I don’t really care for air conditioning, so we don’t mind not having that luxury. But the heating, we care about. Our current heating situation is four permanently-installed gas space heaters, and winter temperatures in our house never really get above 66 degrees. I’m not complaining about 66 degrees; 66 is vastly more comfortable than the 60 degrees before our attic insulation and the mid-50s before our magnetic interior storm windows. So 66 is tolerable. But still, it might be nice to approach 68, or maybe, if we really want to embrace our American energy-consuming heritage, a toasty 70!

One of our gas space heaters. Notice the tube out the back, where heat is pumped directly to the outdoors.

We’ve been weighing our central-heat options over the past three years, with our primary goals being comfort and efficiency. (Given how hot the vents from the gas space heaters to the outside become, I’d estimate that our current heating system is about 30% efficient.) A heat pump with a back-up furnace is the standard in most homes. The heat pump is quite efficient; the furnace is not. Our tree-hugging selves really want the maximum green-ness, which translates to the most energy efficient system possible. That system is geothermal heat.

Geothermal works in a manner similar to a heat pump, but it uses the constant temperature of the earth to exchange heat rather than the widely fluctuating temperature of the outside air, hence the increased efficiency. In order to access the stable earth temperature, we’ll have to hire a drilling company to drill wells in our backyard for the heat exchange coils.

This geothermal stuff ain’t cheap. It costs about twice as much as a standard heat pump and furnace system. The rule of thumb has been that you’ll make up the difference in cost in 7-8 years, but that’s a long time to wait to recover such a substantial investment. Previous tax credits for energy improvements limited the payout to $1500. HOWEVER, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 eliminated the cap on tax credits specifically for geothermal heating systems (and a couple other specifically called-out items, like solar panels). That means that homeowners who install a geothermal system before December 31, 2016 can receive 30% of the total cost back. With that tax credit, the difference in cost between the two systems can be made up in 3-4 years.

For us, geothermal is an obvious choice. It’s greener, and it will start saving us money in 3-4 years. Plus, it eliminates the need for a bulky, noisy heat pump/air-conditioning unit in the backyard. And as a bonus, a by-product of the geothermal air handler is hot water, so that’ll save us energy and money on hot water all winter long.

So now we’re back to that pesky part about tearing up our entire backyard. To get the enormous drilling rig into our backyard, we have to remove not only our fence, but part of our neighbor’s fence as well. (Our neighbor is absolutely the best and had no problem with us temporarily taking his fence down.) But of course removing our fence means putting in a new fence which means that whole historic approval process and… we’re still working on it. That, and we need to prepare our house for a retrofitting of duct work, which fortunately shouldn’t be too hard. But it’s definitely a long process.

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