Warmth from below Comfort: Geothermal heat pumps aim to address the shortcomings of traditional heat pumps by using earth's ability to store energy.

March 08, 1998|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the staff at Jamestown Builders initially approached John Shin about installing a geothermal heat-pump system in the home he was buying at Jamestown's Eastern View subdivision in Fulton, Shin was skeptical.

For starters, Shin wasn't exactly sure what the technology entailed. And the words "heat pump" raised red flags "because I would never have a regular heat pump system in my home," he said. "I just don't like them."

In fact, a geothermal heat pump is not a regular heat pump system. Traditional heat pumps use electricity to force air around in an effort to heat and cool a home or building. Bob Light, senior program administrator with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said the biggest complaint BGE hears about the traditional system "is that it feels like cold air is coming out of the register because the air is at a lower temperature than skin temperature."

The geothermal heat pump helps property owners capitalize on the earth's ability to store energy. A ground-heat exchange system of looping pipes are filled with a water-based solution and then used to remove or add heat to a home or building. During cold months, a fan inside the structure distributes the warmed air, which usually ranges between 104 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Electricity is used only to distribute the heat, not create it, resulting in a substantial savings on utility bills. The system is reversed in summer, removing heat from a dwelling in order to cool it. Waste energy is used to heat hot water -- for free in the summer and at a much lower cost than normal in winter.

Considered the most environmentally friendly method of heating and cooling by builders, it costs, on average, about $3,500 with at least another $3,000 for the heat pump unit and another $3,500 for various incremental costs. That $10,000 can appear steep to homeowners also considering a traditional natural gas system, which averages $4,800 for the gas and central air conditioning, Light said.

BGE had been offering a $2,000 rebate to builders who installed the system, but that has since been rescinded, because "We think the purchase of a ground source heat pump can be justified on its own merit," Light said.

Nationally, interest in geothermal systems has seen rapid growth -- especially in the last 10 months. John Farrell, director of finance and administration for the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium Inc., said that since the group opened an information center in May, it has averaged 100 calls a day and 6,000 hits on its Internet Web site.

The Washington-based consortium is a joint effort between the federal government, utilities and geothermal equipment manufacturers and installers.

"Right now, geothermal systems represent about 1 percent of the total heating market," Farrell said. "The goal is to have 400,000 units installed annually by 2001."

"During the last several months, interest has been growing 60 to 65 percent. And if there's an ad placed in This Old House magazine, we get thousands of calls."

The technology has been slow to catch on in Maryland, however. Light, of BGE, said the utility receives only a few dozen inquiries a year about geothermal systems. And though the systems have been installed in a number of public buildings -- from an office complex at Patuxent River Naval Air Station to the U.S. Post Office in the small northwest Carroll County community of Keymar -- and schools, including Choptank Elementary School in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, few of the state's residential builders are offering the technology.

Light said the problem may lie with the limited media attention and advertising geothermal systems have received in this region. Slow acceptance of the technology is also due to people's proclivity to stay with technology they already know, such as natural gas, he said.

Chris Carlyle, president of Jamestown Builders, hadn't heard much about geothermal systems before he was approached by BGE and asked to consider offering it as an option at Eastern View.

Working with licensed contractors recommended by BGE, Carlyle said he has been very pleased with installation of the system at the model home in Eastern View, as well as other homes in the development. Carlyle said three families have elected to install a geothermal system instead of natural gas.

Home prices at Eastern View range from $339,400 to $417,400. The geothermal option costs between $7,000 and $8,000.

John Shin, long loyal to the gas system that heated his previous home, said it was the expected cost-effectiveness of the geothermal system that made the choice for him.

"When they said it would save me money in the long run, that's when I started to seriously consider it," Shin said.

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