Howard County warming up to geothermal heating and cooling

Despite a lack of local incentives, geothermal heating and cooling is digging deep roots

  • Ryan Gardner, Kristine Amari and their daughter Alice Amari at their home in Columbia, where they recently had a geothermal heating and cooling system installed.
Ryan Gardner, Kristine Amari and their daughter Alice Amari… (Brian Krista / Baltimore…)
October 01, 2014|By Lane Page | For The Baltimore Sun

Since they came out of the forest, our ancestors must have looked up to the skies for warm sunlight and cooling breezes. A few, looking down at natural steam vents and hot springs, found themselves able to take advantage of the earth itself for geothermal heat.

Skipping to the present, when renewable energy tax credits, rebates and grants have refueled a serious interest in the underground energy source, this heat pump that uses water instead of air has taken a foothold in Howard County as a result of its long-term financial benefits, even after the demise of a local tax incentive. 

Those who’ve gone with geothermal energy are pleased with their decisions.

“I used to be a thermostat hawk,” says John Fuller of Fulton. “Now I just set it and forget it.”

When he built his home in 1996, oil for the furnace was 80 cents a gallon; by the time he switched to geothermal in 2011, that cost had increased fivefold.

Fuller took advantage of all four financial incentives then available, from federal, state and county governments and BGE, slicing the $28,000 cost to $13,000.

Now he estimates his average winter electric bill for both light and heat in his 3,600-square-foot home is $300, compared to a minimum of $800 before retrofitting. 

“I’m probably saving an average of $3,000 to $3,500 a year,” Fuller judges. “I feel I have already paid myself back.”

Marie Grunwell can’t say enough good things about her four-year-old geothermal system, installed to provide heat and air conditioning in her family’s Marriottsville rancher, just as 100-plus solar panels she and husband Harry had installed the previous year supply its electricity.

“We didn’t even think about having electric heat,” she explains. “It’s not as efficient, and the heat and cold are uneven.”

Rebates halved the $48,000 cost of the Grunwells’ system, the temperature is more consistent, the system is silent and they have more yard space without the propane tank, which no longer needs to be filled with $3,000 worth of propane a year. Grunwell reports her electric bill decreased from a pre-solar $4,158 in 2008 to $3,017 with the addition of solar capacity, down to $2,282 when geothermal was added to the mix. What’s not to like?

A new geothermal system means no more chills in the winter, nor perspiration-dampened jammies in the summer, for 1-year-old Alice Amari. Now that her parents, Ryan Gardner and Kristine Amari, have switched to geothermal energy in the Columbia home they bought in 2013 (solar wasn’t an option with their shady yard), she’ll enjoy even temperatures in her bedroom, where an old air heat pump and undersized ductwork had made for an 8- to 10-degree difference between upstairs and down.

With the past summer so mild, the environmentally minded couple hasn’t had much of a chance to judge savings over the original system, but the roughly $24,000 cost — average for a retrofit here, according to John Love, owner of Geothermal Specialists/Love’s Heating and Air Conditioning — didn’t seem as great an expense considering that the old one had to go anyway, says Gardner. 

 

From the ground up

Maybe someday Alice Amari will do a science project on the process and learn that what’s keeping her comfy is actually solar power, after all.

Geothermal energy is not heat generated from earth’s molten core, nor from underground hot springs, but energy absorbed from the sun into the ground, which at 20 feet down remains a steady 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

The energy is indefinitely, if not infinitely, renewable and recyclable, as the geothermal pump withdraws heat from the ground in the winter and returns it in summer, with byproduct heated water supplementing household hot water needs.

The system of polyethylene “ground loops” — ranging from one to five or six, based on the square footage of the home — can be installed almost anywhere, even if there’s no yard, as long as there’s a driveway, says Jason Cullum, project manager of Ground Loop Heating and Air Conditioning.

The cost of installation can vary dramatically depending on well depth and loop configuration, John Love explains. Horizontal installations in trenches cost less than vertical shafts but require more space. An old farm pond can host loops, too. Wells just need to be 15 feet apart, Love adds. 

When all the digging is done, all the loops and piping connections installed, there’s nothing visible above ground. Excavation sites can be repaved, resodded or planted with flowers, veggies or even some bushes (but not trees, due to their extensive root systems). The only maintenance required is on the indoor pump and controls, and that’s no more to do than what’s recommended for any heating system. The setup doesn’t take up any more room than that, either.

Looped in

So what’s stopping us all from drilling? What usually halts fine plans in their tracks? Money.

While current tax advantages and utility grants aren’t quite what they used to be, geothermal customers in Howard County are eligible for a federal tax credit of 30 percent on the total cost of project installation through 2016, a state grant of $3,000 and $1,800 per compressor unit from BGE.

Not long ago, Howard County had its own renewable energy tax credit program of up to $5,000, which became too successful for its own good.

Don Mock, plan review chief with the county Office of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, explains that the county had a finite budget for tax credits each year, and as a result of the program’s popularity, some people having geothermal systems installed in 2011 couldn’t get their tax credits until 2014.

“When they heard that, they’d say, ‘Well, then, I won’t get it done until 2014,’ ” remembers Mock. “We could have renewed the program, but it was more detrimental [to the effort to jump-start the industry and create green jobs here] by then.”

Though permit applications are down from the boom tax credit years of 2010 to 2012, he notes, some 50 applications come in annually, with 22 through July. After all, the other financial incentives are still available.

And even if those end, banks will still finance the systems, says Cullum, whose father sold geothermal systems without tax credits for 20 years. Back in the day, there was more new construction with geothermal than retrofits, he adds. 

But today in Howard County, few builders are offering the option, although some will arrange it if a homebuyer requests it.

There is, however, a large commercial market in Maryland for green schools, Cullum notes. Here, eco-friendly Ducketts Lane Elementary School (built in 2013) is the model for all new county elementary schools, while green public buildings such as Robinson Nature Center would have their heating and cooling no other way.

“I think prices [for installation] will come down as more people get interested,” predicts Love.

And as public projects make geothermal technology more familiar, more geothermal homes are likely to come on the market.

And when that happens, says Fuller, a happy geothermal homeowner and branch manager of a mortgage company, “I would certainly think it’s a selling feature.”  

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