Russ Root made an efficient move last year -- to a new home he had built in Goshen, Connecticut. While it is considerably bigger than his former house, in Chenango Forks, New York, it will cost far less to cool and to heat. That is because he did something he had thought about ever since he built his last house, 15 years earlier: He installed a geothermal system instead of an oil-guzzling boiler.
Now all the heat to warm his house is supplied by the earth beneath him. It's pumped up, through plastic piping, in water circulating in his backyard 1.8m underground -- where the temperature stays at about 45o -- and distributed by a fan through the house's ductwork as air warmed to around 95o.
The bill for Root's geothermal pump, its ground loop of piping and the house's ductwork was just over US$21,500. While a geothermal system, including labor, typically costs more than a comparable furnace and air-conditioning system, the price was about the same for Root, because the extra expense of digging and looping -- US$1,500 in his case -- was more than offset by a US$2,000 rebate from Connecticut Light and Power.
"I was in the black from the day I moved in," Root said, who is a lineman for the utility, which treated him as it would any other customer.
The water circulates through the geothermal pump over coils containing refrigerant, which absorbs its heat. The refrigerant is then raised to the higher temperature under pressure by a compressor. In the summer, the method is reversed. His home is cooled by circulating hot air out of the house -- a process that is similar to the operation of a refrigerator, an appliance that his basement pump resembles.
The system is quiet, clean and odorless, and uses little electricity. Maintenance consists of cleaning a filter every few months; the pipes are guaranteed to last 50 years. There are virtually no moving parts other than the pump. After living for more than a year in the 269.5m2 home, a third bigger than his old house, Root finds that his energy costs are running about 20 percent less than the US$2,700 he used to spend.
And he is likely to reap added benefits when he sells the house. A 1998 study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency found that a home's value rises an average of US$20 for each US$1 decrease in the annual utility bill.
Although the notion of tapping the earth's heat has been around forever and the basic technology has existed for decades, the many advantages have only recently begun to win widespread attention. The big reasons are concern for the environment and, more to the point, money. Geothermal systems are becoming increasingly competitive, even for homes in which an old furnace and air-conditioning system must first be removed.
After a decade in which installations grew 20 percent a year, a million American homes -- both old and new -- now have geothermal heat pumps, said Jessica Commins, a spokeswoman for the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium. And a growing number of celebrity homeowners who use them -- like the country music star Toby Keith, the Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, the actor Ed Begley Jr. and President George W. Bush -- have helped to raise the technology's profile.
Energy legislation last summer increased the financial support for these systems. The law provides for US$300 in federal tax incentives and includes a provision allowing for a US$2,000 federal incentive for home improvements that reduce energy costs by more than 50 percent. Geothermal systems can trim 30 percent to 75 percent of the cost to heat and cool, so many installations would qualify.