Park Place to tap into earth for geothermal heating

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— The excavation work going on at the Park Place development does not look all that unusual above the surface. It's what's underneath that is so groundbreaking. Groundbreaking for Steamboat Springs, at least.

Developer Harold Stout is building the first major project in Steamboat to tap into geothermal heating. Park Place, perched on a knoll in Old Town, will house 14 single-family lots, four townhomes and eight condos where the old Routt Memorial Hospital once stood.

Stout, a broker associate with Elk River Realty, said it was the economic and environmental benefits that drew him to geothermal heating, which pumps heat from the ground and disperses it throughout homes.

"I talked to different architects and engineers and decided to pursue it," Stout said.

Two homes in Steamboat already take advantage of geothermal heat, Stout's own home just a few blocks from Park Place and a home belonging to Jeff Cure.

Stout's system for Park Place has 48 wells about 300 feet deep.

Those wells tap into heat underneath the earth. Even with Colorado's extreme seasonal changes, at about seven feet below the surface the earth's ambient temperature stays a constant 52 degrees, Stout said.

The heat pumps he uses draw on gas. As the gas is pressurized, it will give off a great deal of heat and the gas will turn cold. That means a pump can take gas at 52 degrees and compress it to generate heat as high as 160 to 180 degrees.

Using a closed-loop system, the heat is sent to the homes and the cooled gas, which is about 47 degrees, is sent back to the earth.

In the summer, heat can be pumped out of the house and put into the ground, acting as an air conditioner and creating heated water as a byproduct of the process.

Stout said geothermal technology does not have any environmental impacts to surrounding landowners and is a renewable energy source.

"The sun comes down on the earth every day. Even on a cloudy day, heat from the sun penetrates the earth," Stout said. "There is so much heat out there to be used. It is never going to run out."

Mark Marchus, the chief building officer at the Routt County Regional Building Department, said anytime a natural heating source can be used it is a good thing. He also said that the amount of heat taken out of the ground will be so small in comparison to what remains that surrounding neighbors will not be affected.

"It is not going to affect the ecology," Marchus said.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Web site claims geothermal pumps produce heat more efficiently than furnaces, boilers and air-source heat pumps. It also claims geothermal technologies release little or no air emissions.

Using geothermal technology instead of a natural gas boiler to heat a home would be the same as cutting back the emissions two cars emit per year, Stout said.

"People don't know about it. (Geothermal heating) got a little notoriety in the late '70s and early '80s. The technology really wasn't there," Stout said. "The technology got better and cheaper."

As the cost of oil and other fossil fuels continues to rise, Stout said it has become cheaper to heat homes through geothermal means.

The up-front costs of drilling and installing the equipment is higher than traditional heating systems, but over time low-cost monthly heating bills more than pay for it, Stout said.

Monthly bills are roughly one-third of what it would cost for natural gas, he said.

But Park Place homeowners do have choices; they do not have to use geothermal heat. Along with tapping into the city's water and sewer system, the houses will be connected to an Atmos Gas pipeline and homeowners can elect natural gas over geothermal heating.

Stout said geothermal heating is something that can work anywhere in Routt County and would be particularly useful for rural homes on 35-acre lots. Those properties could put horizontal systems in the ground as opposed to the more expensive vertical systems that Stout used in the city.

"It makes sense here, but it makes even more sense in the county," he said.

Along with tapping into the geothermal heat, the townhome project is using structural insulated panels that come cut to fit homes and are able to hold more efficiently the warm air in the winter and cold air in the summer. The panels are better insulators for homes than the traditional building method of closing in houses using sheet rock, plywood and fiberglass insulation, project general contractor Hudson Maynard said.

The studs in stick-built homes conduct cold air through the winter and warm air in the summer, he said.

"We tried to be as environmentally friendly as possible," Maynard said.

Of the 14 single-family lots up for sale, Stout said three remain unsold.

This spring, work began on a four-unit townhome building, which he plans to finish by spring 2004. An eight-unit condominium project, which is being built to look like an old mansion, should be finished by fall 2005.

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