Geothermal technology offers way to save energy

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— With energy costs - and environmental consciousness - on the rise, more and more homeowners are looking outside the traditional boiler room when it comes to heating their homes.

Geothermal technology, or the process of tapping the earth's temperature to heat and cool homes and buildings, is among heating systems gaining a foothold in home design and construction, architect Joe Patrick Robbins said.

"I really think it's the wave of the future," he said. "Our clients are becoming more aware of how important it is to protect the environment, and this is just one aspect of creating sustainable design."

Geothermal or ground source heat pump technology involves loops of plastic piping buried in the ground. A pump circulates water or an antifreeze solution through the pipes where it collects heat from the earth and carries it into the home.

In the summer, the fluid pulls heat from the home and carries it back to the ground, replenishing heat taken in winter and acting as a cooling system for the house.

Geothermal systems are friendlier to the environment and save energy because they re-circulate existing heat rather than burn energy to create heat. The electricity that runs the pumps generally is the only energy necessary to run the system.

"For every one unit of energy you put into it on the average you get about 30 units of energy out," explained Jeffrey Campbell, owner of Simply Radiant Heating, which installs the systems.

The technology is ideal for new construction with passive solar, heat efficient windows and other materials and techniques designed to hold in heat in the winter and cool air in the summer.

Geothermal systems also should be paired with low-temperature radiant in-floor heating systems, Campbell said.

"Bottom line, there needs to be synergy - everybody needs to come together to make the house work," he said.

Geothermal systems are a significant investment - roughly two to three times more than traditional boiler systems, Campbell said. However, the cost can be recouped in as little as three years, according to the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, a nonprofit organization based at Oklahoma State University.

"If you want to build a house as a place to live in for awhile, it really makes a lot of sense, especially if you have a lot that's easier to put it in," Robbins said.

There are several options for installing geothermal systems. The tubing can be placed six to seven feet in the ground in horizontal trenches on large, relatively flat properties.

Tubing also can be placed in a bore hole, drilled to about 300 feet deep where the earth's temperature is a consistent 50-degrees - an option that works well on small or steep and rocky building sites, Campbell said.

He recommended homeowners seek an accredited ground source heat pump designer/installer to determine the best options.

For more information on geothermal technology, visit www.igshpa.okstate.edu.

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