He'd been putting off the big moment for years, but Bill Davidson finally decided enough was enough. The carbon cycle, he says, "is a bad problem to be a part of"—it was heat-pump time.
Last year, Davidson decided to temporarily destroy his backyard (which, he points out, had long needed a makeover anyway) in order to dig four 200-foot-deep holes in the ground. The idea is to install water pipes at a depth where the temperature is a steady 55 or so degrees year-round. The pipes, with the help of a pump, bring the temperate water back to the surface, where it helps to keep his 2,400-square-foot home toasty warm in winter and cool throughout the summer. The project virtually eliminated the noisy oil furnace (which Davidson keeps as a backup) and means annual savings of more than $1,700.
Harnessing the technology of a heat pump to save that kind of money on energy is not within everyone's reach: The cost of retrofitting his house—installing duct work in the downstairs, tunneling pipes in the yard and putting a heat pump in the basement—was about $30,000, he says. But he's kicking himself that he didn't have the work done sooner.
Over the years, he says, he's had several conversations with himself about heating the house. When he moved into the circa-1940s Cape Cod on a peninsula known as Bay Ridge, just south of Annapolis, he wasn't happy with the oil heat, and the place had no air conditioning.
At the time, in the 1980s, he looked at a little-used technology—geothermal heat transfer—that involved extracting warm air from the ground with a pump. But he decided installing a system, which requires ducts throughout the house, was too expensive. A decade later, when he and his wife added a second floor to their house, they put in air conditioning, which required ductwork. "I looked at heat pumps again," he says. But this time, he considered the more traditional air-source system. The quote he got, $30,000 to install a conventional air-source heat pump, was too much, he believed. "I wasn't sure how long we'd be in the house."
But, eventually, Davidson, who has a master's degree in environmental management and works in renewable energy as a manager in Montgomery County's solid waste division, felt his conscience intervene—it was about the health of the planet. "I'm part of the problem, and I want to do the right thing," he says. "At the same time, I realized I didn't want to be having the same conversation with myself 10 years from now."
For Kelly Palmiotto, the decision to install a geothermal heat pump didn't take quite so long. When she left her job at the Maryland Department of the Environment five years ago to renovate a house—and embark on raising a family with her husband Vincent, a lawyer for Miles & Stockbridge—she researched green building products. She learned about geothermal heat pumps at the Baltimore Homebuilders Convention and had one installed by Owings Mills-based Ambassador Services in 2005. Since then, she says, her home heating and air-conditioning bills are about a third of what they would be with conventional systems. And the system also provides hot water—free of charge.
Mention heat pumps to most Marylanders, says Frank Lee, director of building science for the Terra Logos Energy Group, "and they'll cringe." The air-source heat pump, which most are familiar with, deserves this response, he maintains. Popular in the 1970s and '80s, the older system consists of a unit installed outside that relies on outdoor air—exchanging warm air for cool, and distributing the conditioned air through ducts. They are known, says Lee, for being noisy and inefficient.
But heat-pump technology has come a long way. Today's geothermal systems are considerably more efficient (with a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, or SEER, of up to 30 compared to the 1980s air-source figure of about 8, according to Lee), and they are good for the planet. "The source for the heat is the ground temperature," says Lee. "If you run a pipe into the ground and pump water through the pipe, when it comes back it will be 55 degrees. No matter how hot or cold it is outside, the ground temperature is consistent."
Moreover, costs for installing the systems—$20,000 and up—are mitigated by a 30 percent federal tax credit, a deal that's good until 2016, according to energy.gov/taxbreaks. There are also state rebates for geothermal heat pumps, which fall into the category of renewable energy systems like solar panels and wind turbines.
Mark Schultz, who worked as a hydrogeologist for most of his career, installed a geothermal heat pump in his own Annapolis home more than a decade ago. The technology, he says, seemed like an obvious choice. "If you use geothermal," he says, "it eliminates your reliance on foreign oil and you're no longer taking the tops off mountains in West Virginia to get coal."
And as his hydrogeological consulting business began to slow down a few years ago, he started looking at geothermal technology as a business opportunity. Schultz realized that although many HVAC contractors were installing heat pumps, there were no specialists in geothermal heat pumps. "There was nobody putting the pieces together," he says. "I decided that would be a pretty good niche."
Schultz started his Annapolis-based Earth River Geothermal in 2007, and has since installed dozens of systems—including Bill Davidson's. He says a geothermal heat pump will "typically knock a utility bill in half." And the ideal customers are those who already have duct work in their homes. A unit about the size of a small refrigerator—the geothermal heat pump itself—uses electricity to pump water into, and back out of, the ground, through pipes that run through borings in the yard. The typical home will have two to four underground loops, says Schultz, though they will all connect to the indoor system through two pipes. In most cases, air will be circulated through ducts, though in newer homes, Schultz says, the heat can be used in radiant floor systems.
Carol and Steve Josey, who also live in Annapolis' Bay Ridge neighborhood, own a 1920s house—once a summer cottage—that has been in Steve's family for several generations. The second floor wasn't heated, says Carol, and the home suffered from intense heat in the summer and bitter wind in the winter. They looked into solar, but decided to go with the geothermal system, says Carol, because "it's a good year-round solution and also helps to produce hot water for the house."
While the system was expensive, she says, the decision was a good one. "When you're doing a renovation and you only have so much money, you have to decide what your priorities are," she says. "We decided that this was the right thing to do, and we're very pleased with the decision."
Their neighbor, Bill Davidson, is also happy that he finally talked himself into a geothermal system. "My house is much more comfortable than before," he says. Instead of the rumbling noise and smelly fumes of a furnace, "the heat pump makes no noise at all, and I no longer have those noisy air conditioners." But mainly the system dovetails with his values. "Environment, energy, and economic goals are not fundamentally antithetical," he says, "but are often one and the same."
There was one more benefit: He used the muddy upheaval of his yard as an excuse to do some much-needed landscaping. So now, says Davidson, "instead of a moonscape, I have a nice billiard-table lawn."