From The Ground Up

As you may recall, in a recent post I wrote about high propane prices prompting me to give the green light to the Precision Air Geothermal Team.  When we built this home, I remember asking my contractor about geothermal heating and cooling, but he dismissed the idea because he (inaccurately) thought it required a pond or lake.  That was roughly 10 years ago.  If I asked that same contractor today, he would probably know much more about geothermal (ground source) heat pumps and why anyone building a home should consider installing one.  Well, ten years ago, Precision Air was designing, installing, and servicing geothermal systems, but hardly any other Middle Tennessee  HVAC companies had embraced it yet.  (Now they all offer it, though for many it seems to be a way to attract potential customers with the hopes they can sell them a more conventional system)  I’ve had some emails asking me for numbers, so I thought I’d share the full story, though probably not as cleverly as this person wrote about her own geothermal story. ( In six parts!)

I live smack dab in the middle of Tennessee.  In the summer, it’s hot as hell.  In the winter, it’s cold as hell.  There are months of the year here where you can experience both summer and winter during your lunch-break.  So, yeah, heating and cooling your living space is no small matter.  We when built our home, we had three choices with respect to heating; electric heat pump, wood, or propane.  We went with propane, as it was a buck a gallon and we wanted to cook with a flame, and natural gas is not offered to Coyote Creek.  Of course we installed a wood burning stove in our living area because, well, a fire is nice.  For a number of years, I was perfectly content with arrangement.  Eventually, I began to resent having to use just one propane company for my supply, but since we “leased” our 500 gallon tank, I was limited to just that company, regardless of price.  So, I bought the tank outright.  Then, some suppliers started to refuse delivery because “they couldn’t guarantee that the tank didn’t leak” as it wasn’t their tank.  Then there was the turn around time, that is, the time between calling them to place the order until the time the truck arrives on your property.  Sometimes, it was weeks.  Last year, our driveway was so icy that a propane truck could not make it to us for delivery.  At $2.46 a gallon.  Which reminds me…the price I was originally quoted from my supplier for the winter of 2011/2012 was over three bucks a gallon. That phone call is what I refer to as the beginning of making our house a high-performance home.

High performance home.  What a concept.  Many of us dutifully monitor our vehicle’s tire pressure and overall driving habits, from simply easing off the gas pedal a little to drafting behind 18 wheelers. (which doesn’t work, I’m told, and in retrospect , I now know why I was flipped the bird from more than a couple of those “Covenant Transport” drivers)  We replace our spark plugs and air filters at the oil change place, secure in our knowledge that we are maximizing our vehicle’s efficiency.  Usually, we are rewarded for our efforts with a mile or two more per gallon of gasoline.  Good stuff.  But it is silly to park a Prius in your driveway if your house’s HVAC system is poorly installed or inefficient for the job.  Yet, people do it all the time,  but in terms of dollars, the pennies you get back from vehicle maintenance pales in comparison to what you could be losing each month while you heat and cool the outside air. Ask yourself this:  it’s August , it’s 100 plus degrees and if you had to choose between not having a car for a month or not having your air conditioner for the same amount of time, which would you pick?   I’m betting most of us would find a friend to drive us, take a bus or a bicycle, or even (God forbid) walk to work before we’d give up our AC.  So why is it that people pay so little attention to their furnace, which really is the heart of their home?

So the idea of a high performance home appealed to me.  One year, I went around the entire house with a  lit candle in an effort to locate potential drafts.  I repaired/replaced weather stripping.  I caulked.  I knew I had adequate insulation, so, when my HVAC unit was 10 years old, I started researching my options for replacement.  I already had a 13 SEER rated system, and one option was to upgrade.  We don’t have a large house, at least by American standards.  If you count the bonus room above the garage, it’s around 2300 sq ft.  Still,, because we opted to place our duct in the attic instead of the crawlspace, a 5 ton unit was required to adequately heat and cool our home.  I did a little research, and for a high efficiency (15 seer) heat pump I was looking at ten grand or more.  Big money.  Mitt Romney money.  Warren Buffett money.

The geothermal system cost me twice that.  Let’s say $20,000 all in.  Right off the top, I’m getting a tax credit (that’s real money, first dollar) of $6000.  So, if our tax liability is 6000 this year, we are paid in full.  If they have deducted that much from wages already, we get it all back.  So, now our true cost is $14000.  Since my old unit was still working, I advertised it on Craigslist and it sold in a week for $1000.00 Now I’m in $13,000.  I figure I can get 500 bucks for my 500 gallon propane tank, so we’re down to $12,500.  Generally speaking, we fill our tank twice a year, but let’s say we aren’t buying 800 gallons of liquid propane this year at $3.00 per.  That is an additional $2400.00 in my pocket, so my cost comes down to $11,600, first year.  In year two assuming the same amount of propane is not purchased, that is another $2400.  Ditto year 3 and every year after.  I’ll break even in roughly 5 years.  That ain’t a bad R.O.I. (Return on investment)  But wait!  There’s more.

Did I mention my “De-superheater”?  Basically, the geothermal pump redirects the hot air in my home to use it to heat the water in our water heater.  Got that?  I can flip the breaker off to my water heater, and still have plenty of hot water in warmer months.  Remember the SEER rating of 15?  The geothermal system has a rating equivalent to a 34 SEER!  High performance indeed.  I haven’t factored in the very conservative estimate on electricity saved this year, which could be as high as 70%.

What are the drawbacks, you ask?  Fair enough.  Here’s one:  It’s a lot of work!

Nah, I didn’t really dig that trench with a shovel.  I actually used a spoon. Or, maybe it was a back-hoe.  If you want a geothermal system, you have to get into the ground, either horizontally (like ours) or vertically.  The drilling techniques and equipment out there make this an option even if you live in a cookie cutter condo!  Very small footprint, actually.  But for a week or so, your lot is going to be a bit messy.

Also, since a geothermal unit is placed in your crawlspace or basement, there is no more beautiful HVAC unit decorating the outside of your home.  I suppose you could plant roses there instead.

Lastly, the pumps are estimated to last 25 years or so, so it may be awhile before you get to have fun investigating the world of residential heating and cooling….

In another post, I’ll tell y’all why I selected Tony and Precision Air to do the job.  Thanks for dropping by.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “From The Ground Up

  1. Way cool and SMOKIN’, dude!

    Has the heat been even and capable of quick temperature rise?

    When you get a little time, go over to my place. I wrote a screed this evening. It’s impolite.

  2. That’s cool. And hot. It’s hot and cool! How do it know?
    :-)

  3. Mack:

    I’ve been on a thread over at Free Thought Blogs where the nukies are talkin’ bout how ‘spensive and unreliable alternative energy is (try building nukes without massive public funding/Price Anderson, boys).

    I just talked to the business manager for Solar Markets in Arundel, ME. It’s owned by a gentlemen, Nauto Inouye, whom I’ve known since the early 70′s–though I’ve only spoken to him once since 1981. Here’s the link: http://www.solarmarket.com/contact.html, give it a look. I was calling to see if there is a general “clearing house” of accurate information for ROI, install cost and payback times on various forms of alternative energy production. I’m told that his company is looking at building 5 MW solar power producing arrays.

  4. Isn’t it about time for the follow-up post? {;>)

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