Fired Up on Heat Sources ... Warming up to efficiency
By Jonie Larson
Let’s face it. For most of us, besides changing the filter and paying the monthly bill, those furnaces sitting somewhere in the middle of our homes or heat pumps just outside, are fixtures we maneuver around but count on to do their jobs without much maintenance. In all honesty, we may not know how they actually work or whether they’re efficient. For the most part, all we care is that they keep us warm.
But the time will come. The heating and cooling expert will one day deliver the news that the aging unit installed when the house was built – or the one inherited with the purchase of the home – is on its way out. Suddenly, you – the homeowner – must buy a new unit to heat your home. Your big question: Where do I begin?
With all this talk about energy efficiency and federal tax credits for improvements, even a knowledgeable consumer can be confused as to how much to spend and on what type of unit.
John Freitag, Vice President of Operations at the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, says consumers need to balance their purchase against plans for the future and the efficiency of their home.
There are all kinds of options, but geothermal is king because of its practical use of the earth’s steady underground temperatures. A simple formula for how it works is described by Doug Rye, a well-known energy columnist often featured in Illinois Country Living.
Rye says geothermal is best described as a ground-source heat pump or water-source heat pump, meaning it doesn’t create heat, but moves it. The complexity of it can be broken down like this. The earth’s temperature hovers in the 50-plus degree range in the Midwest, evidenced by cave temperatures. When a geothermal unit is put into operation, it takes that heat – which is warmer than surface air – and by compressor, removes the heat from water running through tubing or loops installed in the ground. It then provides 105-degree air into the house. In the summer, a reverse valve creates the opposite effect, cooling the home or business.
In short, it takes less energy to cool or heat a facility because the energy has been obtained from its original source – the earth.
Mike Henry, Comptroller for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, was faced with choosing a new heating system. He and his wife built a new home in 2009, just recently moving in.
As a 20-year employee of the association, Henry said he’s been well exposed to geothermal articles such as Rye’s and lots of talk about the efficiency of the system.
“As first-time home builders, we had a lot of decisions to make. Being familiar with geothermal made the heating and cooling decision an easy one,” Henry says.
Since it was a new home, Henry went a step further, putting in geothermal-powered radiant floor heat in the basement and bathrooms. The rest of the home gets hot or cold air, depending upon the season, through ducts.
The savings for Henry’s family are only calculated at this point, but his installer, Dave Weidner of Weidner Refrigeration, Inc., Divernon, says the choices Henry made will serve him well.
“Geothermal is considered renewable energy,” says Weidner, adding, “it’s clean; it’s efficient” and qualifies as green technology.
One of the units Weidner installed for Henry is a ClimateMaster, 4-ton, Tranquility model.
“He’s got the Cadillac of the Cadillacs,” Weidner says.
Weidner, who is often praised for quality work, is a huge proponent of geothermal and installs several different units from different companies. In addition to ClimateMaster, he is also a dealer of GeoComfort, a quality line from Enertech Manufacturing, a company that Weidner proclaims to be a top-notch supplier.
His recommendation on what unit to install for a customer comes from a heat load analysis completed by Weidner at the beginning of a project. In that he measures the size of the home, looks at the existing system or what is being built, checks out the insulation and the windows and checks the cost of energy from the utility. From his data, he can give qualified estimates as to how much the customer will save by going geothermal and how long payback will take.
While rebates and efficiency make geothermal enticing, there are times when Weidner won’t recommend it. The amount of time a person intends to stay in a home is a consideration; another drawback can be limited lot space. If the lot size isn’t large enough to install the geothermal loop field, then other options have to be considered.
All the conditions were right for the Henry home. Since it was new construction, D & S Builders – owned and operated by Todd Dudley and Dan Schrage, who are rated as Energy Star builders – made sure the home met the geothermal installation requirements.
Dudley said Henry’s home is both Gold Star green rated and a qualified Energy Star home. He and his partner are certified in both areas and apply similar quality specs in all their contracted jobs.
He said the job of the primary contractor is to keep the air out. Energy efficiency specifics in the Henry home include varying amounts and types of insulation. Sub-contractor A.H.I. of Springfield installed a wet-spray cellulose insulation in the 2 x 6 walls with a rating of R-21. Dudley says it gets in all the crevices to block out the elements. Around 11 inches of cellulose, with an R-38 rating was blown into the attic and even an R-28 in the garage.
Attention to windows is also a detail that can’t be overlooked. Dudley said he likes to install an Energy Star, low-e with a good wind rating. He said Henry’s home endured some high winds in recent weeks and “it held up really well.”
When the job is complete, D & S performs a blower door test. Henry’s home well-exceeded the specifications, earning a superb rating.
If geothermal is the choice heat source, as it was for the Henry home, Weidner is adamant about proper installation. He’s been called to the rescue several times to uncover problems left behind by inexperienced geothermal installers. Not only does it give geothermal a bad name, it can also cost the customer thousands of dollars to correct.
“That’s happening all over the state,” Weidner says. He suggests customers do their homework before
accepting a bid from an installer.
Dudley had nothing but praise for Weidner.
“He does a super job,” Dudley said, noting that Weidner is an expert on determining airflow through the home.
The type of unit is important, too, with product lines getting stronger and stronger.
Chris Smith, GeoComfort sales representative from Enertech, says the company has taken a giant step forward this year, developing a new unit called the Compass Series. Enertech is touting it as the first major innovation in the geothermal heat pump industry in more than 20 years.
It came about in a type of round-table atmosphere, where 12 reputable geothermal dealers from the state were asked to participate on a panel to “decide how to build the best product we can build,” Smith said.
After much discussion, the Enertech research and development team in Greenville, where the company is headquartered, worked with the ideas, ran the tests and developed the new unit which was unveiled Nov. 3 at a distributor meeting. Full production is set to begin in January.
What’s different about it? It’s the first multi-positional geothermal unit on the market. In short, that means dealers can decrease inventory on the floor. In addition, it’s said to be extremely quiet, designed with a control panel that’s more at eye level and it looks good.
The thing that didn’t change is the quality interior components. It’s basically the same unit, but the company is just “taking things to a new level.”
“It’s neat. It’s clean,” Smith said.
Enertech had an “awesome growth year” in 2009, according to the salesman. With the Compass ramping up, it is expecting continued success.
“We’re getting rave reviews,” he said.
Which is the smarter buy?
In 2010 you have many options for heating, some appearing more costly than others. But consumers need to consider government tax credits in the equation of costs and savings.
As an example, let’s say the homeowner looks at geothermal, which could cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. Then the owner looks at the savings he can expect on his monthly bill, adding up how long it would take him to recoup that initial investment. Some people might refer to this as payback.
But that’s wrong. The homeowner has already made an error in judgment. The typical formula is called “incremental payback.” It’s a more accurate measure says John Freitag, Vice President of Operations for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives.
It works like this. Let’s say the geothermal unit and installation is $30,000. For comparison purposes, a traditional gas-forced air unit in our example will cost $15,000. The incremental payback would be based on the $15,000 difference.
But wait. Government incentives are going to reduce that difference. A tax credit allowance of 30 percent available through 2016 can be applied to the geothermal unit. The conventional furnace also qualifies for a 30 percent tax credit up to $1,500 through 2010.
Now the cost factors look considerably closer. The geothermal unit in this example will cost $21,000. The traditional unit will cost $13,500, a difference of only $7,500 – half of the original cost differential.
At this point, incremental payback, the time it takes to recoup the difference through the energy savings, is much smaller. A typical incremental payback for a residential geothermal installation is 3-6 years, Freitag says.
In addition to the government incentives, heating systems like geothermal are often eligible for additional rebates from entities such as power suppliers. For information regarding rebates, check out the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity at www.commerce.state.il.us or dsireusa.org/incentives.
For information on geothermal visit the Geothermal Alliance of Illinois at www.gaoi.org
Spoon River Steps Up
Cooperative leap ‘just makes sense’
Electric cooperatives are generally great resources for learning about heat units and quality installers, but one Illinois cooperative has taken service to a new level – a level believed to be unmatched by any other cooperative in the country.
As of April 2008, Spoon River Electric Cooperative, located in Canton, Ill., bought out an established business known to area customers as Easley Mechanical Services. It was renamed Spoon River Mechanical Services, Inc.
Bill Dodds, President and CEO of Spoon River, said the reputable business founded by Kermit Easley in the 1970s, had been supplying quality service to members for years. Easley passed away in the fall of 2007, but it was his commitment to the rural community and his long-time belief in geothermal that spawned Dodds’ new vision.
“I’m thinking this just makes sense,” Dodds says, remembering why he supported the unconventional idea.
Not only were the employees of Easley retained, others were hired. There are now 15 full-time employees.
The new division is a separate, for-profit business. Brenda Rothert, Director of Communications and Member Services for Spoon River Electric Cooperative, works extensively with the division.
“Spoon River Mechanical adds value for our members, but we serve customers throughout the area,” Rothert says. Building on the foundation created by Easley, the new venture has seen nothing but success and growth.
Spoon River Mechanical is a full-line business with a 1,200 square-foot showroom located about a block from the cooperative headquarters, offering sales, service and installation on everything from electrical, heating, cooling, refrigeration, plumbing and more.
“If you’re building a new house, we can do all the mechanical system work, not just the heating and plumbing,” says Rothert. The company offers sales and installation of Generac whole-house backup generators. It also installs and services WaterFurnace geothermal systems, as well as Trane heating and cooling equipment for the more conventional installation or replacement.
One of the principles cooperatives exist to support is that of “Concern for Community.” The Mechanical division, which serves both rural electric members and other non-member customers, has helped maintain quality service in its territory.
“It’s really great to have a place where we can refer our members,” says Rothert, noting that it offers fair rates and good service.
Rod Lynch, Vice President of Operations for Spoon River Mechanical, spoke to the growing number of geothermal installations. Efficiency and government incentives have greatly increased the number of people choosing the energy source that comes from the ground. He said at one time 30- to 40-percent of customers were choosing geothermal. That ratio has increased. Now requests are two to one.
Another boost to those numbers is the available financing. A local bank has made it easier for many members to secure the money for the geothermal installations. Dodds says it’s a straight-forward program with a fixed rate.
Lynch says the division also works with the government’s weatherization program to assist those in need. And as the company matures, the three expect loans and grants to become a part of the financial resources.
Rothert says Dodds was the impetus for this major venture. Again, he says the situation was just perfect to make it succeed.
“Everything just fell into place,” Dodds says.
In addition to the Mechanical division, the cooperative also owns Spoon River Propane, a winning combination according to Rothert.
“In conjunction with the propane business, it makes us an all-energy provider.”