The Biggest Pros and Cons of Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal Heat Pump Graphic

According to many HVAC industry sources, a geothermal heat pump (GHP) is the best light commercial or home heating and cooling system you can choose. Just consult the good folks at ENERGY STAR, who certify home appliances and equipment as environmentally friendly, or even our partners at Rheem, who manufacture industry-leading HVAC equipment. Everyone has great things to say about GHPs.

However, geothermal heating and cooling solutions may not be right for your home.

While geothermal heat pumps are incredibly efficient and able to save you considerable money over time, installation may not be feasible depending on your budget, your home’s physical location, and other factors.

Today we’re taking a closer look at how geothermal heating and cooling works versus conventional HVAC systems with air source heat pumps, as well as why the answer to whether GHPs are worth the investment is, “it depends.” There are a lot of great reasons to install geothermal equipment to heat and cool your home—including low cost or even free hot water as a byproduct of operation—but it simply may not make sense financially or based on certain facts about your unique home.

How does a geothermal heat pump work?

While details of how GHPs heat and cool are somewhat complicated and technical, the “plain English” answer to how they work is that they utilize the earth below or around your home—and the near-constant temperatures found there—as the heat exchange medium. GHPs are sometimes referred to as ground source heat pumps (GSHPs) for this reason.

Alternatively, conventional air source heat pumps must use the air outside your home’s walls, which can vary wildly in temperature depending on the season and even time of day. And because the air temperature varies, air-source heat pumps must use electricity to produce appropriately hot or cold air to keep your indoor spaces comfortable. GHPs mainly only need to use electricity to move already warmed or cooled air.

The way that GHPs access the temperate climate underground to harness it for home comfort is through geothermal loop systems. There are both closed and open loop systems that require underground piping to be installed and/or given access to an adequate body of water for proper heat exchange.

Closed loop systems in vertical, horizontal, or pond/lake configurations are most common for residential applications—the first two types utilize what’s known as Direct Exchange (DX) technology, which doesn’t require the use of water sources.

Advantages of Using a Geothermal System

So, why choose a GHP for your home or business? These are the three biggest pros.

1. Energy Savings

Whether you’re concerned about reducing your environmental impact or just about keeping your electric bill in check, geothermal heat pumps vastly outperform conventional equipment. You may cut your energy usage by up to 50 percent in both the heating and cooling seasons with a GHP!

2. Low Maintenance Equipment

While preventative maintenance is essential for all HVAC equipment, GHPs have fewer moving parts than traditional heat pumps. Additionally, once the ground loops are installed, they typically require no maintenance whatsoever.

3. Long Lifespan

Geothermal equipment has excellent longevity, with underground piping often warrantied for up to 50 years. The heat pumps themselves are usually guaranteed to last about 20 years. Compare that to the average lifespan of 15 years for a typical home air conditioning unit or heat pump, when properly maintained.

Geothermal System Disadvantages

With long-lasting equipment that’s easier on the environment and money-saving in operation, what’s not to love about geothermal systems? Unfortunately, there are some significant drawbacks, mainly related to their high initial cost of installation, as well as their demands on the land around your home or commercial building.

Steep Upfront Costs

You may find that there are sometimes green energy incentives available from federal, state, and local government entities, as well as some power providers that can help reduce the cost of geothermal system installation. Even with these programs, you may be looking at a price tag of about $10,000 to $20,000 to install your geothermal HVAC solution, which includes putting in the underground loops. And it may take up to 10 years to recoup that initial financial outlay before the system pays for itself.

Difficulty of Installation for Retrofits

If you’re considering a GHP for a retrofit in your existing home, you may be disappointed to discover that it’s just not possible based on the layout of your property with existing structures and utilities, the geology (rock formations), hydrology (ground and surface water), and/or the overall size of your available land.

You’ll need to perform a site survey and then have some degree of excavation done to install the ground loops for your system, which adds cost and hassle that many homeowners just don’t see the point in when they can simply replace their current air source equipment with a similar unit for much less.

Additionally, if your home does not have ductwork today—as many older homes in our Lancaster County service area do not—you will also have to add ducts throughout your home to accommodate a GHP. This type of renovation project turns quite a few people away from making the switch to geothermal.

When Problems Occur, They Can Be Costly

As we mentioned in our “pros” above, the ground loops in geothermal systems are nearly maintenance-free once installed. However, in forested areas or those prone to seismic activity (earthquakes), loops can suffer damage from tree root infiltration or shifting earth. Fixing these issues can be extremely expensive, especially if refrigerant leaks into the ground from the broken piping.

Is a Geothermal Heat Pump Right for Your Lancaster County Home or Business?

If you’re thinking that the excellent advantages of geothermal far outweigh the drawbacks for your next HVAC system, it’s time to give us a call here at Comfort Aire Heating & Cooling. Our professionals have the specialized technical knowledge required to install geothermal systems and keep them in peak operating condition for years to come.

Contact us today to discuss your new HVAC system needs, questions, and project goals. We’re here to help Lancaster County homeowners and business leaders like you.

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