Wednesday, August 06, 2008

High fuel costs have more homeowners eying geothermal heat

When it comes to heating and cooling homes, schools and even penguins at Woodland Park Zoo, a growing number of people are turning to a...

Seattle Times Eastside reporter


To learn more

Information on geothermal heat is available through the following sources:

• International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, established in 1987 at Oklahoma State University, on the Internet at or at 405-744-5175.

• An Internet blog at offers information on geothermal development in Washington.

• The Snohomish County Public Utility District has an active geothermal program and is one sponsor of a geothermal workshop to be held Aug. 11 and 12 at the PUD auditorium, 2320 California St., in Everett. The cost is $125, and registration can be handled by calling Guy Nelson at 541-994-4670 or online at

When it comes to heating and cooling homes, schools and even penguins at Woodland Park Zoo, a growing number of people are turning to a source as old as the Earth itself: geothermal heat.

Redmond High School has used a geothermal heating system since 2003, saving the Lake Washington School District an estimated $66,000 a year. District officials are so sold on the technology that they plan to use it at a new high school and elementary school.

A $6.5 million penguin exhibit at the zoo in Seattle will be heated and cooled with a geothermal system when it opens next year. Zoo officials expect the savings in electricity over the 20-year life of the exhibit will be equal to the cost of powering 43 homes for a year.

And in growing numbers, homeowners who have seen fuel costs climb through the roof in the past year are casting a curious eye beneath their feet as they seek ways to save money.

"It seems like the floodgates have opened," said Gerard Maloney, owner of Earthheat, a Duvall company that has been installing commercial and residential geothermal systems for more than 10 years. "When [gasoline] hit $4.50 a gallon, the phone started ringing off the hook."

Geothermal technology utilizes the relatively constant temperature underground to heat and cool buildings. In the Puget Sound region, the temperature 6 feet underground is a constant 49.5 degrees Fahrenheit year round, warmer than the average air temperature in the winter and cooler than normal air temperatures in the summer.

The systems transfer the underground heat through a system of buried pipes to a heat pump or heat exchanger, which distributes the heat into the building. Because the systems use the earth's natural heat, they are considered among the most efficient technologies on the market, proponents say.

"It takes the heat out of the ground," said Randy Fusch, maintenance supervisor for the Lake Washington School District.

Like many other local districts, Lake Washington schools began looking into geothermal systems before the current spike in fuel costs. Seattle Public Schools installed a geothermal system in Madison Middle School during a 2005 reconstruction, and a similar system was installed in a 68,000-square-foot building at Bellevue Community College in 2001.

Lake Washington schools plan to use geothermal systems to heat and cool Rachel Carson Elementary School in Sammamish when it opens in the fall, and the new Lake Washington High School in Kirkland.

Significant savings

The main attraction of geothermal heat is the savings.

Maloney estimates the cost of running a geothermal system in a 3,000-square-foot house would be about $700 a year, with an equivalent natural-gas system costing as much as $6,000 a year.

But Dave Sjoding, a renewable-energy specialist at Washington State University, said measuring the efficiency of geothermal systems varies because comparisons are affected by differences between types of high-efficiency furnaces, as well as the costs of competing fuels.

One analysis used by Maloney, however, estimates a 70 percent drop in home energy costs.

The Department of Energy estimates ground-source heat pumps use 25 to 50 percent less electricity than conventional heating or cooling systems.

"We're really excited about this," said Monica Lake, project manager for the Woodland Park Zoo's penguin exhibit.

She said the zoo is using a $65,000 grant from Seattle City Light to help fund the $210,000 project. The zoo chose the geothermal system because it requires nearly zero long-term maintenance and because of the energy savings.

There is a catch. A geothermal system costs more to install. Maloney believes that may be the reason why geothermal systems haven't become widely popular.

"Our costs are usually about 50 percent more than conventional equipment," said Maloney, comparing a geothermal system with a high-efficiency furnace, hot-water heater and air-conditioner installation. "That 50 percent you'll generally see back in about five years."

He estimates the cost of providing a conventional natural-gas system, including a furnace, air conditioner and water heater, might be $10,000. A ground-source geothermal system probably would cost $15,000 to $20,000, he said.

Those high upfront costs also are cited as a major barrier by David Clement, Seattle City Light director of resource planning. Additional concerns include the space needed to install underground piping and a general ignorance that the systems even exist.

"Another thing that puts a damper on it is we enjoy relatively low-cost electricity," he said. "It's also partly a function of how they [potential buyers] just haven't seen much of it."

Increase expected

Nonetheless, Maloney said that with this year's rising energy costs, his rate of installations is expected to go from about the 50 of previous years to 75 in 2008.

Scott Thomsen, City Light spokesman, said the utility got virtually no inquiries about geothermal systems until news of the penguin exhibit started to spread, and now three calls have come in.

Changing market conditions have led to varying approaches by utilities in working with geothermal energy.

At City Light, for example, Thomsen notes the technology may allow residential users to qualify for an incentive payment or rebate, similar to a grant provided to the zoo, but the systems haven't become widespread enough for a formal incentive program to be worked out.

Puget Sound Energy is in a similar situation, providing incentives for solar panels, for example, but none for geothermal systems, says PSE spokesman Andy Wappler. That's basically because of a lack of demand here, Wappler added.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD), however, does offer incentives for geothermal installations and will host a two-day geothermal workshop Aug. 11 and 12 at its headquarters in Everett.

"Geothermal power is a clean, renewable resource with considerable potential in Western Washington," said Craig Collar, senior manager of energy resource development for the PUD.

All the consumer interest is satisfying for Maloney, who got into the business partly through an interest in hydronic heating systems, using liquids to run radiant floor-heating installations.

His business, then called Cherry Valley Heating & Cooling, began doing geothermal installations more than a decade ago, he said.

Now Maloney says he thinks interest in geothermal systems will zoom as people discover the solutions to some of their problems might be a few feet away.

"The earth is the biggest solar collector we know," he said. "It's a learning curve. More than anything, it's about thinking out of the box."

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