With Energy in Focus, Heat Pumps Win Fans
The business for ground-source heat pumps is so hot that when some people driving in and around Seattle see Gerard Maloney’s EarthHeat van, with the company’s phone number on the side, they call from their cellphones. “Really, we have people doing this,” Mr. Maloney said.
Like other energy alternatives, ground-source heat pumps have won new admirers as energy costs have skyrocketed.
The pumps, also called geothermal heat pumps, use the relatively constant temperature just below the earth’s surface — six feet below, in many cases — to draw warm air into a building in winter and remove warm air in summer. Advocates say the systems can save building owners 25 percent to 65 percent on energy costs while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Around the nation, owners of the small businesses that constitute most of the $2.5 billion ground-source heat pump industry report that demand for their systems and services has surged.
“We started as many jobs by April of 2008 as we had done in all of 2007,” said Bruce Wollaber, president of Comfort Engineered Systems in Nolensville, Tenn., a designer and installer of heat pump systems. Bill Beattie, co-owner of Rockford Geothermal in Rockford, Ill., said, “If we stay on track, we’re probably going to grow by about 40 percent this year.”
All this comes with some growing pains for the industry, which has its sights set on capturing 30 percent of the heating and air-conditioning market by 2030. System manufacturers have a backlog of orders, installers say. Trained workers are increasingly difficult to come by. Still, said Jim Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, an industry and advocacy group, “it’s not a pipe dream. It can be done.”
The systems use a network of water-filled pipes laid either horizontally (6 feet under) or vertically (often 200 to 300 feet down), that attach to a heat exchanger.
The technology can be used almost anywhere, on any type of building. “We’ve got them all the way from Texas to the Arctic Circle,” said Mr. Bose, a professor of engineering technology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
And even without financial incentives from the government or energy utilities, says John Shonder of the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, “ground-source heat pumps have the lowest life-cycle costs in several cost studies that I’ve done” of heating and air-conditioning systems. (For details on incentives, seewww.dsireusa.org.)
The systems pay for themselves in three to eight years, depending on “location and energy prices,” Mr. Shonder said.
In fact, heat pump systems may offer the greatest savings to the owners of commercial buildings, says John W. Lund, director of the Geo-Heat Center at the Oregon Institute of Technology. “For commercial buildings, where you have a fairly large heating and cooling load, the payback period could be two to three years.”
Though no comprehensive survey of the heat pump sector exists, Energy Department statistics on units shipped tell a striking story. In 2003, system manufacturers shipped 36,439 units. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, manufacturers shipped 63,683 units.
Bridgette Oliver, marketing and communications manager for ClimateMaster in Oklahoma City, the nation’s largest manufacturer of ground-source heat pump equipment, confirmed a rapid rise in sales. “Between 2005 and 2007, our revenue increased by 200 percent,” she said. “Our employees increased by 176 percent.”
Similarly, ClimateMaster’s major rival, WaterFurnace of Indiana, reported double-digit growth recently, and company executives said they were running two shifts at their manufacturing plant in Fort Wayne.
“Finding reliable and compliant employees to train” has been one challenge of such rapid growth, Ms. Oliver said. Moreover, system installation is bottlenecked, she says, because “drillers are overwhelmed. Drillers are where we’re really hurting.”
Though equipment manufacturers say they are able to keep pace with demand, many designers and installers have had slowdowns in parts delivery. “All the equipment is customized,” Mr. Maloney of EarthHeat said. “The suppliers are backlogged and a few of the companies are six to eight weeks out from being able to send us everything. Last year, the high-density polyethylene pipe we use was really hard to come by.”
The industry’s expansion is hampered as well by a lack of trained contractors. “Right now, we don’t have enough installers, and we don’t have enough drillers,” said Jack DiEnna, executive director of the Geothermal National and International Initiative, an industry group in Washington. “I’ve got drillers who are booked out for six months.”
Contractors say there is a similar shortage of employees. “We’re bringing in folks who aren’t necessarily career HVAC guys,” Mr. Maloney said, referring to heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning work. “We’re having to train them ourselves.” He says his 10-person company recruits employees using Craigslist in Seattle. “Even folks who have no skills are interested in learning, because it’s such a growth industry,” he said.
Rockford Geothermal is keeping pace by subcontracting “a lot of sheet metal work and plumbing,” Mr. Beattie said. He anticipates hiring three or four employees in the next six to 12 months.
The industry may find sales and workloads booming even further should Congress pass and the president sign the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008. The legislation, sponsored by Charles B. Rangel, the New York Democrat who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, would extend tax credits of up to $4,000 through the end of 2014 to homeowners who have ground source heat pumps installed. (The bill offers no aid to businesses.) The House approved the bill in May, and it is awaiting action in the Senate.
To help the industry grow, Mr. DiEnna and others look to models like the work force and contractor training programs now in development at Hudson Valley Community College in New York. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the state’s energy authority, finances the programs.
“What we need to get this industry to its potential of at least 30 percent of the HVAC industry is exactly what’s happening now,” Mr. DiEnna said. “Companies like ClimateMaster are ramping up production. States such as New York are getting involved in work force development and contractor training. And there are increasing incentives from government. With this kind of growth, mom and pop shops can benefit as much as any of the big guys.”