by Sam Ueda
Geothermal HVAC energy systems are increasingly breaking into the home construction mainstream. According to a Wall Street Journal article published in 2013, net-zero homes are on the rise, and some building companies are even making geothermal systems a staple of their building practices. Two New England businesses, Ultra Geothermal and ReVision Energy, are already successfully bringing that dream to the East Coast.
If you’re an eco-conscious consumer or homeowner, a low- or no-carbon footprint home may be seen as a luxury investment, reserved for the wealthy. While it’s true that a geothermal HVAC system is an investment up front, the eventual savings more than make up for it, while also increasing the value of your home. One thing that isn’t widely known is that homeowners also don’t have to completely replace their current HVAC system; Barrington N.H.’s Ultra Geothermal can meet you in the middle.
Think of it like a hybrid car. A hybrid will run on electricity or biofuel until the power needed to run the engine exceeds what the electric motor can handle. Ultra Geothermal can install a partial geothermal system alongside your Energy Star or other compatible furnace that functions the same way. If you don’t have a newer furnace, such as a forced hot water baseboard furnace, Ultra Geothermal can come up with a plan to integrate ducting into the home. And when it’s finished, you also end up with central A/C.
“We do a lot of planning with people who are building houses to make sure that they’re getting the best bang for their buck” said Ultra Geothermal owner Melissa Aho. “In addition to installing our geothermal systems, we have, in a way, become a green consulting company for people, too.”
One major facet of this industry that keeps people from buying geothermal systems is homeowners’ dependence on electricity. To further reduce monthly bills and environmental impact, a homeowner can install solar panels to power the geothermal pump. Enter Exeter-based ReVision Energy, one of New England’s foremost residential and commercial solar installers.
ReVision Energy is collaborating with Ultra Geothermal to install solar systems that further reduce energy usage when geothermal is involved, additionally giving homeowners incredible energy independence and in some cases taking them off the grid entirely. The two local renewable energy leaders are combining solar energy with geothermal — essentially a marriage of the power of the sun and the earth’s natural embodied heat energy to put homes at net-zero carbon emissions.
“Solar goes hand in hand with geothermal energy,” said Heather Fournier of ReVision Energy. “Similar to geothermal energy, installing a solar panel is like having your own electricity generator — you’re basically pre-buying your electricity for the next 20 to 25 years.”
Not only are these systems environmentally friendly, but so are the businesses themselves. Both Ultra Geothermal and ReVision energy are also certified in their sustainability with the Green Alliance, a green business union and consumer co-op that brings sustainable entrepreneurs together with green-minded consumers.
For those who don’t feel that they can afford a geothermal HVAC system in their house, or for people with new homes who decide to convert, Aho says there are plenty of options. Since geothermal systems are appraised and installed in homes based on their “load,” which is dependent on several factors, including the size of the house and its heat loss, Ultra’s geothermal systems can run parallel to the already installed HVAC system, shutting off and relying on the original system once its usage exceeds what the geothermal system is capable of handling.
“It’s not just the size of the home, it’s the heat loss, what windows are facing the sun, and several other factors,” she said. “A geothermal system canAho says that a home’s demand for energy varies heavily. absolutely do 100 percent of your load; however you just have to build it to scale and build it intelligently.”
Geothermal systems employ the natural power of the earth’s temperature to heat and cool homes. A series of pipes are buried on the property, or drilled into the ground. If installed properly using the “closed loop” system, a full geothermal system can power a home’s heat vents and central air system, essentially eliminating the need to burn fossil fuels for heat and hot water. And, when combined with solar panels, geothermal can bring a properly insulated house to zero emissions, and that means zero utility bills and full energy independence.
So does this mean that there’s a potential for net-zero homes to become a staple in Northern New England? If Ultra Geothermal and ReVision Energy keep up the breakneck pace of their installations that could very well be part of this region’s energy future. In 2013 alone, ReVision installed more than 160 solar systems in New Hampshire. Ultra has installed nearly 70 geothermal systems last year, and have installed over 700 in the past decade. A handful of these homes are completely net-zero.
Aside from installing geothermal and solar systems into peoples’ homes, Ultra Geothermal and ReVision Energy also host educational sessions for people interested in the renewable energy aspects of home improvement. Their emphasis is not so much about selling their product, but rather about educating the public on the science and benefits behind these alternative methods of power and heat generation.
“Education is where I always want to set my goals,” said Aho. “We want everyone to have a higher awareness of his or her options, and to keep expanding the discussion about sustainable homes.”
Sam Ueda is a staff writer at Green Alliance