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With all the weather events that are increasingly a concern for our building infrastructure, we have observed that buildings and building systems are built to higher-quality standards than ever before. Everything from the foundation to the interior and exterior walls, insulation, electrical, lighting and structural components are built to last for generations. More investment is spent upfront to ensure longevity.
It's time to bring the HVAC infrastructure in line with the rest of the building standards. I am specifically speaking of air-conditioning/heat pump equipment. The one-time cost for a geothermal exchange system can be likened to the one-time cost of a solid building foundation. The slab, pilings and footers are designed to last a very long time.
Once a geothermal exchange system is installed, generally speaking, all the equipment and maintenance is inside the building (see Image 1). The systems will operate for generations, rather than 10 to 15 years (the typical lifespan of an outdoor condenser), and will enjoy a marked reduction in maintenance costs.
Geothermal exchange or ground-coupled infrastructure provides a permanent solution for the HVAC system in buildings. It’s also a permanent solution against a growing HVAC problem: copper theft. Copper is such a hot commodity that thieves are going after the metal anywhere they can find it. Copper theft is a $1 billion a year problem, according to a 2013 CNBC report.
"There's no question the theft has gotten much, much worse," noted Mike Adelizzi, president of the American Supply Association (ASA). "There was a perception that copper theft slowed down after the recession and the rise in commodity prices seemed to ease off. But that's not the case. The theft has only been growing."
Michael Gurka, managing director of Spectrum Asset Management, a Chicago investment firm, added, "Copper prices have leveled since the recession but they're still high enough to have people steal it. Copper is also a very tangible asset and hard to trace, and reselling it can bring in lots of money." (See Image 2.)
One insurance company, Church Mutual, stated, “On average, copper theft claims are larger than other theft claims — they accounted for 70 percent of the dollar value of all theft claims.”
Half of all theft claims made by Church Mutual customers in 2011 involved copper. Its customers incurred 1,523 copper theft claims with insurance payments totaling $10.7 million.
Benefits of Geothermal Exchange
One of the most valuable and costly pieces of equipment in buildings is the air-conditioning condenser, the part that sits outside.
A home, building or community can eliminate many of these concerns by making a marginal one-time investment into their infrastructures. Most systems are direct expansion (DX) split air-conditioning systems with air handlers employing either combustion heat, electric heat or heat pump technology.
The common component of all these systems is the outside condensers, which necessarily includes outside condenser pads, disconnects, controls and various other infrastructure. All these outside pieces are subject to vandalism, theft, weather, flooding and a reduction of longevity due to the extremes of climate.
An all-inside system will last longer (no weathering), eliminate theft and reduce the first cost for some trades (i.e., condenser pads, protective fences/walls around condenser pads, and related outdoor electrical disconnects, copper, insulation and protective coverings such as line-sets). The increase in usable area outside may be used for other purposes, even if only for landscaping.
Consider the following points and related job costs, job credits and improvements to infrastructure.
Obvious benefits with ground-coupling include: No more outdoor equipment to replace; More hurricane- and storm-resilient (no HVAC equipment outside); HVAC system longevity (a benefit of having equipment inside the building); No combustion or electric strip heating, which can be costly (electric resistance) or environmentally unfriendly (combustion heating); Noticeably superior comfort with heating and cooling modes; Remarkable system efficiency at standard equipment pricing; and Geothermal wells are “permanent infrastructure.”
Additionally, some of the “hidden” benefits of ground-coupling include:
No more outside noise; No more “condenser farms;” No more vandalism; No more injuries; Condenser farms (Image 4) become hide-and-go-seek locations for youth and a makeshift shelter for the homeless; No more refrigerant lines. As refrigerant regulations become more stringent, the size, material and construction of refrigerant piping will change. With this solution, refrigerant piping outside of the heat pump is eliminated. A geothermal heat pump is basically an appliance, in that the entire refrigeration circuit is inside the “box;” No more disconnects, associated circuits and equipment outside.
On a new building, here are some of the considerations that would increase the cost to go with a ground-coupled solution: Ground coupling (usually the most expensive part), a one-time infrastructure cost; Water-source (geothermal) heat pumps (comparable in cost to quality air-source heat pumps).
On a new building, here are some of the considerations that would decrease the cost to go with a ground-coupled solution: Elimination of external slab/service/mounting area for condensers; Elimination of external electrical service disconnects and wiring; Elimination of direct-exchange air conditioners and air handlers, which would be replaced by the similar cost of water-source (geothermal) heat pumps; Elimination of associated copper, control wiring and labor to install line-sets.
It’s obvious that for a reasonable one-time premium, anyone can eliminate the potential of theft, vandalism, damage from flooding and inclement weather of their outside HVAC equipment, as well as increase the lifespan of the all-indoor equipment to more than 25 years.
With this solution, never again will equipment have to be replaced outside, and never again will the difficulties surrounding outside equipment be a concern. All the outside HVAC equipment is replaced with the permanent infrastructure of ground-coupling.
Alternative Infrastructure Options
Additionally, alternative infrastructure opportunities are coming into play. The use of city water mains is a real alternative now since the Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded a three-year study on the performance of a city water main system in New York. Use of effluent and wastewater for heating has become commonplace, as indicated in Image 5.
After reviewing these compelling reasons to go forward with a ground-coupled solution, it’s clear that a geothermal or ground-coupled solution should be the first offering, every time.
It's easy to get involved in geothermal heating and cooling. Simply log in to the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association’s website, then select a designer in your area to help implement geothermal in your next project. Alternatively, become a designer or contractor yourself through the same resource by taking the appropriate certification classes while earning continuing education units.