There are many reasons to become involved in new technologies, but it’s difficult to know when the right time is. By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll know of world-class organizations involved in geothermal development. I will share some of the signs of the times for the geothermal HVAC industry and then we’ll see what you think.
In Florida, it’s hard to find a community pool that has not been converted to geothermal heating and cooling, in addition to the thousands of commercial and residential buildings. Florida often uses groundwater exchange cooling, so it’s set up a little different than the more common closed-loop application
In Atlanta, the Serenbe development (www.serenbe.com) began to establish closed-loop geothermal system standards back in 2009. Since then, it’s completed many new homes and features. Geothermal systems are installed as standard; one loop field for each home or property.
“We conserve energy by facilitating geothermal, solar and net-zero homes,” the website says. “We conserve water by landscaping and naturally treating our wastewater for ornamental irrigation. We value nature, our children and our elders.”
Also near Atlanta is Pinewood Forest (www.pinewoodforest.com), a 234-acre mixed-use development going up near Pinewood Atlanta Studios, and is one of the first fully geothermal communities in the United States. Pinewood Forest is embracing geothermal energy for each of the 1,300 residences it is building because geothermal is both a cleaner energy source and cheaper than traditional HVAC systems.
Pinewood Forest's development team is led by Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, who also is part-owner of movie maker Pinewood Studios across the street. Pinewood Studios is amazing in itself, having produced movies such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to Antman to the yet-to-be-released Avengers: Endgame.
In Texas, Whisper Valley (www.whispervalleyaustin.com) has reached out with some noble community efforts. A common loop runs to each home, while each home also has one borehole for thermal exchange. Normally this would not be enough capacity for a home but in sharing with the neighborhood, the load balances out nicely, as it usually does utilizing the economy of volume.
The development’s website says the homes built there use a “unique, geothermal loop field or Geo-Grid that is installed at the start of development.” Coupled with other smart features including solar, the homes are labeled as “zero-energy-capable.”
In the United Kingdom, land and surface water geothermal exchange has become the norm, especially when considering that geothermal heat pumps are standard equipment in much of new construction.
Geothermal state of mind
In New York, which seems to be leading the geothermal charge in the United States, three pivotal events have taken place in recent years, months and weeks:
• The State of New York is firmly behind clean heating and cooling and has formed a division of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) called “Clean Heating and Cooling” (https://on.ny.gov/2TBHKl9) to focus on implementation, spur growth and fund programs.
• Continental Edison has issued a moratorium on natural gas hookups in Westchester County, practically making heat pumps a mandatory alternative to combustion heating.
• Google X spinout Dandelion Energy has received another round of funding, this time from homebuilder Lennar Corp.
As I consider these three events, each one of them alone would be enough to wake me up and realize that geothermal exchange may be coming of age. But all three together make this a solid bet. I especially like the last one, as I consider the quotes from Lennar regarding its capital infusion into Dandelion Energy.
“We’re incredibly excited to invest in Dandelion Energy,” said Eric Feder, managing general partner for Lennar Ventures. “The possibility of incorporating geothermal heating and cooling systems in our new homes is something we’ve explored for years, but the math never made sense. Dandelion Energy is finally making geothermal affordable and we look forward to the possibility of start including it in the homes Lennar builds.”
Leave gauges, torch in the truck
An additional concern for HVAC contractors that is all but eliminated for geothermal systems is the need to run refrigerant lines. That’s because geothermal heat pumps are generally unitary packaged equipment with a factory-sealed refrigerant system. Basically, a geothermal heat pump is an appliance with much of the clean simplicity you expect when installing a washing machine, a dishwasher or a hot water tank.
I have the privilege of serving as one of the 25 voting members on the Uniform Mechanical Code Committee for the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Professionals. After having served for some years on the Uniform Solar Energy & Hydronics Technical Committee, we were able to apply an authoritative geothermal code.
The new code is called the Uniform Solar, Hydronics & Geothermal Code for 2018 (https://bit.ly/2RHGoQB). The UMC for 2021 will be even more comprehensive toward geothermal codes.
We’ve talked about Google X Spinouts, Avengers: End Game and Con Ed. They all have geothermal systems in common. This is big. Now is the time to get on the geothermal wagon.
Are you concerned because you don’t have the time to become certified as a designer or installer? That’s no problem. Most everyone needs continuing education units (CEUs) to keep their license current with the authorities that have jurisdiction. You can go online and earn six hours of CEUs while getting a good overview of the technology from the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association. Try the “Introduction to Geothermal Systems Technology” course (https://bit.ly/2VT4p9l) to get started on your way. You can stay online for more in-depth courses.