July 20, 2018
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Some of Maine’s most reliable heat may be under our feet

Gina Philippon | BDN
Gina Philippon | BDN
How geothermal heating systems work.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

When John Nickels was in the United States Navy and stationed aboard a submarine, he read a book about then-President George W. Bush and his use of geothermal technology at his Texas ranch.

The retired submariner has been hooked on the subterranean heating and cooling systems ever since.

“I read that story about President Bush’s ranch heating with geothermal and thought that was really cool,” Nickels said. “So when I retired from the Navy I went back to school to learn about it [and] went from school to getting into the [geothermal] business to branching out on my own.”

Today, Nickels owns Earth Heat Engineering, based in Hampden, and said he has installed more than 50 geothermal units from Down East to Aroostook County.

“It absolutely works in Maine,” Nickels said. “The only thing geothermal does is transfer heat from the ground into usable heat for your house.”

As a heating and cooling technology, geothermal systems have been around for millenia.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, archaeological evidence indicates the first human use of geothermal resources in North America was 10,000 years ago when Paleo-Indians settled near hot springs.

Those springs served as a source of heat in addition to fulfilling health and spiritual needs.

Over the centuries more and more people discovered the practical uses of hot springs and in 1892 homes and businesses in Boise, Idaho, became part of the world’s first geothermal district heating system when water from hot springs was piped into the towns’ buildings.

Today, geothermal technology is common throughout Europe and gaining steam in the U.S.

“Installing and working with existing [geothermal] systems in Maine keeps me busy every day of the year,” Nickels said.

Simply put, Nickels said, geothermal works because the ground beneath us is warmer than the outside air in the winter and cooler in the summer.

By installing a series of pipes into the ground, heat can be transferred to and from a building.

“When we take the temperatures of the ground in Maine it’s at a constant 45 degrees,” Nickels said. “That may seem like a cold temperature for humans, but for the geothermal heat pump, it’s actually really hot.”

The underground pipes circulate water or refrigerant into the house through the heat pump which extracts the heat from the liquid and distributes it throughout the home as warm air.

The liquid is constantly recirculated through the pipes to collect more of the ground’s warmth.

In the summer, Nickels said, that process is reversed with the heat pump collecting hot air from the home and returning it to the earth through liquid in the looped pipes and leaving behind cool air that is also vented throughout the home.

Since the heated and cooled air is transported rather than created by a fuel source, it leaves no carbon footprint, beyond what is created by the electrical source powering it, Nickels said.

“The only thing happening is usable heat is coming into or leaving your house and it’s staying at around 70 degrees inside,” he said. “Even if it is zero degrees outside, the geothermal system does not care — it only cares about the ground temperature below 20 feet.”

Maine is perfect for geothermal technology, according to Gina Philippon, sales and estimation manager with Midcoast Energy in Damariscotta.

“It’s definitely a good idea in Maine and even more so on the coast,” she said. “We are sitting on a big chunk of granite and the more dense the ground is, the better for geothermal because it conducts energy better and is easier to extract.”

Philippon said she has had numerous conversations with people who live in areas of Maine who fear they could not install a geothermal system due to ledge or granite on their property.

“I tell them those are perfect conditions,” she said. “The energy is there and we will get it for them.”

Operating costs, Nickels said, come into play with the heat pump, which runs off electricity.

Even for people tied to the electrical grid, he said heating costs are far lower with geothermal.

“In my own house I have geothermal and for every dollar I spend to run the heat pump, I get back $5 in heat when compared to what it would cost to heat with just electricity,” Nickels said. “If a home uses oil for heating, you’d need to be buying oil at 83 cents a gallon to equal the cost of producing geothermal heat in your home.”

Nickels said he installs systems that work with new baseboard or ductwork technology or retrofitted into existing residential setups.

“I have houses with 120-year-old heat radiators that are hooked into geothermal,” he said. “I do prefer going with a ductwork system that gives heat in the winter and cool in the summer because all you have to do is flip a switch to go from heat to cool.”

Nickels works with homeowners to determine the size and configuration of a geothermal system that will best fit the household’s needs.

“We do a ‘closed loop’ system that involves drilling bore holes in the ground and the depth and size of those holes will depend on what you need,” he said.

As an example, Nickels said for a 2,000-square-foot ranch style home in Maine, he’d likely drill two 400-foot deep holes to install the closed loop system.

That network of piping, he said, could be under a lawn, driveway or even the foundation.

“You are never going to have to see it again, once we cover it up,” he said.

Nickels ballparks the cost of such a system installation at around $42,000, but added existing federal and state tax incentives can bring the out-of-pocket costs down to around $22,000.

“If you are going to put in a new oil-powered system, you are looking at around $15,000 and adding central air conditioning is another $12,000,” he said. “So it works out to be about the same cost but a lot more efficient.”

Before he installed his own geothermal system, Nickels said he was spending between $750 and $800 every two weeks on home heating oil during the winter in addition to burning up to six cords of firewood.

Those expenses have been erased thanks to geothermal, he said, adding his house remains at a toasty 73 degrees in the winter and there is plenty of hot water left for his own shower after his wife, two teenage children and one exchange student have all showered.

“I installed geothermal in a 1891, three-story Victorian home in southern Maine that was heated with oil from two 300-gallon tanks,” Nickels said. “I went down to check it the other day and the owner has been off oil for a year and two months.”

Doing the math, Nickels said, the homeowner was saving money on heat despite paying close to $1,000 a month for the electricity to run the heat pump and disperse the warm air throughout the large home.

“I asked him, ‘is that cheaper than buying 400 gallons of oil?’” Nickels said. “Because that is what he was having delivered every two weeks.”

According to the Maine Governor’s Energy Office, home heating oil in Maine was averaging $2.73 a gallon statewide at the beginning of March, down from $2.95 in January.

Based on those figures, 400 gallons of home heating oil would currently cost $1,092.

Geothermal system operating costs tend to be more fixed and predictable, as well, Philippon said.

“Even though electricity is relatively expensive in Maine, it is regulated and there are limits to how much and how often the rates can be increased,” she said. “That gives the geothermal home a sort of price protection that does not exist for other fossil fuel sources.”

In a home heated with fuel oil, Philippon said, the owners are at the mercy of ever fluctuating oil prices.

“You have no idea what the price will be season to season,” she said. “Geothermal gives the homeowner that control and the ability to predict future heating costs.”

Philippon agrees there is a large, upfront cost, but said it is mitigated by the overall heating or cooling savings over time and the more immediate rebate and tax incentives.

For an average 2,000-square-foot home, Philippon said converting to a standard geothermal duct system capable of producing between 40,000 and 60,000 BTUs carries a total cost of $45,000.

“The federal government will give you a 30 percent tax incentive and Efficiency Maine has a $3,000 rebate for those who qualify,” she said. “So if you factor that in you are looking at a maximum of $28,500 and even if you have to borrow that, you are paying monthly on that loan and not for oil, and at the end of 10 years when it’s paid off, all that money is savings in your pocket [and] you have a paid-for state of the art home heating system.”

Despite the obvious heating costs savings, people may be discouraged from pursuing the earth-based alternative heating source due in large part to the five-figure installation costs.

“It’s just so expensive,” said Lisa Smith, senior planner with the Governor’s Energy Office. “It’s one thing if you have unlimited dollars, otherwise we’ve been told by geothermal technology people it only makes economic sense during new construction [because] to retrofit is too expensive.”

That expense, Smith said, is the main reason her office does not field a lot of calls on geothermal heating.

“It just does not make sense for a lot of people,” she said. “Forty thousand dollars is not something most people can afford.”

Those who do opt to install the systems, she said, often do so for reasons beyond simple economics.

“They want that specific type of system,” Smith said. “They are willing to pay extra for the ability to say they are ‘geeky’ and clean.”

And Smith did say, there is no denying geothermal is a clean source of energy, albeit one with what she said is a long payback on investment.

There is no doubt it’s a hefty out of pocket initial expense, Nickels said, but he maintains that payback and the good it does for the environment make it well worth it.

“The technology I use and install allows me to track how much carbon a system is saving the planet on a yearly basis,” he said. “In my case, I am saving what 60 acres of trees contributes every year.”

As for the argument it’s too expensive? Nickels does not buy it.

“People won’t hesitate to run out and buy a new car for $20,000 or $30,000, but heaven forbid they buy something that will make them money every time they use it,” he said. “These systems are really just so efficient, why wouldn’t you install one?”

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