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Are geothermal heat pumps right for you? Comparing pros and cons

Last updated 8/7/2019

pros of ground source heat pumps

Ground source heat pumps (GSHPs) are an innovative heating and cooling technology, but they may not be suitable for every property. It’s important to understand the pros and cons of ground source heat pumps, and how your property’s unique characteristics can help determine whether a geothermal heat pump installation makes sense for you.

Factors to consider before installing a ground source heat pump

Most property owners can benefit from geothermal heat pumps, but it’s important to understand what makes a property more or less suitable for installation prior to signing a contract. Geographical and environmental factors, availability of rebates and incentives, and your present heating and cooling system can all help determine whether it’s worth it to install GSHPs on your property. 

Geographic and environmental factors

Many properties have enough physical space to install a geothermal heat pump. Before proposing a system, a geothermal heat pump installer will examine your property to determine whether it’s best suited for a horizontal or vertical ground loop. While both system designs provide energy efficiency and savings benefits, installing a vertical loop system typically requires more time and money, as you’ll need to bring a drilling rig onto your property and potentially bore through solid rock.

Your property’s soil type also impacts the cost and time requirements for a geothermal heat pump installation. For instance, if the soil on your property is soft and easy to dig out, your installation will take less time and money than an installation in denser clay-based soils or rock formations. Additionally, consider the above-ground features of your property that impact available space. You’ll need room for your installer to bring in heavy machinery, and may need to physically alter your property’s landscape during the installation process (especially for horizontal loop installations).

If there’s a body of water on property, you may even consider installing a pond/lake geothermal system. While less common than underground loop setups, a pond/lake geothermal loop installation requires far less heavy machinery and time, thus cutting down on costs. More often than not, pond/lake installations are best suited for large commercial or industrial buildings.

Rebates and incentives

In most cases, a ground source heat pump system will save you money in the long run, but the upfront costs of installation can look a little daunting. If you are concerned about the price tag for geothermal energy, understanding the benefits of available rebates and incentives can help you determine if it’s an investment that makes sense for you.

Some states and utilities offer financial incentives for geothermal installations. Often times, these incentives fall under the “Energy Efficiency” category. Additionally, the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit (also known as the Investment Tax Credit, or ITC) gives homeowners everywhere a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the total installed cost of a ground source heat pump system.

For more information on what rebates and incentives are available near you for geothermal heat pumps, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE).

Existing central heating/cooling system

A ground source heat pump will almost always save money on your monthly heating and cooling costs when compared to a gas or oil furnace, but the level of savings and payback period can vary based on your existing heating and cooling systems. For example, if you want to retrofit your property with geothermal and already have adequate ductwork in place, you won’t have to pay for additional components or labor to either install new ductwork or update your existing system, which can impact the total upfront cost of a new system.

solar with air source heat pumps

Pros and cons of ground source heat pumps

As with any important energy decision, there are a number of pros and cons to consider when examining your geothermal heat pump options. Here are some top ones to keep in mind:

Pros of GSHPs Cons of GSHPs
Significant savings on heating and cooling costs High upfront installation costs
Environmentally friendly May require significant landscape alterations
Work in most climates Open-loop systems may contaminate groundwater

Advantages of GSHP technology

Here are some of the top advantages of installing a ground source heat pump:

Significant heating and cooling cost savings

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), property owners who install geothermal heat pumps can save up to 70 percent on heating costs and up to 50 percent on cooling costs, which can add up to more than $1,000 in savings every year. Given this level of energy savings, geothermal systems typically see payback periods between 5 and 7 years, making GSPHs a great long-term financial investment.

Environmentally friendly

Compared to traditional fossil fuel-based home heating and cooling technologies, ground source heat pumps are a more environmentally friendly option. Unlike boilers or furnaces, geothermal heat pumps don’t require the combustion of fossil fuels to produce heat. GSHPs do rely on electricity to run, however, and if you don’t generate your own renewable electricity, you’ll likely be running your heat pump with grid electricity, which often comes from a mix of fossil fuel and renewable sources.

Even if you run your heat pump on non-renewable electricity, the high efficiency of ground source heat pumps means that you’ll still use less fossil fuel-produced energy than with a furnace or boiler. Ground source heat pumps can be over 400 percent efficient, meaning they can convert one unit of electricity to 4 or more equivalent units of heating or cooling to your property. For reference, traditional fossil fuel furnaces have efficiencies around 70 to 90 percent.

GSHPs work well in almost all climates

While the efficiency of air source heat pump systems is impacted by outside temperatures (as they use the temperature of the air to collect and disperse heat), ground source heat pumps are almost completely unaffected by cold or warm climates. This is because the earth exists at an almost constant temperature underground everywhere, regardless of the air temperature above ground. Extreme climates or areas with particularly wet soils may impact the type of heat pump you’ll want to install, but in general, geothermal heat pumps work well no matter the climate thanks to the constant heat of the earth.

Disadvantages of GSHP technology

Here are some disadvantages of installing a ground source heat pump to keep in mind as you’re evaluating your heating and cooling options:

High upfront installation costs

Geothermal heat pumps can have significant upfront costs, especially if you need to install or upgrade ductwork on your property. You can expect to pay between $10,000 and $30,000 for a full GSHP installation, before accounting for any local or federal tax credits and rebates. Air source heat pumps (ASHPs) are typically lower cost and also offer benefits over traditional heating and cooling systems, but are not nearly as efficient or long-lasting as GSHP systems

Potential landscape alterations

Installing a geothermal heat pump involves installing a ground loop system, which can lead to significant above-ground alterations. Particularly with horizontal loop setups, your installer will need to dig trenching over a wide surface area of your property that can change the setup and physical appearance of your property. Vertical ground loops have a smaller footprint, but still involve bringing heavy machinery onto your property.

Open-loop systems may contaminate groundwater

Open-loop geothermal systems are much less common than closed-loop installations, but in the event that you opt for an open-loop system, be aware that groundwater contamination is a possibility. Because open-loop systems cycle natural groundwater directly, there’s a chance that the water that passes through your heat pump and heat exchanger will contaminate the water source you’re pulling from.

GSHP vs. ASHP: which is best?

The two main types of heat pumps available are ground source and air source– how do they compare? At a high level, GSHP technology is almost always more efficient than ASHPs, but ASHP technology is cheaper to install. Importantly, both types of heat pumps can cut your energy costs over time.

solar with air source heat pumps

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