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A Renewable Energy Section for Plumbing, HVAC, Mechanical and Related Industries

September-October 2009

Green Perspective
With their green features and lower operating costs, geothermal systems are almost certain to become an increasing part of the Wisconsin plumbing, heating, and cooling market in the next decade. That means its very important for contractors to understand how these applications work in order to take advantage of this emerging market opportunity.

The ABCs of geothermal systems

First in a series

by Ron MacKinnon

As a specialist in these emerging applications, I would like to take some of the mystery out of geothermal heating and cooling. In my experience, geothermal is probably the most misunderstood and mysterious renewable technology in todays marketplace. When you start talking about burying pipe 8 feet deep in the ground with a horizontal loop field, or 200 feet or more in the ground with a vertical bore, some contractors start to get nervous. I was taught as a young man that fear is a byproduct of a lack of understanding, and I believe any fear of geothermal is as simple as that. So if we better understand this technology, we are more likely to incorporate it into to our homes and businesses. Many Wisconsin contractors may be unaware that geothermal heat pumps have been around for a long timesince the 1940s in fact! Open-loop systems initially dominated the market until the development of polyethylene pipe in the late 1970s, making the closed-loop systems more economically viable. (We will discuss loop fields in a future article in more detail.) According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), geothermal heat pumps are the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective systems for temperature control. That is a significant benefit to a Wisconsin homeowner or commercial property ownerand a great selling point for contractors as well.

Although most U.S. homes use traditional furnaces and air conditioners, geothermal heat pumps are becoming more popular. In recent years, the Department of Energy and the EPA have partnered with HVAC and plumbing industries to promote the use of geothermal heat pumps.

Ron MacKinnon geothermal/hydronic product specialist Milwaukee Stove and Furnace Supply

Lets look at how efficient these systems are and how that efficiency is measured. First, its important to know that a kilowatt of electricity is equal to 3,413 Btus. So, for every kilowatt of electricity used to run the compressor, blower, and pumps, a geothermal system can extract 4 to 5 kilowatts (13,652 to 17,065 Btus) from the ground. This translates into efficiencies in the neighborhood of 400 to 600%. The term coefficient of performance (COP) is used to explain how efficient the system is in heating mode, and the term energy efficiency ratio (EER) is used to determine the cooling efficiency. COP is the ratio of heat output to the amount of energy input of a heat pump. Its a little like real life in that what you get out depends on how much you put into it. Except that with geothermal you get a lot more out than you put in. If a heat pump delivers 5 units of heat for every unit of energy input, the COP is 5. Geothermal heat pumps can operate in the neighborhood of 5 COP in heating mode. So if a property owner is using 1kW and getting 5 kW in return, that is 400% efficiency. Compare that to a fossil fuel furnaces 96% efficiency, and it becomes clear why geothermal just makes sense. (contd on page 30)


September-October 2009



(continued from page 29) On the other hand, EER is a measure of the cooling efficiency. If a geothermal heat pump in cooling mode draws 1 kW to produce 10,000 Btus per hour cooling, the efficiency is calculated as 10 EER. Geothermal heat pumps have EER ratings in excess of 20 on average, so that 1KW is actually producing 20,000 Btus of cooling. Most people are familiar with air-source heat pumps, where heat is extracted from the ambient air or rejected into the outdoors. With a geothermal heat pump, heat is extracted or rejected to a loop field. We all have a heat pump in our homes now, because a refrigerator is really a heat pump. It extracts heat from the interior contents like fruits and vegetables, or fluids like milk or beer, and rejects it to the interior of the home.

Im sure its no surprise to anyone in Wisconsin that temperatures above ground vary widely day to day and season to season. After all, were in the late stage of fall, and winter is well on its way. But its important to know that temperatures at 8 to 10 feet below ground level are constantsomewhere between 45 and 60, depending on your location. This constant temperature means that in the winter the ground is warmer than the air, and in the summer the ground is colder than the air. Geothermal heat pumps capitalize on that fact and use these constant temperatures to heat and cool a residence, office, store, factory, or other commercial structure. The problem in comprehending this technology is its difficult to understand how heat extracted from 50 ground can provide enough heating or cooling to condition anything. This is where the units compressor comes into play, along with the phasechange that occurs when refrigerant changes from a liquid to a vapor and back from a vapor to a liquid. What happens is the compressor boosts the extracted heat to a gas at a much higher temperature. Then, the gas gives up its heat as it condenses to a liquid in the condensing coil. That heat is distributed through the structure by either a metal duct system or in the form of hot water for hydronic applications such as radiant infloor heating. The process is reversed for cooling. (contd on 32)



September-October 2009

Green Perspective
(continued from page 30)


A geothermal heat pump consists of these components: Compressor (two-stage, R-410a) Refrigerant circuit (bi-directional TXV and reversing valve) Coaxial tube in tube (copper or cupro-nickel) heat exchanger Air coil with water to air systems or buffer tank with water to water systems Electronic sensors and controls air-to-refrigerant heat exchanger, which now acts as an evaporator. Air from the building interior flows across the evaporator tubing, giving up heat to the refrigerant inside the tubes. The cooler air is moved through the building via the duct work. The warmed refrigerant evaporates as it absorbs heat from the air, and then returns to the compressor to repeat the cycle.

How does a it work? For purposes of describing a systems operation, lets assume it is a closed-loop system. The heating cycle begins when the loop fluid is pumped from the ground loop to a water-to-refrigerant heat exchanger (acting as an evaporator) on the geothermal heat pump. The tubes on the refrigerant side of the heat exchanger are filled with a liquid refrigerant (R-410a) at low temperature. As the liquid refrigerant flows through the heat exchanger, it absorbs heat from the ground loop and evaporates to form a cool gas. The fluid from the loop field gives up heat as it flows through the heat exchanger, returning to the loop field at a lower temperature. The gaseous refrigerant from the evaporator passes through tubing to a compressor, which compresses the gas, raising its temperature and pressure. The hot, compressed gas then flows to a refrigerant-to-air heat exchanger, which acts as a condenser in the heating mode. Here, air flowing across the condenser tubing absorbs heat from the refrigerant and carries it throughout the house or commercial building. As it releases heat, the refrigerant condenses to form a liquid, which then flows through an expansion device that reduces its pressure and lowers its temperature again. Finally, the refrigerant re-enters the evaporator and the cycle is repeated. For cooling, the above process is reversed. The compressor sends the hot, dense gas directly to the water-to-refrigerant heat exchanger (now acting as a condenser). The fluid from the loop field absorbs heat from the refrigerant and flows back to the loop field at a higher temperature. As it gives up heat to the water, the refrigerant cools and condenses into a liquid. The cool liquid refrigerant flows through an expansion device, which further lowers its temperature and pressure. The cold liquid refrigerant then flows to the

Most of the geothermal heat pumps installed today may also be equipped to provide hot water for domestic needs. In fact, hot water can be provided free during summer months, by using waste heat extracted from the home interior. Even in winter, the geothermal heat pump system can supplement the hot water provided by the gas or electric water heater, reducing overall hot water costs by about 40 to 50% annually. All of this is accomplished with a small supplemental heat exchanger commonly referred to as a de-superheater or hot water generator. With their high energy efficiency, geothermal systems can provide a homeowner or commercial establishment with a significant return on that initial investmentespecially when tax credits or other incentives are factored into the financial equation. Its really an excellent investment for the owner and a positive step for Wisconsins future, as well.


As a geothermal/hydronic product specialist at Milwaukee Stove and Furnace Supply, Ron MacKinnon educates contractors on all aspects of geothermal systems, from design to sizing, installation, servicing, maintenance, and sales. He also leaders regular classroom training sessions for contractors on this increasingly popular technology.

Permission to reproduce this article regarding geothermal systems is provided courtesy of Wisconsin Perspective magazine, a publication for Wisconsin and U.P. plumbing, mechanical, and HVAC-R-related industries. 2009 Wisconsin Perspective.


September-October 2009