How Do Geothermal Heat Pumps Work?

If you are looking for ways to reduce your environmental impact, you have probably heard that a geothermal heat pump can greatly reduce the energy usage in your home. However, without any understanding of how these systems work, it can be difficult to determine whether or not this system will work well in your home.

Underground Temperatures

When people think on geothermal energy, they think of the electricity that can be produced by using an underground hotspot to boil water. If you've ever been to a hot springs, it's how the water get's warmed up. Unfortunately, most homes are no where near a hot spot, so they don't have access to that unlimited free energy. This doesn't mean that underground temperatures aren't useful to you.

A trip to the beach can demonstrate the effect you will be using with your new geothermal system. On a bright, sunny day, the sand on the surface of the beach will get quite hot, but if you dig your feet in even a few inches, the sand below will be pleasantly cool. If you were, for some reason, to go in winter, beneath the snow and cold sand on top will be sand that is warmer than the top layer. While the top layer changes with the seasons, the sand underneath will stay pretty much the same temperature all year long. That consistency is what makes a geothermal heat pump so useful.

Adding the Loop

So, the ground maintains a consistent temperature just a few feet below the surface. In order to make use of this, your HVAC system needs to be able to access it somehow. This is the same thing traditional systems do by exchanging air, but since you can't dig up dirt to feed to your heat pump, you need a different way. This is accomplished by installing pipes that contain either antifreeze or water. As the antifreeze runs through the pipes, it will heat or cool to become the same temperature as the surrounding earth before returning to the heat pump.

There are several configurations based on how much space you have in your yard and how big your budget is. The most common are horizontal and vertical loops. Horizontal is the style you will probably use. The contractor digs down just a few feet over a wide area and installs loops of pipe to maximize the amount of contact the antifreeze has with the ground within that space. Vertical loops are used in areas where space is at a premium. It is the same idea, only the contractor digs much deeper holes (often three times as deep as a horizontal system) to insert the same amount of space with less above-ground square footage. While more compact, vertical loops are more expensive to install, so they are usually reserved for commercial installations.

Connecting the Heat Pump

The final piece of the puzzle is the heat pump itself. In many ways, this is exactly the same as a model that you would install outside. This can make the system seem useless, as you are paying these high installation costs for very similar technology. The secret is in the consistant temperatures obtained by using below ground temperatures rather than whatever temperature the air happens to be. Heat pumps are extremely efficient, but only when they are fed air or antifreeze within a certain temperature range. Go outside it, and your energy costs increase exponentially. Because the temperature you are feeding to your heat pump is so consistent, it can be tuned to be extremely efficient at that temperature range. The cost of installation is easily covered by the amazing level of energy efficiency your heat pump will be able to offer you.

Geothermal heat pumps are a significant investment, but they are also a wonderful device to have heating and cooling your home. If you have the space and the budget, they are certainly an option you should seriously consider investing in.

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