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Taking Fossil Fuels out of the Equation: Geothermal Heating is Grounded



By Tyler Allen

With the future cost of purchasing fossil fuels for
heat uncertain, and the cost to the environment
by burning them quite certain, many people in
Southwest Montana are looking for alternative
sources to heat their homes. One of these alternatives
is geothermal heating.
The EPA considers geothermal heat pumps, also
known as ground source heat pumps, to be the
most energy-efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally
sound heating systems.
How do they work? Because the earth’s surface is
such an effective solar collector, the upper 10 feet
of the ground maintains a relatively stable temperature
between 45 and 70 degrees F. Geothermal
pumps take advantage of this in two ways.
In winter they heat a building by extracting this
warmth from the ground. In summer, they cool a
home by sinking its warm air back into the Earth.
Three years ago, a client came to Peter Lee, owner
of Teton Heritage Builders, with a request to
install geothermal heat in a new home. After that
project was completed, Lee had other clients approach
him about geothermal. In 2010, he started
Energy Solutions to “become an advocate of this
technology.” The company now has four projects
operational and three others contracted in Southwest
Conventional heating systems need to burn some
type of fuel source to create heat, while geothermal
systems collect heat and distribute it. Fluid
is circulated through a ‘loop system’ of highdensity
polyethylene pipes buried in the ground.
While underground, the fluid is heated. Then it
returns to the home to be compressed by the heat
pump and released into the building.
Electric heaters or heating systems that
burn fossil fuels can never exceed 100
percent efficiency, while geothermal
systems are 300-400 percent efficient;
essentially, for every unit of electricity
they use, they produce three or four units
of heat. While the initial investment may
be more expensive than a conventional
system, geothermal heat can pay for
itself within 3-6 years because it can save up to
70 percent in heating costs annually. In addition,
the unused heat in this system can be used to heat
the building’s water, cutting hot water costs by
30-60 percent. Additionally, conventional heating
systems typically last 13-15 years, whereas a
geothermal pump has a life expectancy of 20-25
years, and the pipes will last around 50.
Propane currently makes up about 90 percent
of the heating in the Big Sky area, and consistent
delivery can be a challenge. A client came
to Energy Solutions when the propane company
didn’t come to fill his tank and his house froze.
While this can be a
minor inconvenience to
a year-round resident,
some homeowners in
this mountain community
are gone for weeks
or months at a time.
Arriving for Christmas
to find the pipes frozen and the radiant floor a skating
rink could make for an unhappy vacation.
Retrofit installation tends to be more expensive than in
new construction—where cost ranges from $8-15 per
square foot—because you have to work around what
is already there, including trees, cable, gas pipes and
landscaping. Instead of using a Horizontal Loop system
that involves digging trenches 6-8’ deep and 100-300’
long, existing homes will often require a Vertical Loop
system. Holes are drilled 100-400’ deep, depending on
the heat load required by the building.
While the cost of propane, natural gas, and electricity
(which is predominantly produced by coal-fired plants
in Montana) is likely to increase in the future, the heat
captured from the Earth in a geothermal system will
remain free. And since the federal government is currently
offering a 30 percent tax incentive on renewable
energy projects until 2016, there is no better time to
consider geothermal as a viable option to heat your

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