McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Ike Wilson The Frederick News-Post, Md.
Jim Aaron's heating and air conditioning company has installed 537 geothermal systems over 16 years, and Mark Lancaster's building construction firm is seeing more people embrace installation of the alternative energy system.
Geothermal energy, which helps cool homes in the summer and heat in the winter, has been around for many years but people are becoming more aware of the technology thanks to federal and state tax credits designed to make the renewable energy more affordable, said Aaron, president of Total Comfort Heating and Air Conditioning in Smithsburg. Some power companies also offer grants.
"It's all about making the most out of the unused energy that can be found under your feet," Aaron said.
The Geothermal Energy Association defines geothermal energy as heat from the earth. It is a clean, renewable resource that provides energy in the U.S. and around the world in a variety of applications and resources.
The earth's temperature a few feet below the surface in Western Maryland stays pretty constant throughout the year, Aaron said.
The unit makes use of this constant temperature by using a loop system to pull the warmer temperature from the ground and move it to the home during colder months, and then moving the warmer air from the home and depositing it in the ground during the warmer months, Aaron said.
"Geothermal's time has come," Aaron said.
A geothermal system is at least four to five times more efficient than a regular high-efficiency heat pump, said Lancaster, owner of Middletown-based Lancaster Craftsmen Builders.
Lancaster's company has been installing geothermal systems for 15 to 20 years, and the business owner practices what he preaches.
Lancaster's office, a 4,000-square-foot pre-Civil War home, is outfitted with geothermal energy. The system is saving the business at least $7,000 to $8,000 a year in propane gas expense.
One of his clients liked the geothermal home system that Lancaster builders installed so much, he had the company put in another unit in his new ice cream shop on the farm, Lancaster said.
That customer, Chuck Fry, who recently opened Rocky Point Creamery in Tuscarora, described his geothermal unit as "a simple, common sense system that saves energy."
Green homes cost more up front than "cookie-cutter" homes, Lancaster said, but when owners consider the return on investment for energy savings, it can be substantial.
"And the resale value of the home is much higher," with energy saving features, Lancaster said.
Geothermal systems cost $30,000 and more, Lancaster said.
Nexus EnergyHomes is building 55 NetZero energy houses at North Pointe along North Bentz and West Sixth streets in Frederick that include geothermal, solar and other alternative energy sources. More than 20 homes are sold or under contract and nine completed houses produce as much energy as is used, resulting into zero energy cost over one year, said Mike Muren, Realtor for the project, along with several associates.
"Most people in the door have heard of geothermal energy, but they are not aware of how it operates," Muren said.
The average homeowner in the company's downtown Frederick houses will receive about $17,000 in tax credits to outfit their home with geothermal and other energy-saving features, but the company has other houses in the $25,000 savings range, Muren said.
"We sell our houses at the same price of conventional homes," Muren said. "We couldn't do it three years ago."
Even though geothermal systems are extremely efficient, Lancaster said people considering the technology should focus on insulation, which is a lot less costly than the mechanical part of the geothermal system. A properly insulated home decreases the size of the unit needed, and a smaller unit is less expensive.
"When I talk to people, I say, please prioritize insulation, then look at investing in the mechanical system. That way, you can properly size the mechanical system you need," Lancaster said.
Designing a new home allows Lancaster builders to put in an efficient insulation system, and though new insulation will cost more money upfront, the homeowner will be able to offset the cost by putting in a smaller geothermal system, "so, we're putting money in a different line item," Lancaster said.
Hoping to capitalize on a growing local geothermal market, Ralph W. Fink, owner of Advanced Service Air Conditioning and Heating in Middletown, and heating and air conditioning technician Kenny Haines, recently became certified geothermal systems installers.
The North American Technician Excellence and the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association certification is a stamp of approval that indicates you know what you're doing, Fink said.
Fink has not had his first job, but he plans to use his home as a test case.
"You got to start somewhere," Fink said. "I'll probably start on my own house -- figure out the mistakes on my own house rather than on somebody else's."
Fink said people should consider geothermal energy if they want to save money over the long run.
"These systems are perfect for homes, apartment complexes, businesses, schools and more," Fink said. "In addition to heating and cooling, (geothermal systems) can also provide free or substantially reduced cost for hot water."