Geothermal Data at Regional Geophysics Laboratory

Geothermal heating finds a following in Virginia

The following news item from the Associated Press was published in The Roanoke Times, September 17, 1995.

BRIDGEWATER -- Fountain Head is one of the most energy-efficient subdivisions in the state. Its 36 town homes and six single-family dwellings are heated and cooled by the earth.

Because the temperature below ground remains fairly constant -- between 45 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit -- geothermal energy is simple to tap. A liquid, such as antifreeze, circulates in underground pipes to harbess that energy in heat pumps.

Using basic heat transfer technology, similar to the way a refrigerator works, a geothermal heat pump wrings the warmth from the liquid in the pipe loop. In its cooling mode, the heat pump uses the liquid in the loop to carry heat out of the home and into the earth. Geothermal heating and cooling have been around for years, but the technology has evolved, said Fountain Head builder Ken Lambert.

"They've come a long way in just a few years," he said. "They're making them even better."

Lambert believes he has built the only geothermal subdivision in Virginia.

"I wanted the most energy-efficient homes available," he said.

The Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Virginia Power promote the use of geothermal heating because it's energy efficient and doesn't pollute. The systems are almost noiseless, unlike standard heat pumps.

"We've had a fourfold increase in interest [in geothermal systems] over the past four years," said Duwayne Marks, director of energy efficiency for Virginia Power. Part of that interest is because prices for installing the systems have dropped as much as 25 percent.

Marks says the price varies. To install a complete geothermal system in a single-family home might cost $10,000 to $12,000, compared with $5,000 to $6,000 for a conventional high-efficiency heat pump.

The town homes in Fountain Head range in size from 1,100 square feet and in cost from $74,900 to $120,000. Using geothermal heat pumps increased the cost by an average of $3,900 per unit, Lambert said.

"It would be a little more for single-family homes," Lambert said.

But Marks noted that for economy of operation, "geothermal wins hands down."

Geothermal heat pumps can cut cooling and heating costs by up to 40 percent compared with high-efficiency standard equipment, said Marks. The extra cost of installation can be made up in seven to 10 years.

Though there are no statewide figures available, Marks said the Charlottesville region has only about 125 houses with geothermal systems.

Lambert has built a total of 66 geothermal homes in Rockingham, Augusta, and Shenandoah counties.

"I have 66 happy customers. ...I always build with geothermal now," he said.

One of those happy customers is Loren Lehman of New Market, who works for Lambert and lives in a geothermal home.

"I'd recommend them to anybody because of their efficiency," Lehman said. The average monthly electricity bill for his 1,800-square-foot home is $100 to $120.

Lambert's bill for his own home dropped from a high of $400 to a high of $175 after he installed a geothermal system to replace his electric heating system.

The average monthly electric bill for Fountain Head town homes is $49 to $59 a month.

Rick Kane, vice president of Westhills Co. construction company of Waynesboro, recently built four houses with geothermal systems. "I'm really excited about it. I'm putting it in my personal home."

Kane said retired people seem to be attracted to the high-quality performance and low utility bills of geothermal systems.

"The payback on utility bills is six to eight years ... and if energy costs go up, the payback is even shorter," Kane said.

But Lambert said he has fought an uphill battle to sell geothermal homes, meeting with resistance from real estate agents.

"Four years ago, it was tough to sell. But they're not tough to sell now. We've got a track record." he said. Lambert has sold all the homes in Fountain Head and is building 28 more.

Most of the loops used in the geothermal systems are installed horizontally in trenches in yards adjacent to the homes. But Lambert is experimenting with a method of drilling horizontally from the basement of a home to eliminate the need to dig up the landscape.

If it works, that could mean a big boost for the geothermal industry.

"It's the most plausible way to install it," said Lambert, who is seeking a patent on his method. "It could sweep the country."

Geothermal energy in Blacksburg, VA

Where to find the name of a geothermal contractor in your area.

Questions and Answers about Residential Systems (courtesy of WaterFurnace)

Return to: Geothermal Homepage Geological Sciences Virginia Tech

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