Tim Smigelski in front of the Germantown home he built with a geothermal heating system. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

Tim Smigelski in front of the Germantown home he built with a geothermal heating system. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

The answer to lowering your heating bill this winter might be “right under your feet” said Germantown  resident Tim Smigelski, who is certified by the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association to install geothermal or ground source heat pumps (GSHP). He explained that geothermal technology uses natural energy stored in the earth to heat the home.

Smigelski, owner of Morgan & Ward Endeavors, recently built a “green” home using geothermal technology. The new house, which is approximately 2,300 square feet, is at 130 Price St. and runs only on electric geothermal technology.

He said geothermal technology is vastly different from conventional methods of heating and cooling a home. He explained that geothermal technology doesn’t make heat – it moves it.

Geothermal technology uses the heat below the earth’s frost line, which usually stays between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, to reduce a home’s energy use during the winter and the summer. Geothermal technology uses that constant temperature to heat or cool the building and since the earth is providing most of the energy, the system is naturally highly efficient.

Smigelski, who has a degree in textile design and engineering from Philadelphia University, explained how it works.

A geothermal HVAC system has three main parts: the heat-pump unit, the liquid heat-exchange medium (open or closed), and the air-delivery system (ductwork).

While the systems are often referred to as wells, they are actually a series of pipes, called loops, that are inserted four- to six-feet  deep below the earth’s frost line. Inside these pipes a fluid, like the antifreeze in a car radiator, is circulated.

A closed loop system is sealed from the ground and liquids are reused within the system, while an open loop system has discharge water it releases into a ground well or surface water.

Jennifer Colaizzi, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said Energy Star qualified geothermal heat pumps are 45 percent more energy efficient than standard options.

She noted that the same efficiency applies to water-to-water GHPs. Water-to-water GHPs provide space conditioning and/or domestic water heating using indoor refrigerant-to-water heat exchangers.

“Geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) are among the most efficient and comfortable heating and cooling technologies currently available because they use the temperature of the ground to assist in heating and cooling, Colaizzi said. “In summer, GHPs move heat into cool underground soil, which accepts it more easily than the hot outside air. In winter, they take heat from underground soil, which has a lot more of it than the frigid air.”

Smigelski noted that compared to air-source heat pumps (ASHP), geothermal heat pumps are quieter, last longer, need little maintenance, and do not depend on the temperature of the outside air.

One advantage of geothermal technology is that it can be used anywhere in the world and, unlike wind and solar, geothermal’s power source never varies.

Smigelski, who first heard about geothermal technology six years ago, said the system emits no carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or other greenhouse gases that are considered to be major contributors to environmental air pollution.

“My goal was to build a classic home but to make it ‘green’ using geothermal,” he said. “I built it as if I was going to live in it” said Smigelski, who recently sold the house.

According to Smigelski, the original construction was built in the mid-19th century. He said the original building needed extensive renovations and it was more cost-effective to build a new house on the site.

The cost of installing a geothermal system can range from $10,000 to $40,000 depending on the size of the home. The average home requires between one and five tons of heating and cooling capacity, depending on size, insulation quality and how tightly the home is constructed.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “An average geothermal pump system costs about $2,500 per ton of capacity. If a home requires a 3-ton unit, then it would cost about $7,500 (plus installation and drilling costs). A comparable ASHP system with air conditioning would cost about $4,000, but the energy costs could easily equate to the extra cost of installing a geothermal heat pump.”

“For every dollar you put into running the system you get four dollars back,” Smigelski said.

Prior to selling the house, Smigelski kept the temperature at 68 degrees F.

“The total electric bill for the month of November was $68 and that includes the lighting, refrigerator and other appliances,” he said. “I kid you not. It’s that efficient. Geothermal technology is like 400 percent efficient. The lady living there now loves it. She said there were no drafts in the house.’”

According to an article in the New York Times in 2012, “More geothermal systems are installed in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the United States.”

Homeowners who install Energy Star qualified geothermal heat pumps through Dec. 31, 2016,  are eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit.