Heating


Last updated February 19, 2017

 

 

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Cutting and monitoring costs | Old boiler | New oil burner | Size for a new boiler | Oil versus natural gas | Choosing a boiler | Return on investment for switching from oil to gas | Forced air | Cooling | Return on investment for forced air | Geothermal | Projected return on investment for geothermal | Geothermal work | Journal | Critique | Renewable energy credits | Actual costs and payback | Pellet Stove | Future | Big picture


In February 2011, shortly after installing additional roof insulation, I wrote
The house that Norma and I own is heated by oil. Our boiler is serviced by Laurel Fuel Oil and our fuel is purchased from them too. They have provided good service and their rates seem reasonable. However, the amount we pay each winter seems unusually high for such a small house. This could, in part, be due to the fact that our Weil-Mclain P-366 boiler is about 20 years old. But it still works fine so it is hard to justify spending a couple thousand dollars to have it removed and get a new, more energy efficient one installed. But that is not an option we have yet to discard...just a last resort.
- from Attic insulation

In 2012, I felt it was time to consider other heating alternatives. Our existing system was not using oil efficiently and the cost for this oil was likely only going to go up. Natural gas, on the other hand, might become more plentiful as new domestic sources became abundant.
President Obama called America the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas"...
- from U.S. News and World Report, "Obama: U.S. 'Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas'" January 26, 2012

Rising oil costs, dependence on foreign reserves, cheaper energy alternatives, more environmentally clean alternatives, new technology, and government tax incentives all influenced my decision that it was time to consider a home heating upgrade.

This page documents my notes for the things that influenced my decision to pick the heating source that I did in the latter half of 2012. I considered

  • a new oil boiler
  • a new oil burner
  • a condensing hot water boiler
  • a gas boiler
  • an indirect-fired hot water heater
  • a gas hot water heater
  • a tankless (on-demand) gas hot water heater
  • a heat pump hot water heater
  • a solar hot water heater
  • a conventional heat pump
  • a geothermal heat pump
  • a natural gas stove
  • a wood burning stove
  • a pellet stove

  • Originally, I referenced all my sources, only to find that many of the links that I quoted changed. I referenced these as best I could and include "broken link." I assume this is due to the ever-changing nature of heating technology and associated costs.


    Cutting and monitoring costs
    I like money. Who doesn't? So I don't like to waste it. Letting unnecessary heat go up the chimney in the winter is like throwing money in the wind. So during our first few winters, Norma and I did what we could to reduce our heating costs without spending too much money.
  • February 22, 2010: I had a free Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) Quick Home Energy Check-Up performed by Greg Abbe (phone: 240-381-0471) of Elysian Energy. Greg pointed out numerous inexpensive things I could do to improve the heating and cooling efficiency of our house.
  • December 2010: Clear plastic covering was added to create an extra thermal layer over our windows. We have double pane windows but they are not of good quality. Those on the main floor are dated from 1985. The ones in the basement are in worse condition.
  • February 2011: About 9.5 inches of insulation was added to attic, thereby bringing our level of insulation from R13 to R48. See attic insulation.
  • February 2011: In our walls, I found 2.5 inch thick batt insulation with black backing. The insulation was not compressed and the backing material was in excellent condition. The insulation appears to be fiberglass. According to Spray Foam Insulation, this insulation is R-8.75. According to the U.S. Department of Energy Energy Savers Booklet: Tips on Saving Energy and Money at Home, homes in the Maryland area should have R13-15 insulation. This means that our walls have 62.5% of the recommended level of insulation. Increasing the thickness of our walls to add more insulation is not feasible so we'll just have to live with it for now.

  • Before making a big purchase, I like to know ahead of time how much money I will save and how long it will take to recoup my investment. This means I need to monitor the costs I am trying to reduce.
  • February 2011: Annual maintenance on boiler for $144. For such an old oil boiler, this is essential to keep it from becoming a fire hazard.
  • November 15, 2011: Heater turned on around this date. 275 gallon oil tank is at about 75% capacity. Now I'm going to actually figure out how much heating oil we use in a single winter having the additional insulation in the attic.
  • December 2, 2011: 116.1 gallons purchased at $3.77 per gallon. Total cost is $437.70.
  • January 18, 2012: Annual maintenance and service: $130.
  • February 9, 2012: Plastic tank measuring gauge cover to replace broken one: $14.72.
  • April 20, 2012: 52.5 gallons purchased at $3.95 per gallon. Total cost is $207.38. Tank is at about 75% capacity.

  • So for the winter, we used 168.6 gallons of oil and spent a total of $789.80. If we assume we ran the boiler from mid-November to mid-March, then this averages out to $197.45 per month for heating. Some of this heating also pre-heats the water that goes to our electric hot water heater but I have no way of determining how much. This pre-heating makes my hot water heater an indirect-fired hot water tank.
    Weil-McLain high efficiency indirect fired water heaters produce produce twice the peak flow of a tankless coil; at least 50% more than a comparably sized direct-fired gas hot water heater; and three times as much as an electric unit.
    - from Weil-McLain high efficiency indirect fired water heater product offering

    The following winter, we started our oil boiler at 75% capacity around October 8, 2012.

    Is 168.6 gallons of oil typical usage for one winter at our house? No. It is less than average. But I haven't collected data over more than just this one winter to determine what our average usage would be. But consider the following monthly average and actual temperatures for Baltimore, Maryland:
         Average temperature    Actual temperature in winter 2011/2012
         November: 47           November: 51
         December: 37           December: 42
         January: 33            January: 38
         February: 36           February: 42
         March: 44              March 54
    This information is based on data from Weather.com and Weather Underground

    According to Today in Energy - U.S. Household Winter Natural Gas Heating Expenditures Expected to be Lowest since 2002-03,
    Mild weather is the big driver of lower natural gas expenditures this winter for households. As a result of above-normal temperatures this winter, Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that households will need less natural gas for heating, consuming an average level of about 62.3 thousand cubic feet this winter. That's down more than 10% from the level used last winter and the lowest estimated household winter natural gas heating use in more than 10 years (see chart above).
    The number of heating degree days from October through February was down 11% compared to the 30-year average.


    Let's assume (because of a lack of better data) that the heating degree days has a strong a direct correlation with the consumption of oil heat (a safe assumption, in my opinion) and that this data, which represents the entire United States, also represents Savage, Maryland. Furthermore, let's assume that our 30-year average will be also be the average for the next several years (probably not such a safe assumption but again, for the lack of better data, let's go with this). Lastly, let's assume the cost of heating oil will be the same as it currently is for the next several years (probably not the case). This means ($3.77 + $3.95)/2 = $3.86 per gallon. Then one could claim that if our number of heating days was down 11% in the winter of 2011-2012 as compared to the average, then our average consumption for heating oil is 168.6 + (0.11 * 168.6) = 187.15 gallons. This means our average cost for heating oil in one winter is 187.15 * $3.86 = $722.38. Adding on the cost of annual maintenance, service, and parts brings things to $722.38 + $130 + $14.72 = $867.10 per winter for heating. One might argue that the $14.72 is a one-time cost but with such an old system, I think it is reasonable to factor in some annual cost for parts. Hence, this averages out to a mid-November to mid-March monthly rate of $216.78.

    In addition to heating our house, our boiler also supports our electric Duron Censible State Water Heater which only has a single heating element. I don't know much much of our British Thermal Unit (BTU) output goes towards that nor do I know how much BTU the hot water heater generates. The manual does not provide such specifications and the website doesn't list this old model. Naturally, in the winter, the hot water heater has to work harder but that is also when we use our boiler so having a single heating element is sufficient, especially since we are heating water for just Norma and me. The boiler only comes on when the thermostat says it is cold; it never comes on just to heat water for household use. Typically, I shower at night and she showers in the morning so there is never a shortage of hot water. Our hot water heater claims to use 4959 kWh of electricity per year. This equates to $455.73 per year for heating water by purchasing electricity at the December 2011 Dominion rate but I am sure it is much less since it is being helped by the boiler. How much? I don't know. But I do know that we only use the boiler in the winter so if I were to assume that the boiler helps out 50% in the winter, then that means 1/4 * 50% = 12.5% of the hot water we use is heated by oil. With no better estimate, I'll run with this, which means that we really only pay $398.76 per year for heating water. Comparing this to American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), we have a medium efficiency electric hot water heater. How does this compare to a high efficiency gas storage hot water heater? The same source says such a unit costs $323 in energy per year. Deducting 12.5% if the unit were to also receive help from the gas boiler would mean an actual annual energy cost of $282.63, a savings of $116.13 for a high efficiency unit.

    I have considered going solar and doing away with the electric hot water heater. That is a very likely possibility once it is time to get a new roof. See solar hot water heating. According to a BGE Home folder I received, water heating accounts for 14% of the energy cost for the average American home with all energy costs being $2200 annually. This means average water heating costs are $2200 * 14% = $308. At $455.73, we are paying (455.73 - 308)/308 = 48% more than average, not counting help from the oil boiler. Clearly, our electric water heater is very inefficient when compared to other energy source options.

    Also according to BGE Home, heating generally accounts for 29% of energy costs. This means that the average American spends about $2200 * 29% = $638 per year on heating. So we are paying more than we should. Adding insult to injury,
    According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States was 2,700 square feet in 2009, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970.
    - from U.S. Home Size - Infoplease.com

    Our house has a finished square footage of 1240. This means it is 1240/2700 = 46% the size of the average American home. Certainly our heating cost is not 46% of $638. It is actually 135%! So despite having a much smaller home than average, our heating costs are higher than average! Something has to change.


    Old boiler
    Our oil furnace boiler is old and inefficient, to say the least. I was told by a technician from Laurel Fuel Oil that it uses about a gallon per hour of continuous use. Based on similar products from the same period, I'm estimating our boiler has about 70% efficicency. By comparison, new Energy Star boilers have at least an 85% Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating. Some of the high-end gas boilers have an efficiency of 95%!

    My educated guess is that our boiler produces 115,000 BTU based on modern oil boilers at 85% efficiency using the same amount of fuel (one gallon per hour) and producing 140,000 BTU. An 85% efficient boiler is 21% more efficient than one with 70% efficiency. This means that a boiler with 21% greater efficiency than a 115,000 BTU boiler will produce 140,000 BTUs. Using this approximation and along with the Weil-McLain boiler manual sent to me (no, it doesn't list the efficiency or BTU), it requires 16.5 square inches of ventilation to the outside. This means we should be able to reduce our current ventilation by one half. However, adding a screen would also reduce ventilation so perhaps it is just best to add a screen to keep the stinkbugs out. I have since done this.

    To learn more about boiler efficiency, read Energy Savers: Furnaces and Boilers. There are ways to make an old oil-fired boiler more efficient without buying a new one but I'm more interested in significant long-term savings and doing something good for the environment, not just my wallet.

    Our house and boiler have their drawbacks, mainly because both are old. But one advantage we have is that we spend almost all out time on the top floor and since heat rises, things remain much warmer than if we spent time in the basement. Of course we pay for that in the summer.


    New oil burner
    I really understand very little about boilers. It seems like all they do is burn fuel to heat water which gets circulated throughout the house to heat the air, right? Obviously, there is much more to it than that. Getting a new boiler and switching the type of fuel is one way to significantly increase efficiency but there are other ways to get more bang for the buck at a lower cost.

    Rather than replace the whole boiler, why not just replace the burner or certain other parts?
    Many boilers and furnaces in today's homes are oversized, particularly if you've upgraded the energy efficiency of your home. It is simple to reduce the heating capacity of your oil boiler or furnace to make it operate more efficiently by having a technician install a smaller nozzle. The cost is minimal and it could cut fuel bills by as much as 10%.
    If you have an old, inefficient burner, though, you may want to replace the whole burner. A flame retention burner will block airflow up the chimney when the unit isn't running, saving up to 20% on fuel costs at a cost of about $500.

    - from The Encyclopedia of Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living

    However, with such an old boiler like the one we have, upgrading/replacing parts may not be the best choice.
    Many people prefer to purchase new boilers rather than to repair old ones. This simply is not a wise economic move if your boiler is below 7 years old. There is still a lot of life in that boiler. Tune up, some adjustments and parts replacement is all it needs. However, if the boiler is no longer energy efficient and it is 15-20 years old, a decision to purchase a new one is more logical and practical.
    - from gas-boiler.org "Boiler Service Cost," now a broken link


    Size of a new boiler
    So what do we need to heat our house more efficiently and save money in the long run? According to eBay Guides - How many BTUs do I need to heat my house, we live in zone 3 (yellow) which means we need 40-45 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per square foot. Our finished square footage is 1240 while our main floor is 880. We generally don't care about heating the basement but if we decide to sell, we will want to make sure the new owners are comfortable if they make use of the whole house. This means our lower threshold is 1240 * 45 = 55,800 BTUs if we use the boiler solely for heating the house. Since our home isn't exactly the best insulated, I'd want a little more.

    How to Estimate the Right Size of Gas Boilers for the Square Feet of the House also provides information for calculating the number of BTUs needed in a heater but it doesn't take into account the climate so I prefer the previous source.

    A much more precise (and complicated) source for finding the size of boiler needed is at Whole House Boiler Sizing Method for Houses and Flats. This provides a measurement in kilowatts (kW)...I prefer BTUs.

    If and when we get a new boiler, if it also supports the hot water heater, then I'll want to get one with similar output, about 115,000 BTUs. Otherwise, I'd be willing to settle for one with as few as 65,000 BTUs.


    Oil versus natural gas
    What energy source should we use? I prefer natural gas because we can get it piped to our house so we would never have to rely on delivery again. Also, Norma likes the idea of having a gas stove and oven for cooking, though ours presently works fine so that won't change for awhile. So I called BGE to inquire about getting a natural gas pipe hooked up to our house. On April 14, 2011, Mary of BGE left a message on Norma’s phone to inform us that natural gas is available in our area. It would cost $740 for the first 100 feet to be connected to the house. There may be other charges. If interested, we should call 410-470-8436. The e-mail they sent prior to the call included the following:
    Our new business call center would be able to assist you with the connection. In order to obtain the information, please call 410-850-4620 or 1-800-233-1854 Monday through Friday from 7am to 4:30pm. If you have further questions, please contact us at myhomerep@bge.com.

    My former house uses natural gas for heat. After all the different taxes and service charges are taken into account, as of December 2011, the cost is $1.03 per therm. If we assume 93% efficiency for a natural gas boiler then according to Fuel Comparison Calculator, the cost per 100,000 BTUs is $1.11 and the carbon dioxide emissions is 12.9 pounds per 100,000 BTUs.

    In comparison, as of December 2011, the cost for a gallon of fuel oil is $3.77. Our ~20 year old oil boiler is about 70% efficient, based on standard models built around that time. Fuel Comparison Calculator claims the cost per 100,000 BTUs is $3.79 and the carbon dioxide emissions is 20 pounds per 100,000 BTUs.

    This means for an equivalent amount of heat, an energy efficient natural gas boiler will reduce our heating costs 71% while reducing our carbon dioxide emissions by 36%.

    But wait! There's more. According to BGE Smart Energy Savers Energy Program, we may qualify for discounts from BGE if we go with natural gas. BGE doesn't make any money if we use heating oil or liquid propane so they want us to use natural gas. I'm guessing that the government also supports their rebate program because it encourages clean energy. To be eligible,
    1. One must be a BGE residential customer applying through the Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® Program only.
    2. This offer is open to all BGE residential electric and/or gas distribution customers, regardless of their electricity and/or gas supplier. Participants applying for Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® incentives must have:
       a. Central A/C unit, air source heat pump, or other primary electric heating system, and receive electric distribution service from BGE or
       b. Gas furnace or gas boiler, and receive gas service from BGE. Projects must be installed in the BGE service territory.
    Gas Boilers are not eligible to receive rebate payments as part of Baltimore Gas & Electric's Home Performance with ENERGY STAR Program or as part of the BGE Residential Heating & Cooling Equipment Program.

    This is a little confusing because the BGE Smart Energy Savers Program webpage primarily addresses rebates but apparently, there are discounts that might pertain to us. I need to look into this more.

    But getting back to the direct cost difference between oil and natural gas, recall from Cutting and monitoring costs that in an average winter, we can expect to use 187.15 gallons of oil. Based on December 2011 fuel oil costs, this is equivalent to $705.56 and 18,616,240 BTU of heat. This many BTUs can be provided by natural gas for only $206.64. Thus, we can expect a savings (just in oil/gas cost) of $498.92 per winter.

    What about the cost for maintenance and service of a natural gas boiler? In homes where I've lived that use natural gas for heat but don't have a boiler (forced air is used instead), there really isn't any maintenance or service fee unless something goes wrong, which seems to be never. But for boilers, I think this is different and the maintenance/service fee is comparable to that of an oil boiler.
    A comprehensive boiler service will cost from $240 to $288 for a standard efficiency unit and from $128 to $256 for a high efficiency, energy star rated condensing boiler. The effective method of getting the best boiler service cost is to secure and compare quotes from at least 3 boiler service companies. They have incentives, freebies and other promo plans to motivate their target markets to avail of their services.
    - from gas-boiler.org "Boiler Service Cost," now a broken link

    So what is the difference between a conventional (what I have) versus a condensing boiler?
    Condensing boilers are water heaters in which a high efficiency (typically greater than 90%) is achieved by using the waste heat in the flue gases to pre-heat the cold water entering the boiler. They may be fuelled by gas or oil and are called condensing boilers because the water vapour produced during combustion is condensed into water, which leaves the system via a drain.
    Condensing boiler manufacturers claim that up to 98% thermal efficiency can be achieved, compared to 70%-80% with conventional designs (based on the higher heating value of fuels). Typical models offer efficiencies around 90%, which brings most brands of condensing gas boiler in to the highest available categories for energy efficiency.
    Condensing boilers are up to 50% more expensive to buy and install than conventional types in the UK and the US.
    - from Wikipedia - Condensing boiler


    Choosing a boiler
    Spending more on an energy efficient gas boiler will pay in the long run, given enough time. Based on December 2001 web searches, a gas boiler with about 95% efficiency will cost between $3000 and $4000. CostOwl.com - How Much Does a Furnace Cost? says
    With materials and labor, you can expect to spend $2,500 to $5,000 to install a new gas furnace or replace an old furnace. On average, it will cost $3,000. That includes the price of the unit and labor.
    It will cost roughly $700 to $1000 for furnace installation. The job can easily cost more as the job becomes more complex. That is simply the cost for a basic installation with no complications that will make it more difficult and time consuming for your HVAC service.


    Boiler Efficiency Database lists several databases though since it is a British site, some may not be available in the states.

    Weil-McLain WM97+ 70, 70,000 BTU Wall Mount Gas Boiler has a 97% AFUE rating. Our old boiler is a Weil-McLain and despite its age, it is reliable so I would certainly be willing to purchase another Weil-McLain.
    Weil-McLain Ultra Series 3-UE Gas Boiler UG-80 has a 95.2% AFUE rating, and costs about $3500.
    ComfortUSA - High Efficiency Condensing Hot Water Boilers lists several possibilities.


    Return on investment for switching from oil to natural gas
    In May 2012, I had BGE Home come out to give us a price quote for removing the oil boiler, removing the oil tank, purchasing and installing an Energy Star rated gas boiler, purchasing and installing an Energy Star rated gas water heater, setting up the gas exhaust system, and doing drywall work to hide the exhaust pipes that would exit through the north end of the house. Not included in this cost is the price for running a gas line to the house. BGE would handle that and they are a different company from BGE Home.

    I got quotes for two options. The first includes a Columbia UB90-75 90% efficient gas boiler and a Rheem 43VP40E2 67% efficient gas water heater. The estimated annual operating cost for the water heater is $272, which is 60% the cost of our current electric water heater. If we assume 12.5% assistance from the boiler, then the actual operating cost for the hot water heater is $238...a savings of $160.76. Total cost for this option is $13,072. Adding on the $740 to run a gas line to the house brings the total to $13,812.

    The second quote includes an ECR 97gb 97% efficient condensing hot water boiler and a Rheem 43VP40E2 gas water heater. The total cost for this option is $14,313. Adding on the $740 to run a gas line to the house brings the total to $15,053.

    I mentioned in Oil versus natural gas that a 93% efficient natural gas boiler will reduce our heating costs 71%. Based on this, I estimate that the 90% efficient gas boiler would reduce our heating costs by 71% * 90/93 = 69%. This means an annual savings in heating costs of $867.10 * 69% = $598.30. Add on the savings from hot water heating and the total comes to $759.06. The 97% efficiency natural gas boiler will reduce our heating costs 71% * 97/93 = 74%, resulting in an annual savings in heating of $867.10 * 74% = $641.65. Once the savings from hot water heating is included, the total savings is $802.41 per year.

    Thus, for the first option that uses a 90% efficient gas boiler, the estimated return on investment is $13,812/$759.06 = 18.20 years. For the second option that calls for a 97% efficient gas boiler, the estimated return on investment is $15,053/$802.41 = 18.80 years.

    I got other price quotes. Don Stilling from Chesapeake Heating and Cooling came out and checked things over. He made a great impression but never got back to me with a price. Too bad. He seems like a great guy and I am more inclined to go with a small company like his.

    Next, I spoke to Jeff Hutchins at Cool Breeze who quoted me $12,900 for a Weil McClain Ultra 105, 95.3% efficiency gas boiler with a matched Weil McClain Series 3, 40 gallon indirect fired hot water tank. This price does not include removal of the old oil tank.

    An indirect fired hot water tank is like the one I currently have which is helped out by the boiler. From what I've been told, this will give me the most bang for my buck...even more than a tankless hot water heater.

    Lastly, I spoke to John Van Horne of Arundel Heating and Cooling. Their Better Business Bureau rating is A+ and they are listed in the Howard County Best Pick Reports Quality Home Services Guide 2013. This is a pretty big company though not as big as BGE Home. I thought a bigger company would charge me significantly more than a smaller one but this was not the case. He quoted me $12,941, also for a for a Weil McClain Ultra 105 96% efficiency gas boiler with a matched Weil McClain 40 gallon indirect fired hot water tank. This price does not include removal of the old oil tank. Annual maintenance would be about $147.

    If nothing else, it seems the Weil McClain Ultra 105 gas boiler with a matched Weil McClain 40 gallon indirect fired hot water tank is the way to go being as two companies both recommended it independently.

    In terms of return on investment for the dual Weil McClain option, I estimate that the 95.3% efficiency natural gas boiler will reduce our heating costs 71% * 95.3/93 = 72.76%, resulting in an annual savings in heating of $867.10 * 72.76% = $630.87. I was unable to find good data regarding energy usage for the Weil McClain 40 gallon indirect fired hot water tank so I'm assuming it will save me $116.13 annually, as I calculated in Cutting and monitoring costs. This means a yearly energy savings of $747. Regarding cost, if I go with Arundel Heating and Cooling, then I am looking at $12,941 plus $740 for the gas line plus about $300 for the old oil tank removal if I work through a fellow by the name of John Straman. This means a total cost of $13,981. So estimated return on investment is $13,981/$747 = 18.72 years.

    I am surprised that the costs between different companies makes so little difference in terms of return on investment. I did tell any company what the others were charging so as far as I can tell, their quotes were independent.

    One big difference about the return on investment for going from oil/electric to gas as compared to going solar is that for solar, the return on investment is very quick due to government incentives. Not so with oil/electric to gas. But this means that once making the switch from oil/electric to gas, the savings will be constant, whereas the savings from solar are low after the tax breaks have already gone into play.

    An important question is whether or not we will live in our house long enough for the conversion to gas to pay for itself. The likely answer is no. But one thing that was not factored in is the increase in value to my home once a gas boiler and hot water heater is installed. Every source I read says that the value of my home will go up. But I only found one source that mentioned just how much. According to chpkgas.com "Chesapeake Natural Living, April 2011," now a broken link:
    If you don't currently have all gas appliances at home, perhaps it is time to consider replacing electric appliances with natural gas appliances to improve resale value. At least that's what a new study by the National Association of Home Builders discovered. The national survey, prepared for by the Energy Solutions Center by the National Association of Home Builders in November 2010, asked NAHB's builder members to compare the prices of newly built single-family homes with only electric equipment.
    According to the study, homes powered by gas fuel sold for higher prices than electric homes - regardless of the size of the home. The gas home, on average, sold for 6% more than the electric home.


    I'm not saying our home will increase in value 6% because we go from an oil boiler and electric hot water heater to a natural gas boiler and hot water heater. The study above was done on NEW homes that used natural gas appliances, which I assume means stove and oven in addition to heat and hot water. So instead, let's assume that our home value increases only 4%. Having paid $274,900, that means an increase in value of $10,996. It would really probably be more than that because I am talking about replacing a 20+ year old boiler with a new one but for now, we'll just assume $10,996. Thus, if we sold the house before the switch to natural gas paid for itself, then we would reap the costs in increased resale value as long we we lived here for at least ($13,981 - $10,996)/$747 = 4 years!


    Forced air
    After coming up with my return on investment figures for switching from oil to natural gas, Norma mentioned that it might be difficult to sell the house if it lacks central air. Right now, we use three window air conditioning units. Recall that we spend almost all our time on the upper floor. This means we stay warmer in the winter. But we also stay warmer in the summer. So keeping cool is a challenge. We try to use the ceiling fans I installed and if it is cooler outside than inside, we use the whole house fan in the attic to draw air in from the outside. But this only goes so far. In July and August, the Baltimore area can get really hot and humid. The window air conditioning units are noisy and don't do a great job of keeping the place cool.

    But back to the resale concern. I asked five of my male co-workers (85% of my co-workers are male) if they would buy a house that lacks central air. Four of them said no. One mentioned that a lot of people who look to buy in Howard County have a pretty good amount of money and wouldn't want to go without central air, even if that meant paying much less for a house.

    One of my wise co-workers (Steve O.) suggested I keep my oil boiler and get a heat pump and air handler. Then the heat pump could be wired to the boiler so that the boiler goes on when it is too cold for the heat pump to function efficiently. Of course, this would require that our house be set up with a forced air system and have ductwork installed. Not a small task but perhaps one with the most reward.

    According to Energy Savers: Heat Pump Systems:
    For climates with moderate heating and cooling needs, heat pumps offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners. Like your refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from a cool space into a warm, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer. During the heating season, heat pumps move heat from the cool outdoors into your warm house; during the cooling season, heat pumps move heat from your cool house into the warm outdoors. Because they move heat rather than generate heat, heat pumps can provide up to 4 times the amount of energy they consume.

    The most common type of heat pump is the air-source heat pump, which transfers heat between your house and the outside air. If you heat with electricity, a heat pump can trim the amount of electricity you use for heating by as much as 30%–40%. High-efficiency heat pumps also dehumidify better than standard central air conditioners, resulting in less energy usage and more cooling comfort in summer months. However, the efficiency of most air-source heat pumps as a heat source drops dramatically at low temperatures, generally making them unsuitable for cold climates, although there are systems that can overcome that problem.


    The best description I found for how a heat pump works is at How Does a Heat Pump Work?. You don't need a degree in thermodynamics to understand this...though it won't hurt.

    According to HowStuffWorks: How Heat Pumps Work:
    Heat pumps also work extremely efficiently, because they simply transfer heat, rather than burn fuel to create it. This makes them a little more green than a gas-burning furnace. And they don't just heat and cool buildings. If you've ever enjoyed a hot tub or heated swimming pool, then you probably have a heat pump to thank. They work best in moderate climates, so if you don't experience extreme heat and cold in your neck of the woods, then using a heat pump instead of a furnace and air conditioner could help you save a little money each month.

    Now I wouldn't necessarily say the Baltimore area of Maryland has a moderate climate. According to Wikipedia - Baltimore, our July high temperature is 90.6 degrees while our January average low is 29.4. But like I said, we could have our boiler rigged up to turn on when the heat pump can't do its job. Plus, Norma and I aren't exactly into keeping the place toasty warm in the winter or super cool in the summer. We are perfectly fine with 66 degrees in the winter (60 at night) and 78 in the summer.

    So maybe we could have it all. We could keep our inefficient oil boiler and hot water heater that still work, but rely on the boiler much less, have air conditioning, cut our heating costs, and do something good for the environment.

    I contacted Jeff of Cool Breeze Heating and Air Conditioning and John of Arundel Cooling and Heating again. I explained to them both my intention and asked for their input. I also asked about geothermal. John said, "Geothermal is a great long term value if you plan on staying in your home for at least the next 10 year." According to Energy Savers: Geothermal Heat Pumps:
    the installation price of a geothermal system can be several times that of an air-source system of the same heating and cooling capacity.


    Cooling
    The title of this web page is "Heating" but since we're now talking about heat pumps and saving money, I feel it is now also important to address cooling since a heat pump and air handler do indeed provide air conditioning. I have not done a study as to how much electricity we spend on air conditioning. I certainly could but the fact of the matter is that we really aren't comfortable with as little as we run our air conditioners so gathering data on how much it costs to keep us mildly uncomfortable in the summer isn't terribly useful although it does establish a bottom line in term of the minimum we would spend on cooling without central air.

    So instead, I'll just use data based on surveys for the common household.

    According to Carbonrally - air conditioner costs> (a now non-existent website)
    Air conditioning alone is responsible for about 16% of the average household's annual electricity bill. That comes out to nearly 2800 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year for homes with central air conditioning and 950 kWh for households using room air conditioners (i.e., window units). At an average nationwide cost of 10 cents per kWh, that average air conditioning system costs $280 to run each year.

    Since we have window units, let's assume our consumption is indeed 950 kWh and that we pay 12 cents per kilowatt hour. In actuality, as of July 2012, we pay 8.87 center per kilowatt hour to Dominion Energy Solutions but once you add in all the taxes, surcharges, and delivery service, it comes out to 12.3719 center per kilowatt hour so for now, let's just assume 12 cents per kilowatt hour. This means that if we were comfortable, our cooling costs would be 950 * $0.12 = $114 annually.

    We have done a few things to try to keep us cooler without running the air conditioning. I installed two ceiling fans, we insulated the attic, we open the windows at night, and we run the whole house fan with the windows open when it is cooler outside than inside to draw air in.

    We have three window air conditioning units that came with the house when we bought them. I have the instruction manuals for them but they aren't very helpful as they don't list the Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) or SEER rating. These models are old enough so I couldn't find this information on-line either but at the time, at least one of these units had an Energy Star certification. The original owner manually wrote on one of the manuals that one of the window air conditioning units has an 11.0 EER so for lack of better data, I'm going to assume that is the case for all three.

    What is the difference between EER and SEER?
    SEER stands for seasonal energy efficiency rating. It's a benchmark of how much electricity a given A/C system uses to deliver each Btu/h of cooling power compared to another one under a standard, fixed set of rating conditions. This benchmark system is managed by the Department of Energy, and they decide what the testing standards are. The higher the SEER number is, the higher the score the system has received on the D.O.E. mandated efficiency tests.
    In the old days, A/C systems were given only an EER (energy efficiency rating, without the "seasonal" prefix). EER ratings are still used today in addition to the SEER rating.
    But some felt that EER system was not a good system for measuring the efficiency of the system over time, because it failed to take into account the fact that it takes some systems much longer to reach peak efficiency after they come on. And no system runs constantly throughout the entire cooling season. This factor was not considered in the EER tests. The other issue was that in most parts of the country, the system is not going to be running in 95F outdoor temperatures used for EER tests very often (if at all) during the cooling season. So the 82F outdoor temperature was chosen for the SEER tests.
    So the SEER system was born a few decades ago to include those factors (cycling efficiency and 82F outdoor temperatures) into the testing process.
    - from SEER ratings versus actual efficiency

    For my caluclations, I'm going to assume EER and SEER are the same thing. They are indeed very related.

    The "Home Depot Central Heating and Cooling Systems" brochure shows the relationship between annual cooling costs and SEER. There isn't an exact entry for our $114 per year situation but this can easily be interpolated as the relationship is linear.

    In Carbonrally, it mentions that folks with central air use much more electricity (2.95 times as much) than people with window units. Why is that? Perhaps people with window units cool only the space they need whereas the central air units cool the whole house. This makes it hard to compare actual projected cooling costs between switching from window units to central air. But one of my requirements in a central air system is the ability to run only the air handler to simply circulate the cool air from the basement to the upstairs. The cost of this should be minor while it might actually save money and make us more comfortable. Maybe it will make up for the difference in cooling costs for switching systems. I really don't know. So for now, I will only compare kilowatt usage when comparing cooling systems and assume that regardless of the system, our usage is the same given equal SEER.


    Return on investment for forced air
    Jeff of Cool Breeze Heating and Air Conditioning said he didn't need to come out and see me again since he already knows the layout of our house based on our previous visit. I asked him to give me a quote by July 9 but he never got back to me.

    John of Arundel Cooling and Heating came out and we spoke for about 90 minutes. He really knows his stuff and explains things well. He suggested two systems:



    Carrier Infinity Series, two stage heat pump 25HNB624A

    This has a 16.5 Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating and a 9 Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) rating. It includes the Carrier Silencer System II which ensures quiet operation inside and out. It includes a 10-year parts limited warranty. This heat pump should be able to keep up warm as long as the temperature is above about 38 degrees.

    According to the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, the yearly heating cost for such a system is $716 while the yearly cooling cost is $259. But I am hesitant to put a lot of faith in these figures as they are for the average U.S. home. According to the BGE Home - Energy pie chart I obtained in 2011, the average American family spends $675 per year on heating and cooling which makes this heat pump look terribly inefficient. So instead I checked out the Heating Fuel Comparision Calculator - U.S. Energy Information Administration. Recall that in old boiler, I estimated that our old 70% efficient oil boiler produces 115,000 BTU per gallon of oil. This means that one million BTU costs $33.56 based on my estimates. The calculator, on the other hand, claims it costs $39.76. Just to be fair, let's take the average and assume that a million BTU of heat from the old oil boiler costs $36.66. How does this compare to a heat pump with an HSPF of 9? Such a system has 211% efficiency. Recall that our winter electricity costs about 12 cents per kilowatt hour. This means $16.31 for one million BTU of heat from the heat pump. In other words, heat from the heat pump costs 44% as much as an equivalent amount from the old oil boiler. Of course the big question is how much would we need to use the oil boiler since we can't expect to heat the house entirely using the heat pump? I used a Heating and cooling hours chart for Baltimore to determine that in a typical Baltimore year, there are about 2100 hours where the temperature is below 40, and 2780 hours where the temperature is between 40 and 60. It is the latter that I would use the heat pump.

    Now you're probably asking how something can have greater than 100% efficiency. According to Geothermal Exchange techniques at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
    Heat Pumps don't generate heat, they pump it. When a heat pump operates in a suitable environment, it can be up to 400% efficient.
    Here is my interpretation. An oil boiler burns oil to heat water. Oil holds potential energy which is released when it is burned. The amount of energy it contains is a fixed amount and the most efficient system in the world will only be able to extract as much energy as is contained in the oil. But a heat pump doesn't contain potential energy. It is like a fan that moves heat or cold air from one location to another. So in that sense, it can use a small amount of energy to move air containing a much larger amount of energy.

    Assuming I am interpreting the "Heating and Cooling hours..." chart correctly, each temperature block corresponds with a "Max Heating Load" which determines the "Heating Capacity" in BTUs per hour that must be run to heat a house. The histogram gives me the approximate number of hours for each temperature block (by manual observation). Thus, I was able to determine that the number of BTUs I would need in a given winter to heat our house (assuming the thermostat is set to 60 degrees) is 84,070,000. Now this number is not the least bit correct. I think it assumes that a heater is running during all of the 6483 heating hours minus adjustments for setting the thermostat to 60. But this won't be the case since in reality, a heater runs just when the inside temperature falls below a threshold. But the inaccuracy of this number isn't important since we only use it to give an approximation as to what percentage of the time the oil boiler would be needed. The number 84,070,000 corresponds to the area under the black line representing the "Max Heating Load." The area under the lesser of the black line and the blue line (which represents "Standard System Capacity") gives me an idea of how much the heat pump could be run to heat the house. The area between the black line and the blue line to the left of their intersection tells me how much the oil boiler (or any supplemental source) would be needed to provide additional heating. Note that while the graph stops at 13 degrees, I actually extend it to 5 degrees since the histogram provides that information. I estimate these figures to be 72,550,000 and 11,520,000, respectively. Viewing these as a proportion of their sum, I thus interpret that when heating our house, I will run the two stage heat pump 86% of the time while I run the oil boiler 14% of the time.

    In Cutting and monitoring costs, I mentioned that our average consumption of heating oil is 187.15 gallons if that is our only source of heat. This equates to 21,525,030 BTUs of heat. 14% of this in oil costs (14/100) * (187.15 * $3.86) = $101.14. 86% of 21,525,030 BTUs is 18,511,526 BTUs, which is the amount we would need to generate from the heat pump. This costs (18,511,526/1,000,000) * $16.31 = $301.92. Hence, I predict that in an average winter, using this particular heat pump and oil boiler, I will spend $101.14 in heating oil and $301.92 in electricity for the heat pump, for a total of $403.06 in heating costs. Comparing to the original $722.38 annual cost of heating oil (not counting maintenance), the heating cost using this heat pump and oil boiler is 56% of the cost of using the boiler alone. This saves us $319.32 per year.

    The cost for this particular heat pump system is $13,268. Included with it is
  • Puron Infinity Fan Coil FE4ANF003 air handler, installed in the attic
  • 5KW electric heater package FC-0501N05
  • V Infinity Controller SSSTXCCUD01
  • Interface relay kit for FE fan coil KFAIF0101HWC
  • Pre-cast pad and pump UPS
  • Refrigeration line set
  • Red and white line hide
  • Drain line, drain pan, and wet switch
  • Install customer supplied bathroom vent fan
  • Complete duct work system to be installed in the attic with a duct run to the basement for drawing air
  • Removal of the whole house fan system and reuse of the grill for air intake

  • This system claims a 16.5 SEER. This means that if we are spending $114 per year for cooling, then we would be spending about $77.24 for this system assuming an equal number of BTUs. I calculate this using the "Home Depot Central Heating and Cooling Systems" brochure which has a table showing annual cooling costs for each SEER. Recall that I assume 11 SEER for the window air conditioning units. The lowest cost on the brochure for 11 SEER is $291. At 16 SEER, the equivalent cost is $200. So I display these as ratios.
         16 SEER/($291-$200) = 16.5 SEER/x
    Solving for x gives me $93.84, which is the savings for a 16.5 SEER system, assuming an annual cooling cost of $291 for an 11 SEER system. How does this compare when the annual cost for an 11 SEER system is $114?
         $114/$291 = y/($291-$93.84)
    Solving for y gives me $77.24 which is the cost for equivalent cooling using at heat pump with 16.5 SEER. This means our cooling cost would be 68% of what it currently is with an annual savings of $36.76. This all assumes the relationships between SEER and cooling costs are linear or approximately so.

    Based on these savings, the system will pay for itself in $13,268/($319.32 + $36.76) = 37.26 years. But it will of course increase the value of the house. But how much? According to CNN Money: AC in the winter? Brrrr-rilliant!:
    Even at full price, adding a well-designed forced air system is a no-brainer. Not only does a system cool and dehumidify the air far more effectively than window units, but it filters out allergens and dust and lets you use your whole house, instead of confining you to a couple of rooms.
    What's more, central AC instantly increases the value of your house by at least as much as it costs to install, and in warm climates by up to 10 percent more, according to appraiser Alan Hummel, a spokesman for the Appraisal Institute, a national standards-setting organization.
    "It's not just in the South, where air conditioning is expected," he says, but anywhere summers get hot.


    Reaping the cost of installation (or more) upon resale would be great but I'm not so sure I believe that. But John of Arundel Heating and Cooling estimates that having central air will increase the value of our home by 65% of the cost of installation. I think this is a reasonable estimate. So let's assume that the system only needs to pay for 35% of itself through energy savings. 35% of $13,268 is $4643.80. This amount will be recovered in energy savings after $4643.80/($319.32 + $36.76) = 13.04 years.



    Carrier Infinity Series, inverter heat pump with Greenspeed technology 25VNA024A

    This has a 19.1 SEER rating and a 10.5 HSPF rating. It is similar to the two stage heat pump 25HNB624A with one major difference...it can heat the house when the outside temperature is as low as 19 degrees! In Baltimore, there are 190 hours in a year where the temperature is below 20 degrees and 4665 where it is between 20 and 60. Such a system has 234% efficiency and costs $14.68 for one million BTU of heat, according to Heating Fuel Comparision Calculator - U.S. Energy Information Administration.

    Using the same data from Heating and cooling hours chart for Baltimore earlier in this section, heat from this heat pump costs 40% as much as an equivalent amount from the old oil boiler. But once again, the big question is how much would we need to use the oil boiler since we can't expect to heat the house entirely using the heat pump?

    As I mentioned before, assuming I am interpreting this chart correctly, each temperature block corresponds with a "Max Heating Load" which determines the "Heating Capacity" in BTUs per hour that must be run to heat a house. The histogram gives me the approximate number of hours for each temperature block (by manual observation). Thus, I was able to determine that the number of BTUs I would need in a given winter to heat our house (assuming the thermostat is set to 60 degrees) is 84,070,000. Now this number is not the least bit correct. I think this number assumes that a heater is running during all of the 6483 heating hours minus adjustments for setting the thermostat to 60. But this won't be the case since in reality, a heater runs just when the inside temperature falls below a threshold. But the inaccuracy of this number isn't important since we only use it to give an approximation as to what percentage of the time the oil boiler would be needed. The number 84,070,000 corresponds to the area under the black line representing the "Max Heating Load." The area under the lesser of the black line and the green line (which represents "GreenSpeed System Capacity") gives me an idea of how much the heat pump could be run to heat the house. The area between the black line and the green line to the left of their intersection tells me how much the oil boiler (or any supplemental source) would be needed to provide additional heating. Note that while the graph stops at 13 degrees, I actually extend it to 5 degrees since the histogram provides that information. I estimate these figures to be 84,069,260 and 740,000, respectively. Viewing these as a proportion of their sum, I thus interpret that when heating our house, I will run the inverter heat pump 99% of the time while I run the oil boiler 1% of the time.

    In Cutting and monitoring costs, I mentioned that our average consumption of heating oil is 187.15 gallons if that is our only source of heat. This equates to 21,525,030 BTUs of heat. 1% of this in oil costs (1/100) * (187.15 * $3.86) = $7.22. 99% of 21,525,030 BTUs is 21,309,780 BTUs, which is the amount we would need to generate from the heat pump. This costs (21,309,780/1,000,000) * $14.68 = $312.83. Hence, I predict that in an average winter, using this particular heat pump and oil boiler, I will spend $7.22 in heating oil and $312.83 in electricity for the heat pump, for a total of $320.05 in heating costs. Comparing to the original $722.38 annual cost of heating oil (not counting maintenance), the heating cost using this heat pump and oil boiler is 44% of the cost of using the boiler alone. This saves us $402.33 per year.

    The cost for this particular heat pump system is $17,386. Included with it is
  • Puron Infinity Fan Coil FE4ANF002, installed in the attic
  • 5KW electric heater package FC-0501N05
  • V Infinity Controller SSSTXCCUD01
  • Interface relay kit for FE fan coil KFAIF0101HWC
  • Pre-cast pad and pump UPS
  • Refrigeration line set
  • Red and white line hide
  • Drain line, drain pan, and wet switch
  • Install customer supplied bathroom vent fan
  • Complete duct work system to be installed in the attic with a duct run to the basement for drawing air
  • Removal of the whole house fan system and reuse of the grill for air intake

  • This system claims a 19.1 SEER. This means that if we are spending $114 per year for cooling, then we would be spending about $65.56 for this system assuming an equal number of BTUs. I calculate this using the "Home Depot Central Heating and Cooling Systems" brochure which has a table showing annual cooling costs for each SEER. Recall that I assume 11 SEER for the window air conditioning units. The lowest cost on the brochure for 11 SEER is $291. At 19 SEER, the equivalent cost is $168. So I display these as ratios.
         19 SEER/($291-$168) = 19.1 SEER/x
    Solving for x gives me $123.65, which is the savings for a 19.1 SEER system, assuming an annual cooling cost of $291 for an 11 SEER system. How does this compare when the annual cost for an 11 SEER system is $114?
         $114/$291 = y/($291-$123.65)
    Solving for y gives me $65.56 which is the cost for equivalent cooling using at heat pump with 19.1 SEER. This means our cooling cost would be 58% of what it currently is with an annual savings of $48.44. This all assumes the relationships between SEER and cooling costs are linear or approximately so.

    Their duct work is all insulated to R8.

    Based on savings from our heating bill, the system will pay for itself in $17,386/($402.33 + $48.44) = 38.57 years.

    John of Arundel Heating and Cooling estimates that central air will increase the value of our home by 65% of the cost of installation. I think this is a reasonable estimate. So let's assume that the system only needs to pay for 35% of itself through energy savings. 35% of $17,386 is $6085.10. This amount will be recovered in energy savings after $6085.10/($402.33 + $48.44) = 13.5 years.

    It is a little tricky to factor in maintenance. Both an oil boiler and a heat pump/air handler require maintenance though the former requires considerably more. If I go with the inverter heat pump option, I would only use 1.87 gallons of heating oil per year. Is it worth it to get the boiler serviced annually or even every other year? Does heating oil go bad after a certain amount of time? These are questions to which I don't know the answer. Maybe it is best just to run an electric space heater.


    Geothermal heat pump
    Now that I know what a conventional heat pump can do for us, what about a geothermal heat pump?

    According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, geothermal systems are
    the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost effective space conditioning systems available today."

    I'm not going to explain to you how a geothermal heat pump system works. If you want to know that, I suggest watching Carrier geothermal heat pumps, a very informative video.

    Here are some questions I came up with after reading about geothermal, and talking to some of my very intelligent co-workers:

  • The properties of a buried pipe that make it a good thermal conductor are often the same properties that make it subject to degradation (e.g. rust). How do the pipes ensure durability while maintaining good thermal conductivity?
    According to the video, pipes used for geothermal are made from a special polyethylene and has a life expectancy of 100 years. Pipes are welded together at 500 degrees for 20 minutes to ensure strong, permanent bonds. They are then surrounded by grout to ensure better thermal conductivity.

  • How do the buried pipes hold up to ground shifting? For example, if a vehicle was driven over the spot where a pipe was buried, if there a chance of damaging it?
    According to Michael Isom of Michael Barlow Well Drilling Service, Inc., the pipes are warranted for 50 years. After the pipes are installed, they are presure tested and the fusions are warranted for a year. In the unlikely event that a leak is found after the warranty expires, repairs frequently cost around $500. Michael has found pipes in geothermal wells to be less prone to damage than pipes in water wells. He knows of no problems with geothermal wells resulting from the 2012 Maryland earthquake.

  • For a horizontal system, how deep must the buried pipes be laid?
    According to the video, the answer is 4-6 feet. This makes sense as it must certainly be below the frost line and be unaffected by any surface temperatures to take advantage of the 55-57 degree constant temperature deeper down. For us, a vertical well closed ground loop water to air system would be the best choice due to our property layout. Michael Isom said the pipes that run from the well to the heat pump will be at least 4 feet deep.

  • In the summer, as long as I don't want to cool my house below 57 degrees, can't a fan just be run over the pipes that run underground without running the heat pump?
    According to John of Arundel Heating and Cooling, the cost of running the air conditioner in the lower (more energy efficient) setting is about the same as running a 60 watt light bulb. Not only does this setting cool the house but it also dehumidifies. But if I don't even want to use that much energy, I can just run the fan and circulate the cooler air in the basement throughout the house.

  • Can a ground-source heat pump system provide 100% of my home's heating and cooling needs?
    According to Dominion Geothermal, the answer is yes.
    A properly sized ground-source GeoThermal ground source heat pump (GSHP) systems can provide 100% of your heating and cooling requirements and at the same time provide domestic hot water. Outside temperatures do not affect GeoThermal GSHP systems.
    This makes sense if you think of the way a heat pump operates. For a non-geothermal heat pump, the ability to tranfer heat diminishes as the temperature drops with 38 degrees often being the threshold where an auxiliary heat source is needed. But with a geothermal system, rather than transfer heat/cold to a variable outside temperature, it deals with a non-varying temperature which is well above the threshold for efficient heating via heat pump.
    This is the theoretical answer. But realistically, the answer is no. Once it gets very cold, the heat pump just won't be able to keep the house warm even though the air it blows will be 98-101 degrees. Remember that my 1952 house has little wall insulation. So I'll still need an alternative heat source (e.g. oil boiler) for when things get really cold. But the geothermal system will easily meet my cooling needs, blowing air that is about 20 degrees cooler.

  • Does this mean I will never need to use my oil boiler again?
    Even with a very efficient conventional heat pump, I would still need to use an auxiliary heat source (i.e. my oil boiler) on those really cold days. Though that might mean I would just use a little oil instead of a lot, I would still need to get is serviced, which costs $144 each time. Eliminating this cost would make me a happy camper. See Future.
    According to Geothermal Genius,
    GSHP systems are generally sized to meet all your cooling needs. Depending on heating needs, a GSHP system usually supplies 80-100 percent of your design heating load. Sizing the system to handle your entire heating needs may result in slightly lower heating costs, but the savings may not offset the added total of the larger system.
    Additionally, a dual system
    can easily be added to existing furnaces for those wishing to have a dual-fuel heating system. Dual-fuel systems use the GSHP system as the main heating source, and a fossil fuel furnace as a supplement in extremely cold weather should additional heat be needed.

  • What is the temperature threshold for which I would still need to use my old oil boiler?
    It will take some trial and error to find the right balance but it sounds like once the outside temperature is 25-32 degrees or colder, the oil boiler might need to turn on. See Future for my solution to this.

  • How long do ground-source heat pump systems last and do they carry a good warranty?
    Also according to Dominion Geothermal,
    A GeoThermal GSHP systems is highly reliable. With only 3 moving parts, service life of the unit is 25+ years under normal use. Many manufacturers offer a 10 year coverage on major parts. The manufacturers of the polyethylene earth loop, used for for the underground heat energy transfer, warrant their product for 50 years. Independent tests show a useful life-span of over 200 years. Arundel Heating and Cooling warrants their heat pump and air handler for 10 years parts and labor. The air compressor is also warranted for 10 years.

  • Can a geothermal heat pump be used to help or replace my hot water heater?
    According to Hot Water with a Residential Geothermal Heat Pump
    If you plan on using your ground source heat pump for hot water you’ll need to add a desuperheater. A desuperheater captures the heat that is naturally lost by running the heat pump. As efficient as a geothermal heat pump is, there is a small amount of heat produced by the pump that is not used to heat your home. A desuperheater captures this expended heat and pumps it to the hot water tank.
    Additionally, according to Dominion Geothermal,
    they also have the ability to provide domestic hot water at a savings in water heating costs of up to 100%.

  • How much maintenance/servicing is required for a geothermal unit?
    According to Dominion Geothermal,
    The GeoThermal GSHP units have extremely long service lives of 25+ years and under normal use only require periodic checks and filter changes. The other half of the system, the earth loop located in the ground, is 100% maintenance free, will never freeze, and carries a 50+ year warranty.

  • How noisy is a geothermal heat pump?
    According to Geothermal Genius,
    GSHPs are very quiet, providing a pleasant environment inside & outside of the home. GSHPs have no noisy fan units to disturb outdoor activities, on or near the patio.

  • What type of chemical is used and how safe is it?
    For the GT-PX Split Geothermal Heat Pump, GT-PE Outdoor Split Geothermal Heat Pump and other Carrier geothermal heat pumps,
    Puron refrigerant is an environmentally sound refrigerant designed not to harm the earth's ozone layer. Federal law requires that all manufacturers phase out ozone depleting refrigerants in the next few years. Puron refrigerant is approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a replacement from Freon 22.
    In the well, a glycol (grain alcohol) and water mixture is used. The glycol is a safe form of anti-freeze.

  • How is the system protected against power surges?
    According to John of Arundel Heating and Cooling, The system does has a time delay, which is there in case of a power outage or surge. There is also a surge protector that can be mounted in your service panel.

  • How would having a geothermal heat pump reduce my carbon footprint?
    About 70 percent of the energy used by a geothermal heat pump system comes in the form of renewable energy from the ground. High-efficiency geothermal systems are on average 48 percent more efficient than gas furnaces, 75 percent more efficient than oil furnaces, and 43 percent more efficient when in the cooling mode.
    According to data supplied by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Geothermal Technologies, nearly 40% of all U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide are the result of heating, cooling, and hot water systems in residential and commercial buildings. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide contributed by automobiles and public transportation.
    Because geothermal pump heating systems do not burn fossil fuels for heat production, they generate far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional furnace. They also provide higher air quality because there are no emissions of carbon monoxide. In general, a 3-ton residential geothermal heat pump system produces an average of about one pound less carbon dioxide per hour compared to a conventional system. Over an average 20-year lifespan, installation of 100,000 units of residential geothermal systems can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 1.1 million metric tons of carbon equivalents. That would be the equivalent of removing 58,700 cars from our highways or planting more than 120,000 acres of trees.

    - from Geothermal Heat Pumps: Environmental Benefits and Efficiency

    ...greenhouse gas emissions associated with the use of a geothermal heat pump are 55 to 60 percent lower than those from a standard air-source heat pump.
    In most areas of the United States, geothermal heat pumps had the lowest CO2 emissions and the lowest overall environmental impact of any space conditioning technology evaluated by the EPA.
    Putting a geoexchange system in a typical home is equal, in greenhouse gas reduction, to planting an acre of trees.

    - from Environmental Impact of Geothermal Heat Pumps

    Have questions and need an expert that isn't a vendor? There are a couple of guys from Pepco that can help, though I think it would only be appropriate that you are a Pepco customer. Even if not, there's no harm in asking. Dan is the geothermal expert.
         Daniel Anderson
         E-mail: danderson@pepco.com
         Phone: 202-302-9689
    Glenn's expertise is in distribution systems.
         Glenn L. Ruck
         E-mail: glruck@pepco.com
         Phone: 301-548-4317


  • Projected return on investment for a geothermal heat pump
    I know that having central air will increase the value of our home signficantly when compared to the cost of installation. But how will a geothermal system increase the value as compared to a conventional heat pump. Let's step back and look at this from a different point of view. Our house already has solar photovoltaic solar panels. We can store about 450 gallons of rain water in rain barrels/boxes to use for watering plants. I am hoping to eventually get a new roof on the house and solar panels for heating hot water (and possibly more photovoltaic panels put on). After all this, it would be pretty hard to deny that our house is "green." And according to Green homes sell for 9% more in California, that would significantly increase the value of our house as compared to non-green homes. Of course this data only applies to California but what often starts in California ends up spreading to the rest of the country and I believe this will be the trend, especially for a place like Howard County that has so many educated and liberal people.

    As with my photovoltaic solar panels, there are a number of tax incentives for those wishing to have a geothermal heat pump installed. See Maryland Geothermal Heating and Cooling for more information. But sadly, as of 2012, Howard County no longer offers any incentives for geothermal or solar. So much for the county, which in 2011,
    was ranked the third wealthiest county by median household income in the United States by the U.S. Census Bureau.
    - from Wikipedia - Howard County, Maryland



    Arundel Heating and Cooling

    John of Arundel Heating and Cooling recommended the Carrier GT-PE Outdoor Split Geothermal Heat Pump (50YPS026NCC311). This is a 230 volt, 2 stage split system, 2 ton system that would be run with a Carrier Infinity Fan Coil, model FE4A (NF003) air handler. Two tons isn't the weight of the system but rather the measure of heating/cooling capability. According to Geothermal Heat Pump Grant Program, 1 ton is equivalent to 12,000 BTUs. In the ground loop heat pump mode, this system boasts an Energy Efficiency Rating (EER) up to 24.5 and a Coefficient of Performance (COP) of 4.2. But in Carrier Geothermal Heat Pump Systems, it claims a more realistic rating of 18.0-24.5 EER and 3.9-4.1 COP. So let's assume a realistic rating of 21.5 EER and 4.0 COP. The cost for this system and all associated installation costs is $17,170. This does not include drilling for the well.

    The cost to add an optional hot water generator (desuperheater) is $2850.00 for the materials, stoarage tank and added labor. This would significantly reduce my energy costs in the summer for heating hot water. I chose not to go with this option being as it is likely I will get a solar hot water heater in the next few years. But I will keep this in mind as a future option.

    Assuming a 4.0 (average) COP, Heating Fuel Comparision Calculator - U.S. Energy Information Administration claims it has an efficiency rating of 400% and it provides one million BTUs for only $8.60. In other words, heat from this geothermal heat pump costs 22% as much as an equivalent amount from the old oil boiler.

    According to Geothermal Genius,
    A GSHP system usually supplies 80-100 percent of your design heating load.

    Let's assume it provides 90% of my heating. Recall from Cutting and monitoring costs that in an average winter, we can expect to use 187.15 gallons of oil. Based on December 2011 fuel oil costs, this is equivalent to $705.56 and 18,616,240 BTU of heat. 90% of this equates to 16,754,616 BTUs that must be provided by a geothermal heat pump while 1,861,624 BTUs must be provided by the oil boiler. Hence, I predict that in an average winter, using this particular geothermal heat pump and oil boiler, I will spend $74.02 in heating oil and $144.09 in electricity for the geothermal heat pump, for a total of $218.11 in heating costs. Comparing to the original $722.38 annual cost of heating oil (not counting maintenance), the heating cost using this heat pump and oil boiler is 30% of the cost of using the boiler alone. This saves us $504.27 per year on heating.

    This system claims a 21.5 (average) SEER. This means that if we are spending $114 per year for cooling, then we would be spending about $58.83 for this system assuming an equal number of BTUs. I calculate this using the "Home Depot Central Heating and Cooling Systems" brochure which has a table showing annual cooling costs for each SEER. Recall that I assume 11 SEER for the window air conditioning units. The lowest cost on the brochure for 11 SEER is $291. At 20 SEER, the equivalent cost is $160. So I display these as ratios.
         20 SEER/($291-$160) = 21.5 SEER/x
    Solving for x gives me $140.83, which is the savings for a 21.5 SEER system, assuming an annual cooling cost of $291 for an 11 SEER system. How does this compare when the annual cost for an 11 SEER system is $114?
         $114/$291 = y/($291-$140.83)
    Solving for y gives me $58.83 which is the cost for equivalent cooling using at heat pump with 21.5 SEER. This means our cooling cost would be 52% of what it currently is with an annual savings of $55.17. This all assumes the relationships between SEER and cooling costs are linear or approximately so. After speaking to Merle Cox (another geothermal salesman), I mentioned to John that Merle claimed their system would provide cooling in the lower setting using about as much energy as a 60 watt light bulb. John said this is correct.

    I asked John to provide me with some references. He gave me the names and phone numbers of 2 people, both of which were similar to me in that they had oil heat. One lives here in Savage and the other in Baltimore County. Both spoke very highly of Arundel Heating and Cooling. One fellow had his system since July 2009 and has only had to replace the air filters...no other servicing. They said Arundel was very responsive in resolving any issues. Once installed, the system required some tweaking to get right but once that was over, everything worked perfectly. But neither seemed very impressed with the drilling company. I won't mention the name of the drilling company but after checking up on them, I found they had a very low rating with the Better Business Bureau. So I decided to look for my own company.

    I checked out a driller that John recommended, Michael Barlow Well Drilling Service, Inc. They have a Better Business Bureau rating of A+, have been in business since 1984, and have been doing geothermal work for the last 18 years. In the last 10 years, about 75% of the work his company does is geothermal related. Their certified master well driller, Michael Isom came out and we spoke. It all worked out quite nicely because I had John come back to answer some questions and meet Norma. Right after, Michael came over and the 4 of us spoke. We decided that drilling a well at the north side of my house and putting the heat pump outside under the deck seemed like the best choice. We also clarified at what point responsiblity for the work would transition from Barlow to Arundel. Norma was comfortable with both John and Mike. She thought they both seemed very competent.

    Michael wrote up a proposal for a single 300 foot deep well at a cost of $6200. The cost could go up if unforeseen circumstances arose but in the Savage area, he did not expect this to occur. The hole would be 6 inches in diameter. The space outside of the pipe will be filled with grout to help with heat conductivity. The pipe material used in the well will be polyethylene and will run all the way to the heat pump. I was perfectly fine with the impression made by Mike but I wanted to get a few other quotes since theirs was a little high. I contacted 3 other drilling companies via e-mail or their website contact form. Then I waited a week. None of them got back to me so I let Michael know that he had the job.

    The total cost of the system is $17,170 + $6200 = $23,370.

    Based on savings from our heating bill, the system will pay for itself in $23,370/($504.27 + $55.17) = 41.77 years.

    John of Arundel Heating and Cooling estimates that central air will increase the value of our home by 65% of the cost of installation. I think this is a reasonable estimate and I've heard some claim higher. So let's assume that the system only needs to pay for 35% of itself through energy savings. 35% of $23,370 is $8179.50. This amount will be recovered in energy savings after $8179.50/($504.27 + $55.17) = 14.62 years.

    If we assume a 30% federal tax credit, $500 BGE rebate, and $3000 Maryland energy grant, then the system pays for 35% of itself in ($8179.50 - 0.3 * $23,370 - $500 - $3000)/($504.27 + $55.17) < 0 years. If we don't factor in the increased resale value of our home, then the system pays for itself in ($23,370 - 0.3 * $23,370 - $500 - $3000)/($504.27 + $55.17) = 22.99 years.

    See Maryland - Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency for information about the Maryland energy grant.



    Chilltrol

    On July 16, 2012, I met with Mike Plummer of Chilltrol. Their Better Business Bureau rating is A+.

    Unlike John of Arundel Heating and Cooling, Mike didn't think having a duct return to the basement through the hall closet would work as it is right above a wall but I later determined that is not the case. He suggested having 3 returns on the main floor instead of a single one as Arundel Heating and Cooling recommended.

    He told me that Carrier is the biggest supplier for geothermal and that Climate Master makes Carrier products. They use Climate Master.

    Even if a geothermal heat pump is indoors, they would need to put in a 5kw electric heater to meet Maryland code since it is by definition a "heat pump." The heater prevents freezing. But it would be the case that the heat pump would need to be outdoors for me since there isn't a suitable space to put it inside.

    If I have a 8-10 kw auxiliary heater, then I would never need to use the oil boiler again.

    As with Arundel Heating and Cooling, Mike recommended a 2 stage variable heat pump.

    Mike suggested a vertical well.

    It would take a full week of work to install a system.

    He recommends a 2-2.5 ton Climate Master geothermal heat pump.

    If I buy my own bathroom fan, they will install it for free (same with Arundel Heating and Cooling).

    If I wait until the busy season is over, they can save me a little money.

    Mike did get back to me and his company's cost was the highest...$21,121 before well drilling. So I didn't follow up with further cost analysis.



    Love's Heating and Air

    On July 18, 2012, I met with Merle Cox of Love's Heating and Air. Their Better Business Bureau rating is A. They would have A+ had they been in business longer.

    As with Mike, Merle also recommended a vertical well (it would be cheaper) and as with both Arundel Heating and Cooling and Chilltrol, Merle recommends a 2 stage variable system.

    Love's has been in business for 12 years but the owner did geothermal work prior to that. 80% of their current work is geothermal which really impressed me. I was also really impressed by how much Merle knew about the tax incentives for geothermal. In addition to the 30% tax rebate from the federal government, there is also a $3000 Maryland state grant as of July 1. Love's would take care of all the paperwork for that if I went with them. Also, starting January 1, 2013, it is possible that Maryland will start a program similar to my Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). But this only applies for new systems so Love's wouldn't commission my system until January 1 of next year. But Merle isn't totally convinced that Maryland will roll out the program on time. I guess he knows the government.

    Speaking of Merle, he has only been working for Love's for a year but has been doing HVAC work for several years prior to that. He wanted to get more into geothermal so when the opportunity arose, he joined the team at Love's.

    Love's employs about 15 people so they are what I'd call a medium small company.

    They use WaterFurnace and Bosch geothermal heat pumps.

    Love's doesn't do their own drilling which makes sense being they are a small company.

    If I get a system that fits my house (he determines this by plugging all the parameters into a computer), I might never need to use my oil boiler again though I'd still want to keep it around and plugged into the thermostat in case it gets really cold. For cooling, a good system would only use as much electricity as a 60 watt light bulb (in the lower setting). Sounds hard to believe but perhaps in the long run (averaging on and off times) that might be true.

    A desuperheater is an option but running a water line to the existing water heater would not be easy because of the way the house is laid out. It would involve running a pipe from the north side of the house through the downstairs bedroom then into the boiler room. A section of the ceiling in this bedroom that drops down looks like it might be able to conceal such a pipe but it is already used to hide a beam so some other method of concealment would be needed. Energy savings from a desuperheater would not be significant so I'll hold off on that for now and maybe consider it again if and when I decide on getting a solar hot water heater.

    The next day, Merle e-mailed me 4 price quotes. Three were for conventional heat pumps and one was for a geothermal system. I am 100% sold on geothermal now. With all the tax incentives, it is like buying a BMW up front and getting enough money back in the next few years so I really only spend as much as I would for a Ford. So I'm going with the BMW.

    Merle recommended a WaterFurnace Envision Series Outdoor Split geothermal heat pump (model number NDS026A11BC) with a 2 ton variable speed air handler with one 5 kw back-up heater pack (model number NAH026A0511R). Not being familiar with WaterFurnace, I checked up on them. This brand and model is recommended by Waterfurnace vs. Climatemaster, a resident energy specialist and consultant.

    I read up on this model and found that in the ground loop heat pump mode, it has a heating capacity of 16,200-19.500 BTU/hour with a COP of 3.9-4.4. It has a cooling capacity of 21,000-26,200 BTU/hour with an EER of 17.0-24.5.

    Assuming a 4.15 (average) COP, Heating Fuel Comparision Calculator - U.S. Energy Information Administration claims it has an efficiency rating of 415% and it provides one million BTUs for only $8.29. In other words, heat from this geothermal heat pump costs 21% as much as an equivalent amount from the old oil boiler.

    According to Geothermal Genius,
    A GSHP system usually supplies 80-100 percent of your design heating load.

    Let's assume it provides 90% of my heating. Recall from Cutting and monitoring costs that in an average winter, we can expect to use 187.15 gallons of oil. Based on December 2011 fuel oil costs, this is equivalent to $705.56 and 18,616,240 BTU of heat. 90% of this equates to 16,754,616 BTUs that must be provided by a geothermal heat pump while 1,861,624 BTUs must be provided by the oil boiler. Hence, I predict that in an average winter, using this particular geothermal heat pump and oil boiler, I will spend $74.02 in heating oil and $138.90 in electricity for the geothermal heat pump, for a total of $212.92 in heating costs. Comparing to the original $722.38 annual cost of heating oil (not counting maintenance), the heating cost using this heat pump and oil boiler is 29% of the cost of using the boiler alone. This saves us $509.46 per year on heating.

    This system claims a 20.75 (average) EER. This means that if we are spending $114 per year for cooling, then we would be spending about $60.76 for this system assuming an equal number of BTUs. I calculate this using the "Home Depot Central Heating and Cooling Systems" brochure which has a table showing annual cooling costs for each SEER. Recall that I assume 11 SEER for the window air conditioning units. The lowest cost on the brochure for 11 SEER is $291. At 20 SEER, the equivalent cost is $160. So I display these as ratios.
         20 SEER/($291-$160) = 20.75 SEER/x
    Solving for x gives me $135.91, which is the savings for a 20.75 SEER system, assuming an annual cooling cost of $291 for an 11 SEER system. How does this compare when the annual cost for an 11 SEER system is $114?
         $114/$291 = y/($291-$135.91)
    Solving for y gives me $60.76 which is the cost for equivalent cooling using at heat pump with 20.75 SEER. This means our cooling cost would be 53% of what it currently is with an annual savings of $53.24. This all assumes the relationships between SEER and cooling costs are linear or approximately so.

    The total cost for such a system is approximately $25,711:
  • $19,581: Cost of geothermal work and equipment, duct work, connections, ceiling fan in bathroom, paperwork, etc. This is the amount I would pay Love's.
  • $4800: Cost for drilling a well to support a 2 ton geothermal heat pump. This is the amount I would pay the drilling company.
  • $1500: Approximate cost for electrical work.
  • -$170: Approximate savings as compared to Arundel Heating and Cooling and Chilltrol since Love's is including the bath fan whereas the others said they would install it for free if I bought it.

  • Based on savings from our heating bill, the system will pay for itself in $25,711/($509.46 + $53.24) = 45.69 years.

    John of Arundel Heating and Cooling estimates that central air will increase the value of our home by 65% of the cost of installation. I think this is a reasonable estimate. So let's assume that the system only needs to pay for 35% of itself through energy savings. 35% of $25,711 is $8998.85. This amount will be recovered in energy savings after $8998.85/($509.46 + $53.24) = 15.99 years.

    If we assume a 30% federal tax credit, a $500 rebate from BGE, and $3000 Maryland energy grant, then the system pays for 35% of itself in ($8998.85 - 0.3 * $25,711 - $500 - $3000)/($509.46 + $53.24) < 0 years. If we don't factor in the increased resale value of our home, then the system pays for itself in ($25,711 - 0.3 * $25,711 - $500 - $3000)/($509.46 + $53.24) 25.76 years.

    See Maryland - Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency for information about the Maryland energy grant.



    Choosing a company

    In the end, I decided to go with Arundel Heating and Cooling. I really liked Love's Heating and Air and I think they might have more geothermal experience. Merle of Love's really seemed to know more about the rebate programs available for geothermal than the others. But Arundel has a great reputation and I really think they are the type of company that will do everything they can to keep their customers satified. I have some co-workers that have dealt with Arundel and they spoke very highly of them. Their references said good things too. Both Arundel and Love's seem very good but all things considered (including price), Arundel came out ahead of the competition.



    Comparing with solar

    Now let's compare this to solar energy. In solar energy, I documented the costs and savings associated with my photovoltaic solar panels. The up front cost for the solar work (not the roof work) was $24,485. It saves me $568 per year in energy costs. The system should pay for itself in a little under 5 years after all the tax incentives are taken into account. For geothermal heating and cooling, the up front cost is $23,370; compared with the cost of solar, the difference is about 4.5%. The expected savings per year in energy costs for geothermal is $559.44; compared with the energy savings from solar, the difference is about 1.5%. Finally, after deducting the tax incentives and the expected increase in property value, the geothermal system will pay for itself in 4.87 years; compared with the return on investment for solar, the difference is about the same, though for geothermal, this prediction is more subjective. Notice that I didn't mention the increase in resale value for properties with solar panels? Well, actually I did but you'll have to read solar energy - future for that. In short, unless you live in a very sunny place, don't expect solar photovoltaic panels to significantly increase the value of your home's resale value. In contrast, geothermal isn't so location dependent. It works if the sun isn't shining and if the wind isn't blowing. What's more, going from having no forced air and a very old oil boiler to having forced air through a new geothermal system will undoubtedly increase the value of my home.


    Installing a geothermal system














    On August 31, 2012, I mailed the signed contracts with the first payment installation fees to Arundel Heating and Cooling and Michael Barlow Well Drilling Service, Inc. I already provided Barlow with a survey drawing of our property so they can get the required digging permits from the county. I also sent Arundel the information for the WhisperFit-Lite 153; 80 CFM Low Profile Ceiling Fan, Model number: FV-08VFL2 so his electricians can prepare to install this in our bathroom.

    The work was scheduled to commence in mid to late October. I removed a chain link fence post so Barlow could get one of their digging machines into the back yard.

    The work actually began on the week of November 5, 2012. Hurricane Sandy hit on October 28 and 29 which prevented earlier commencement.

    John, from Arundel Cooling came by with Rob and Josh who did the duct work over the next few days. Later, they brought Tommy who did the electrical work. This was no easy task as our small house didn't allow much room for them to work or put in ducts. They made plans then had to switch to new plans because they kept running into beams, pipes, wires, or junction boxes. But they got the work done and did a great job. They put a return in my closet that pulled air from the basement to the air handler in the attic that allowed me to still use most of my closet. They also had vents in the kitchen that hung from the ceiling and dropped down about a foot through the plastic light covers. These did not block the lighting or detract from the overall appearance of the kitchen. A WhisperFit-Lite 153 fan was put in the bathroom to suck moist air out and put it outside via a pipe that ran into the attic then out the soffit. This fan ran via its own switch, with all wires hidden behind the drywall.

    The well was drilled on November 7. That was an amazing process which reminded me of the movie "Armageddon." Three guys brought in a huge vehicle and maneuvered it into position without damaging my or my neighbor's trees (see first photo). Then they started digging (see second photo/video). The machine is fully automated so there isn't much manual work to be done. It is also very loud. I climbed up on the roof to watch. First, they hit dirt (third photo). Then they hit sand. Then they hit rock (fourth photo). Shortly after, some stuff started coming out of the ground that looked like milkshake (fifth photo). They switched from a drill bit with three small round grinders to a single. Then they hit more rock and lots of water (sixth photo/video). Some of this might have been water that was forced into the hole, possibly to keep things from overheating. The liquid that came out looked like watery grey paint though I suspect much of that might have just been crushed rock mixed with the water. Mike told me that after 40 feet, they hit rock and that was pretty much it for the rest of the way down to 300 feet.

    Their staked tarps caught the runoff, thereby keeping it from messing up most of my yard or getting into the Little Patuxent River. Norma had me move the runoff to her garden beds and our fruit trees. I told her about one of my co-workers who vacationed in Iceland. He told me that they had a big volcanic eruption that they expected would devastate their farms. Instead, it increased crop production significantly. See Volcanic Ash Improves Crops for more information. So Norma figured all the crushed rock dug up from the well drilling might do the same for her garden.

    After drilling, they inserted black pipes into the hole. These would hold the glycol mixture. They ran down into the well which was partially lined with PVC (seventh photo). Two days later, a couple of guys came back to fill the hole with grout, which will aid in temperature transfer between the ground and the glycol. This wasn't just bathroom tile grout. It was specially made for transferring heat.

    The well drillers came back to dig a trench where they laid a pipe to connect the well to the heat pump. If you have a nice lawn (which I don't), then you'll have to start all over again to get your yard looking pretty. My yard took a beating with the drilling, trenching, and big vehicles driving on the grass. See eighth and ninth photos. But you know what they say, "You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet." Just make sure to include any costs for getting things back in order on your tax return when claiming the 30% federal tax refund for geothermal heating/cooling. Based on satellite photos, I estimate about 1500 square feet of lawn is in need of repair to include fixing about 20 feet of fence line. To cover 2 inches at 1500 square feet with dirt would require about 9 cubic yards.

    It took 10 days to complete the job. For each day, I started work real early (about 0600), then came home around 0820 so I could be here when the workers arrived. I wanted to talk to them, find out what they planned to do for the day, and be there to answer any questions. This was a good thing as they ran into the obstacles I mentioned (beams, pipes, junction boxes, etc.). It was much better for me to be home so they could show me the issues rather than describe them via phone. I would take care of stuff at home, then head back to work around 1100 and work until late. I felt comfortable leaving the guys in my home alone to work.

    On November 15, a crew from Barlow's came by to flush out the system and fill the well pipe with a glycol mixture. Bill of Arundel Cooling (Josh's father) then hooked up the system. Next, Bill gave me an overview of the Carrier Infinity Control programmable thermostat. He set it so that the oil boiler would come on when the outside air temperature is 30 degrees. At that moment, on November 15, 2012, I had geothermal heat working in my house. I was surprised at how quiet the sysytem is. It is far quieter than my oil boiler. Even outside, the heat pump is quiet. I can hear it under the deck but it is not all that noticeable. It is far quieter than the 2007 air conditioner at my townhouse.

    One thing I was told by one of the drillers is that after a full heating and cooling cycle (sometime in late summer or early autumn 2013), it is possible that there could be a pressure drop in the pipes after they expand. The system may stop working until the system is repressurized, which is not difficult.

    My attic (see attic insulation) was once a place where I could store things. But those days are now gone. The duct work takes up a LOT of space...more than I originally expected. See tenth and eleventh photos. Not that I'm complaining. It is well worth the cost to have a more comfortable and energy efficient house. But if you are considering getting a forced air system installed in your house and you store stuff in your attic, you should definitely make plans to store your junk elsewhere.

    The air handler they installed is not small. See twelfth photo. Rob and Josh had to take it apart then reassemble it in the attic because it wouldn't fit through the attic entrance. John said they could have used a smaller one but in order to qualify for all the rebates, I needed a larger one in order to bring the efficiency rating up to the standard required for the rebate. The other half of the efficiency equation is the heat pump. See thirteenth photo.

    The thermostat also tells us the outside temperature. We had problems with this at first as it sometimes gave a reading that was much hotter than the actual outside temperature. John (not Van Horne) came out on November 28 and determined that the outside thermometer (he called it a "thermister") was in the heat pump box and not getting an accurate reading. It was likely picking up a interference from the heat pump or picking up heat when the sun hit the heat pump. What seemed strange at first is that even though the outside temperature read 39 degrees on the thermostat, the oil boiler still came on when the actual temperature was under 30. I'm guessing that is because we still have another thermostat in the basement that is only hooked to the oil boiler. John tried moving the thermister to a different part of the heat pump but that didn't work either. So he moved it outside the box about 3.5 feet so it attached to my deck in the shade. He then took a reading from the thermostat and compared it to the actual outside temperature. All good. John then patched up a small hole in the insulation that I pointed out. He promised someone would be back to put a PVC case around the wire that runs out of the heat pump, up my house wall to the thermister. That was taken care of the next day. Monitoring the outside temperature and comparing it to NOAA, I found the thermostat sometimes gave us readings about 5 degrees warmer but I attribute this to the fact that it is still attached to the house in a location that might be a little warmer than the actual air temperature.

    Also on November 28, I received a "Well Completion Report" from the state of Maryland. It confirmed that the depth of the hole really is 300 feet. Forty feet of 6 inch diameter plastic pipe was used to keep softer materials from caving in the well. Then, once the closed circuit pipe was placed in the well, 1000 pounds of bentonite clay grout was used with 500 gallons of water to fill in the well and aid in heat transfer. The report also mentioned what they found when digging.
  • 0-6 feet: Soil.
  • 6-12 feet: Clay.
  • 12-39 feet: Sand.
  • 39-300 feet: Schist.
    Schist rocks are metamorphic. These rocks can be formed from basalt, an igneous rock; shale, a sedimentary rock; or slate, a metamorphic rock. Through tremendous heat and pressure, these rocks were transformed into this new kind of rock.
  • - from Rock Hounds (broken link as of 2016)

    A few nights when the actual outside temperature was below 30, the oil boiler came on, despite the fact that the basement thermostat read that heat in the basement was not necessary and the thermister reported an outside temperature above 30 (recall that it often records a higher than actual temperature). I was wondering if the heat pump senses when it needs help heating the house and calls on the auxiliary source (oil boiler) when this is the case. A co-worker of mine has a heat pump that works this way and his system is much older than mine so it seems my newer thermostat would take into account both the temperature threshold programmed into it and how well the heat pump functions.

    Using the thermostat, I lowered the temperature for which the oil boiler was to turn on to 28 degrees on December 23, 2012. My goal is to find the optimal threshold for minimizing our heating costs while still remaining comfortable during the winter.

    John Van Horne set me up with an inspection with the county which was done on January 10, 2013. This was a two step process. I had to meet with both an electrical inspector and a mechanical inspector. The prior went very fast. The latter took a little longer because the guy wasn't familiar with the system I had. So be sure to save all your documentation. They couldn't give me a time estimate of when they would arrive until that morning or the afternoon prior and even then, one of the inspectors arrived about 45 minutes after the end of his time window. So you might just want to plan to take the whole day off.

    During the week of January 20, 2013, we had some very cold temperatures. Highs remained below freezing and lows were well under 20 degrees. The heat pump was doing fine with the oil boiler coming on when the outside temperature is 28 or below so I decided to take things one step further after consulting with John. I dropped the oil boiler threshold to 26.

    How well the system performs will be based on two things: how much oil we use and how the system affects our electric bill. After all, for us, heating is all about electricity and oil. At the time the system became operational, the oil gauge looked like it does in the fourteenth photo. I'd like to go a whole winter without buying more oil. We'll see if that is the case.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.


    Journal

    On May 30, 2013, we turned on our heat pump in the cooling mode. It pumped out air but it didn't feel cold. But I decided to give it a chance. Maybe it took awhile. But a day later, it was actually cooler outside than inside. Clearly something was wrong. I contacted John. Justin was sent out to take a look at things the next day. Justin spoke to Billy who told him to look at the Network Interface Module (NIM) board in the air handler. Apparently, this went bad. I'm thinking it might have been during the power outage we had a few weeks ago. I think a transformer blew. There were loud noises coming from our street when the power went out. I remember those noises a year ago when power went out. There could have been a power surge but I would think the system would have been protected. Justin got the air conditioner working by having it run in the secondary mode which is less efficient. They would have to order a new part which would arrive in a few days. But at least I would have cool air in the meantime. It seems this part is much too fragile.

    On June 7, 2013, Stephen came out to replace the NIM board. This took 5-10 minutes. Of course the system was under warranty but I had my concerns as to what would happen if that was not the case. He said replacing such a board costs about $300 but he didn't expect there would be a charge even if the warranty expired since it was noted that this was a problem due to a design flaw of the system.

    On June 13, 2013, we had a big storm. A tornado was spotted in Laurel. In Savage, a few trees took damage. Norma worked from home that day and noticed that the lights flickered. Then the heat pump stopped producing cold air. I contacted John that night and the next day, Stephen came out to check on things. He found that the problem was a blown fuse. He said these are common fuses that can be purchased at a hardware store and easily replaced by pulling out the outdoor disconnect and simply replacing. One would need an electrical tester to see which of the two fuses is bad. In the receipt for the work order, Stephen wrote
    Recommended electrical department install additional surge protection because house seems to be prone to electrical surges.

    I monitor our electric bill meticulously. I expected our summer bills to be slightly higher than normal because we are using a central air conditioner rather than window air conditioners. I didn't think the difference would be significant. But it was. Something was wrong. I adjusted the setting so that the fan would run in "low" mode. I remember John telling me that in the low mode, I would feel very little air coming out of the vents. But quite a bit was coming out. It shook the blinds and actually made us chilly. So I contacted Arundel Heating and Cooling and asked them to send someone out. On August 8, 2013, Billy arrived and adjusted the system. He spoke to the folks at Carrier for awhile and disconnected a wire that should not have been connected. I checked the system later that day and noticed no difference. The fan still blew hard, even in the low mode. Billy came back the next day and tested out the thermostat. He said it wasn't working properly so he replaced it with a newer one, the SYSTXCCITN01 Carrier Infinity Touch.

    I have a lot to say about renewable energy credits but I list that in a different section.

    On September 1, 2013, I took some poster board and covered up 75% of my upstairs return. The reason for this is so that more air will be drawn from the townstairs return. Indeed, more air is being drawn downstairs as a result of this. The downstairs area does not have vents, only a return. So the air doesn't circulate well and it tends to be humid down there though nowhere near as humid as it was before I had the old leaking electric hot water heater replaced by a solar one. If this change doesn't increase the air circulation in the basement, then I'll have to take things a step further.

    On October 6, 2013, our house was recognized as one of several on the "4th Annual Maryland Tour of Solar and Green Homes." This means it was listed in a booklet and open to the public for the afternoon. What makes our home green? We use solar photovoltaic panels, solar thermal hot water heater, geothermal heat pump, rain barrels, extra insulation in the attic, composting, and a pellet stove which burns fuel made from sawdust and other wood waste. All this in a home built in 1952! The event was a success. I had about 25 attendees, mostly neighbors, co-workers, and kayakers, and there was never any down time. It lasted from 1100 to 1800.

    In November 2013, John G. of Arundel Heating and Cooling came out to give me a price quote for installing the Square D model #SDSA1175 whole house surge protector. Since I have had problems with power surges affecting the heating and cooling system, they gave me a discount. Normally it would have cost $750 for the surge protector and installation but they were willing to charge me $575. That still sounded pretty expensive to me and one of my co-workers agreed. I contacted some other companies and much to my surprise, most of them never got back to me or said that they don't install whole house surge protectors. But Bayside Electric Company did get back to me and came out to give me a quote: $350 for a Surgeassure model TE/1C40 . They have an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. I decided to go with that and had the work done on December 6, 2013. It took two guys less than an hour to install. The only inconvenience is that the breakers on the right side of the box had to be moved down so that the surge protector could occupy the top position, thereby placing it closest to the incoming line.

    On December 12, 2013, I came home to a 55 degree house. It should have been 70 degrees. The thermostat said the system was in heating mode but the air coming out of the vents was cold. I went outside and noticed that the heat pump under the deck was not running. The breakers to the heat pump were on. I replaced the two "Littlefuse Class RK5 Time Delay, Dual Element FLNR 30, L1G20F, ND70-67 30 amp fuses made for 250 VAC or less" with two "easyID BP/FRN-R-30ID Cooper Bussmann Indicating Dual-Element, Time-Delay, 250 Vac Cartridge Fuses." I know that's a big mouthful but the main thing is that they look similar and be made for 30 amps. The latter were more expensive because they have an indicator so one can visually determine if the fuse is bad. Otherwise, I don't know how to tell. Anyway, after replacing the fuses, I turned the system back on an voila! Nothing. I contact Arundel Heating and Cooling who sent Steve Z. out the next morning. He checked things over and determined that both the old and the new fuses were fine. The problem was in the air handler up in the attic. There was a 24 vac heat wire at the module barely on its terminal. He stripped and resecured the wire. The heat pump came back on but only for 3 minutes. He reset the control board outside, waited though the time delay, the hooked up the gauges. After that the unit came back on and ran through a 15 minute cycle without shutting off again. I am glad that Arundel Heating and Cooling is very responsive but I am not so sure if I am a fan of Carrier products. This is the fourth time now that I've had problems with it. The concept of geothermal heating and cooling is great, but I don't think I'd choose Carrier again.

    On the morning of December 14, 2013, we awoke to a cold house. Air was coming out of the vents but it was cold, despite the display saying things were running in heating mode. I called Arundel Heating and Cooling and they sent out Bill M. who arrived later that morning. He determined that the refrigerant was low. He said this sometimes happens with the geothermal systems. I guess it is like air in your tires where the molecules get closer together when it is cold. He added 0.75 pound of refrigerant and this got things back up and running.

    On the morning of December 15, 2013, we again woke to a cold house. It was the same problem we encountered on the 12th and the 14th. For once, I am regretting that I ever got into the whole "green technlogy." I think we would have been better off just sticking with the old oil boiler. Maybe I will take my words back or regret saying this but as of December 15, this is how I actually feel. I think there are companies out there that push technology that doesn't yet have the bugs worked out. Billy returned to fix the problem. He worked on it for awhile and wasn't able to give me a confident answer as to what the problem might be. He said I should contact the company that drilled the well and ask them to check that the anti-freeze (glycol?) in the closed loop water mixture is at least 15%. I was really worried when he said this because as with all the companies I've seen that install geothermal heat pumps, Arundel Heating and Cooling does not do their own drilling. I was worried that this would just end with finger pointing between two companies with the customer (me) being the victim. He said that if this happens again, I could reset the breaker to the air handler to clear lock outs. The only thing he did was increase the water flow to the maximum. When he says "water," he means the glycol anti-freeze mixture in the closed loop well. He said he would contact the manufacturer tomorrow and then get back to me.

    I thought about why our heat pump quit working when it did. What made the times when it quit working different than other times. Billy seemed to think that having the thermostat go from 70 to 58 had something to do with it but if it can't handle these temperature fluctuations, then what is the point of having a programmable thermostat? In the work order, he wrote
    if possible, the temperature setback should be no more than 6 degrees from the highest set temperature at the thermostat.
    I thought that maybe the pellet stove might have something to do with it. When it is in the high mode, the temperature can actually get above what the heat pump thermostat is set for. Maybe the heat pump thermostat then shuts off as a safety mechanism because it thinks it is providing too much heat. I decided to test this theory out by abstaining from using the pellet stove.

    On December 17, 2013, I came home at about 1715. The temperature was 70 degrees as it should have been. Then I went out. I came home around 2030 and the temperature should have still been 70 degrees but it was instead 64 degrees. I put my hand near a vent...cold air. The heat pump thermostat said it was in heating mode but when I went outside, the heat pump was not working. Billy said the next time this happens, I should turn the breaker for the air handler off and wait a few seconds before turning it on again. This should reboot the system. I did that but nothing changed. I tried it again, also switching the breaker off and then on for the heat pump. Still no difference. Why the heat pump quit working when it did is beyond me. It wasn't exceptionally cold...it was about 33 or 34 degrees when it quit working and it was heating things to a toasty warm 70 degrees before it quit working. This discredited my theory about the safety mechanism shutoff.

    Billy came out again on December 18. He tested various things but found no problems. He did increase the rate of flow of the fluid in the geothermal loop but that was the only change he made. He did not know why my reseting the circuit breaker for the air handler did not reboot the system and clear the lockout. Of course once he left, things were working fine.

    By the morning of December 19, things were not working again. I think I've gotten a little desensitized to the whole thing as I am not so stressed out anymore.

    On December 20, a couple of guys from Barlow Drilling came by. They checked the glycol level in the loop. It was indeed 20% so that was not the problem. They checked various other things too. Nothing really stood out as being "the" problem. They noticed that there was ice on the uninsulated part of the line set but since the system had been off, that wasn't necessarily unusual. The line set is the thing that the refrigerant runs through. The pressure of the fluid in the geothermal loop was a little low (10 psi) so they added more to bring it up to about 40 psi. Why was it low? When they first installed it (~50-55 psi), they told me that after one full year, that might need to add more. With temperature changes, the pipes expand and contract so this is normal. The operating range is 3-55 psi. The pressure wasn't low enough to indicate a leak or to explain why the heat pump was not working. Norma and I mentioned that we have the system set to 70 in the evening when we are home and 58 when we are asleep. The driller didn't think this would cause the system to shut down but he did feel that it wouldn't run as efficiently as if there was less variance. I changed out temperature setting so that it is a max of 70 and a min of 60. The driller spoke to Billy on the phone who had previously indicated that the system was locking out on freeze protection. Things were running fine when they left. The loop temperature was 53 going into the heat pump and 46 coming out, which is normal for the heating cycle. There was some talk that perhaps the expansion valve is faulty.

    On December 22, the heat pump quit working again. It might have stopped working earlier than that. It had been pretty warm so we really hadn't been using it for warming. We actually tried to put it in the cooling mode to remove the humidity in the house since Norma had just rented a carpet cleaner. I did all the usual stuff: rebooted the air handler at the breaker and listened to the heat pump to see if it was running. Nothing.

    On December 24, Billy and another guy came out again. They removed the refrigerant from the heat pump (not the geothermal loop) and weighed it to make sure it met factory specifications. In the end, they determined that a control board in the heat pump and a the thermal expansion valve (TXV) had to be replaced. They had to order this from Carrier.

    On January 2, 2014, Billy returned and replaced the thermal expansion value and the control board in the heat pump. Things are up and running again.

    On January 20, 2014, the heat pump was not running and the house was 9 degrees colder than it should have been. Cold air was coming from the vents even though the system was in heating mode. The heat pump was not running. It appears we are having the same problem. Billy was out the next morning. He restarted the system and the heat pump ran but the air it was putting out was lukewarm. Unlike previous issues, there was no sign of lock out and no errors were generated. Thus, it is very difficult for Billy to debug the problem. He said he will return with a thermal camera to check the heating coil in the air handler.

    On January 23, 2014, John Van Horne came over and we spoke for awhile. Prior to his arrival, he reviewed all the problems I've been having with the heat pump. He was in touch with Chris Moorely, a Carrier technician. They sometimes turn to Chris when confronted with a very difficult problem. If Billy was not able to resolve the problem, then they would see what Chris could do. Arundel Heating and Cooling has installed several Carrier geothermal heat pumps but have not encountered any having as many problems as mine. John assured me that my heat pump was covered under a 10 year parts, compressor, and labor warranty.

    On January 24, 2014, Billy returned with the thermal imaging camera and resolved the problem. He found a burnt wire to the flow controller where an electrical short had occurred.

    On February 3, 2014, our heat pump stopped working again. Same symptoms as before. I contacted Arundel Heating and Cooling and they sent out Billy the next day. He said the themal expansion valve went bad again. He said they are sometimes not of very good quality and sometimes it takes a few tries before you get one that is good. Since they were in stock, he could return Thursday to replace the bad one. He did just that and things were back to normal again.

    I also asked Billy about something I observed the previous week when I was home early. Our thermostat is set to bring the temperature from 60 to 70 degrees at 1700. But it was 1550 and the temperature was 62 degrees and the heat pump was blowing warm air. He said that the heat pump will often start heating up to 90 minutes prior to ensure the desired temperature is reached at the designated time. In other words, it doesn't start heating at the programmed time...it ensures the chosen temperature is achieved at the programmed time. It is starts up to 90 minutes prior so it can run in the most energy efficient mode. Good to know.

    I got Billy to show me how to adjust the threshold at which the oil boiler comes on:
  • Press the menu button.
  • Scroll down.
  • Hold the "service" button for about 12-15 seconds. Don't release it until it turns green. You will be taken to the "installation and service" screen.
  • Select "setup".
  • Select "heat source lockouts".
  • HP lockout: Set this to the temperature at which the heat pump (HP) system should come on. It won't come on unless it is this temperature or higher.
  • Hydronic lockout: Set this to the temperature at which the hydronic (oil boiler) system should come on. It won't come on unless it is this temperature or lower. These two lockout temperatures operate independently. As of January 2014, we have "HP lockout" set to 16 while "hydronic lockout" is set to 26. On February 16, 2015, I changed these to 15 and 23, respectively. On February 18, 2015, Billy changed it to 20 and 23, respectively. On February 12, 2016, I changed it to 20 and 25, respectively. At the low 20s, the heat pump has a really hard time getting the house warm enough. Our walls and windows aren't the best insulated.

  • I asked him about the "heat source" screen. It gives me three choices: system in control, hot water only, and heat pump only. When I select "heat pump only", the button is not highlighted like the others. But he assured me that it is a valid choice.

    I mentioned that on September 1, 2013, I tried covering up 75% of the upstairs return. That made the system too noisy though it definitely did increase the amount of air drawn from the basement. I reduced coverage to 50% which still had a noticeable difference in the air taken from the basement but it wasn't sufficient. In November 2013, I ordered Tjernlund Level to Level Aireshare Fan - 75 CFM, Model# ASLL and Tjernlund SWT Switch It Wireless Thermostat for $269.88. In January 2013, I cut a hole in the floor of my office and set things up so that air was pulled from the main floor and forced into the downstairs bedroom. This forces warm air into the downstairs bedroom in the winter so that the oil boiler will be used less to heat the basement. In the summer, it forces dry air into the basement and increases air circulation. In both cases, it creates a high pressure system so that air flows up to the main floor or into the return. The system isn't loud but it isn't silent either. It is definitely moving a lot of air but it hasn't made a noticeable difference in the warmth of the basement during the winter. Still, it must make some difference. Check back in the summer and I'll report how it does then.

    One thing I hate about the oil boiler is that it needs ventilation to let in fresh air so it operates efficiently and safely. But that means cold air gets into the house. It seems counterproductive since I am trying to heat the house. Newer boilers ensure the fresh air only gets to the boiler and not the space around it but I'm not willing to make such an investment. When the oil boiler got used a lot, the residual heat from the boiler would heat up the space where the cold air was coming in. But now that it isn't used so much, that space gets very cold. I am concerned that the pipes will freeze.

    I figured I could invent a vent damper that only opens when the boiler is on. That way, cold air only gets in when it is really needed. After some searching on-line, I found a device invented by our good friends, the Canadians, that does just that. I spoke with a few experts about this device and they thought it was a good idea so I purchaed it from Amazon.com on February 19, 2014. It is called HMI Hoyme Manufacturing Inc. Motorized Fresh Air Damper for Combustion - 6" SF1 for One Heating Appliance. I was planning on installing it myself until I looked closer at the electrical schematic diagram and installation instructions. See Installation Instructions for HMI HOYME Motorized Combustion Air Control Damper - Vertical Mount - 24 Vac Series HOM. I had Billy of Arundel Heating and Cooling come out to install it on December 31, 2014 for $265. I spent an additional $7.08 for a rectangular to round ventilation register adaptor so the damper could fit onto the rectangular vent. This significantly reduced the air flow to the outside but as I mentioned earlier, I estimate that I only need 16.5 square inches of ventilation. The damper provides 18.8 square inches (6 inch diameter). So if anyting, this downsizing is more like right-sizing. I also added 2 inch thick styrofoam board insulation around the metal register and wrapped this in Reflectix fire resistant insulation.

    On October 11, 2014, I submitted an on-line BGE application to be enrolled in the Peak Rewards program. This will give us credits towards our summer energy bill. The technician showed up on October 24 and looked at our system. Because it is a Carrier 230 volt system, it could not be enrolled in the program. It needs to be at least 240 volts. The switch is not compatible.

    On February 3, 2015, I came home from work to a cold house. The air handler was working but the heat pump was not (typical problem). I switched the breakers for both the air handler and the heat pump off and then on. Once the system rebooted, everything ran fine. I called Arundel Heating and Cooling and they sent out Billy. The problem is that everything was working fine when he arrived. He needs to be able to see the error code to fix the problem. If I reboot the system, the error code gets cleared. So next time, I should just call Arundel Heating and Cooling rather than reboot the system, assuming they can come out soon.

    On February 18, 2015, we lost heat again. This time we didn't reset anything. Billy came out and made an adjustment to the temperature settings. A couple of days prior, I set "HP lockout" to 15 while "hydronic lockout" was set to 23. Billy changed these to 20 and 23, respectively.

    On the wee hours of March 6, 2015, it got down to around single digit numbers. The house was cold when I awoke. I called Arundel Heating and Cooling and they sent Billy. He checked things over and determined that the heat pump was fine...it was the oil boiler. He hit the red reset button and it came on but he said it was in desperate need of servicing. I thought we had it serviced last March but maybe not. Perhaps the guy just came out to replace a switch. Billy reset the thermostat so that instead of running in "system control" mode, it is now running in "heat pump only" mode. I tested the boiler myself by adjusting the downstairs thermostat, hitting the reset button, and turning on the boiler. It rumbled hard enough to shake the boiler room and spit out a lot of smoke. After about two seconds of that, I shut it off. I can get it serviced soon or wait until just before next winter. Things should be warming up so we might not need it for awhile. But last year, we had a big snow day on March 17 so you never know.

    On March 7, 2015, I had the carpets in the house professionally cleaned. The fellow who cleaned them suggested I run the air conditioner to dry things out. I did that for a few hours but it didn't help much, largely because most of the dampness was downstairs. That night I turned on the heat. It wasn't working properly. Only cold air was blowing. I could have waited until Monday and had Billy come back but with it being Saturday, I didn't want to wait so I just flipped the breakers off and then on. That fixed things.

    On March 13, 2015, Laurel Oil and Fuel came out to perform service and maintenance on our boiler. It cost $151.15.

    On March 20, 2015, Norma noticed that the oil boiler was not working. She called up Laurel Oil and Fuel. They sent someone out that day. The flame retention ring of the gun assembly had fallen off. That is why it wouldn't start. The serviceman pressed it back in. There is no other way to keep it in so if it falls off again, then we will need a new burner. They may have some reconditioned ones which would cost $300-$400 to buy and have installed. Or, a new one and be bought and installed for $1000. Based on my previous conversations with Scott, a new burner could improve the efficiency of our boiler. There was no charge for this service since we recently had maintenance performed.

    On March 30, 2015, Norma came home to a cold house. Air was blowing out the vents but it was cold. The next day, Billy came out. He determined that there was a leak in the evaporator coil. He ordered a new one. On April 3, Billy returned and replaced the defective part. No charge.

    On May 31, 2015, we turned on the air conditioner for the first time this year. It blew cold air just fine for awhile. After a few hours, the air wasn't cold and the heat pump quit working. I reset the circuit breakers and once again cold air blew but only for about an hour. The heat pump stopped again.

    Billy came out on June 1, 2015. He could not identify the problem but thought it could be the newer refrigerant he used the last time he serviced the unit. He gave me his cell phone number and asked me to call him directly the next time the problem occurs. We have some cool days coming up so that might not be for awhile. He returned on June 9 and removed refrigerant after finding the system over charged.

    On August 30, 2015, the heat pump quit cooling. It might have started earlier but we didn't notice it until then because we had some nice days that didn't require us to use the heat pump. Unlike previous periods of inoperability, both the air handler and the heat pump were running. Before, the heat pump always quit. I contacted Arundel Heating and Cooling the next day and they sent Billy out that afternoon. He found that our Puron refrigerant was about two pounds low. He checked for a leak but couldn't find it. He replaced the refrigerant and then things worked fine.

    On August 31, 2015, the air handler was blowing warm air when it should have been cold. Billy came out the next day. He found the system to be totally out of refrigerant. A major leak was found in the evaporator coil. This part was replaced previously but found to be defective again. Billy returned on September 2 and replaced the evaporator coil. He charged the system with six pounds and three ounces of 410A refrigerant. Things were fine after that.

    On November 17, 2015, the air handler was blowing cool air when it should have been warm. Billy came out the next day. He found the thermal expansion value to be defective. The part was ordered. On November 25, he returned and replaced it (for the third time!).

    On September 9, 2016, things stopped working. Unlike before, even the console went black. Then a few hours later, everything came on. I wasn't home at the time but Norma was. The next morning, someone from Arundel Heating and Cooling came out to check things out. There were no error codes in the system. In the attic, the drain line was clean but a couple of wires were loose. These are wires near the drain line cleaning tube that run outside the air handler. They are held together with nuts. These wires were in contact but may have had a bad connection. So they were tightened up. The technician showed me the drain line. He said I could pour some bleach down the cleaning tube every once in awhile to clean it if I want but it was looking pretty clean even though it had never been cleaned. A clear 'U' shaped section shows if water has accummulated and none has. There is a brush next to the cleaning tube that I can use to scrub things but he said I should not pushing the brush in any more than needed because I could hit the plunger, which appears as a very small black square button on a red circle. Down below, the technician checked the drain pipe near the heat pump. Water had been coming out as one would expect on such hot, humid days as we've had. But there was debris in the tube which could have prevented water from draining out easily. So the technician went back to the attic and blew out the debris to ensure the water drain line was clear.

    In late December 2016, the heating system wasn't producing very hot air. It was more warm than hot. So on December 23, I reached out to Arundel Heating and Cooling. Billy came out later that day. He said the system was low in refrigerant so he added a half pound of R410-a and that fixed things. While Carrier has produced many good systems, it sounds like this particular generation of products has had difficulties.

    On February 2, 2017 the heating system wasn't putting out enough heat. Billy came out the next day and checked the system. He changed the cubic feet per minute air flow so more air blew. But then the air didn't seem hot enough. So Billy returned on February 7, 2017. He adjusted the air flow to 675 cubic feet per minute to increase pick up across the indoor coil. This resolved the issue.


    Critique of System

    Advantages

    The system is very quiet. I really have to concentrate and listen to be aware that it is on.

    It does blow air but it certainly doesn't feel windy, especially in the low mode. The idea is that things should run in the low mode over a long period of time rather than cycle back and forth between the high mode. Low mode over a longer period of time is more energy efficient.

    I expect we'll notice the greatest advantages in the summer. I've been told that is when geothermal systems are super energy efficient. Plus, with having the air ducts in the ceiling, the cool air will naturally start high then fall, cooling us from the top down.

    A geothermal heat pump is extremely efficient. Just read Energy Savings and I'm sure you'll agree.

    In cooling mode, this system is awesome though I expect a lot of that has to do with the fact that the ducts are in the ceiling and the cool air naturally falls, cooling our warm bodies on the way.



    Disadvantages

    One drawback with the system is that the heat doesn't feel as warm as my oil boiler baseboard heat. Previously, I never understood how 62 degrees could feel different between forced air heat versus baseboard heat but now I know. With the baseboard, the heat starts low, gets very hot, and rises. With the forced air and the ducts in the ceiling, the air starts high and stays along the ceiling. Fortuantely, we have ceiling fans that we can run in the winter mode to help things circulate though I think the moving air also makes us feel colder. With the baseboard heat, we'd typically set the heat to 62 but with the forced air, a setting of 67 with the ceiling fans in low mode feels equivalent. Norma often complained about not feeling very warm with the geothermal system until we set thermostat to 72.

    If I had to do it again, I would have gotten the work done in the summer so I could have fixed up my lawn in the fall. I made the mistake of ordering the dirt shortly after the work was done. Then I spread it around and it sat around all winter. Some of it eroded away and what was left was very hard when I was ready to plant new lawn. So I had to break up the ground. This isn't so much a complaint about the system as it is about the timing.

    In order to get a return duct to the basement, a big pipe had to be run through our hall closet. Norma was not too pleased about that though we still mananged to be able to hang our coats there. I don't think there was another solution. That is just a disadvantage of having duct work added to an older home.

    While the system is very energy efficient, the initial cost, even after tax incentives, is high. I don't recommend it for everyone. Here are some situations where you might want to consider going geo.
  • You use oil or propane for heat. Both are quite expensive.
  • Your current heat pump is due for a replacement.
  • You do not have central air conditioning. Remember that as of the time of this writing, the duct work qualifies for a 30% federal tax rebate if it is part of the geothermal system.
  • You live in an area with moderate winter temperatures. Remember that a heat pump, even a geothermal one, is only good when it gets so cold...in my case 26-28 degrees. Anything colder means a supplementary (and more costly) source.

  • Here are some cases where you might not want to go geo.
  • You live in a place with very harsh winters.
  • You have access to a public natural gas line. They say the United States is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. So it is likely that other heating fuels will increase at a faster rate than natural gas.
  • Your current system is working just fine.

  • Renewable energy credits


    On or before June 12, 2012, the Maryland Energy Administration stated the following in Residential Clean Energy Grant Program:
    With 2012 HB 1186 [also see hb1186], Maryland became the first state in the country to make the energy generated by geothermal heating and cooling (GHC) technologies eligible for the [renewable portfolio standard] RPS as a Tier 1 renewable source. To qualify, the GHC technologies must meet ENERGY STAR standards and displace electric or non-natural gas heating and/or old and presumed inefficient air conditioning. Homeowners will be eligible to receive Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) for GHC systems that are commissioned on or after January 1, 2013.

    Also see
         Maryland Geothermal Heat Pump RPS Bill Passes
         Calculating REC Revenues from Geothermal Heating and Cooling Systems
         Renewable energy portfolio standard

    The paperwork to apply for this program was submitted on April 30, 2013.

    On July 12, 2013, I received a letter from the State of Maryland Public Service Commission stating that my application for certification as a Geothermal Heating and Cooling Renewable Energy Facility (REF) for the Maryland Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard Program has been approved.

    On July 13, 2013, I set up an account for myself at PJM Environmental Information Services (EIS) Home. I have no idea what PJM stands for. RECs services are administrated through the Generation Attribute Tracking System (GATS), which is owned and operated by PJM EIS.

    On July 16, 2013, I registered my generator unit information.

    On July 30, 2013, my system was registered as an approved facility.

    On August 8-13, 2013, Kevin Lucas, Director of Energy Market Strategies for Maryland Energy Administration, told me that mine is the first geothermal system that has been registered in Maryland. That being the case, it was a little challenging to get things figured out with submitting information on-line and making sense of things on the PJM EIS website. This was new for all of us. But I was told by Kevin that my system would generate 7.62 RECs per year and that it is a 7.03 kW system.

    The "Residential Geothermal Heating and Cooling" form that lists my "Maryland Renewable Energy Facility Certificate Number" also lists my "Total of Climate Master Heating and Cooling Savings" (aka Coolmaster report) which shows a saving of 7,618 kWh (~7.62 MWh) a year. This is my geothermal "generation" and is what should be used to enter info into GATS. On my PJM-EIS page, under "Asset Management," I was thinking that I would click on "Enter Generation" and then under "Geothermal Generation (MWh)," enter 7.618/12 = 0.63483333 as my monthly generation but this table only allows me to enter in whole numbers and it expects MWh.

    Also on my PJM-EIS page, under "Asset Management," I can click on "Upload kWh Generation," then click on "Enter generation as text." I should then be able to enter my monthly info according to "actual generation." If all goes well, it will allow me to enter 7618/12 = 635 (rounded). Kevin felt this was the best choice: "As long as you keep the units of measure correct, you should end up with 7.62 RECs per year." Thus, for January through July 2013, I tried to enter the following:
         73802,,635,,01/2013
         73802,,635,,02/2013
         73802,,635,,03/2013
         73802,,635,,04/2013
         73802,,635,,05/2013
         73802,,635,,06/2013
         73802,,635,,07/2013

    Unfortunately, this was rejected with the following error message:
         No data was loaded. Please resolve your errors and try again.
         Error - Line #1, Facility ID 73802: Facility enters generation in MWh;
    Kevin Lucas suggested I contact the GATS help desk so on August 19, 2013, I sent them an e-mail and also contacted them via their "contact us" page. I heard back from them with the following reply:
    We do not track Geo-Thermal at the KWH level, only the MWh level. Each month you will need to track your data and any remainders. For a month that does not have a full MWh of generation accumulated…you will just leave that month blank. For each month you do have a full MWh of generation tracked you would enter “1” and keep track of the remainder.
    Hence, under the "Asset Management" section, I pulled up the "Enter Generation" page and then entered the following for my MWh generation in 2013. In parenthesis are my cumulative MWh generation which do not appear on the page but is instead for my own personal use.
         January: 0 (0.635)
         February: 1 (1.27)
         March: 0 (1.905)
         April: 1 (2.54)
         May: 1 (3.175)
         June: 0 (3.81)
         July: 1 (4.445)
         August: 1 (5.08)
         September: 0 (5.715)
         October: 1 (6.35)
         November: 0 (6.985)
         December: 1 (7.62)
    This was done on August 24, 2013.

    In September 2013, I noticed that my GRECs (I don't know what they are actually called but that's what I'm calling them) appeared in the system. The next step is learning how to sell them. I asked about that and received the following reply.
    We create RECS once per month (the same as SRECS). We will process your generation and the RECS will be placed in your CEPS section of your account. There is training materials in your account to assist you as well. Please log into your account and at the bottom of the main page, you will see a “Training and Reference Materials” section. There is information there about selling RECS. We do not get involved in the selling process nor can we advise you on a purchaser.

    Under the "Training and Reference Material" section on the user main page upon login page, I clicked on "GATS Solution Aid - Transferring (S)RECs." This pulled up "Transferring RECs & Posting to the Bulletin Board" which I read. I also read How do I sell RECs?. Then, on November 11, 2013, I posted 2 of my GRECs for sale, one for $150 and the other for $200.

    That same day, I reached out to the only buyer listed on the bulletin board for geothermal RECs in Maryland, Ronnie B. of Spectron Energy. I never heard back from him. I also contacted Kevin F., the Director of Operations of Flett Exchange. He got back to me quickly but so far, he has not found me a buyer.

    I am quite certain I am asking for way too much money but the truth of the matter is that I really have no idea how much these GRECs are worth. On November 28, 2013, I changed these prices to $150 and $100.

    After not hearing from anyone, I sent out an e-mail to a variety of sources, most of which were listed on the PJM-EIS bulletin board as just buying SRECs. I was hoping that they might also be interested in GRECs or at least be able to point me in the right direction. I have yet to hear from anyone that can help. It seems silly that the government allows me to generate and sell GRECs when there are no buyers.

    On February 27, 2014, I lowered my GREC prices to $100 and $75. I checked to see who else was selling GRECs. Out of 1470 entries, I had the only 2 selling them.

    Also on February 27, 2014, I contacted a Customer Support Analyst at the PJM - EIS Environmental Information Services Inc. I asked about the expiration date of the GRECs. I was told
    The solar thermal certificates have a 3 reporting year “life-time”. The 3 reporting years is based on the month and year that the certificate is created.

    On May 1, 2014, I lowered my GREC prices to $50 and $25.

    In 2014, my GREC generation is as follows:
         January: 1 (8.255)
         February: 0 (8.89)
         March: 1 (9.525)
         April: 1 (10.16)
         May: 0 (10.795)
         June: 1 (11.43)
         July: 1 (12.065)
         August: 0 (12.7)
         September: 1 (13.335)
         October: 0 (13.97)
         November: 1 (14.605)
         December: 1 (15.24)

    Mr. Robert W. informed me of various brokerages that can manage GRECs:
  • HighCastle Solar: Point of contact is Steve Mapp (e-mail: highcastlesolar@gmail.com, phone: 301-244-5098). Commission rate is 7%.
  • U.S. Photovoltaics, Incorporated: Point of contact is Fred Ugast (e-mail: fred.ugast@uspvinc.com, phone: 301-360-3531, cell: 240-344-2657). I've been told their commission rate is 10%.
  • Kory Trapp, e-mail: ktrapp@carbonsolutionsgroup.com, with Carbon Solutions Group.
  • Andrew Herschfeld, e-mail: aherschfeld@epa-mc.com, with MEMO Sunshine Renewables, LLC.

  • I reached out to Steve Mapp on September 13, 2014 to inquire about his company and GREC management. It looks like GRECs sell for $14-15. This is considerably less than what solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) sell for. I don't know why. Perhaps the answer lies in Taxes and Incentives for Renewable Energy.

    Also on September 13, 2014, I reached out to Kevin Lucas to confirm that I am being allocated the correct number of GRECs. I had a couple of people inform me that they thought I should be receiving more. Kevin got back to me promptly and let me know that Marta Tomic would be looking into this. Marta is the Clean Energy Program Manager for the Maryland Energy Administration. Marta got back to me on September 29 with a thoroughly written e-mail informing me that the number of GRECs I am being allowed to record annually is indeed correct.

    In 2015, my GREC generation is as follows:
         January: 0 (15.875)
         February: 1 (16.51)
         March: 1 (17.145)
         April: 0 (17.78)
         May: 1 (18.415)
         June: 1 (19.05)
         July: 0 (19.685)
         August: 1 (20.32)
         September: 0 (20.955)
         October: 1 (21.59)
         November: 1 (22.225)
         December: 0 (22.86)

    The PJM Environmental Information Services (EIS) Home website changed and it was rather confusing for me to make my GREC entries. In the first photo, I included a screenshot of the webpage that illustrates how to get to the page to make this entry.

    On February 28, 2015, a small group of us organized through Robert W. sold our GRECs to Carbon Solutions Group. Each GREC sold for $15.25. I sold 14 of them so I got a check for $213.50. Selling the GRECs wasn't too difficult after things get pointed out from someone that has done it before. Here are my instructions:
  • Go to your PJM|EIS account and view your GRECs.
  • You should see a link by each called "Transfer". Click this link. A "Generation Attribute Tracking System" window should appear.
  • Enter the number of certificates to transfer in the box "Transfer ___ certificates to".
  • Select "Another Account Holder".
  • Under "Price per Certificate", enter the sale price on which you and the buyer have agreed.
  • Use the "Select an Account Holder" dropdown menu to select the buyer.
  • Use the "Select Transfer Type" to select the transfer type. Choose "Spot Market" for a one-time sale. Your web browser should resemble the second photo.
  • Click the "Submit" button at the bottom of the page.
  • After you sell to one buyer, his name will likely appear at the top of the pulldown menu.

  • In 2016, my GREC generation is as follows:
         January: 1 (23.495)
         February: 1 (24.13)
         March: 0 (24.765)
         April: 1 (25.4)
         May: 1 (26.035)
         June: 0 (26.67)
         July: 1 (27.305)
         August: 0 (27.94)
         September: 1 (28.575)
         October: 1 (29.21)
         November: 0 (29.845)
         December: 1 (30.48)

    In 2017, my GREC generation is as follows:
         January: 1 (31.115)
         February: 0 (31.75)
         March: 1 (32.385)
         April: 1 (33.02)
         May: 0 (33.655)
         June: 1 (34.29)
         July: 0 (34.925)
         August: 1 (35.56)
         September: 1 (36.195)
         October: 0 (36.83)
         November: 1 (37.465)
         December: 1 (38.1)

    In 2018, my GREC generation is as follows:
         January: 0 (38.735)
         February: 1 (39.37)
         March: 1 (40.005)
         April: 0 (40.64)
         May: 1 (41.275)
         June: 0 (41.91)
         July: 1 (42.545)
         August: 1 (43.18)
         September: 0 (43.815)
         October: 1 (44.45)
         November: 1 (45.085)
         December: 0 (45.72)
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.


    Actual costs and payback

    Costs

    The actual costs associated with the geothermal heat pump are as follows:
  • Geothermal well drilling by Michael Barlow Well Drilling Service, Inc.: $6200
  • Geothermal heat pump, air handler, and duct work by Arundel Heating and Cooling: $17,170
  • Fill dirt purchased from The Stone Store (aka Aggtrans): $278.36 for 9.95 tons with delivery. This was purchased to even out the yard where drilling and big vehicle driving was done. I'm glad I didn't buy any less.
  • 200 pounds of gravel: $16.45 from Home Depot. This was purchased to use as a base layer before pouring concrete for setting fence posts. I had to remove fence posts so Barlow's trenching machine could get into the back yard.
  • 400 pounds of concrete mix: $20.14 from Home Depot. This was purchased to set fence posts.
  • Louvers LI-12A-C24-.095 2x4 Clear Acrylic Lens A12: This is to replace cracked light covers that were damaged during the installation of the duct work. Also see L-12 Premier, Louvers International and Pattern A12 Prismatic Lens. I ended up finding these at the Lowe's in Glen Burnie, which is way better than the one in Columbia. Some of the ones advertised as being 2'x4' are actually a few inches smaller and therefore won't fit. So be sure to measure before buying...don't just take their word for it. $20.69.
  • Fence repair: A 2013 Ford F-150 is 79.2 inches wide, not including the side view mirrors. I had to take down my fence because our current gate is only 65 inches wide and the equipment for digging the trench wouldn't fit through it. So I replaced it with a standard vehicle gate. I also had to buy the posts and hardware to hold the gate. This all cost $161.92 at Atlantic Fence and Supply at 1803 Dorsey Road in Hanover. They did a fine job in making me a custom gate at a cheaper cost than buying a factory gate at Home Depot or Lowe's.
  • Grass seeds: These are needed to cover 1500 square feet of where drilling, trenching, and heavy vehicle driving took place on our lawn. 20 pounds of tall fescue $47.31 at Lowe's.
  • Starter fertilizer: Necessary to make the grass seeds grow. $19.55 at Lowe's.
  • Starter soil: Purchased because fill dirt is crap for growing anything. 19.5 cubic feet for $86.97 at Lowe's.
  • Handheld seed and fertilizer spreader: Bought to ensure even coverage. $15.77 at Lowe's.
  • 24 cubic feet of pine mulch: Used to replace sections of mulch beds affected by digging. $35.88 at Home Depot.


  • Payback

  • Federal tax rebate: $7218
  • Maryland state energy grant: Paperwork submitted January 31, 2013. $3000 received on March 12, 2013.
  • BGE incentives: $500 received January 27, 2013. See BGE Smart Energy Savers Program - Heating & Cooling Equipment Rebates.
  • Money saved during the winter of 2012-2013. See below.


  • Energy savings

    I calculated the difference between the money spent on heating oil and electricity during a typical winter ($867.10 as determined in Cutting and monitoring costs) minus the amount spent during the winter of 2012-2013.
  • From November 13 to December 12, 2012, we used 230 kWh more electricity than in the previous year. Our electricity rate plus service charges and taxes was $0.108509 per kWh as of December 2012. Assuming the difference is due to the heat pump, that means we spent $24.96 on electricity for heating.
  • From December 12, 2012 to January 14, 2013, we used 349 kWh more electricity than in the previous year. Our electricity rate plus service charges and taxes was $0.106799 per kWh as of January 2013. Assuming the difference is due to the heat pump, that means we spent $37.27 on electricity for heating.
  • From January 14, 2013 to February 13, 2013, we used 267 kWh more electricity than in the previous year. This value was interpolated based on both 2011 and 2012 usage since our 2012 bill was for 2 months. Our electricity rate plus service charges and taxes was $0.111709 per kWh as of February 2013. Assuming the difference is due to the heat pump, that means we spent $29.83 on electricity for heating. I can't say for certain why this amount is less that both the previous and latter month. Perhaps it was cold enough so the oil boiler was being used a good bit.
  • From February 13, 2013 to March 14, 2013, we used 377 kWh more electricity than in the previous year. This value was interpolated based on both 2011 and 2012 usage since our 2012 bill was for 2 months. Our electricity rate plus service charges and taxes was $0.1156079 per kWh as of March 2013. Assuming the difference is due to the heat pump, that means we spent $43.58 on electricity for heating. This sounds high but
    February's average temperature in Baltimore was below the long-term average, just the second time that has occurred here in two years. It was even colder, on average, than January, and the coldest of what was a relatively mild meteorological winter.
    - from "February was second colder-than-normal month in 2 years" in the Baltimore Sun, March 1, 2013
  • From March 14, 2013 to April 12, 2013, we used 94 kWh more electricity than in the previous year. Our electricity rate plus service charges and taxes was $0.116589 per kWh as of April 2013. Assuming the difference is due to the heat pump, that means we spent $10.96 on electricity for heating.

  • In a typical season, we would stop using the heat by mid-April. In 2013, there were about 2 or 3 days between April 12 and 30 where we did have the heat on. Interestingly, during this same period, there were also days with highs in the 80s. It was a weird month and overall an unusually cold one. I expect the days where we ran the heat pump after April 12 will have negligible effects on our electric bill so I did not include such data for after this date. Things got a little complicated too because on April 25, 2013, we got a pellet stove installed and Norma really wanted to use it, even though it wasn't all that cold. This being the case, we spent approximately $146.60 on electricity to run the heat pump for the winter.

    The next question is, "How much did we spend on heating oil for the winter?" To answer that question, compare the photo of our oil tank gauge taken at the start of the season with the (first) photo taken on April 30, 2013. Recall that this is a 275 gallon tank. My estimate is we used about 36 gallons of heating oil for the winter. At $3.86 per gallon, this equates to a $138.96. I expect that some of this cost could have been lower had I kept the oil boiler temperature threshold at 26 all winter instead of waiting until the week of January 20 to set it.

    This means that our winter heating cost to include electricity for the heat pump and oil for the oil boiler comes to $146.60 + $138.96 = $285.56. Compare this to my original prediction of $74.02 for heating oil and $144.09 for electricity which totals $218.11. The actual cost is 31% higher than my estimate.

    In my original estimate, I assumed that our 2011-2012 winter was 11% warmer than the average. This was based on a report in Today in Energy - U.S. Household Winter Natural Gas Heating Expenditures Expected to be Lowest since 2002-03. I then normalized for this to come up with my average winter heating cost. But reports for the 2012-2013 winter indicate that temperatures were 24% colder than the previous winter.
    For the period of November 2012 through February 2013, central Maryland experienced 633 hours where temperatures were at or below freezing. This is nearly 30 percent higher than the same period last winter, which saw only 498 such hours. According to the WSI Weather Service, this winter, although relatively mild, has been 24 percent colder than last winter during the same time period.
    - from BGE Releases Cold Weather Data for 2012-2013 Winter Heating Season

    One could argue that our 2012-2013 winter was therefore 24 - 11 = 13% colder than the average. Assuming this means a heating cost that is 13% higher means the estimate for the 2012-2013 heating cost is more like 218.11 * (0.13 * 218.11) = $246.46. In actuality, since the heat pump relies more heavily on expensive oil as the temperature drops, the relationship between cost and temperature is non-linear. But for the lack of better data, we will assume linearity.

    With a revised 2012-2013 winter energy cost of $246.46, the actual cost of $285.56 is 16% higher than expected.

    How does this compare to the cost of oil? Earlier I mentioned that our annual cost for heating oil in an average winter is $722.38. Adjusting for our 13% colder than average winter means that had we relied entirely on heating oil to heat our house for the winter, our estimated cost would have been 722.38 * (0.13 * 722.38) = $816.29. This means our geothermal heat pump saved us $816.29 - $285.56 = $530.73 in energy costs. My original prediction was that the energy heating cost using the geothermal heat pump and oil boiler would be 30% of the cost of using the boiler alone, thereby saving us $504.27 per year on energy heating costs. In actuality, the energy cost for the geothermal is 35% of the cost of using the boiler alone.

    What about maintenance costs? For the oil boiler, I expect we will now get it serviced once every other year which means an average annual maintenance cost of $65. This is simply because it is being used to little. Had we been using the oil boiler as our sole heating source, we would get it serviced annually, paying $130 each year.

    Now consider overall heating and maintenance costs for the 2012-2013 winter. The combined geothermal heat pump and oil boiler with maintenance cost us $285.56 for energy and $65 for maintenance, totaling $350.56. Had we used the oil boiler alone, the cost for the fuel plus maintenance would have totaled $816.29 + $130 = $946.29. This means our geothermal system saved us $595.73, costing us 37% for winter heating and maintenance costs as compared to the oil boiler.





    Our 2013-2014 winter was the coldest I've ever experienced. How did our geothermal heat pump do then?

    To start, we had to get it serviced a lot. Much of the time, it just wasn't working. If you look at Journal, you'll see why.

    How much oil did we use? Looking at (first) photo taken on April 30, 2013, I'm estimating our boiler was about 45% full then. On March 17, 2014, we got it filled up with 193 gallons of heating oil at $3.98 per gallon for a total of $768.14. The (second) photo taken March 23, 2014 shows what the gauge looked like after that. I generally don't like to buy heating oil during peak season but it was leaking water and needed to get serviced. Had I waited, the cost for servicing would have gone from $80/hour to $120/hour. Had I purchased oil in the off season, it might have cost $3.55 per gallon. That is the price last summer from Laurel Fuel Oil and Heating Company. I couldn't save money on both oil and service so I decided to save with service. But getting back to the original question, if our tank was 45% full at the beginning of the season, then there was about 124 gallons remaining in the tank. And if they put in 193 gallons, then there must have been 82 gallons remaining. So from the start of the winter (December 2013) to March 17, 2014, we used 42 gallons of heating oil.

    It turns out the oil boiler wasn't really leaking water. Rather, I had added insulation around some of the pipes that get really hot and the resulting water was condensation. After I removed the insulation, the problem never surfaced again. Unfortunately, all that moisture created a lot of rust around the flanges. There was no immediate danger of anything breaking but the technician, Brian, said that if he tried to remove the bolts that held the pipe in place, it would likely break.

    If something were to be replaced, it would be the flanges and the piece in between them, along with the bearing assembly. The bearing assembly has a weep hole in the bottom, which has a little moisture. If the assembly were going bad, it might start leaking more.

    The bearing assembly is $150 or so, the piece between the flanges (the vollut) they would have but he doesn't know how much it would cost. Although we probably now have a contract with them since we got oil and he came out, any work on the water part of the boiler isn't covered by the contract so we would get billed for labor as well. It's a little hard to tell how long it would take to replace the parts. If we do decide to replace the parts, he would probably recommend the Taco 007, which is $195 and includes the motor and bearing assembly in a self-contained unit from flange to flange.

    So for now, Brian suggested we just leave things as they stand since everything is working fine. We went with that option.

    Brian did clean and service the boiler. I figure we'll just get it serviced every other year or so. That cost $200 for labor and $30.72 for parts.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.


    Pellet Stove




    In Critique: Disadvantages, I mentioned that forced air heat doesn't feel as warm as baseboard heat. Norma was quick to point that out to me. She prefers the feel of baseboard heat while I prefer the monetary savings and less dependence on fossil fuels with a geothermal heat pump.

    We eventually came to a good solution. We would purchase a fireplace insert. When we bought our house, it came with a fireplace which we never used. We had discussed the possibility of getting an insert and figured that now was the time.

    But what kind of insert? I figured our options were natural gas, wood, and pellets.

    If we went with natural gas, then we would be dependent on a fossil fuel, though a relatively clean and inexpensive one. But this meant getting a gas line run to the house, which would cost at least $740. If we needed a gas line anyway, then it might be worth it but we couldn't see paying for a gas line just for a fireplace insert. Thinking of the big picture, I have solar and geothermal. So do I really want to increase my dependence on a fossil fuel by choosing gas?

    I was opting for a wood burning stove insert. I grew up with a wood burning stove. My dad and I would go out with his truck and chainsaw whenever someone we knew had a tree that fell. He'd do the chainsaw work and I'd load up logs in the truck. Then, back at the house, I would split the wood. It was a job I enjoyed. But in and around Savage, there are plenty of people that would jump at the same opportunity. So we would almost certainly need to buy firewood. Based on my survey, it would cost about $250 to buy a cord of wood locally and get it delivered. According to Heating Fuel Comparision Calculator - U.S. Energy Information Administration, a 72% efficient system would provide a million BTUs for $15.53. Not quite as good as a natural gas vented stove which would provide an equivalent amount of heat for $14.40 but as I mentioned before, there are certainly drawbacks to natural gas. I spoke to a few co-workers with wood burning stoves/inserts and they all loved them. Quadra-Fire was the brand that people recommended. I was also impressed with Jotul.

    Norma was wanting a pellet stove. After my parents got rid of their wood burning stove, they got a pellet stove. They did this after Dad retired. He didn't want to be a slave to all the work of a wood burning stove: cutting, hauling, splitting, storing, and moving the wood. A wood burning stove generates a lot of ash too which means frequent cleaning. But after talking to them, Dad did NOT recommend a pellet stove. He thought it was noisy. The one he had was an older model so I figured maybe it wasn't as good as the newer ones. Plus, I know Dad is pretty sensitive to noises, like rattling noises in a car. He can't just shut them out. The other thing Dad didn't like (and this has nothing to do with the stove itself) is that Sacramento (where they live) has a lot of no-burn days because of smog. So regardless of whether or not you have a wood burning or pellet stove, you often can't use it. As with the wood burning insert, my co-workers with pellet stoves spoke highly of them and again recommended Quadra-Fire.

    The cost for a ton of pellets plus delivery comes out to about $220 if purchased in the off-season in this area. There are different grades of pellets and this would be for the lower grade. That is what one of my co-workers uses and he doesn't think it makes much difference. According to Heating Fuel Comparision Calculator - U.S. Energy Information Administration, a 78% efficient system would provide a million BTUs for $17.09.

    Just looking at the cost of natural gas, wood, and pellets for an equivalent amount of heat from a fireplace insert, natural gas is the winner. Wood costs 7% more than gas and pellets cost 19% more than gas. Pellets cost 10% more than wood. That's based on my survey of the Baltimore area in 2013. But with pellets costing $2.69 more than gas for a million BTUs, it we would need to purchase 737 million BTUs before the difference in cost would justify running a gas line to the house. That's more winters than we plan to live.

    We spoke with four companies that sell and install both wood burning and pellet stoves.
  • Fireside Stone and Patio in Ellicott City
  • Ace Hardware and Hearth in Glen Burnie
  • Ace Hardware and Hearth in Edgewater (same website as above)
  • Bay Stoves in Edgewater

  • All except one company spoke strongly in favor of pellet stoves. There are 2 main situations where a wood burning stove might be better.
  • If you have free access to wood.
  • If your power goes out during the winter. A pellet stove uses electricity to start up the burning mechanism and run the hopper, which feeds the pellets to the stove. A wood burning stove uses electricity to run the fan that circulates the heat but it can still provide heat even without the fan. Where we live, power outages during the winter are not common. Plus, I have a generator I can use to power the pellet stove.

  • In contrast, there are many advantages to having a pellet stove as compared to wood.
  • Pellet stoves require less cleaning because they generate less ash. They do need to be vacuumed weekly and the chimney needs to be swept annually but overall it needs less maintenance though nowhere near as little as a gas stove. I think hear that hardwood pellets will make things cleaner. I've been told that one needs a special vacuum for the stove because the dust is very fine. But my co-worker Paul says he just uses a regular shop vac. Regarding sweeping the chimney, my co-worker Jim F. says he gets his chimney cleaned every other year while Paul has had his for 4 years but hasn't had his cleaned yet.
  • They generate less ash because they are more efficient. Less fuel goes up the chimney.
  • Wood requires a lot of storage space.
  • Wood attracts pests which one might inadvertently bring into the house.
  • Even though wood is a renewable resource, pellets take it one step further...it recycled wood. I've been told that nobody grows trees to make pellets. They are simply the by-products of factories that cut wood. I'm not sure if I totally believe that nobody grows trees to make pellets but I have no doubt that a significant number of them are indeed a result of by-product waste. They are made of sawdust that is dried and compressed. So from an environmental point of view, pellets are superior.
  • I've been told that in Maryland, there is no sales tax on pellets.
  • With a pellet stove, you load the hopper once every few days but otherwise, to get the fire started, you simply push a button. No frequent trips to the wood pile or using paper and kindling to get a fire started. It is just easier. This was Norma's big selling feature.
  • A pellet stove has a more controlled heat. By adjusting the rate of feed, you can have more or less heat. Also, once you are done, you simply turn it off and the hopper stops feeding. No more logs burning after you really don't need the heat. Regarding the latter, if you have to leave the house and you have a fire burning, you are paying for burning wood that you are not there to enjoy.

  • When it comes to inexpensive heating, you can't beat a geothermal heat pump unless you are getting your firewood for free (which we are not). So by no means did I want a stove insert to be our primary source of heat. We would use it when we were home, awake, indoors, and it was cold. When it is time for bed, we rely on geothermal unless the temperature outside is 26 or lower. Then we would use the stove insert to offset oil costs since the heat pump can't keep up when it is extremely cold outside. Heat from a stove may not be as cheap as heat from geothermal, but it certainly is much cheaper than heat from oil. My estimate is that if we use a stove instead of oil, our fuel costs will be $42.20 less per winter with a pellet stove, $45.11 less for wood, and $47.21 less for natural gas.

    The idea is that the stove insert would primarily be used to supplement the geothermal heat, provide a more comfortable warmth, and offset the cost of heating oil. This being the case, the controlled heat of a pellet stove wins out. Our small house doesn't need a lot of heat. Just enough to make our living room more comfortable is sufficient. With the geothermal, the two can easily heat our main floor. Burning entire logs aren't needed when a few pellets fed out every quarter minute or so will suffice. I felt that as a supplemental heat source for the geo, the pellet stove would better meet our needs.

    We were sold on the pellet stove. The next question was which one? At Bay Stoves in Edgewater, our salesman spoke highly of Harman. It sounded like a sophisticated system. But in the end, we went with Quadra-Fire. Our model choice was the Castile Insert with classic black finish and the Skytech 3301 remote thermostat.
  • 12,900 to 34,400 BTU per hour
  • Three heat settings
  • Emission: 0.7 or 0.8 grams per hour (depending on the source)
  • Hopper capacity: 45 pounds
  • Burn rate: 1.5 to 4 pounds per hour
  • Heating capacity: Up to 1475 square feet (according to brochure) or 700 to 1800 square feet (according to Quadra-Fire website)

  • Why did we go with what we did? The biggest reason is because the Quadra-Fire stoves are a better fit. Our hearth isn't very big and the Harman stoves would not meet building standards unless we paid to have the hearth extended. In contrast, the Quadra-Fire stoves don't stick out as much. Why should we care about building standards? In additional to safety, if we want to get $600 from the Maryland Clean Energy Grant Program, our stove needs to meet building requirements. And yes, despite what the vendors may say, there is still money left in the program as of March 2013. I was told this by Allison S.D. who works for the state.

    So we were going with Quadra-Fire. Why the Castille? Quite simply, Norma liked the look. It went well with our 1952 brick rancher. Our house has a classic look...not a modern one. She felt that the Castille would just fit in, visually. I agreed.

    Lastly, which vendor? We spoke to Duane S. of Ace Hardware and Hearth in Edgewater. He was knowledgeable and down-to-earth. He told us about their limited 10% off sale. He also mentioned Quadra-Fire's $300 off on-line coupon. We took advantage of both and ended up paying a total of $3996.72.

    Our installer was Rick S. and Murph of Ace Hardware and Hearth. He installed our stove on April 25, 2013. See first photo. Rick also ran a one-piece stainless steel liner down our chimney and put a funny looking cap on the top of our chimney. The liner is ribbed to use the Venturi effect. This enables hot air to go up the center and cold air to come down the sides. It also makes cleaning more efficient. It reminds me of the tin man in the Wizard of Oz. See second photo. I don't much care for the look.

    I got familiar with the operation and maintenance of the pellet stove. So did our cat, Asha (see third photo). Overall, I think it is a good product. It looks great and puts out a descent amount of heat. The video owners manual DVD is very good. The amount of ash created is very small. But, as with almost everything, I do have my critiques:
  • Even after adjusting the feed adjustment control rod to its maximum feed rate, the flame height is too low unless the heat output switch it in the high setting. I can see the flame if I'm close to the pellet stove and looking down but I can't see it from across the room.
  • The November 21, 2011 owner's manual has many characters which did not print correctly. Instead, they appear as boxes. For example, there is one section that should read "See Figure 43.3 on page 43." Instead it reads "See Figure _3.3 on page _3" where the underscore characters are boxes. This occurred in numerous places. Clearly, the document was not proofread in its hardcopy form.

  • I also have criticisms of the Skytech 3301.
  • Whenever the batteries are replaced, one must tell the receiver to learn the unique security code of the transmitter. This is not hardwired into the unit. Imagine if your electronic car key had to "learn" which car it controls each time you had to change the battery. This is an inconvenience that I feel could have been avoided.
  • The remote receiver is powered by 4 AA batteries. It is hardwired to control the pellet stove which is electrically powered. So why not just have the remote receiver tap into the power source of the pellet stove rather than have it use batteries? I am guessing it is because it can also be used to control things like gas furnaces.
  • Click thumbnails to enlarge.









    Water in the chimney

    There were some issues at first. When it rained, water leaked down the chimney. But we had this problem before the pellet stove was installed. Mick (not Rick) from Ace came back on May 23 and put on a new ridge cap. I guess that's the thing that keeps rain from going down the pipe insert. But that didn't solve anything. I don't think rain was coming down the pipe insert...it was coming down around it through the chimney. I climbed up to inspect and found small cracks in the mortar. I sealed this up with mortar caulk but water still managed to leak down.

    Having failed in my attempt to resolve the problem, we called in a pro. I pulled out my Howard County Best Pick Reports Quality Home Services Guide 2013 and found High's Chimney Service. They sent Luis A. out on June 7, 2013. He did an inspection for $99 (after mentioning the on-line web coupon). Fortunately, I had spent a good bit of time on the roof recently so I knew exactly what he was talking about. He said that the chimney flashing that the roofers did was good as was the work done for the pellet stove. Also, I had done a pretty good job of caulking but that water was most likely getting in between the two flues where there was a flat section that water could accumulate. This made sense since I was unable to get the caulk gun between the flues at the right angle to do a good job. He also mentioned some cracked bricks and small gaps between the bricks. I remembered all this. For $800 (minus the $99 we already paid for the inspection), he would have someone
  • Remove the metal pipe on the east side that once held a television antenna. We never knew what that pipe was for until then.
  • Remove the metal brackets on the west side that also held an antenna.
  • Redo the mortar work at the top of the chimney.
  • Put mortar between the open gaps in the bricks.
  • Replace our steel ridge cap and animal guard on the oil boiler flue with a stainless steel one.
  • Spray the outside of the chimney with a clear waterproofing agent.

  • Louis was 99% certain this would fix our problem. Norma and I went ahead and signed a contract. The next day, Armando and Damon returned to do the work. Check out the before (first photo) and after (second photo). It took them about 2 hours. Notice how the space between the flues is rounded so water cannot settle. They told me that I should consider re-waterproofing the chimney in 5 years.

    During our next storm, water still got down the chimney though Norma didn't think it was as much. I wasn't so sure about that. I climbed back on the roof the next day to inspect. I noticed small cracks in the mortar of the new crown work but that wouldn't account for the water. Someone from High's came back on June 13, 2013. After their inspection, they said that the pellet stove installer should have put some sort of insulation between the stainless steel liner and the terra cotta tile. Since water was coming in prior to installation of the pellet stove, this insulation should have been masonry thermix between the terra cotta tile and the brick. This would have created a water tight seal. Masonry thermix gets poured down between the terra cotta tile and the brick, coating the space in between. It requires several bags of the material and is not cheap. High's said we should have Ace do the job since the stove is still under warranty. I asked how much High's would charge for such a job if the warranty was not an issue. I was told $1900. I asked my co-workers that had stove inserts if they had insulation around their liner. None of them knew anything about this. I wasn't so convinced this was the problem. The work they did on June 10, 2013 was pretty thorough. Eveything I read on-line about leaking chimneys seems to have been addressed.

    That night it rained really hard. I had garbage bags bungee corded around the two sections of chimney with the cord secured just below the stainless steel base. So water was exposed to the crown and below but nothing above. No water got in during that rain. So then I was convinced that the water is getting in either from the stainless steel section for the pellet stove or the oil boiler. I did more tests with the garbage bag and a hose. To make a long story short, the water was getting in through the stainless steel base that covers the pellet stove flue. It turns out at least one of the spot welds came undone which left a gap. It wasn't big enough to slide a dime in but certainly big enough for water to get into. See third photo. On June 20, 2013, someone from Ace came back and replaced the stainless steel base. He also put silicone around the section where the two pieces of metal come together. It shouldn't take three visits to get this right so in the end, I was a little disappointed with Ace. One thing good that came out of all this was that while spraying water into the air to see where the chimney leaked, a hummingbird came and flew in the spray. It was there for quite awhile and I got some good pictures of it. See fourth photo.

    I did check the attic around the chimney line during a big storm. Before my new roof, water got in around the edges of the chimney. Now, only a tiny bit of water got in at the top section. It was so little that it only made it about 8 inches down the brick and no further. I can live with that.

    On June 15, 2013, someone from High's came out to touch up the cracks in the crown. I thought they did a sloppy job. There was some concrete on my new roof. It isn't noticeable to anyone on the ground, but I could certainly see it when I was up there. It wasn't terrible but nonetheless, sloppy. The worst thing is they didn't even get all the cracks. I climbed up on top of the chimney and noticed that they missed the east side. This is the hardest to get to and I'm guessing they figured I wouldn't have noticed. I don't think many people would have but I actually inspect the work that gets done at my house. Do you?

    Someone from High's came back on June 22, 2013 to get the crack in the crown that they missed on June 15. This time they did an even worse job. I know the east side of my chimney is not easy to get to but I can do it just by climbing. The person that worked that day used a ladder to access that part of the crown and in doing so, the feet of the ladder dug into the shingles of my less than 2 month old roof! See fifth photo.

    On June 26, 2013, Steven of High's came out to check the roof damage. I didn't expect a chimney company to have their own roofer but that is indeed what he is. I showed him some leftover shingles I had in the garage and within 15 minutes, he had things all fixed. I checked his work and it looked good. He said that the guy that did the work on the chimney probably did his work on a hot day. The stuff that holds the gravel onto the shingles gets soft on a hot day and is easily damaged. On a hot day, it is important to walk flat footed on the roof. I learned something.

    Though it took a few tries to get things right, I must say that High's is responsive and very good about following up on issues until the customer (me) is satisfied.

    In November 2014, we got some wet snow and wind. Water came down the chimney again and got the inside of the pellet stove all wet. The next day I was up on the roof inspecting. Everything looked fine. But for insurance, I put some Reflectix tape on the metal seams of the stainless steel base. To be honest, I don't think that was the problem. I think it has more to do with the wet snow. As of the end of the year, it hasn't been a problem.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.



    Pellets

    Buying pellets for your stove is like buying gas for your car. You want something inexpensive but of high quality.

    I did some shopping around on August 30, 2013 after talking to my co-workers. Buying by the ton is the way to go if you can make use of all those pellets. Since our primary source of heating will be geothermal, I don't know how many pellets were need to last us for a winter. Sure, we could buy more than what we need but I've heard that they tend to break down over time and I really don't want to give up more space in my garage than I really need to. Hence, we decided that a half ton was sufficient for our first year. In future years, if we need less than a ton, then maybe we can get with another person and split the cost for a ton.

    I didn't want to pay for shipping and I didn't want to drive very far to buy pellets. My co-workers George and Mike buy their pellets at Courtland Hearth and Hardware but all their stores are north of the Baltimore beltway which is a little far for me to be hauling a heavy load.

    As of 2012, Mike pays $209 for a ton of Power Pellets, which as of August 2013 have a three our of five star rating. George told me about Turman Pellets which also have a three star rating.

    Paul told me that when looking locally, Home Depot and Lowe's have the best prices. I went to both stores and they were both selling for $4.98 per bag but at Lowe's, if you buy a ton, then it costs $237. The brand they sell is Pres-to-Logs by Lignetics which has a four star rating. I don't know what Home Depot sold but for a ton, it cost $239. It seems like for both places, they had recently started selling pellets for the season...at Home Depot, things were unloaded the day prior and not even brought out onto the floor.

    The best local price I found when buying a recognized brand by the ton is $188 at Wood Floors Plus at 50 Orchard Road, Glen Burnie, Maryland, phone: 410-636-9663, e-mail: sales@woodfloorsplus.com. But if you purchase by the bag, then it is $5 each. Maybe I'll hit them up next year. They have an A+ rating with the BBB and they are only 21 minutes from my house.

    I ended up buying at Lowe's. Surprisingly, I was able to load an entire half ton (25 bags at 40 pounds each) in my 2008 Subaru Impreza. The total cost was $124.50 ($4.98 per bag). I took it easy on the speed bumps and drove the back way into my neighborhood so I could avoid most of them. I think that is the limit of how much I would push my car. I don't think I'll try that again.

    Our 2013-2014 winter was the coldest winter I can remember in my life. We ran the pellet stove a fairly good amount though never when we were asleep or not home. We ended up with 4.3 bags left over. We started with one free bag from the company that installed the stove plus another 25 I bought at Lowe's. That means for the season, we consumed 22.7 40 pound bags or 908 pounds of pellets. I hooked up a Kill-a-Watt to the electric outlet that powers the pellet stove so I could see how much electricity it uses. In order to burn these 22.7 bags of pellets, 41.36 kWh of electricity was consumed which equates to about $5. This means that we used 1.82 kWh for each 40 pound bag of pellets.

    How efficient is it? One way to measure this is by the amount of waste product left behind. I cannot measure how much particular matter went up the chimney but I can measure how much ash was left behind. The 908 pounds of pellets left about 0.28 cubic feet of ash. Each 40 pound bag is about one cubic foot according to Easy Heat Wood Pellets - FAQ. This means that the amount of solid ash residue is 0.28/22.7 = 1.2%. And just what did I do with this ash? I made used it for my chicken's dust bath.

    We looked to buy wood pellets in November 2014. There were none to be found. I looked at three different places. I checked back with Home Depot and Lowe's regularly. Eventually, the Home Depot in Ellicott City had some. We purchased 20 bags on December 31, 2014. We had 4.3 bags left over from last winter so I figured 800 pounds would be sufficient. We transported this in our two small cars. It sold for $5.19 per bag which is 21 cents more per bag than what Lowe's was charging but Lowe's wasn't planning on getting in for another month...at least the stores near us. So we ended up spending $4.20 more than if we had purchased at Lowe's. The brand we purchased was Freedom Fuel.
    Freedom Fuel is one of the highest grade pellet fuels available. With less than 1% ash content, and less than 6% moisture, it has been classified by the Pellet Fuels Institute as a Super Premium grade pellet fuel with 8400 BTUs/pound.
    - from Freedom Fuel

    However, Wood Pellet Reviews only gave Freedom Fuels two stars out of five, given 20 reviews.

    In March 2016, I saw 40 pound bags of wood pellets sold at Tractor Supply Company (TSC) for $3.99 per bag. This is the cheapest I've seen yet. This is their store brand and out of 238 reviews, it gets an average of 2.5 out of 5 stars. There is a TSC at 7994 Crain Highway South, Glen Burnie, Maryland 21061, which is near where I swim.



    Payback

    Will the pellet stove pay for itself? Consider the savings:
  • $600 from the Maryland Clean Energy Grant Program. This assumes we are successful in applying. We found out later that a permit is required. We did not get one and our dealer never mentioned it (none of them did). But it turns out we can apply for a permit after the fact and schedule an inspection. I did just that on May 8, 2013. It cost $55 to apply. On May 31, 2013, inspector T. Frey came out and checked things out. He made sure the stove had all the proper clearances as described in the specfication sheet. Had I gone with the Harman stove, it would have failed inspection since my hearth is too short to accommodate their stoves. So our building permit B13001750 was approved. Bruce F., the Chief Building Inspector told me that an electrical permit was not needed since no new electrical wiring was needed for the installation. I completed the form and mailed it in on June 10, 2013. We received our check in September 2013.
  • I mentioned earlier that with a pellet stove, our oil costs will be $42.20 less per winter.
  • The value of our house has gone up because of the pellet stove. By how much I do not know.

  • So once again, the big question is will the pellet stove pay for itself? Maybe, but it will take a VERY long time. I mentioned that we paid $3996.72. Add to that another $40 increase in our annual homeowners policy. It seems silly but if we just used the fireplace, we'd be paying less for insurance than if we filled the fireplace with a pellet stove, even though the pellet stove never gets too hot to touch. It isn't just our policy that penalizes us, other companies do too. Earlier, I mentioned that if we use a pellet stove instead of oil, our fuel costs will be $42.20 less per winter. Well this savings is pretty much negated by our increased insurance cost.

    Thus, when it comes to savings money, our pellet stove does not. But we will be more comfortable during the winter and that is something that is hard to put a price tag on.


    Future
    Another thing I plan to do to help save money with the heat pump is take advantage of BGE's Peak Rewards program. I was told to make sure BGE knows I have a Carrier heat pump as these are a bit different from the others. John Van Horne said he would look into what other BGE rebate programs I might qualify for. They also have a program for electric hot water heaters that I will look into.

    What else is in store for the future? I mentioned that I am considering getting a solar hot water heater installed. I have until 2016 to have that done if I want to get the 30% federal tax credit. If pursuing this, I will get a new roof at that time too since our current one is 20+ years old. No point in getting new solar hot water panels on the roof only to have to get it removed for roof repairs in a few years.

    I would love to figure out a cost effective and environmentally friendly way to heat our basement without the need for oil. I'm still thinking about that.

    I enjoy do-it-yourself (DIY) projects if they are within my limited range of skill. One such task I may want to tinker with at some point is a solar collector.


    The big picture
    Having a highly efficient heating system is just one part of the big picture.

    When Norma and I bought our house, we looked at the orientation of the garage roof and the fact that there were no trees around it. We both knew it would be a good place to mount solar panels. In the first 3 years of ownership, I added attic insulation and rain barrels/boxes. I also paid to have photovoltaic solar panels installed. Now we have geothermal heating and cooling. Eventually, we will probably have solar hot water heating.

    Why bother?

    The up-front cost for all this is pretty significant. With all the tax incentives, energy savings, and increased property value, I feel it is worth it though one might argue that if I was really interested in making money, I could have just put that money into the stock market. True. But there is much more to this than just making or saving money.

    What I am doing is a proof-of-concept for how a 1952, small house can be retrofitted with energy saving devices that pay for themselves. All too often, I see expensive new homes featured in magazines that are built with the latest "green" technology. Rarely do I see the final cost associated with construction. Such homes are not for the average middle-income family. But our house is. And unlike many places that just talk about "green" and "environmentally friendly" alternatives, I actually tell you how much I've spent and saved.

    Homes are expensive. So why pay expensive monthly fees for heating, electricity, water, internet, cable T.V., phone service, and homeowner association (HOA) fees? Why not look for ways you can reduce your living expenses rather than buy the latest and greatest of everything? Then you can take that money you save and use it to invest in more ways to further reduce your expenses.
  • Our photovoltaic solar panels reduce our electric bill significantly.
  • Our geothermal heating and cooling system reduces our heating and cooling costs dramatically.
  • Our rain barrels/boxes reduce our water consumption.
  • Growing our own vegetables and buying food directly from the farmer reduces our dependence on the grocery store, thereby cutting out the middleman.
  • We pay no cable television bill.
  • We have no landline phone.
  • Our town has no homeowners association.
  • I bought most of my exercise equipment used and keep it in the garage. Thus, I don't belong to a gym.
  • We drive fuel-efficient cars.
  • There are still plenty of ways we can reduce our monthly spending. I'm always looking for more.

    Ideally, I'd like to have a net-zero home. We still have a ways to go but we are heading in that direction.
    A zero-energy building, also known as a zero net energy (ZNE) building, net-zero energy building (NZEB), or net zero building, is a building with zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions annually.
    - from Wikipedia - Zero-energy building

    So what is my big picture?
  • I want to live in the type of home that the average person can afford that is good for the environment and our country. Tearing down forests to build new homes just isn't sustainable. We need to make use of the land that is already developed.
  • We need to reduce and eventually eliminate our consumption of foreign oil and conserve our domestic energy sources, generating our own energy whenever possible.
  • Solutions needs to be for the typical family, not just the upper class.
  • People need to reduce their spending on unnecessary items and instead focus more on saving and investing.
  • We, as individuals, need to set the example for the rest of the country, the world, and future generations.

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