by Margaret Murray
Louis Boxer is expecting big financial payback from the geothermal system he installed in his five- bedroom Wallingford home this past October. “But saving money wasn’t the only reason for us to go geothermal,” Boxer said. “We were interested in stewardship; we felt it was important to be environmentally conscious. Geothermal energy made perfect sense.”
Boxer, an anesthesiologist, has been interested in geothermal energy ever since he heard about it from friends who installed a system in their Chester County home. “Our winter heating bills were running in the $250 to $420 per month range.” Boxer wanted to do better. “Our gas bill for December was $52. We’re thrilled. We like the idea that we’ve reduced our family’s carbon footprint significantly by cutting our natural gas bill by 75%.”
Boxer’s wife, Suzanne Simenhoff, and their sons, Sam, a tenth grader, and Adam, a sixth grader, both at Strath Haven, are all fans of their geothermal unit. Boxer admitted the boys aren’t as interested in where the energy comes from. “As long as they are warm in the winter and cool in the summer, they’re happy.”
The Boxers had a gas-fired, forced-hot-air system before installing their geothermal heat pump. The heat pump eliminated the need for a gas furnace but uses the original hot-air ductwork. For older homes with radiators or radiant heat, it is not easy to convert to geothermal. Radiators are built to operate with water heated to 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Geothermal systems heat water to only 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit and are not compatible with systems requiring higher temperatures.
The cost of a geothermal system depends entirely on the size of a home, since size determines how many wells will need to be dug for piping. On average, a typical home of 2,500 square feet, with a heating load of 60,000 BTU and a cooling load of 60,000 BTU, will cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to convert to geothermal. The Boxers hope to see their $25,000 investment paid back in five to six years.
Swarthmore resident Don Kennedy converted his 1,626 square foot home to geothermal energy in 2007 for a total of $16,100. His average monthly PECO bill for heating had been $177, and dropped to $144. Mr. Kennedy will not see a return on his investment for a number of years, but he is more concerned with minimizing his monthly energy bills. “I expect all energy costs to rise substantially in coming years and I want to be prepared,” Kennedy said.
The McLear family on Ogden Avenue in Swarthmore installed their geothermal system in 2004-2005 while renovating their home. Though the renovations led the McLears to double the square footage of their house to 4,000 feet, they saw only a minor increase in their monthly energy bill. The payback period the McLears expected was seven years, but with gas and electricity prices on the rise, they believe that time will be shortened. “We went with geothermal for both the environmental and economic benefits,” Claire McLear said. “It was a no-brainer.”
All three families reported having a smooth installation process. “It only took three or four days for the installers to drill the wells and lay the pipes,” Boxer said of the huge installation trucks in his yard that resembled oil rigs, “but we did look like the Clampetts digging for oil. I thought my neighbors might not like the Beverly Hillbillies look, but they were very supportive.” The Boxers, Kennedys, and McLears each installed a vertical, closed-loop system. The vertical system, which is popular in urban and suburban areas because it is the most efficient use of space, involves drilling holes 100 to 400 feet deep.
“The installers did a good job of cleaning up after the work,” Boxer said of K.L. Madron Well Drilling. “But they are not a lawn care business. They ascribe to the school of returning your lawn to nature and ruts!” Kennedy, who used Don Hull of Ground Source HVAC in Media, reported, “They were very well informed.” “A lot of local guys don’t do geothermal,” Boxer warned. “Anyone considering geothermal should do their research on both the installer and the vendor.” He chose Chelsea Heating and Air as the vendor.
“It’s been a great experience for our family,” Boxer observed. “And the best is yet to come.”
Margaret Murray is a senior at Strath Haven High School.
This Article was published in “The Swarthmorean” on 2/22/2012. It has been edited to correct minor errors.
Profiles in Green is a continuing series featuring innovative environmentalists in our community.