By Stuart Anderson
When we built our house in Otego, New York in the late 1980s, we did lots of things right: southern exposure, long overhangs, R-45 walls and ceilings, split-frame cavity walls, sealed vapor barriers, and a roof slope of 45 degrees. After all that, pretty well spent out, we settled for oil heat and hot water.
Twenty-five years later, our heating system was aging, and oil was no longer cheap, and solar panels had come way down in price. State and federal incentives made our final decision to “go green” easy. As a very visible anti-fracking activist, I knew a number of contractors working in renewables. We looked at solar thermal and solar photovoltaic (PV), wood pellets, grass pellets, wood boilers, and geothermal heat pumps.
Given the facts, the choice was very logical. Fuel prices rise and fall, and once you’re invested in a technology, it is difficult to react to market conditions. After long conversations and lots of number-crunching, we took the plunge on a 10-kilowatt grid-tied PV system, a four-ton geothermal heat pump, and a high-efficiency heat-pump-assisted electric hot water heater.
Once the decisions were made, things happened quickly. Bennett Sandler from Equity Energy did a home energy audit and sized up our heating needs. Albert Hulick from Revolution Solar measured the roof, ordered the equipment, and took care of the paperwork with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and New York State Electric and Gas.
From the time work started, it only took one week for the crew from Revolution to get all the panels up and wired, get the inverter and grid tie installed, and get everything inspected. Naturally, the juice flowed the right way.
A few days later the heat pump and water heater arrived, along with a lot of pipe and paraphernalia. I opened up the ceiling and wall for the pipe to the pond. Roberto Romano from Equity Energy got the new water heater plumbed and wired the same day, so we went only about eight hours without hot water. We re-used the forced-air ductwork for the new heating system, but needed a new trunk line to the upper floors for air conditioning. I got this installed, and Roberto built a new plenum to join the heat pump to the ducts. Then he assembled the pipe from the flow center to the pond, while I dug a trench under the terrace.
Heat pumps are three to four times as efficient as conventional electric resistance heaters, and geothermal pumps are the most efficient type. Geothermal loops can be buried in the ground to draw heat from the ground, but they operate most efficiently when drawing heat from water ten feet deep or more. That is the option we chose.
Roberto’s engineer was not sure our pond was big enough, and he did not want to be responsible for making us the owners of a quarter-acre ice cube, so we expanded it to over half an acre. I rented an excavator and bulldozer for a week. I dug the new part of the pond, drained the old pond, and opened the area between them. I also deepen some shallow areas of the old pond. I swung the pond loops out to the middle and let the pond fill up. The loops floated until Roberto used a special pump to fill the circulating system with mixture of water and anti-freeze.
In 2014, the year before our renewable conversion, we spent $3124 on fuel oil and $1515 on electricity, a total of $4679. In 2015, we only spent $398 on electricity, for a savings of over $4200 per year. Impressively, our home energy use is no longer contributing to climate change, because we when we need to buy what electricity, it comes from an all-renewable electric supplier.
The PV system gross cost was $35,000, and we got rebates of $10,080 from NYSERDA, a Federal investment tax credit of $8,780, and a $5,000 New York State tax rebate; so the net cost of the PV system was $11,140. The geothermal system, including the hot water heater and the pond excavation, had a gross cost of $23,176, but got a $5,814 Federal investment credit. The bottom line cost for the entire project was $28,502; with annual savings of roughly $4,000. This means we will break even in around seven years. Our property assessment went up, but the installation is exempt from property taxes for fifteen years. If we ever choose to sell, our tiny annual energy bill should be a strong selling point, as should the central air conditioning.
We did learn a few lessons with this project. Talk to people who have already had similar projects done. Talk to LOTS of contractors. Look into all your options, even if you already think you know what you want, you may be surprised. Talk to your local code enforcement officer. Learn to navigate the various State websites that explain how the rebate programs work. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
Most important, remember that old furnace will not die in July because that is not when it is used. It will die in January when the ground is frozen and the roof is a sheet of ice. Do not wait for a catastrophe!
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