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Geothermal Heat Pumps and Saving the World

Whether your goal is to reduce oil imports, lower carbon dioxide emissions, or just save money, geothermal heat pumps MAY be an answer for you. In many places and under many circumstances, this heat source makes economic sense without any need for subsidy (although, in some places, you can get a subsidy as well). Moreover, we can convert our heating to electricity much faster than we can convert our cars since the houses are permanently attached to the electric grid.

In a sense geothermal heat is something for nothing. You don’t really create heat with your heat pump the way you do with a furnace, you pump existing heat out of the air or ground and use a compressor to step it up to the temperature you want to achieve. The trouble with air-source heat pumps is that the air outside is liable to be pretty cold just when you need heat in your house the most – especially here in Vermont. But ground-source (geothermal) heat pumps get their heat from somewhere in the ground or under water. The deeper you get, the more the temperature stays the same year round.

BTW, heat pumps also work for cooling – same principal. But we don’t do much air conditioning in Vermont residences so I haven’t looked at that in any detail. Obviously, if you do also use energy for air conditioning, it can only improve the case I’m about to make.

OK, the numbers: suppose you use 1000 gallons of oil to heat your home (that’s how most of us heat here in the Northeast despite the fact that we don’t like refineries). At $3.00/gallon (my guess for next winter), that costs $3000 (duh). According to my favorite government spreadsheet, there are 138,690 BTUs in each gallon of No. 2 fuel oil so you’re buying about 140 million BTUs to keep you warm. However, because even a good furnace is only 78% efficient, only 108 million of those BTUs do you any good.

If you were to create all the useful BTUs with conventional electric heat, you’d need to buy about 32,000 kilowatt-hours (3412 BTUs per kWh). At the $.16/kWh we’ll be paying here next winter, that’s $5000 dollars. Stick with oil! Forget that advice this winter (2008): even conventional electric heat at typical Vermont electric rates is competitive with $5.00 gallon heating oil (updated numbers here).

But, according to the same spreadsheet, geothermal is 3.3 times as efficient as conventional heat (because you’re just pumping up what you need). With geothermal you’ll need less than 10,000 kWhs and pay about $1500; you save 50% compared to oil!

According to Excel, the present value of $1500 per year over 20 years at 6.5% interest (actually your heat pump system should last longer) is a little more than $16,000. If you can get a heat pump system with the capacity you need installed for that amount or less, you’ve got yourself a bargain – no subsidies involved. Actually, if it’s a new installation then you have to take into account what a furnace and fuel tanks would have cost as well. Distributing the heat inside the house is best done with circulating water but can be done with hot air as well. Either you already have a system to do that or you’d need to pay for one anyway. You can also get your domestic hot water from the heat pump and save a little more. If the price of oil goes up faster than electricity, you save more – and vice versa.

Can you get geothermal heat with this capacity installed for this amount? Depends. It depends on whether you have land that’s easily dug down into, a well, or a pond. If your house is on cold rock and you have no well or a small one, the collection system in the ground will drive your costs up. Doesn’t work at all for people in apartments or condominiums. On the other hand could be much cheaper if the heat source is readily accessible.

You won’t be emitting any carbon dioxide from your heat pump, of course. But what you’re doing for total emissions depends on where your electricity is coming from. Much of the electricity in the US comes from coal, a lot from natural gas, relatively little from oil, and some is carbon-free hydro and nuclear. Here in Vermont the vast majority of our power comes from Hydro Quebec and Vermont Yankee (nuclear) so there’s clearly less emission when electricity is used for heat than oil or even natural gas. I suspect there’s a net reduction in emissions for oil and gas produced electricity as well as when geothermal replaces combustion but I haven’t done the math – maybe later.

If you’re trying to stop the flow of oil dollars from here to the worst of places, geothermal is a good place to start. In 2005 we in the US burned over 63 4.9 billion gallons of oil to create heat for residences.

As you may have guessed, we’re looking into geothermal. Will let you know how it goes in practice.Now have our heat pump installed. Preliminary observations and pictures here.

A tool for estimating your annual fuel savings if you switch to radiant or geothermal electric heat is here.


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Don Lloyd

I have a new, interesting book on geothermal heat pumps that is just out. It is published by PixyJack Press in Colorado and titled: The Smart Guide to Geothermal—How to Harvest Earth's Free Energy for Heating & Cooling" It is aimed at the homeowner, builder and architect but is also will be used by heat pump accrediting trainers because it has a section on "Unraveling the Science and Technology" that covers how the physics actually are in play to get the super efficiencies of a heat pump.

I could email a copy of the descriptive sheet and cover if interested

Thank you, Don Lloyd, Germantown, NY

source heat pumps

Ground source heat pumps have received a wide amount of attention and publicity over the last few years. These geothermal systems are highly efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly heat pumps. The cost for installation may be several times higher than an air source pump, but the amount will be returned after 5-10 years period.

Heat pump

Heat pumps really are earth savers, they can provide a lot of savings and they also lessen the carbon footprint of your home. Though installation can be quite expensive, it will last long and the savings you get from it will basically pay off your expenses.

solar power hot water heaters

Solar power is the only way out, solve our energy resource's problem.

commercial heat pump

Great post, thanks for sharing. If you need some information about air water heat pumps, just google "wave heat pump"

air water heat pump

My heat pump is scheduled for installation this week so you can be sure I'll blog about it. Won't get a real test until next winter.

Fire Fly

Thanks for the information. great post, very informative

Glen McIver

Lennox now has solar powered heat pumps available.


Great article with a lot of great information. If you need any more information about geothermal heat pumps check out geothermalgenius.org. This site expands on a lot of the information covered in this post if you are looking for more details!


Great article. Thanks.

A friend told me about these ground source heat pumps, he's going to get some soon. The site looks great but I can't find much information about them?

What do you think?


That is a great article. Thank you for sharing.



Here is a video of mine which talks about the general heat pump installation. The video can be found on the KnowYourPlanet.org website at the following link. It will help you understand the basics of what the Heat Pump is and how it can save you energy. I hope you enjoy it.


You can also find the video on YouTube at


Kind regards,

Tom Evslin


I have a vertical closed loop in a well. It's 200 hundred feet deep.

Mike N

Hi Tom,
I just came across your GSHP blog, and I have to say that its very interesting. Can you give more specifics about the type of ground loop you have? Is it a horizontal loop or a vertical loop, and if vertical, is it closed or open, direct exchange, etc. How deep is it? Thanks!

John K

A great article. Try looking at Kelix.com
We are trying to make a difference.

John K

Tom Evslin


Thanks for correcting my sloppiness. I've made the change in the post.

Nicholas Hall

Great blog. I've emailed this link to a bunch of friends who are currently living in Maine and heating with oil. I just wanted to add a friendly fact check though. We only used 4.9 billion gallons for fuel oil in the US in 2005. I got this from the table in the link above that asserts we use 63 billion gallons of fuel oil. The 63 billion gallons was our total usage including diesel fuel (which used 40billion of the 63 billion).


Is there a way to use a geothermal heat pump to generate electricity?

Mike L'Esperance

I've included a link to a fuel cost calculator for comparison.
I'd like to hear what the cost in electricity increase is for the heat pumps. we have the highest electric rates in the country and would like to know how heatpumps measure up there.
Pellets are >%50 cheaper than oil.
thankyou for any assistance with the electric cost question.

Michael Winkler

I have had a ground-source heat pump and an air-source heat pump water heater for the past 5 years and am very happy with both. Our home is zero-net. Annually we produce as much electricity as we use. In California we have net metering so all we pay is a $5 per month charge to be connected to the grid. We have a surplus in summer and a deficit in winter. Because of our mild coastal climate we don't need air conditioning. We run both heat pumps on a timer so virtually all our usage is off-peak. What we are doing works fine for us. However, if a large fraction (>20%) of energy in the grid came from intermittent renewables like solar and wind it would be difficult to match supply and demand. A good way of dealing with this is heat heat pumps combined with thermal energy storage (hot or chilled water or ice) coordinated through a smart grid. A similar arrangement would work well with plug-in hybrids when they become commercially available.

california heat pumps

weather can be erratic. It is difficult to predict the weather. When the climate is hot, it is definitely hot. But when the climate is cold, you would think that you’re near the North Pole. Because of that problem, furnace became their way out. Here, we only use household furnaces in our homes to prevent too much heat. We consider it as a major appliance that must be installed in every home to provide heat and warmth in the form of air, steam, or hot water. The most common here in the United States is the natural gas. Another fuel source is the LPG or the Liquefied Petroleum Gas, coal, fuel oil, and wood. Some use the electrical resistance heating. This type of household furnace is used as a source of heat when electricity costs are decreasing.


I would love to hear how this goes. We also live in VT and We've just started looking into it, and have been told by a mech. engineer that it might be more cost effective to use a higher efficiency oil furnace (we currently use an Oil burning Forced Hot Air furnace). The newer furnaces can have up to 95% efficiency, according to what we've found online.

I cannot get much hard data either, fellow Vermonter. I do know that the Wake Robin facility in Shelburne is using it, I'm not sure when it was put into place, but it uses 300 wells. I don't remember the sq. ft. of the facility. There's also a man in Underhill who is using it in his business, and his business is drilling wells, I think. I don't remember his name.

Keep us posted, Tom!

Tom Evslin

Fellow Vermonter:

My heat pump is scheduled for installation this week so you can be sure I'll blog about it. Won't get a real test until next winter, of course.

Fellow Vermonter

I too live in Vermont and am looking into replacing my oil boiler with something else. Wood is the cheapest in this part of the country, but is a royal pain in the butt. I have considered wood pellets, but I currently burn around 1200 gallons of oil and am told that to replace it with a wood pellet boiler, I would be looking at 7-8 ton a year. Premium pellets are going at about $220.00 a ton. I would love to go with ground source heat, but am having trouble getting any real estimates of costs. Installation and operation. I suspect it is much costlier and less efficient than most say, as the salesmen are reluctant to give any real figures. If anyone out there is useing ground source heat, I would be very interested in hearing an unbiased opinion along with some real figures.

Tom Fakes

I live in a condo in relatively temperate Kirkland, WA. We have a heat pump to the air (on the roof) to provide both heating and AC, so condo usage can't be ruled out. Our unit is old and needs to be replaced, and is currently a little expensive to run, but I love the concept of pulling heat out of thin air!

Joseph Huang

Move to NYC. http://www.walkablestreets.com/manhattan.htm

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