Wisdom of Life

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal Energy


A geothermal heat pump, ground source heat pump (GSHP), or ground heat pump is a central heating and/or cooling system that pumps heat to or from the ground.

A geothermal heat pump uses the earth as a heat source (in the winter) or a heat sink (in the summer). This design takes advantage of the moderate temperatures in the ground to boost efficiency and reduce the operational costs of heating and cooling systems. Geothermal heat pumps may also be combined with solar heating to form a geosolar system with even greater efficiency. Ground source heat pumps are also known as “geothermal heat pumps”. However, the heat does not come from the center of the Earth, but from the Sun. Geothermal Heat Pumps are also known by other names, including geo-exchange, earth-coupled, & earth energy systems.

The engineering and scientific communities prefer the terms “geo-exchange” or “ground source heat pumps” to avoid confusion with traditional geothermal power, which uses a high temperature heat source to generate electricity. Ground source heat pumps harvest heat absorbed at the Earth’s surface from solar energy. The temperature in the ground below 20 ft is roughly equal to the mean annual air temperature at that latitude at the surface.

Depending on latitude, the temperature beneath the upper 20 ft of Earth’s surface maintains a nearly constant temperature between 50 and 60 °F, if the temperature is undisturbed by the presence of a heat pump. Like a refrigerator or air conditioner, these systems use a heat pump to force the transfer of heat from the ground. Heat pumps can transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space, against the natural direction of flow, or they can enhance the natural flow of heat from a warm area to a cool one.

The core of the heat pump is a loop of refrigerant pumped through a vapor-compression refrigeration cycle which moves heat. Air-source heat pumps are typically more efficient at heating than pure electric heaters, even when extracting heat from cold winter air, although efficiencies begin dropping significantly as outside air temperatures drop below 41 °F. A ground source heat pump exchanges heat with the ground. This is much more energy-efficient because underground temperatures are more stable than air temperatures through the year.

Seasonal variations in temperature drop off with depth and disappear below seven meters due to thermal inertia. Like a cave, the shallow ground temperature is warmer than the air above during the winter and cooler than the air in the summer. A ground source heat pump extracts ground heat in the winter (for heating) and transfers heat back into the ground in the summer (for cooling). Some systems are designed to operate in one mode only, heating or cooling, depending on climate.

The setup costs are higher ground source heat pumps than for conventional systems, but the difference is usually returned in energy savings in 3 to 10 years. System life is estimated at 25 years for inside components and 50+ years for the ground loop. As of 2004, there are over a million units installed worldwide providing 12 GW of thermal capacity, with an annual growth rate of 10%.

Ground Heat Exchanger

Heat pumps provide winter heating by extracting heat from a source and transferring it into a building. Heat can be extracted from any source, but a warmer source allows higher efficiency. A ground source heat pump uses the top layer of the earth’s crust as a source of heat, thus taking advantage of its seasonally moderated temperature.

In the summer, this process can be reversed so that the heat pump extracts heat from the building and transfers it to the ground. Transferring heat to a cooler space takes less energy, so the cooling efficiency of the heat pump gains benefits from the lower ground temperature.

Shallow 3 to8 feet horizontal heat exchangers experience seasonal temperature cycles due to solar gains and transmission losses to ambient air at the ground level. These temperature cycles lag behind the seasons because of thermal inertia. Because of thermal intertia, the heat exchanger will harvest heat deposited by the sun several months earlier, while being weighed down in late winter and spring, due to accumulated winter cold. Deep vertical systems 100–500 feet rely on migration of heat from surrounding geology, unless they are recharged annually by solar recharge of the ground or exhaust heat from air conditioning systems.

Several major design options are available for these pumps, which are classified by fluid and layout. Direct exchange systems circulate refrigerant underground, closed loop systems use a mixture of anti-freeze and water, and open loop systems use natural groundwater.

Direct Exchange

The direct exchange geothermal heat pump is the oldest type of geothermal heat pump technology. The ground-coupling is achieved through a single loop circulating refrigerant in direct thermal contact with the ground (as opposed to a combination of a refrigerant loop and a water loop). The refrigerant leaves the heat pump appliance cabinet, circulates through a loop of copper tube buried underground, and exchanges heat with the ground before returning to the pump.

The name “direct exchange” refers to heat transfer between the refrigerant and the ground without the use of an intermediate fluid. To be clear, there is no direct interaction between the fluid and the earth; only heat transfer through the pipe wall. Direct exchange heat pumps are not to be confused with “water-source heat pumps” or “water loop heat pumps” since there is no water in the ground loop. ASHRAEdefines the term ground-coupled heat pump to encompass closed loop and direct exchange systems, while excluding open loops.

Direct exchange systems are more efficient and have potentially lower installation costs than closed loop water systems. Copper’s high thermal conductivity contributes to the higher efficiency of the system, but heat flow is predominantly limited by the thermal conductivity of the ground, not the pipe. The main reasons for the higher efficiency are the elimination of the water pump (which uses electricity), the elimination of the water-to-refrigerant heat exchanger (which is a source of heat losses), and most importantly, the latent heat phase change of the refrigerant in the ground itself.

While direct exchange earth loops require more refrigerant and their tubing is more expensive per foot & shorter than a closed water loop for a given capacity. A direct exchange system requires only 15 to 30% of the length of tubing and half the diameter of drilled holes, and the drilling or excavation costs are therefore lower. Refrigerant loops are less tolerant of leaks than water loops because gas can leak out through smaller imperfections. This dictates the use of brazed copper tubing, even though the pressures are similar to water loops. The copper loop must be protected from corrosion in acidic soil through the use of a sacrificial anode or other cathodic protection.

In northern climates, although the earth temperature is cooler, so is the incoming water temperature, which enables the high efficiency systems to replace more energy that would otherwise be required of electric or fossil fuel fired systems. Any temperature above -40°F is sufficient to evaporate the refrigerant, and the direct exchange system can harvest energy through ice.

In extremely hot climates with dry soil, the addition of an auxiliary cooling module as a second condenser in line between the compressor and the earth loops increases efficiency and can further reduce the amount of earth loop to be installed.

Closed Loop

Most installed systems have two loops on the ground side: the primary refrigerant loop is contained in the appliance cabinet where it exchanges heat with a secondary water loop that is buried underground. The secondary loop is typically made of high-density polyethylene pipe and contains a mixture of water and anti-freeze (propylene glycol, denatured alcohol or methanol).

Monopropylene glycol has the least damaging potential when it might leak into the ground, and is therefore the only allowed anti-freeze in ground sources in an increasing number of European countries. After leaving the internal heat exchanger, the water flows through the secondary loop outside the building to exchange heat with the ground before returning. The secondary loop is placed below the frost line where the temperature is more stable or preferably submerged in a body of water if available.

Systems in wet ground or in water are generally more efficient than drier ground loops since it is less work to move heat in and out of water than solids in sand or soil. If the ground is naturally dry, soaker hoses may be buried with the ground loop as a means to keep it wet.

Closed loop systems need a heat exchanger between the refrigerant loop, the water loop, and pumps in both loops. Some manufacturers have a separate ground loop fluid pump pack, while some integrate the pumping and valving within the heat pump. Expansion tanks and pressure relief valves may be installed on the heated fluid side. Closed loop systems have lower efficiencies than direct exchange systems, so they require longer and larger pipe to be placed in the ground, and thus, increasing excavation costs.

Closed loop tubing can be installed horizontally as a loop field in trenches or vertically as a series of long U-shapes in wells. The size of the loop field depends on the soil type and moisture content, the average ground temperature and the heat loss and or gain characteristics of the building being conditioned. A rough approximation of the initial soil temperature is the average daily temperature for the region.

Vertical (vertical what?

A vertical closed loop field is composed of pipes that run vertically in the ground. A hole is bored in the ground, typically 75-500 feet deep. Pipe pairs in the hole are joined with a U-shaped cross connector at the bottom of the hole. The borehole is commonly filled with a bentonite grout surrounding the pipe to provide a thermal connection to the surrounding soil or rock to improve the heat transfer. Thermally enhanced grouts are available to improve this heat transfer. Grout also protects the ground water from contamination, and prevents artesian wells from flooding the property.

Vertical loop fields are typically used when there is a limited area of land available. Bore holes are spaced at least 5–6 m apart and the depth depends on ground and building characteristics. For illustration, a detached house needing 10 kW (3 ton) of heating capacity might need three boreholes 260 to 360 ft deep. (A ton of heat is 12,000 British thermal units per hour (BTU/h) or 3.5 kilowatts.) During the cooling season, the local temperature rise in the bore field is influenced most by the moisture travel in the soil. Reliable heat transfer models have been developed through sample bore holes as well as other tests.


A horizontal closed loop field is composed of pipes that run horizontally in the ground. A long horizontal trench, deeper than the frost line, is dug and U-shaped or slinky coils are placed horizontally inside the same trench. Excavation for shallow horizontal loop fields is about half the cost relative to vertical drilling. As a result this is the most common layout used wherever there is adequate land available. For illustration, a detached house needing 10 kW (3 ton) of heating capacity might need 3 loops 390 to 590 ft long of NPS 3/4 (DN 20) or NPS 1.25 (DN 32) polyethylene tubing at a depth of 3.3 to 6.6 ft.

The depth at which the loops are placed significantly influences the energy consumption of the heat pump in two opposite ways: shallow loops tend to indirectly absorb more heat from the sun, which is helpful, especially when the ground is still cold after a long winter. On the other hand, shallow loops are also cooled down much more readily by weather changes, especially during long cold winters, when heating demand peaks. Often, the second effect is much greater than the first one, leading to higher costs of operation for the more shallow ground loops. This problem can be reduced by increasing both the depth and the length of piping, thereby significantly increasing the costs of installation. However, such expenses might be deemed feasible, on the basis of they may result in lower operating costs.

Recent studies show that utilization of a non-homogeneous soil profile with a layer of low conductive material above the ground pipes can help mitigate the adverse effects of shallow pipe burial depth. The intermediate blanket with lower conductivity than the surrounding soil profile demonstrated the potential to increase the energy extraction rates from the ground to as high as 17% for a cold climate and about 5-6 % for a  moderate climate.

A slinky (also called coiled) closed loop field is a type of horizontal closed loop where the pipes overlay each other. The easiest way of picturing a slinky field is to imagine holding a slinky on the top and bottom with your hands and then moving your hands in opposite directions. A slinky loop field is used if there is not adequate room for a true horizontal system, but it still allows for an easy installation.

Rather than using straight pipe, slinky coils use overlapped loops of piping laid out horizontally along the bottom of a wide trench. Depending on soil, climate, and the heat pump’s run fraction, slinky coil trenches can be up to two thirds shorter than traditional horizontal loop trenches. Slinky coil ground loops are essentially a more economical and space efficient version of a horizontal ground loop.

If one wants a single house geothermal heat pump system with maximum energy efficiency, then oversized vertical loops are usually more cost efficient than oversized and extra deep horizontal loops.

Radial or Directional Drilling

As an alternative to trenching, loops may be laid by mini horizontal directional drilling (also called mini-HDD). This technique can lay piping under yards, driveways, gardens or other structures without disturbing them, with a cost between those of trenching and vertical drilling. This system also differs from horizontal & vertical drilling as the loops are installed from one central chamber, further reducing the ground space needed. Radial drilling is often installed retrospectively (after the property has been built) due to the small nature of the equipment used and the ability to bore beneath existing constructions.


A closed pond loop is not common because it depends on proximity to a body of water, where an open loop system is usually preferable. A pond loop may be advantageous where poor water quality precludes an open loop, or where the system heat load is small. A pond loop consists of coils of pipe similar to a slinky loop attached to a frame and located at the bottom of an appropriately sized pond or water source.

Open loop

In an open loop system (also called a groundwater heat pump), the secondary loop pumps natural water from a well or body of water into a heat exchanger inside the heat pump. ASHRAE calls open loop systems groundwater heat pumps or surface water heat pumps, depending on the source. Heat is either extracted or added by the primary refrigerant loop, and the water is returned to a separate injection well, irrigation trench, tile field, or body of water. The supply and return lines must be placed far enough apart to ensure thermal recharge of the source.

Since the water chemistry is not controlled, the appliance may need to be protected from corrosion by using different metals in the heat exchanger and pump. Limescale may foul the system over time and require periodic acid cleaning. This is more of a problem with cooling systems than heating systems. Also, as fouling decreases the flow of natural water, it becomes difficult for the heat pump to exchange building heat with the groundwater. If the water contains high levels of salt, minerals, iron bacteria, hydrogen sulfide, a closed loop system is usually preferable.

Deep lake water cooling uses a similar process with an open loop for air conditioning and cooling. Open loop systems using ground water are usually more efficient than closed systems because they are better coupled with ground temperatures. Closed loop systems, in comparison, have to transfer heat across extra layers of pipe wall and dirt.

A growing number of jurisdictions have outlawed open-loop systems that drain to the surface because these may drain aquifers or contaminate wells. This forces the use of more environmentally sound injection wells.

Standing Column Well

A standing column well system is a specialized type of open loop system. Water is drawn from the bottom of a deep rock well, passed through a heat pump, and returned to the top of the well. Once it travels downwards, it exchanges heat with the surrounding bedrock. The choice of a standing column well system is often dictated where there is near-surface bedrock and limited surface area is available. A standing column is typically not suitable in locations where the geology is mostly clay, silt, or sand. If bedrock is deeper than 200 feet from the surface, the cost of casing to seal off the overburden may become prohibitive.

A multiple standing column well system can support a large structure in an urban or rural application. The standing column well method is also popular in residential and small commercial applications.

There are many successful applications of varying sizes and well quantities in the many boroughs of New York City. This is also the most common application in the New England states. This type of ground source system has some heat storage benefits, where heat is rejected from the building and the temperature of the well is raised during the summer cooling months which can then be harvested for heating in the winter months, thereby increasing the efficiency of the heat pump system.

As with closed loop systems, sizing of the standing column system is critical in reference to the heat loss and gain of the existing building. As the heat exchange is actually with the bedrock, using water as the transfer medium, a large amount of production capacity (water flow from the well) is not required for a standing column system to work. However, if there is adequate water production, then the thermal capacity of the well system can be enhanced by discharging a small percentage of system flow during the peak summer and winter months.

Since this is essentially a water pumping system, standing column well design requires critical considerations to obtain peak operating efficiency. Should a standing column well design be misapplied, leaving out critical shut-off valves, for example, the result could be an extreme loss in efficiency and thereby cause operational cost to be higher than anticipated.

Building Distribution

The heat pump is the central unit that becomes the heating and cooling plant for the building. Some models may cover space heating, space cooling, (space heating via conditioned air, hydronic systems and / or radiant heating systems), domestic or pool water preheat (via the desuperheater function), demand hot water, and driveway ice melting all within one appliance with a variety of options with respect to controls, staging, and zone control. The heat may be carried to its end use by circulating water or forced air. Almost all types of heat pumps are produced for commercial and residential applications.

Liquid-to-air heat pumps (also called water-to-air) output forced air, & are most commonly used to replace legacy forced air furnaces and central air conditioning systems. There are variations that allow for split systems, high-velocity systems, and ductless systems. Heat pumps cannot achieve as high of a fluid temperature as a conventional furnace, so they require a higher volume flow rate of air to compensate. When retrofitting a residence, the existing duct work may have to be enlarged to reduce the noise from the higher air flow.

Liquid-to-Water Heat Pump

Liquid-to-water heat pumps (also called water-to-water) are hydronic systems that use water-to-carry heating or cooling through the building. Systems such as radiant underfloor heating, baseboard radiators, conventional cast iron radiators would use a liquid-to-water heat pump. These heat pumps are preferred for pool heating or domestic hot water pre-heat. Heat pumps can only heat water to about 122 °F efficiently, whereas a boiler normally reaches 149–203 °F. Legacy radiators designed for these higher temperatures may have to be doubled in numbers when retrofitting a home. A hot water tank will still be needed to raise water temperatures above the heat pump’s maximum, but pre-heating will save 25-50% of hot water costs.

Ground source heat pumps are especially well matched relative to underfloor heating and baseboard radiator systems which only require warm temperatures 40 °C (104 °F) to work well. Thus they are ideal for open plan offices. Using large surfaces such as floors distributes the heat more uniformly and allows for a lower water temperature. Wood or carpet floor coverings dampen this effect because the thermal transfer efficiency of these materials is lower than that of masonry floors (tile, concrete). Underfloor piping, ceiling, or wall radiators can also be used for cooling in dry climates, although the temperature of the circulating water must be above the dew point to ensure that atmospheric humidity does not condense on the radiator.

Combination heat pumps are available that can produce forced air and circulating water simultaneously and individually. These systems are largely being used for houses that have a combination of air and liquid conditioning needs. Some examples of this are central air conditioning and pool heating.

Seasonal Thermal Storage

The efficiency of ground source heat pumps can be greatly improved by using seasonal thermal storage and interseasonal heat transfer. Heat captured and stored in thermal banks in the summer can be retrieved efficiently in the winter. Heat storage efficiency increases with scale, so this advantage is most significant in commercial or district heating systems.

Geosolar combi systems have been used to heat and cool a greenhouse using an aquifer for thermal storage. During the summer, the greenhouse is cooled with cold ground water. This heats the water in the aquifer which can become a warm source for heating in winter. The combination of cold and heat storage with heat pumps can be combined with water/humidity regulation. These principles are used to provide renewable heat and renewable cooling to all kinds of buildings.

Also the efficiency of existing small heat pump installations can be improved by adding large, cheap, water filled solar collectors. These may be integrated into a to-be-overhauled parking lot, or in walls or roof constructions by installing one inch PE pipes into the outer layer.

Thermal Efficiency

The “net thermal efficiency” of a heat pump should take into account the efficiency of electricity generation and transmission, typically about 30%. Since a heat pump moves 3 to 5 times more heat energy than the electric energy it consumes, the total energy output is much greater than the input. This results in net thermal efficiencies greater than 300% as compared to radiant electric heat being 100% efficient. Traditional combustion furnaces and electric heaters can never exceed 100% efficiency.

Geothermal heat pumps can reduce energy consumption & corresponding air pollution emissions up to 44% compared to air source heat pumps, up to 72% compared to electric resistance heating with standard air-conditioning equipment.

The dependence of net thermal efficiency on the electricity infrastructure tends to be an unnecessary complication for consumers. It is not applicable to hydroelectric power. Performance of heat pumps is usually expressed as the ratio of heating output or heat removal to electricity input.

Cooling performance is typically expressed in units of BTU/hr/watt as the Energy Efficiency Ratio, (EER) while heating performance is typically reduced to dimensionless units as the Coefficient of Performance. (COP) The conversion factor is 3.41 BTU/hr/watt. Performance is influenced by all components of the installed system, including the soil conditions, the ground-coupled heat exchanger, the heat pump appliance, and the building distribution. It is largely determined by the “lift” between the input temperature and the output temperature.

For the sake of comparing heat pump appliances to each other, independently from other system components, a few standard test conditions have been established by the American Refrigerant Institute (ARI) as well as the International Organization for Standardization. Standard ARI 330 ratings were intended for closed loop ground-source heat pumps, and assumes secondary loop water temperatures of 77 °F (25 °C) for air conditioning and 32 °F (0 °C) for heating.

These temperatures are typical of installations in the northern US. Standard ARI 325 ratings were intended for open loop ground-source heat pumps, and include two sets of ratings for groundwater temperatures of 50 °F (10 °C) and 70 °F (21 °C). ARI 325 budgets more electricity for water pumping than ARI 330. Neither of these standards attempt to account for seasonal variations. Standard ARI 870 ratings are intended for direct exchange ground-source heat pumps. ASHRAE transitioned to ISO 13256-1 in 2001, which replaces ARI 320, 325, and 330. The new ISO standard produces slightly higher ratings because it no longer budgets any electricity for water pumps.

Efficient compressors, variable speed compressors, and larger heat exchangers all contribute to heat pump efficiency. Residential ground source heat pumps on the market today have standard COPs ranging from 2.4 to 5.0 and EERs ranging from 10.6 to 30. To qualify for an Energy Star label, heat pumps must meet certain minimum COP and EER ratings which depend on the ground heat exchanger type. For closed loop systems, the ISO 13256-1 heating COP must be 3.3 or greater, and the cooling EER must be 14.1 or greater.

Actual installation conditions may produce better or worse efficiency than the standard test conditions. COP improves with a lower temperature difference between the input and output of the heat pump, so the stability of ground temperatures is important. If the loop field or water pump is undersized, the addition or removal of heat may push the ground temperature beyond standard test conditions. Performance will be degraded. Similarly, an undersized blower may allow the plenum coil to overheat and degrade performance.

Soil without artificial heat addition or subtraction and at depths of several meters or more remains at a relatively constant temperature year round. This temperature equates roughly to the average annual air-temperature of the chosen location, usually 45–54 °F at a depth of six meters in the northern US. Because this temperature remains more constant than the air temperature throughout the seasons, geothermal heat pumps perform with far greater efficiency during extreme air temperatures than air conditioners and air-source heat pumps.

Environmental Impact

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called ground source heat pumps the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space conditioning systems available. Heat pumps offer significant emission reductions potential, particularly where they are used for both heating and cooling and where the electricity is produced from renewable resources.

Ground-source heat pumps have unsurpassed thermal efficiencies and produce zero emissions locally. However, their electricity supply includes components with high greenhouse gas emissions, unless the owner has opted for a 100% renewable energy supply. Their environmental impact therefore depends on the characteristics of the electricity supply and the available alternatives.

Ground-source heat pumps always produce less greenhouse gases than air conditioners, oil furnaces, and electric heating, but natural gas furnaces may be competitive depending on the greenhouse gas intensity of the local electricity supply.


Ground source heat pumps are characterized by high capital costs and low operational costs compared to other HVAC systems. Their overall economic benefit depends primarily on the relative costs of electricity and fuels, which are highly variable over time and across the world. Based on recent prices, ground-source heat pumps currently have lower operational costs than any other conventional heating source almost everywhere in the world. Natural gas is the only fuel with competitive operational costs, and only in a handful of countries where it is exceptionally cheap, or where electricity is exceptionally expensive.

In general, a homeowner may save anywhere from 20% to 60% annually on utilities by switching from an ordinary system to a ground-source system. However, many family size installations are reported to use much more electricity than their owners had expected from advertisements. This is often partly due to bad design or installation: Heat exchange capacity with groundwater is often too small, heating pipes in house floors are often too thin and too few, or heated floors are covered with wooden panels or carpets.

The initial cost can be two to five times that of a conventional heating system in most residential applications, either new construction or existing. In retrofits, the cost of installation is affected by the size of living area, the home’s age, insulation characteristics, geology of the area, and location of the property. Proper duct system design and mechanical air exchange should be considered in the initial system cost.

The lifespan of the system is longer than conventional heating and cooling systems. Good data on system lifespan is not yet available because the technology is too recent, but many early systems are still operational today after 25–30 years with routine maintenance. Most loop fields have warranties for 25 to 50 years, and are expected to last at least 50 to 200 years. Ground-source heat pumps use electricity for heating the house.

The higher investment above conventional oil, propane, or electric systems may be returned in energy savings in 2–10 years for residential systems in the US. If compared to natural gas systems, the payback period can be much longer or non-existent. The payback period for larger commercial systems in the US is 1–5 years, even when compared to natural gas. Additionally, because geothermal heat pumps usually have no outdoor compressors or cooling towers, the risk of vandalism is reduced or eliminated, potentially extending a system’s lifespan.

Ground source heat pumps are recognized as one of the most efficient heating and cooling systems on the market. They are often the second-most cost effective solution in extreme climates, (after co-generation), despite reductions in thermal efficiency due to ground temperature. (The ground source is warmer in climates that need strong air conditioning, and cooler in climates that need strong heating.)

Governments that promote renewable energy will likely offer incentives for the consumer (residential), or industrial markets. For example, in the United States, incentives are offered both on the state and federal levels of government. In the United Kingdom, the “Renewable Heat Incentive” provides a financial incentive for generation of renewable heat based on metered readings on an annual basis for 20 years for commercial buildings (and will do so for domestic buildings from October 2012).


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