Geothermal Heating

Illustration of a geothermal heating and cooling system that handles multiple loads for a community. Illustration by Sarah Cheney.Imagine a home in which the temperature is always comfortable, yet the heating and cooling system is out of sight. That system performs efficiently but doesn’t require extensive maintenance or knowledge on the part of the owners.

The air smells fresh; you can hear the birds chirping and the wind rustling lazily through the trees. The home shares energy with the earth similar to the way the roots of the trees exchange the essentials of life to their leaves and branches. Sounds comfortable, doesn’t it?

Geothermal heating and cooling makes that vision a reality. Geothermal HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) brings a building in harmony with the earth beneath, taking advantage of subterranean temperatures to provide heating in the winter and cooling in the summer.

Diagram of how geothermal HVAC systems workHow Geothermal Heating and Cooling Works

Outdoor temperatures fluctuate with the changing seasons but underground temperatures don’t change as dramatically, thanks to the insulating properties of the earth. Four to six feet below ground, temperatures remain relatively constant year-round. A geothermal system, which typically consists of an indoor handling unit and a buried system of pipes, called an earth loop, and/or a pump to reinjection well, capitalizes on these constant temperatures to provide “free” energy.

(Note that geothermal HVAC should not be confused with “geothermal energy, ” the process by which electricity is generated directly from the heat inside the earth. That takes place on the scale of utilities and uses different processes, normally by heating water to boiling.)

The pipes that make up an earth loop are usually made of polyethylene and can be buried under the ground horizontally or vertically, depending on the characteristics of the site. If an aquifer is available, engineers may prefer to design an “open loop” system, in which a well is drilled into the underground water. Water is pumped up, run past a heat exchanger, and then the water is returned to the same aquifer, through “reinjection.”

In winter, fluid circulating through the system’s earth loop or well absorbs stored heat from the ground and carries it indoors. The indoor unit compresses the heat to a higher temperature and distributes it throughout the building, as if it were an air conditioner running in reverse. In summer, the geothermal HVAC system pulls heat from the building and carries it through the earth loop/pump to reinjection well, where it deposits the heat into the cooler earth/aquifer.

Unlike ordinary heating and cooling systems, geothermal HVAC systems do not burn fossil fuel to generate heat; they simply transfer heat to and from the earth. Typically, electric power is used only to operate the unit’s fan, compressor, and pump.

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