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Juneau couple harnesses geothermal energy

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 7, 2013 at 9:01 am •  Published: April 7, 2013
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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Julie Bednarski and John Kajdan scrawled down notes on a piece of junk mail about quotes for earthmovers, heat pumps and calculations.

That junk mail was a note mailed from a local bar and addressed to the former residents of the couples' home on Birch Lane in the Mendenhall Valley, to inform them about birthday coupons. Bednarski and Kajdan are financially savvy, but unlikely to care about whether or not a bar knows their birthday. So when they started compiling quotes and references for a geothermal heating system they were looking to install, a system that not only can be a money saver but also an environmentally friendly move, it makes sense they would use unwanted mail to collect their notes.

There are a couple of types of geothermal energy. High-grade geothermal energy is the heat formed from the pressure of the earth. Water is turned to steam, and its energy can be harnessed. Around Fairbanks for example, green houses are powered by high-grade geothermal energy.

Then there's low-grade geothermal energy, subsurface heat. Using the temperature of the ground as energy for residential or commercial heating purposes is what people are generally referring to when they talk about geothermal heating systems.

Bednarski and Kajdan had an old boiler. They had to replace it. They went to the annual Juneau Home Show in March 2012 to look for some leads on replacements. This is where they were introduced to the possibility of upgrading their boiler and baseboard heating system to geothermal.

They returned with various brochures, demeaning the intellect of the average pamphlet reader with fluffy verbiage like, "Isn't it good to know that all the energy you need to heat and cool your home is beneath your feet?," ''Choosing geothermal becomes the right choice!," and photos of mullet-sporting blue-uniformed men with stitched name tags accompanied with captions like, "In our state-of-the-art production facility, highly trained workers assemble every unit with care," and "All in all, you can't buy a better engineered heat pump."

But Bednarski and Kajdan aren't fools. Kajdan's an engineer and Bednarski is a fisheries biologist. They began doing their own research, which turned out to be one of the biggest parts of the process to replace their boiler. Money was a key factor.

The state offered a rebate up to $10,000 for home energy improvements. On top of that, there is 30 percent federal tax credit on the total cost of purchasing and installing a geothermal heating system. Those two financial incentives, combined with the fact they had to replace their boiler anyhow, made the project feasible. Kajdan also estimated that their total annual savings could be around $3,000.

Add to that the environmental benefits, they would no longer need diesel fuel, there would be no carbon emissions, and as Bednarski said, a geothermal system is just more efficient, it was a clear choice.

"Heat pumps are more efficient than an electric boiler," Bednarski said. "With a heat pump you can get twice as much to 4.5 times as much heat energy. With an electric boiler you get only as much heat energy out as electricity used. So we were starting out from zero. We had to create all our own heat. That's what's so great about (a geothermal system). You're using energy that already exists."

In an interview before the work had been initiated, Kajdan presented some of his calculations.

"If we replace the boiler with a new boiler, than the break even cost, the point below which it would be cost effective to do, is $10,506," Kajdan said. "And that's basically what our out of pocket costs would be with recouping the rebate and tax credit. One of the problems we're having is that electrical energy is cheaper than burning diesel, so as people's systems age, they'll likely replace them with an electrical system, which will burden the system more. By using (a geothermal system) you reduce the electrical demand."

The main idea is that the temperature remains constant under the ground year round. The downside, Kajdan said, is that there is a specific order to installing the system, which can make the process cumbersome and lengthy.

"The learning curve is pretty tough," he said. "If you were putting in a new boiler, you'd just go to (a store)."

First, the couple had an initial energy audit, where their house's heat efficiency was graded. This gave them a base point. Their house was graded low enough that if they installed the system they could be eligible for the entire $10,000 state rebate.

Then they had to decide on whether to use water or air to heat their home.

"We went with a duct system, forced air," Kajdan said, explaining that they'd be removing their existing baseboard heating elements. "The alternative is water baseboard or, if you had a newer house, radiant. That would be an efficient way to use your water, but it takes more energy to heat up water than air."

A radiant heat system wasn't a cost effective option for them, as they'd have to retrofit the floor. They worked on insulating their crawl space well to keep as much heat in the system as possible. They also installed a new garage door, as their old boiler had been producing enough waste heat to heat the garage, and with its replacement they'd need to better insulate it.

They also had to upgrade their electrical panel to accommodate extra circuits for the geothermal system.

The geothermal system has several components. A series of plastic tubing, the required amount of which is calculated based on the house's heat load, is installed below the ground surface. They had enough room on the south side of their house for a 40-foot by 80-foot excavation.

They used a contractor to help them determine that they would need four tubes, each 1,000 feet long. The tubes enter and exit the house though a crawl space, and are attached to a pump pack there. The tubes contain a liquid comprised of anti-freeze and water that cycle continuously through the ground tubing, which were placed around 5 feet below the ground surface, just on top of the water table.

In warmer climates a geothermal system can also be used to heat a water tank.

Bednarski and Kajdan recently received their first electric bill with the first day of its cycle beginning after the completion of the geothermal system. They estimated it was around 50 percent less than it had been before.

However, they have some words of wisdom.

First, a homeowner has to consider whether the cost benefits add up. If you don't need to replace an existing system, and there aren't government financial incentives, there may not be enough financial savings to install a geothermal system. Second, determining how long one plans to remain in the house is important, as the cost savings continuously increase the longer the purchaser of the system uses it. Beyond that, the couple advises spending time picking contractors.

Kajdan said to be prepared for the process to take a while.

On the positive side, the couple reported that their house is plenty warm, and not as humid as it was when they were heating with water. Also, they no longer need to rely on diesel.

"I feel like I have more energy security from spikes in oil prices," Kajdan said. "The environmental benefit is important. You have decreased carbon emissions."


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