V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Heating from the ground up

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, December, 2007.

Eric Lange used to run around his workplace turning down thermostats and telling his employees to "wear a damn sweater."

His utility bills were hitting his pocketbook hard and things were looking grim after he bought a 30-year-old, 70,000 square foot warehouse that turned out to be an energy-guzzling machine for his company, Lange Transportation, last year. He hadn't moved into the Mississauga, Ont., building yet and his utility bill was already at $3,500.

"I hadn't even plugged anything in yet," Lange said. "I just looked at the bill and thought, what have I done?"

But panic turned to creative problem solving after Lange learned he could tap into the earth's natural underground heating and cooling system with a ground source heat pump. It's not new technology, having been around for more than 20 years. But it's gained steam recently with homeowners and businesses looking to wean themselves off propane and oil.

The technology is similar to refrigeration, which extracts heat from food and pumps it back into the kitchen. In geoexchange, a heat pump draws heat from the ground, compresses it, and discharges it throughout the building at a higher temperature.

While the system is touted for being a sustainable alternative to conventional heating and cooling systems, borrowing from Mother Earth comes with a hefty price tag -- in Lange's case, $520,000.

The renovation was the first warehouse in Canada to be retrofitted with a geothermal system and required the drilling of 28 holes 110 metres deep, each three metres apart.

The payback will be about nine years, Lange said, and he's saving 30% off his heating and cooling bills. He'll also save 218,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases from being spewed into the air over the next 20 years, a major selling point for green-minded entrepreneurs and homeowners alike.

"Over the past three years, there's been a 40% growth rate across Canada," said Denis Tanguay, president of the Canadian Geoexchange Coalition from Montreal.

"The increase in oil prices is sending a strong message," Tanguay said. "Everyone sees the longterm trend for higher energy prices."

It's been three years since Joanne Fritz moved into her new geothermal powered home in southwestern Ontario, and she hasn't turned back since ponying up $25,000. The average cost is $25,000 to $30,000 and it takes about 13 years to recoup the costs.

"We're going to be here long-term," she said of the 2,900- square-foot brick home. "We wanted a house that would be economical to maintain."

Not everyone has rave reviews for the system.

"I'm not convinced it's the best way to go," said Norm Vezina, manager of building systems for the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario.

Father Michael McGivney Catholic Secondary School, for example, is now 15 years old and 20% of the system's 360 wells have failed and are leaking, he said. Repairs will cost the board about $2 million. Maintenance is also costly, since air filters in all 144 heat pumps have to be replaced individually, unlike conventional systems.

A provincial grant program 15 years ago brought companies out of the woodwork that sometimes made shoddy jobs of commercial installations, says Dave Hatherton, CEO of NextEnergy in southwestern Ontario.

"There were a number of horror stories," he said. That's why he joined the coalition's call for regulation.

"We have to get to a point where we have geothermal tradesmen," he said, as it's specialized work.

As of April 2008, work must be done by a certified installer to be eligible for grants.

NextEnergy also partnered with utility Waterloo North Hydro to finance equipment and installation costs for projects in that area.

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REBATES

·  In April, the federal government announced a $3,500 rebate for installing a geothermal system in an existing home.

·  Other provinces followed by matching the feds or offering financing programs.

THE NUMBERS

·  About 40,000 geothermal systems exist in Canada.

·  40,000 geothermal systems are installed every year in countries such as Sweden.

THE LOOPS

·  Loops can be installed either vertically or horizontally.

·  Loops can be installed in a lake or pond.

·  Soil and rock type will determine best choice for installation.

Earth energy can save 40-70% off heating and cooling bills.

In summer, the pump works in reverse, moving hot air out of the building and returning it back into the ground.

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·  Warmed air is distributed and returned through the house via ductwork.

·  Warmed fluid passes into the heat exchange system for compression and transfers heat to water and/or circulating interior air.

·  Ground source heat pumps are electrically powered systems that use the earth's fairly constant temperature to provide heating and cooling and hot water to buildings.

·  An anti-freeze solution is circulated through plastic pipes buried beneath the ground.

·  Ground temperatures range from 8C to 21C



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