Herald Tribune Article
July 11, 2009 Herald Tribune Article featuring Symbiont Service and GeoThermal Pool Heating:
Geothermal technology gets noticed
by Zac Anderson
It hasn’t gotten the hype of solar energy, or even wind, but advocates say that could change.
Roy Wells’ foray into alternative energy began when the women in his neighborhood water aerobics group complained that the pool was too cold for morning workouts.
Wells quickly concluded that his Village Walk community’s propane pool heaters were insufficient and costly.
The alternative he turned to — harnessing the constant temperature of a nearby lake with geothermal heating and cooling technology — gets rave reviews from the water aerobics crowd, saves his homeowners’ association money and helps the environment by reducing energy consumption.
Despite its advantages, geothermal technology still has a relatively low profile nationwide, especially compared with solar energy.
Few people have been touting geothermal, also known as geo-exchange, ground-source, or water-source heating and cooling.
But Wells and others say the systems represent the most efficient heating and cooling method on the market, with the lowest total life cycle cost, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. They substantially reduce electricity consumption by harnessing the constant natural temperature of the earth or a body of water — a big environmental plus.
The 75-year-old Wells, a former technology expert for the Department of Defense, has become a strong advocate for geothermal. He converted his home last month and has arranged workshops for his neighbors in the 1,177-home Village Walk section of Palmer Ranch, as well as in other Sarasota County neighborhoods.
“The long-term savings are just phenomenal for our pool project,” he said.
As with solar power, geothermal has a big drawback: the high initial cost.
Village Walk paid $110,000 for its pool system, but the homeowners’ association saved $57,000 on propane fuel costs in the first eight months, making the payback period less than two years.
Payback for individual home systems takes longer — from four to 10 years for a system that should last 25 years or more — and depends on several factors. Homes that use more energy recoup installation costs faster in electricity savings.
The technology received a boost from President Barack Obama and Congress when they approved a 30 percent tax break for individual homeowners installing geothermal systems.
Contractors report more interest in residential systems over the last six months. Yet even before the federal incentives, geothermal heating and cooling was booming.
Between 2005 and 2007 the number of units shipped nationally nearly doubled, according to the Energy Department.
The word geothermal conjures up images of drill shafts tapping the earth’s molten core.
But commercial geothermal power is less exotic.
Shallow wells and even the ground — just a few feet deep — can be the right temperature to generate substantial amounts of energy.
The geothermal heating and cooling process works like any other air conditioner, refrigerator or conventional heat pump.
The system extracts energy through a compression and vaporization process. The differences are the source of the energy and the system’s efficiency.
In Florida, the typical geothermal system harnesses the constant 75 degree temperature of groundwater.
Water is pumped from a well and run through a heat exchanger — which can tap the energy in the water for either heating or cooling — before it is discharged back into the aquifer.
People near lakes can simply sink the pipes on a lake bottom.
Because water conducts energy better than air, the geothermal system is more efficient.
The electricity needed to power the compressor and pumps for a geothermal system is roughly half that of a regular home heating and cooling system, which means it can significantly cut the average electric bill.
Yet few Floridians use the technology because of the cost, which is roughly $15,000 to $22,000 for an average residential system, before the 30 percent tax credit.
Wells’ system cost $10,500 after the tax credit. His pipes were laid in a nearby lake, saving roughly $6,000 in drilling costs, but the cost is still far more than a conventional heating and cooling system.
If Wells saves 50 percent on his average monthly electric bill of $170, the annual savings would be $1,020. His wife Peggy, a retired NASA administrator, already has the spreadsheet worked up to track the savings.
“To me it’s a no-brainer with the tax incentive,” Wells said.
The technology has flourished without incentives in the pool heating market.
Symbiont Service Corporation in Englewood installed its first groundwater-source geothermal heating system on a community pool at Japanese Gardens in Englewood in 1981.
Other Florida firms have been in the geothermal business even longer. Florida Heat Pumps in Fort Lauderdale opened in 1969.
“This is old technology,” said Symbiont founder Roy King. “I just modified it to work on pools.”
Symbiont’s first system is still running, said King, who started the business as an air-conditioning company in 1975. King explored geothermal heating for pools to stay busy in the slow winter months. Now the business is mostly geothermal.
Symbiont has installed geothermal systems on more than 250 large pools in Sarasota, Charlotte and Manatee counties, and hundreds more across the state. The company’s projects include 17 YMCAs and a new pool at Florida State University.
“The first reaction is skepticism because people don’t understand the technology and they think the savings are too good to be true,” said Symbiont salesman Mike King.
Symbiont has only done a handful of residential geothermal systems over the years. King said the 30 percent tax break and heightened concern about the environment and fossil fuel consumption have led to an uptick in homeowner interest. The system on Wells’ home was the first new residential product Symbiont installed this year, but King now fields half a dozen calls weekly.
Theodore Merritt, owner of Merritt Well and Pump LLC in Sarasota, said he averages two e-mails a week about geothermal since the federal tax break was announced, but has yet to install any new residential systems.
“I think it’s going to bust wide open soon, but right now everybody is just trying to figure it out,” Merritt said.
This story appeared in print on page A1