17 Pros and Cons of Geothermal Heating and Cooling Systems

Geothermal heating and cooling are becoming an increasingly popular options for homeowners in North America and Europe. This HVAC option allows for the natural warmth that exists underneath the soil to be pumped into the home to create a comfortable indoor temperature in all seasons.

This system works by installing loops that remain underground all year long. A pump will then circulate a combination of antifreeze and water through the tubes so that heat transfers between your home and what is available under the ground. Then an indoor unit works to blow that warm or cool air throughout the house so that you can feel comfortable all year long.

Although this HVAC option is only now becoming available for a majority of homeowners in developed countries, the technology has several decades of development and innovation behind it to keep your initial expense down. All you need is about four feet of soil to cover the loops and a connection to the home. Then you can take advantage of this natural resource for temperature regulation.

Homes of every size get to benefit from this technology, so review the pros and cons of geothermal heating and cooling as they relate to your property will help you to determine if this investment makes sense.

List of the Pros of Geothermal Heating and Cooling

1. Operating costs are low for geothermal heating and cooling.
The low energy requirements for a geothermal system are one of the most attractive reasons to invest in this option. You will spend a fraction of what you currently pay for an electrical furnace, traditional air condition, or heating oil systems. Because no combustion is necessary to create the heat that you receive, there is no exhaust to worry about with your structure. That makes this option one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to stay comfortable indoors that exist right now.

2. You don’t need to worry about an outdoor unit with this option.
When you have geothermal heating and cooling options available for your property, then you don’t need to worry about the installation of a large outdoor unit to facilitate comfortable temperatures. Once you have the pump and tubes installed, there is nothing outside of your home that will distract from its curb appeal. Since you can’t hear the loops since they are underground and the indoor unit is very quiet, it’ll feel like you’ve added another refrigerator indoors with the noise you receive.

3. Hot water tanks can connect to geothermal systems too.
The heat which generates from a geothermal heating and cooling system can be used for some of your other energy needs as well. Some systems can work with your hot water heater to reduce your electrical or gas needs to maintain this plumbing system. It also works more efficiently to keep the water warm, so you can usually see a better recovery time when taking a long shower or using the system extensively. It may not be as useful if you have a tankless system at home, so make sure that you speak with a local contractor about this potential advantage to see if it will work for your needs.

4. It is a cost-efficient system that will eventually help you to save money.
Geothermal heating and cooling systems will eventually help to pay for themselves because of the amount of energy that you save from the system. Your investment is typically 40% to 60% higher than a conventional HVAC system, but you will start to recover costs immediately once you have this option working. Depending on how much energy you use in your home, it is possible to recoup your entire extra investment in as little as 4 years. Even if your property doesn’t meet this goal, you should receive your money back in 15 years or less without changing the comfort levels of your indoor environment.

5. Your energy costs will go down immediately with geothermal heating and cooling.
When you have a geothermal heating and cooling system installed on your property, then your energy savings will begin the moment that you activate this option. Most homeowners can see a 60% reduction in their heating bill almost immediately, with smaller homes topping more than 90% in some regions.

Your cooling costs will go down about 50% during the warmer months of the year as well. Since this is a long-term investment for your property, the HVAC maintenance costs you’d pay with a furnace or other traditional system typically go away as well. Since there are fewer moving parts to worry about, you can relax and enjoy an eco-friendly heating and cooling option.

6. It is a suitable option for most businesses as well.
If you have enough space on your commercial or industrial property to install the ground loops for a geothermal heating and cooling system, then you can take advantage of the benefits this system offers too. You can install a system of virtually any size if you have the space and funds to do so, which means a building of almost any size can benefit from this energy option. Once you get outside of the initial capital investment, the savings that you can achieve with this technology from a corporate standpoint are quite attractive.

7. You have more access to this technology today than ever before.
Approximately 100,000 geothermal heat pumps are installed in the United States every year. Industry professionals are seeing growth rates of 40% and higher each year because of the interest that there is in this natural product. The overall cost of this technology is similar to solar, offers better savings than wind, and will last for up to 25 years in most situations. Even the ground loops will last for 15 years with regular use under most conditions. Since you can retrofit an existing property with this technology as well, it is possible for every homeowner to enjoy the same standard of living while helping the planet in a small way.

8. A geothermal heating and cooling system can work with a pond on your property.
If you have a sizeable pond on your property, then you have the perfect opportunity to install a geothermal heating and cooling system. The water depth must be at least 10 feet for the system to function correctly. You can then run the ground loops at that location because the water provides a stable temperature resource that is useful for your home. You will need to have a qualified surveyor and installer evaluate your pond first to determine if its qualities are suitable for this technology.

List of the Cons of Geothermal Heating and Cooling

1. Geothermal heating and cooling isn’t the best option for every home.
Your geothermal heating and cooling system will require a supplemental system to ensure that your indoor temperatures stay where you want them to be. This option is necessary in any geographic location that experiences freezing temperatures or lower during the winter months. If you need to have a furnace helping you out most of the winter during a cold snap, then it can cut significantly into your overall energy expenses for the year. That is why this option is usually recommended in regions that are sub-tropical or do not experience a hard freeze except in exceptional times.

2. There are limited service options available in most communities.
Geothermal heating and cooling are not always an option for your home. There are some communities where a qualified contractor may not be present at all. You will experience more of this disadvantage the further north your home is, especially once you get above the 45th parallel in North America. Because the correct installation of the loops for this system is essential to its success, you typically cannot perform a DIY install. Some communities may not have zoning for this option either.

Once you navigate through this issue, you might find that the savings you can experience after installing geothermal heating and cooling will quickly evaporate with all of the extra one-time charges you face.

3. There is the cost of a geothermal heating and cooling system to consider.
The capital cost of a new geothermal heating and cooling system can be more than $30,000. The final expense depends on the size of your property, whether you need vertical loops installed, and the accessibility of your property. Some homeowners may see an increased price because of their soil conditions. If you have a layer of rock that is close to the surface of your soil, then drilling and digging will be more expensive and push costs higher as well.

The median price of a brand-new geothermal heating and cooling system in the United States is about $15,000. Then you must add-on any additional costs that are necessary to modify an existing HVAC system to incorporate the new technology. That’s why you will see this option available for new construction more often than a retrofit.

4. Almost every homeowner will need to hire an experienced contractor to do the work.
If you like to DIY almost everything around the home as a way to save money, then you’re going to be disappointed by the design of this system. A contractor is necessary in almost every situation. The installation of the ground loops must occur in a specific way to maximize their temperature transferring potential. Then you have the connections to your home to consider, along with the indoor equipment which requires installation.

Because access to this technology is still somewhat limited, there are part of the United States and Europe where a qualified contractor may not yet be available to provide this service. If you find yourself struggling with this disadvantage, an alternative heating and cooling system is probably a better option.

5. There may be coding issues that prevent installation.
Your community might not permit the installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system. There are several reasons why this disadvantage might be in place, from a lack of building code updates to specific soil conditions that prevent this technology from working. Before you hire a contractor or start purchasing supplies to begin this work, you will need to speak with the local zoning authorities about this option. Secure any permits that are necessary for digging and building before you get to work as well to save yourself a headache later on.

6. Your property must allow for enough access to let this technology work.
The ground loops which are part of a geothermal heating and cooling system require a specific amount of space to be functional. You can install them horizontally at a depth of four feet or more if you have a wide area of open space to use. A vertical installation option is possible on a property of limited size if there aren’t any obstacles in the way of drilling.

The former option is much cheaper to install than the latter because it requires less labor, but if you don’t have enough space to support either option, then you are going to be out of luck. On small properties, the current geothermal technologies are less likely to work.

7. You are going to face landscaping issues with a geothermal system.
A geothermal heating and cooling system is highly disruptive to your landscape. That is why it is often recommended for new construction since you won’t need to tear up the yard to install the ground loops. Because you’ll need to replace the heat transfer technologies every 15 years or so, then you can expect to dig up the same spot a handful of times over the lifetime of the property. If you don’t like the idea of replanting flowers or laying new sod, then your landscape options will be limited over the area where your ground loop access needs to be.

8. Vertical systems need up to 400 feet of depth to be effective.
The horizontal systems are the ones preferred by contractors because a trench of 6 feet is all that is necessary to install the system. If your spatial requirements demand that you use a vertical system for your ground loops, then a depth of up to 400 feet in a pair of two-foot wide trenches is suitable for heating or cooling the average home. Because that depth requires significant drilling to be successful, it may be a challenge to find someone experienced enough to install the system. You may also encounter issues with soil quality when going that deep under the ground.

9. Carbon neutrality is not possible with a geothermal system.
The goal of a geothermal heating and cooling system is to have it save energy compared to what we spend on a traditional system. It does that exceptionally well, but it would be inaccurate to call this option a carbon-neutral system. Closed-loop systems still require electricity. You’ll need to pump water and antifreeze through the system to transfer heat. Some homeowners may find that their energy savings may struggle to reach 30%, which can make it a challenge to offset the costs of the system.

The pros and cons of a geothermal heating and cooling system are critical to review because this technology won’t work well in light soils. It needs a lot of space to operate efficiently, while the cost to install it can be quite high. If you can get past the initial disadvantages, then this eco-friendly system might be the perfect investment for your home.

About the Author
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.