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Are Geothermal Heat Pumps Realistic in Portland Oregon?

Mt. Hood Portland Oregon

Ever been in a cave? If you have, you know that the temperature below four feet underground remains between 50 to 55 degrees F no matter the weather. This is because the internal heat of the earth, known as geothermal energy, creates a consistent temperature that can be tapped as a heating source for your home. As interest in sustainable heating and cooling options increases, the topic of geothermal heat pumps is becoming increasingly popular in Portland. In this article, we’ll explore how geothermal heat pumps work, their benefits, and if they are a good fit for Portland area homes.

What are Geothermal Heat Pumps?

A geothermal heat pump is an energy-efficient system that uses the natural temperature of the Earth to provide heating and cooling for buildings. By using the constant temperature of the Earth as an exchange medium, instead of relying on fluctuating outside air temperature, geothermal heat pumps are highly energy efficient. They have been in use since the late 1940s and are sometimes called by other names like GeoExchange, earth-coupled, or ground-source heat pumps.

How Does Geothermal Heating Work?

Geothermal heat pumps work by transferring energy from the ground into your home through a series of pipes called loops. The loops are buried underground, where they absorb heat from the earth during winter months and release it back into the ground during summer months. This process helps maintain a comfortable indoor temperature all year round while minimizing energy consumption.

There are four main types of ground loop systems: horizontal, vertical, and pond/lake, which are closed-loop systems, and the open-loop option. The choice between them depends on various factors like climate, soil conditions, available land, and local installation costs to determine which one is the best fit for the site. All these systems are suitable for both residential and commercial building applications.

How Long Do Geothermal Heat Pumps Last?

Because they have few moving parts, geothermal heating systems can last from 20 to more than 30 years with proper care and maintenance, making them a great long-term investment for any home or business owner looking to save money on their energy bills over time.

While geothermal heat pumps can work in any climate, Portland’s typically mild winters and warm summers make them a great sustainable option for our area. Heat pumps are ideal for moderate climates like Portland because they don’t create hot or cold air. Instead, they remove heat from the ground and then transfer it inside your home or reverse the process to keep you cool.

Where is Geothermal Energy Found?

Geothermal energy is found all over the world, but it is most abundant near the boundaries of tectonic plates and in regions where there is significant heat stored beneath the Earth’s surface, such as volcanic regions or geothermal hotspots.

Is Geothermal Energy Available in Portland?

Portland sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, known for its active tectonic plate and volcanic history. Oregon ranks number 5 in the United States for geothermal electricity generation.

Environmental Benefits of Geothermal Heat Pumps

Geothermal heat pumps are a highly energy-efficient alternative to traditional HVAC systems that can reduce the burden on the electrical grid, especially during peak winter and summer demand. They also have the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions due to their greater efficiency, making them a perfect fit for Portland’s sustainability goals.

Do You Really Save Money with a Geothermal Heat Pump?

The initial cost of installing a geothermal heat pump can be between $50,000–$75,000 for the system, including ground loops, heat pump, and controls. However, a geothermal heat pump can produce almost 12,000 BTUs of heating or cooling using only one kilowatt-hour of electricity. In contrast, a standard heat pump would consume 2.2 kilowatt-hours to produce the same number of BTUs on a 95-degree day. According to a study conducted by the Air Force Office of Energy Assurance, it typically takes only five to 10 years to recover the costs.

Do You Still Need a Furnace With a Geothermal Heat Pump?

A properly sized geothermal heat pump can both heat and cool your home in all climates, which means you won’t need a backup system. Consulting with an HVAC professional who can assess your specific needs and recommend the most appropriate heating solution for your home is the best way to get the system you need.

Do You Need AC With a Geothermal Heat Pump?

As with traditional heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps are a two-in-one HVAC system that keeps your home comfortable year-round. In the winter, a geothermal system uses the ground to pull in heat, while in the summer, the ground becomes a heat sink for hot air from your home to be deposited.

Other Considerations for Choosing a Geothermal Heat Pump

Geothermal heat pumps offer numerous benefits in terms of energy efficiency, environmental impact, and long-term cost savings. However, they also come with challenges related to high upfront costs and installation complexity. Careful consideration of these factors is essential when deciding whether a geothermal heat pump system is the right choice for your home and property.

Benefits of a Geothermal Heat Pump in Portland

  • Energy efficiency: Geothermal heat pumps are highly efficient, as they transfer heat instead of generating it. They can provide up to four times more energy output than the electrical energy they consume, making them more efficient than traditional heating and cooling systems.
  • Environmental benefits: Geothermal heat pumps have a lower carbon footprint compared to fossil fuel-based heating systems. They produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and contribute less to air pollution.
  • Cost savings: Although the initial installation cost can be higher, geothermal heat pumps offer long-term cost savings through reduced energy consumption and lower maintenance costs. They can result in significant savings on heating and cooling bills over time.
  • Longevity and reliability: Geothermal heat pumps have a long lifespan, with the underground piping system typically lasting over 50 years and the indoor unit lasting around 20-25 years. They also have fewer moving parts, which contributes to their reliability and low maintenance requirements.
  • Quiet operation: Since most of the components are installed underground or indoors, geothermal heat pumps operate more quietly than traditional air-source heat pumps or air conditioning units.

Disadvantages of a Geothermal Heat Pump in Portland

  • High upfront cost: The initial installation cost of a geothermal heat pump system can be significantly higher than that of traditional heating and cooling systems. This is due to the need for drilling and installing the ground loop system.
  • Limited availability: Geothermal heat pump installations require specific geological conditions, such as adequate soil thermal conductivity and available land for the ground loop system. This can limit their feasibility in certain locations.
  • Installation complexity: Installing a geothermal heat pump system is more complex than installing traditional HVAC systems, requiring specialized knowledge and equipment. This can make it more challenging to find qualified installers and increase installation costs.
  • Slow return on investment: Due to the high upfront cost, it can take several years to recoup the initial investment through energy savings. The exact payback period depends on factors like local energy prices, climate, and available incentives.

Geothermal System Design and Installation

The first step in the process is proper site assessment. This involves assessing the land where the system will be installed and determining if it is suitable for geothermal installation. Factors such as soil type, topography, groundwater availability, local climate, and zoning regulations should all be taken into account when assessing the site.

Once the site has been assessed and shown to be a good fit for a geothermal heat pump, drilling can begin. The number of wells needed depends on factors like the size of the building, soil type, climate conditions, etc., but typically two to five wells are required for each ton of capacity. The depth of each well depends on factors like soil type and local climate conditions, typically ranging between 100 and 400 feet deep.

Once drilling is complete, it’s time to size the system correctly. This involves determining how much energy will be needed to meet heating and cooling demands in order to select an appropriately sized unit. An undersized unit won’t provide enough energy, while an oversized unit will waste energy by cycling too frequently.

Finally, once sizing is complete, it’s time to install the geothermal heat pump system itself, which includes connecting pipes between wells or loops in trenches or ponds with a pump inside the home or building that circulates water through them.

What Is The First Step to Decide Whether a Geothermal Heat Pump is Right For My Home?

Have a qualified HVAC installer like Jacobs come out and assess your home to see if a geothermal heat pump is appropriate for your home.

Maintenance and Durability of Geothermal Heat Pumps

Once installed, geothermal systems typically require minimal maintenance beyond regular inspections by qualified technicians who can ensure that all components are working properly and efficiently, providing heating and cooling needs year-round with minimal disruption or expense. When properly maintained, geothermal systems are highly durable and can last up to 25 years or more.

Rebates, Incentives, and Financing Options For Geothermal Heat Pumps in Portland

There are two geothermal heat pump tax credits available in Oregon in 2023 though you should always consult with your tax professional:

  • Federal tax credit: The federal government offers a tax credit of 30% of the cost of buying and installing a geothermal heat pump. This tax credit is available for both residential and commercial installations.
  • Oregon state tax credit: The Oregon state government offers a tax credit of 25% of the cost of buying and installing a geothermal heat pump up to $1,000. This tax credit is only available for residential installations.

To be eligible for the federal tax credit, the geothermal heat pump must meet certain efficiency requirements. The system must have an HSPF (heating seasonal performance factor) of at least 8.5 and an EER (energy efficiency ratio) of at least 12.5. For package systems, the HSPF must be at least 8, and the EER must be at least 12.

To be eligible for the Oregon state tax credit, the geothermal heat pump must be installed by a qualified contractor. The contractor will need to provide you with a certificate of completion that you can use to claim the tax credit. You can find up-to-date information on state incentive programs at the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy.

Additionally, Energy Trust of Oregon offers a variety of financing options for energy-efficient home improvements, including geothermal heat pumps. These financing options can help you save money on your energy bills and make your home more comfortable.

Consultation and Professional Installation

It is important to find a skilled HVAC geothermal HVAC contractor like Jacobs, who has expertise in heating and cooling systems and is familiar with the geological conditions of your area. They will be able to perform the necessary calculations to determine if your home is a good candidate for a geothermal system and what tax credits, rebates, and incentives you qualify for. The current federal incentive offers a standard tax credit of 30 percent for Energy Star HVAC installations, but there are other Oregon state incentives that could be applicable.

Installing a Geothermal Heat Pump in Portland

Geothermal heat pumps have numerous benefits for Portland area homes, including efficiency, cost savings over the long term, and environmental friendliness. They are a great option for anyone looking to save money on their energy bills while also helping to reduce their carbon footprint. A geothermal heat pump installation isn’t right for everyone. Jacobs consultants are trained to evaluate your house, so we can recommend the HVAC system that will keep you comfortable in all seasons. We will guide you through the decision so you can avoid extra costs, fewer repairs, and enjoy a long-lasting system.

Our maintenance plans keep your heating system running like clockwork without any stress or hassle. No matter what you need, we’re always just a phone call away.

About the Author

Amanda Jacobs portrait

Amanda Jacobs, Internal Project Manager

Amanda Jacobs is an Internal Projects Manager and 3rd generation member of Jacobs Heating & Air Conditioning. She received her MBA from Seattle University and has worked for a leading HVAC training and consulting firm. When not talking HVAC on the Jacobs Blog, you can find her on the golf course or whipping up her famous vegan chili.