It may be buried, but a geothermal water-source heat pump system is just too good for contractors to overlook. New water-source heat pumps are designed to be flexible, meeting just about any installation requirement, occupying very little space, and running virtually maintenance-free for 20 years or more.

Despite their advantages, contractors often overlook geothermal systems when installing new or replacing old systems, simply from lack of experience. With more information, however, contractors can see why geothermal systems can be an excellent choice for the future.

Simple Design, Reduced Maintenance

Geothermal systems tap the earth's natural temperature for both heating and cooling. Instead of relying on a combustion source, geothermal systems transfer the earth's warm or cool temperature, via a water-loop system from the ground to the building. The water absorbs heat from the ground during the winter and moves it to water-source heat pumps inside the building. In the summer, the water absorbs the building's heat and returns it back to the ground.

A geothermal system includes three main components:

1. An earth connection, usually polyethylene (PE) pipe in a closed loop, to transfer heat between the water in the pipe and the earth.

2. Circulating pumps to move water in and out of the building.

3. A water-source heat pump in each zone to deliver quiet and efficient heating and cooling.

For contractors, this means much less equipment to install and maintain. There are no chillers, air handling units, boilers, cooling towers, fuel tanks, smoke stacks, blower units, or radiators. Most equipment is not visible, so it's not exposed to weather or vandalism. According to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium (Geoexchange), a geothermal system requires about one-third the space of a traditional boiler room.

Key considerations for a geothermal system are budget, space, and building loads. Energy savings and reduced maintenance deliver the largest cost benefits. Geothermal systems can deliver a payback in two to five years.

Horizontal loops, as pictured here, are best for projects that have large amounts of land available that won’t interfere with future building expansion.

Site Determines System Type

Proper design helps lead to a smooth geothermal installation. Contractors must remember to comply with industry standards and local regulations. Many communities and some states provide incentives for geothermal systems. California, New York, Illinois, and Oklahoma all have special programs to assist in the installation of geothermal systems.

Additional factors to establish include the building's peak heating and cooling loads and the condition of the soil. A thermal conductivity test prior to designing the loop can help determine the most effective loop design based on the heat transfer characteristics of the soil. Dedicated loop-design software can help determine all of these factors.

The building site will determine the most suitable geothermal system. There are three closed-loop systems to choose from: vertical loops, horizontal loops, and surface water loops.

Vertical loops are best for projects that have limited surface area available for the ground loop. Commercial and institutional buildings often use vertical designs, even though they can be the highest first-cost of the ground-loop options. Vertical loops generally require approximately 250 sq ft of ground surface/ton. Vertical wells that are 200 ft deep will use 1-in. diameter pipe, whereas 400-ft wells may use 1-1/4-in. diameter pipe.

Horizontal loops are best for projects that have large amounts of land available that won't interfere with future building expansion. Advancements with installation trench boxes have improved installation time and horizontal loops are being considered in many school applications due to the cost savings over a vertical loop.

Horizontal loops may require over 1,500 sq ft of ground surface/ton. Horizontal trench piping is usually installed using coils of 3/4-in. or 1-in. PE pipe with circuit lengths are usually no greater than 600 ft.

Surface water loops are considered the most cooling-efficient, closed-loop option. It is common to use existing retention ponds to act as the heat sink for heating and cooling modes. Software design services are available to verify that the building design loads match the available body of water.

At the Jorgenson YMCA, Fort Wayne, Ind., a water loop system in the adjacent pond circulates fluid, dissipating heat to the pond when cooling is required, and absorbing heat from the pond when heating is required.

Inside Installation

Each water-source heat pump unit is sized for an individual space, whether it's a classroom, office, gymnasium, or auditorium. A space such as a classroom may require a 2-ton package unit, whereas a space such as a gymnasium may require a 35-ton rooftop unit. The unit will energize on demand, drawing from the main loop as heating or cooling is required.

If the pumps are not energized, flow through the heat pump will simply be shut off and the water-source heat pump will be de-energized. This is ideal for spaces that don't require continual heating and cooling. As heating or cooling is needed, the valve opens and begins circulating water through the pump, heating or cooling depending on individual zone requirements.

The water-source heat pump unit chosen should yield maximum flexibility in design, installation, and operation, while maintaining the ideal system for the building. High-efficiency units that use R-410A refrigerant helps provide the most efficient system available.

Look for these features in seven different types of units:

  • Small horizontal (ceiling-mounted) unit - 1/2 to 5 ton. EERs for small horizontal units range from 14.3 to 16.1 EER. Units with several cabinet configurations for discharge and return can help meet space requirements, work around obstacles, and configure the system using minimum ductwork and piping. This helps reduce design, material, and installation costs.

    Configurations can be left- or right-return and straight or end discharge. Interchangeable airside panels on horizontal units allow you to modify heat pumps on site. For easy maintenance, look for easy-access panels to the blower motor and compressor section, as well as filters and control box.

  • Large horizontal unit - 6 to 10 ton. EER from 13.2 to 10.9. Common water, condensate, and duct connection locations simplify installation. Large access panels give easy accessibility to the fan/motor compartment and the compressor/control compartment.

  • Small vertical (floor) unit - 1/2 to 5 ton. EER from 14.2 to 16.0. Units with left-hand or right-hand return air arrangements (mirror image design) meet space requirements and provide the optimum piping location and service access. Water, condensate, and duct connections should all be in similar locations to simplify installation.

  • Large vertical unit - 6 to 25 ton. EER from 15.3 to 10.9. Designed for small equipment rooms or floor-by-floor installations, large units provide the same geothermal economy to core areas. Easy-access panels and flexible frame styles should make for easy layout of the ductwork, water piping, condensate piping, and electrical connections.

  • Console unit - 1/2 to 1-1/2 ton. Slope-top or flat-top units should feature a slide-out chassis to easily hook up water and electrical connections.

  • Rooftop unit - 3 to 35 ton. EER from 14.9 to 13.4. Curb-mounted units are located above the conditioned space to minimize field ductwork.

  • Water-to-water source heat pump - 3 to 35 ton (heating only, cooling only, or heating and cooling models).

    Bob Koschka is a water-source heat pump systems applications engineer for McQuay International. He can be reached at

    Publication date: 11/14/2005