Geothermal Heating—Too Good to be True?

Geothermal systems have become increasingly popular in recent years due to their efficiency and longevity. But what is it? Is it all it’s really cracked up to be?


A geothermal system uses the earth as a heat source in the winter and a heat storage source in the summer. The reason it works in different climates is because the temperature below the earth’s surface stays virtually the same all year round. A good way to understand how it works is to compare it to your fridge. Much like your fridge takes heat from the interior and puts it out into your kitchen, thus cooling the inside, a geothermal pump transfers heat to your home from the ground. A series of long loops of underground pipes filled with water or antifreeze are connected to a geothermal pump in your home. The liquid absorbs heat from the ground, where it’s delivered to the geothermal system and then distributed throughout your home through forced-air or hydronic systems for a comfortable, consistent indoor air temperature. The reverse of this process happens during warm months; the system removes heat from your home and distributes it into the ground. Essentially, heat is being moved from one place to another.


Does it sound too good to be true? Well, it might be.


Geothermal systems are presented as an eco-friendly option, but antifreeze is used for heat exchange. With polyurethane piping, ground leaks are possible, and even a small amount of leakage is hazardous. Greenhouse gases are housed deep underneath the ground, and with geothermal heating, there is the potential to attract these harmful gasses closer to the surface where they can pollute the air. And while geothermal heating requires less energy than a traditional HVAC system, some electricity is still required for the pump to run. If your home isn’t insulated well, the pump will need to work extra hard to heat your home.


The cost of geothermal systems is enough to send many people running. The system can be installed in new homes or older homes, but it’s more expensive (and sometimes impossible) in older homes. While it’s true you’ll save money on your heating and cooling bill, the upfront cost is so astronomical (a starting cost that is upwards of $30,000), homeowners aren’t likely to break even on their investment for decades.


Geothermal systems are complex, which means this isn’t a project you can take on yourself one weekend. An expert team is required, and it may be tough to find a qualified team to take the difficult project on. This means that if any maintenance is required, you won’t be able to do it yourself, and you may be hard-pressed to find someone who can.


If geothermal heating systems don’t work for you and your needs, consider an easier option like a traditional HVAC system.