Geothermal Well Fields: Money In the Ground

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Think of all the land surrounding your dealership. Now think of all the dirt below this land, starting from a few feet down and going to, say, 150 feet. Geothermal systems use the relatively constant temperature of this mass of land to lower heating and cooling bills.

Dave Fischer, owner of Frontier Harley-Davidson in Lincoln, Neb., opted for a geothermal well field when building his new dealership a few years ago. The system uses 150 holes and a half-dozen heat pumps. Fischer owns about seven acres, and the field takes up half an acre in an unused corner — though, because all the tubes are underground, he can build something over it.

Geothermal systems utilize a series of buried tubes through which a liquid flows. Depending on the season, heat pumps extract or input heat from the liquid. Geothermal systems generally use 25 percent to 50 percent less electricity than traditional ones, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

When Fischer was designing the new building, Harley-Davidson persuaded him to become part of a pilot project whose purpose was to get dealerships LEED-certified (this month's profile dealer is another participant). Fischer says his facility soon will be the only LEED-certified commercial building in Nebraska. Besides the geothermal system, Frontier Harley-Davidson positioned its argon-filled, double-paned windows to benefit from the sun (a strategy often called "passive solar"), used recyclable materials, conducted "xeriscaping" using plants requiring little water, and installed a fancy control system that automatically adjusts lights, climate and air quality. It was made by Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc.

Fischer says the LEED process has improved since he began the project. As with most certification processes, he says, it contains some silliness. "You get the same points for having a bicycle rack as you do for a geothermal well field," he points out. His store is located on a busy highway on which no bicyclist would ever venture. "So we have a bike rack, but nobody ever uses it. Those were the cheapest points in the whole system," he says, laughing.

Not that Fischer isn't a LEED proponent. "Anybody building a facility these days ought to look at LEED certification," he says. "Why not go green? Some of these building codes ought to be tightened up to require you to do some of these things. There are a lot of communities where you can still put up a tin shack and not worry about it."

Fischer was disappointed that neither his state nor local government gave him an incentive to build green. "They didn't, and I wish they had. In fact, there are probably even some additional barriers because they're not used to dealing with a lot of this technology. This has to change."

Harley-Davidson itself cost-shared on some of the early design work. "It wasn't a big incentive," Fischer says, "but I was pleased that they were interested, and they were pleased that I was willing to do it. So it was a good project for both of us."

How much money has he saved by using geothermal? Hopefully, Fischer says, he'll be able to break even within five to seven years. Regarding the geothermal well field, he says, "I can't imagine heating and cooling this large of a facility conventionally without having that meter running at full-speed all the time. I feel good that were on the right track."

For an idea of the money involved, consider an article on geothermal systems in the January 2007 newsletter of the North Dakota Geological Survey. According to it, an owner of a well-insulated 3,000 sq. ft. house could expect to recover the extra $6,000 spent on a geothermal system in about 9 to 16 years. But larger systems have shorter payback periods. For example, a system of 286 wells and 200 heat pumps for a 112,617 sq. ft. building cost an extra $100,000, but the owners recovered the expense in only 2.5 years. Dealers thinking of a geothermal system could expect to fall somewhere in between these extremes. — A.R.