It was a balmy start to winter, but temps have dropped nonetheless and bundling under a cozy quilt is comfy for just so long. Often it’s only when faced with a drafty room or chilly evening after snowfall that homeowners think of their heating needs. Alternative heat options that are not only excellent retrofits, but are also manageable installations in any season, are coming along. (Just be sure the insulation is up to snuff.)
Geothermal is one of the more unique methods—but not in the way most people think. Because of the name, many believe it’s a process of tapping into a heat spring or a layer of magma close to the surface and that it is only used for heating. That’s not the case on Long Island. “We don’t have that type of geothermal in the eastern US, we have stable geological conditions. There’s no magma close to the surface,” said John Rhyner a geologist and director of the Sustainable Energy Group at P.W. Grosser Consulting in Bohemia. “A better technical term is simply ground source heat pumps. In other words, we’re getting the thermal energy from the ground as opposed to air.”
Ground temperatures are only affected by atmospheric temperatures to a depth of about 30 feet. Beyond that, the ground here stays a relatively consistent 50-55 degrees for hundreds of feet. And our soil is well suited to constant temps. “Sand itself is not a good conductor of heat, but when it’s saturated it’s a very good conductor,” Rhyner said. He pointed out that Long Island’s combination of sandy soil and ground water makes for particularly good conditions.
Geothermal is a cycling system, it not only heats, but cools as well. “It’s all about moving heat around, moving it back and forth on a seasonal basis…In the summer, it’s rejecting heat to the ground…to build up all this residual heat in the ground…When winter comes around, you circulate the water and actually extract the heat…and eventually pull out all residual heat from the summer.”
The main benefit is that it uses comparatively little energy. It’s a quiet, all-electric system that doesn’t rely on a heat source and enjoys much more stable pricing than fossil fuels. And since it taps into a steady temperature, it uses much less energy. For example, with an air source pump, if it’s pulling in 90-degree air that needs to be cooled to 45 degrees, that much more energy is required than a geothermal system that starts at 55 degrees.
Retrofitting is relatively easy, especially if the home already has piping from a hydronic system. With a moderate amount of work (usually involving switching out the boiler for a water-to-air heat pump), a 2000sqft home would run about $30-40,000. And though New York state doesn’t regulate geothermal (unless it’s an open system of a certain size), LI municipalities each have their own codes, which at present, are in flux and inconsistent.
Ductless heating is another alternative method that has recently begun trending on Long Island. “With the ductless we would maybe put in a handful a year, now we’re going to put in 400 this year,” said Kerry O’Brien of T.F. O’Brien Cooling & Heating in New Hyde Park. Unlike geothermal, these units do not suffer from naming misconceptions. But like geothermal, their main benefits are that they are all electric, highly efficient and pull double duty as heating and cooling units. “Let’s look at a typical heating or cooling system on Long Island, where the ducts are in the attic. If they’re up there, they’re in a cold or warm space and you lose a lot of heating or cooling. With a ductless unit being right on the wall, there is no loss and much more efficient,” said O’Brien.
The units are also very user-friendly, easy to install and scalable (a big bonus). “What you’re seeing now is a hybrid system. Someone builds an extension and…the house [is] more piecemeal.” With the zoning capability of these units, they can be placed in several rooms and heat and cool to what’s needed, versus cooling and heating an entire estate. “You hang them on the wall and run a pipe to the outside unit. It’s very simple, it can be done inside a half a day,” said O’Brien.
Because of the buy-as-needed approach, ductless is very cost effective too. Units that are installed for a small room—about 200 square feet—start at about $2,500. They can be installed year round and are four times more efficient at heating than electric strip heaters.