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The region's geothermal industry wants to run your heating and cooling costs right into the ground

The London Free Press: Monday, September 3, 2007 - GEOFF DALE

..."This is a green technology that works in line with all other technologies, like wind and solar," says Louis Bailey, president and chief executive of London geothermal equipment maker Geoflex Systems...

Dateline: ALVINSTON

Cashing in on substantial government grants, homeowners and businesspeople across the region are getting green for going green with environmentally friendly geothermal heating systems.

"Those people getting rid of their old furnaces and air conditioners in favour of new geothermal systems have to first get a home energy audit done," says Chad Hayter, co-owner of Alvinston-based Hayter Plumbing and Heating Ltd.

"Typically, if you have a 2,000-square foot home in a rural area, conversion to this alternative system costs between $20,000 to $24,000," he says.

"Yet, in spite of this fairly high capital investment, these are our happiest customers. Because, as well as switching to a more comfortable green system, they are also securing incentives from more than one level of government."

Currently, the province is offering as much as $3,500 toward installing geothermal systems. And the Ontario Power Authority offers $350 to $800 and a three per cent retail sales tax cut on the total cost of geothermal and other alternative energy systems.

And Ottawa's ecoENERGY Retrofit program offers grants of as much as $5,000 -- including $3,500 for geothermal systems -- for energy improvements to single-family homes and low-rise multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs). What Hayter and other geothermal proponents want to see is a greater government push to educate consumers about geothermal systems, their cost, benefits and correct installation.

These systems exploit the Earth's ability to store heat. Geothermal uses soil underground as a heat exchanger to warm or cool residential or commercial buildings. The ground below the frost line remains at about 10 C year-round. Common closed-loop geothermal systems link a water-source heat pump linked to a long loop of buried, liquid-filled plastic pipes to pick up heat for winter warming, and put it back for summer cooling.

Geothermal systems have been growing in popularity as the prices of traditional heat sources, such as oil and natural gas, have risen. They rely on electricity, which can come from renewable sources, and relatively low-tech components: plastic piping, a pump and a water-source heat pump.

"This is a green technology that works in line with all other technologies, like wind and solar," says Louis Bailey, president and chief executive of London geothermal equipment maker Geoflex Systems.

"Geothermal is not a competitor."

Bailey has been lobbying Ottawa on planet change issues since he got into geothermal in 1989, after looking for a technology offering both longevity and long-term opportunity.

His company now designs, develops and distributes geothermal and other energy transfer-related items.

He says his geothermal system buyers are satisfied because the systems work, save money and don't damage the environment.

Why, for example, use an air conditioner to extract heat from your house and a separate heater to warm your pool, he asks.

"That's two systems," he says. "It makes sense to take the air conditioner heat out of the house to heat the pool directly.

"What you're doing with the new system is eliminating the capital cost of the pool heater, while doubling the efficiency of the air conditioner by using what was basically wasted heat."

And that means lower costs, he says. "Those switching to geothermal . . . (from) natural gas are seeing savings of 50 per cent, spending 70 per cent less for hot water and enjoying 45 to 50 per cent reductions in air conditioner costs," he says.

"And you just can't get any greener -- a closed-loop system is environmentally inert," he adds.

But the industry is moving very quickly, consumers are becoming more sophisticated, and the need for education is growing, Bailey says.

"These days, because we have more enlightened consumers, we need to ensure more information gets out there so better decisions can be made on purchases and correct installation," he says.

Geoflex is responding with a soon-to-be launched Internet portal designed to empower and educate the public and help self-police the fast-growing industry.

"The biggest issues are getting the right quote and the right people to do the job," he says. "This industry is moving so quickly, the infrastructure is not yet in place, so we have to . . . get the necessary information, all the basics to the consumer."

Certainly, the need to get the geothermal message out isn't lost on installers like Gerry Ferns.

A veteran of 24 years in the home heating and cooling business, Ferns started Ingersoll's Just Geothermal Systems in 2001, primarily in response to the rise in fossil fuel prices.

"I just got hooked on the technology," he says. "I was amazed by the idea of putting pipes in the ground beside your home and business and taking in enough heat to heat the structure.

"I was equally amazed that so few people in Canada knew much about this system," he added.

The bulk of his work is residential, mostly new construction, with the rest -- about 20 per cent -- "retrofit jobs," or replacing existing systems with geothermal.

"We get the best feedback from those who have changed systems, because they notice the improvements, both in savings and comfort levels," he says.

"But now, as well as cost savings, we are finding more and more people who are interested in adopting the most environmentally friendly systems," he says. "There is an emerging green community in London and an even bigger one in Toronto. We're just about ready to split into another company, likely based in Georgetown."

Greg Vanhevel, president of Geo-Teck Heating and Cooling Ltd., doesn't mince words about the benefits of switching to geothermal heating.

"When you're saving 30 per cent or more in heating costs, using a system that is four times more efficient than other systems like propane and has a reasonably quick return on investment (four to six years, versus five to eight for natural gas), you'd be crazy not to go this way," he says.

But he, too, hammers home the need to enlighten the public about the systems.

"Some still think this is some kind of magic," he says.

"The government also has to watch how fast the industry grows. We don't want just anyone jumping on board, those without proper qualifications doing the installations.

"This is expensive equipment, with a lot of groundwork required," often involving a week's worth of excavation, pipe field placement and hookups. "If installation is not done correctly, efficiency will suffer . . . Precision -- from the right amount of loop to the proper equipment -- is key to the job being done right."

And the need to move quickly is growing, says Hayter, the Alvinston-based installer, describing the shift his firm is seeing from traditional systems to geothermal as "huge."

"By May 31 of this year, we sold more geothermal systems than all of last year," he says.

"In the last five years, there has been an incredible jump in business. It wasn't that long ago when for every 10 people we saw, about two chose geothermal. One week in July, I saw six people and five of them went geothermal.

"I tell people if they are going to be in their homes for five years or more, they should seriously look at a high-end geothermal system," he says.

"Even if you don't have the capital up front, borrow the money. Their yearly outlay would be less than their current heating and hot water bills. It's tough not to promote this system, especially when you need both a furnace and an air conditioner."

And with governments backing the move to geothermal, Hayter sees no slowdown ahead.

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