The drought and extreme heat this summer isn’t just taking a toll on homeowners’ lawns and air conditioners.
“Some homeowners with the normally stable geothermal units, especially those with horizontal loop systems, are experiencing problems with the units not sufficiently cooling their homes,” said Angie’s List founder Angie Hicks."This can be a big problem, so we reached out to some highly rated geothermal experts to get their thoughts on what's causing these issues."
Ground source geothermal units are energy efficient heating and cooling units connected to piping buried underground in a loop system, which helps bring the heat from the earth into the home during the winter and pulls heat from the home back into the earth during the summer. Some homes require horizontal loops and others need vertical loops, depending on the type of soil and size of the home’s yard. Horizontal systems are not buried as deep into the ground as vertical systems and as a result, many homeowners in drought-ridden areas – and especially those under lawn watering restrictions – are feeling the effects. Systems that aren’t sufficiently sized are also experiencing issues.
“Proper installation, including the correct number of loops for the specific home and the depth at which they are buried, is critical if the system is to work at maximum efficiency,” Hicks said. “The ground also needs to be moist and cool to dissipate the heat and condense it like it’s supposed to. Obviously, that’s been a major problem in parts of the U.S. this summer with the lack of rain and the unusually high temperatures at night, when the ground is normally able to cool off.”
The good news is that the extreme weather conditions shouldn’t cause any permanent damage to the unit. The systems are designed with safety mechanisms in place that automatically shut the unit down when it senses conditions are too extreme. Should this happen, homeowners should call out their installer to check water flow, air flow and refrigerant levels. If those check out, the installer will likely recommend the homeowner increase the temperature setting in the home and reset the unit to operate at higher temperatures, for example, raising the thermostat setting from 75 degrees to 78.
Though this is an issue this year for some geothermal owners, they shouldn’t experience problems with heating during the winter if temperatures get too cold outside. Geothermal systems come with a backup source to provide heat if the geothermal can’t sufficiently provide it.
“The bad news is that there aren’t many solutions for homeowners with existing systems struggling to meet the cooling demand,” Hicks said. “A geothermal company could replace the existing loops with more, new loops that are installed deeper into the earth. However, as weather conditions are not normally this extreme, that would be a major investment for an occasional problem. A simpler solution would be installing a backup cooling source, like a window air conditioning unit. If you’re experiencing issues, talk to a reputable geothermal specialist who is trained and qualified to work on your specific equipment to see what your options are.”
While some folks are experiencing problems, many homeowners with geothermal units with an adequate number of loops buried at the right depth are still getting plenty of cool air.
“This is why it’s critical to pick a qualified company to install the loops if you’re thinking about adding a geothermal system,” Hicks said. “These systems are complicated and can’t be installed by just any heating and cooling company.”
An experienced company with a history of geothermal installations is more likely to put in extra loops or go a little deeper on a new installation, so they know that in extreme conditions, the loops will be able to handle the load.
Ultimately, Hicks says, if you own a geothermal system and are experiencing performance issues, you should contact an experienced professional who is trained to work on your equipment to determine if the problems are related to the weather, how the system was installed or the sizing of the system.
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