Geothermal doesn’t happen overnight: A look at the process—and reason to start now

Changing your heating and cooling system is hardly as easy as changing your shirt—or even swapping out one furnace for another. When you upgrade to a geothermal heating and cooling system, you reap a lot of benefits, including significantly lower utility usage, better reliability, and some sweet rebates and tax credits.

Wait. Hold it right there for a sec. That federal tax credit? The juicy 30% that comes right back atcha in the spring? That thing is going the way of the desert bandicoot—and soon. Only systems installed before December 31, 2016, will be eligible before the credit expires.

“But that’s more than a year away,” you say? Indeed. But if you’re planning to install a system, you have a lot to do between then and now, and you’ll be competing with a lot of other people feeling the inspiration of a deadline.

“Every year, everybody waits till last minute,” warned Mark Underhill, territory manager for Water Furnace International. “In November and December, dealers are swamped and there’s always somebody whose project doesn’t get done. With the tax credits going away, what’s going to happen is everybody’s going to want to do it at the end of the year, when contractors are already backed up.

“You’re really going to want to be proactive.”

Because weather also plays a significant role in contractors’ schedules, waiting until the last minute isn’t exactly playing with fire but with rain, snow, and hard freezes—all of which are common during the latter part of the year and damaging to deadlines.

Finally, arranging for a geothermal installation is a multistep process that takes place over a few days, at best, and a week or so when things go off track because of outside forces, as they so often do.

Here’s what’s involved:

1. You find an experienced installer. “Ask around,” Underhill said. “There are a lot of dealers who’ve installed hundreds of systems. You want someone who gets it.”

2. Set up a consultation. “You need about two hours with the dealer and with all the decision-makers, at your home,” Underhill said. “You chat about what you want to accomplish and why you want geothermal. We measure the house—or, if it’s new construction, work from the blueprints. We measure all the walls, windows, and floors, and inspect the construction of your house.” You get time to have all your questions answered, and your contractor gets the details he needs.

3. Your contractor runs the numbers he took, doing the Manual J calculation that determines how many BTUs of heat you lose in winter and gain in summer. “That’s the beginning of any well-designed system,” Underhill said. “Some contractors guess or just go from the old system, assuming that someone else did the calculation. But if you’re moving to geothermal, it’s very important to know how many BTUs need to be moved to keep the house comfortable in all conditions. You really don’t want to put in more system than you have to because it’s expensive.”

4. Consider your options. After you receive your report from the contractor, you’ll have the information you need about the system that’s right for your home, its cost, and the financing options available to you. “Not everybody has $20,000 to $30,000 just sitting around,” Underhill stated. “So most need good financing. We work with several good companies to make that work. Usually, we can get the cost down so that the monthly payment is about what a homeowner is saving each month.”

5. Wait, again. If you decide to schedule an installation, and after you get slotted into the contractor’s schedule, putting in the loop that circulates the heat and otherwise getting the system in place requires two or three days. The good news is that you no longer have to have your yard torn up to make it happen. “We’re now doing what we call directional drilling, which barely disrupts the yard,” Underhill said. “We work in about a five-foot square, dig the loop, and put the sod back over it so you wouldn’t even know we were there.”

6. Apply for your rebates. And don’t forget that tax credit the following spring.

7. Enjoy your even, comfortable heating and cooling while paying lots less!

As you can see, it’s not rocket science, but it does require time, thought, luck (where weather and contractors’ schedules are concerned), and a decent amount of planning.

For best results, Underhill recommends getting going right now: “During spring and early fall, dealers are a little slower and ready to make deals.”

Save a contractor from boredom—and save yourself a lot of cash. Start now.