In March 2018, Shannon Kyles and Jason Alleyne, two individual homeowners new to geothermal heating and cooling, were featured in “Ontario homeowner’s geothermal installation offers a cautionary tale.” Ms. Kyles, in particular, was convinced that “geothermal doesn’t work in Canada.” The following homeowners and installers say that’s hogwash: geothermal is a dream.
Even with Corduroy the golden retriever egging us on, it still took five minutes to walk to one end of the field I’ve come to see at Richard and Sarah Holland’s property northeast of Cobourg, Ont.
“There’s 4,000 feet of piping in three trenches,” said Mr. Holland, his English accent softened after almost five decades in Canada. “They went six, seven feet down; you need to go at least five feet or you’re wasting your time.”
Of course, we can’t see the pipes – they were buried almost a decade ago – but I’m all ears and ready to hear about their geothermal system.
“It seemed like a big thing to do because you’re digging up this big trench, but, once it’s done, you just fill it in,” Ms. Holland said, laughing. “And what we find with the heating is it’s not like a regular furnace that comes on and goes off; it’s very even.”
The Hollands, who moved from Toronto to downtown Cobourg in 2000 and into their current home in 2004, said it was a confluence of factors that led to going geothermal in 2009: their two electric furnaces were at the end of their lifespan; a survey handed to them indicated that a nice, treeless field was part of their three-hectare property – news to them – and it was just about the right size for a horizontal, closed-loop system; after an energy audit was done, it was determined their 1978 home – with its expensive, circa 1978 German windows still holding up – was a good candidate; and, lastly, a contractor who’d done work for them recommended a great installer.
Once it was installed at a total cost of $30,000, the Hollands' energy bill “dropped like a stone."
“We were using an average of about 58[,000] to 60,000 kilowatt hours a year,” Mr. Holland said. “Every year since, we’ve been down to 26[,000], 24,000. Huge, huge savings.”
Tom Rand, bestselling ecoauthor and creator of VCi Green Funds, agrees: “It would take a huge bite out of our emissions … it’s not rocket science, it’s really just a technology that needs to get rolled out at scale, competently.”
Indeed, geothermal, also known as geoexchange, doesn’t require NASA-trained engineers. According to the Ontario Geothermal Association’s website, the top 200 metres of the earth’s crust stays at a constant 6 C to 11 C, so, using a very simple system of an indoor heat exchanger, the buried pipes (filled with a water-glycol mix) either bring heat inside during winter and convert it to warm air or deposit warmth back into the ground in summer, replacing it with cool air inside. Geothermal systems can work with existing ductwork or radiant floors and they can help keep domestic hot water at a higher temperature so less energy is used to bring it up to dishwashing and shower temperatures.
Geothermal doesn’t even require a big farm field. Eight years ago, with Anthony Aarts, Mr. Rand built Planet Traveler at 357 College St., near Kensington Market, in Toronto. With zero space available around “North America’s greenest hostel,” the duo went through 14 city departments to get permission to dig 114 metres for a vertical loop system in the alleyway behind the building.
And it’s working like a green charm in their 14,000-square-foot building: “Our energy use, I would say, is 60[-per-cent] to 65-per-cent less than it would normally be,” Mr. Rand said. And, he adds, any building can do it, since equipment is now available that can drive down into a parking garage with 7 feet 2 inches of clearance and drill. “It’s not sexy,” he added. “Everyone likes to hear about next-generation, high-tech stuff, but geothermal is just bog standard, you know; drill holes, put down pipes, do it well.”
But, if things don’t go well (as was the case with Shannon Kyles), he suggested it might be because many installation companies are “mom-and-pop shops,” which makes it “very difficult to ensure standards of quality and installation across the country.”
Robert Mancini, a Bolton, Ont.-based engineer, agrees: “The problem that we face in Canada is that there’s a lack of training. … I’ve spent at least two years attempting to train engineers and I don’t know if I succeeded or not, because I see the same mistakes made over and over again.” Mr. Mancini, 71, says systems he installed 35 years ago are still working quite well, but every time sympathetic governments are elected and incentives offered, it inevitably leads to unqualified, bandwagon-jumping contractors.
“You have to have training and you have to have certification and you have to have verification,” he said.
Of course, those who do their homework need not fear. In 2002, when Ontario cattle farmer Court Bournon was watching the oil tank in his century-old, 1,750-square-foot farmhouse rust away, the self-described “Mike Holmes type” talked to a number of people until he was “quite confident” with geothermal technology and then settled on a “local farmer” who also ran an installation company.
And although Mr. Bournon was dealing with an old house with questionable insulation (at least in the older parts; he’d done additions since purchasing in 1974) and odd ductwork, including a pipe that went straight up through his living room, by adding more cold-air returns and vents himself, he found the cost savings were incredible: in 2001, his oil bill was approximately $2,000; in 2002, his geothermal bill was $1,200, plus “we’d never had air conditioning before.
“It makes for, really, a much more consistent heating and cooling environment because you don’t get the temperature fluctuations that you do with a forced air furnace.”
Mr. Rand, the green fund investor, says that while currently only folks who are “energy-literate and kind of nerdy” decide to take the geo leap, the possible “heat-death of our civilization” means more and more will wake up to alternatives.
Mr. Holland, now back inside his 3,600-square-foot home outside of Cobourg with Corduroy panting at his feet, agreed that geothermal is not “widespread enough, that’s the trouble.
“We’ve often said that what they should do with new subdivisions – they’re often built around a small park – is put geothermal in the park and feed the houses from there.”