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Although the application of GSHPs is exciting to many, energy conservation and efficiency measures should always be considered first. Why? Primarily because the size of a heating/cooling system is based on the amount of heating/cooling a building needs, often set by the requirements for the coldest day of the year. Simply, in a heating-dominated climate, the less heat needed, the smaller the investment in loops/tubing and the more affordable the system will be to operate. Thus, energy conservation and efficiency improvements will not only reduce the upfront cost of the heating system but also provide long-term energy savings. Conversely, the more heat needed, the larger the investment in loops/tubing and the more expensive the sytem will be to operate.
A qualified installer will assess the space heating and cooling demand (as well as domestic hot water if desired) before recommending a GSHP layout. The size and cost of the system depend on the heating and possibly domestic hot water demand, so make energy efficiency improvements (see suggestions below) before contacting a contractor for a GSHP design.
Regardless of the type of heating or cooling system, regular maintenance will keep the system operating at peak efficiency. Most heating systems should get a yearly check up to ensure they are operating safely and correctly. Some tasks can be performed by system owners, such as changing filters in a forced air distribution system. In general, a GSHP requires less maintenance than a combustion appliance, but a regular professional tune-up is still important to maximize
system efficiency and reliability.
GSHPs typically are installed with advanced controls, particularly technology-specific programmable thermostats, which reduce consumption by allowing the temperature to be set by the hour, day, and month. For instance, the thermostat can be adjusted for nighttime temperatures. Also, control displays usually indicate if there is a problem with the heating system as well, allowing for prompt repair.
If the building utilizing a GSHPs is poorly air-sealed (i.e., leaky) or does not have much insulation, these problems should be addressed before installing a new system. Hire a professional to conduct an energy audit to accurately determine the quality of the building envelopes. An audit measures the insulation and air tightness of a building while finding the weak spots in the building envelope. Some weatherization tasks can be completed in just a weekend – like caulking leaky windows or weather-stripping doors. Other tasks, such as retrofitting walls or adding insulation in the attic, may need to be addressed by a professional. These repairs may allow buying smaller, less expensive heating (as well as distribution) systems.
While some use a forced air system to deliver heated and cooled air, other buildings use hydronic distribution systems such as a radiant floor or hot water baseboard. Either way, the efficiency of the working system should be evaluated. For forced air systems, a pressure test can identify leaks in the ductwork and thus avoid wasted energy. In hydronic systems, there may be areas where pipes can be insulated that are carrying heated water/glycol solution that pass through
unconditioned spaces. Distribution systems can also be “zoned,” which involves dividing the building into sections so the heating system can maintain different temperatures in different areas of the building. Each zone has a thermostat and distribution loop, and a central heating device controls heat delivery to different zones. Guest rooms, basements, pole barns, and workshops are great candidates for zoning because they do not need as much conditioning when not in
use. Also, sunny rooms or rooms with a wood stove can be zoned separately so the individual thermostat can be turned down.
The Energy Star website has a Home Advisor tool that will help increase comfort and efficiency in a home by analyzing a home’s systems, including space conditioning: https://www.energystar.gov/campaign/home?c=home_improvement.hm_improvement_index The Department of Energy also has a website with information on all aspects of home energy efficiency: http://www.energy.gov/energysaver/energy-saver