Does Geothermal Work in Cold Climates?
If you're just learning about geothermal heating, you may be wondering if geothermal heating is suitable for cold climates.
It's easy to think that geothermal heating only works well in the tropics. This may be due to the common misconception that all geothermal energy comes from the steam byproducts of geysers or the high temperatures of volcanic activity.
There are many examples of this energy use geothermal. The Mayacama Mountains in Northern California capture geyser steam to generate geothermal energy. In Iceland, supercritical water is captured from volcanoes to generate energy.
Home geothermal heating is a completely different technology. First, geothermal heating generates heat for individual homes or businesses, while geothermal systems on the side of volcanoes and geysers generate electricity for large-scale distribution.
Second, geothermal heating does not depend on the external environment such as nearby geological features, so it can be used by everyone. This includes community homeowners even in the northernmost latitudes.
To understand this, let's take a closer look at how geothermal heating works.
How does a geothermal heat pump work?
The geothermal heat pump is the core of the geothermal system. They are connected both to underground plumbing loops filled with heat transfer fluids and to the air ductwork in your home.
The amount of fluid circulating in the underground pipes is as much as the heat pump needs, depending on where you set the temperature in your home. When this happens, the fluid collects latent heat energy from the Earth itself.
This is sent back to the heat pump, which distributes this natural form of heat throughout your home. Now you may still be wondering, "Will a heat pump work in cold climates?" or "How does geothermal heating work in winter?"
The answer is yes, geothermal heat pumps can and do work well in cold winter climates. This is possible because when autumn leaves turn into snowflakes and ice, we experience dramatic changes in ground temperature while the Earth just a few feet below is unaffected.
This is because thermal energy from the sun is stored on Earth. So no matter if it's raining, sunny, sleet, or snowing, it's always about 55 degrees Fahrenheit about 10 feet below the ground. Therefore, a geothermal heat pump always easily absorbs the thermal energy required for start-up.
Now that we know how heat pumps work in cold climates, let's take a look at some of the reasons for the confusion about geothermal heat pump performance in winter:
1. Sizing a geothermal heat pump for winter heating
One source of confusion is how heat pumps are sized for winter heating compared to traditional heating systems such as furnaces. Geothermal heat pumps are sized to provide enough heat on the coldest day of the year and nothing more. Therefore, on the coldest day of the year, the heat pump will need to run continuously to meet this demand. This will not harm your heat pump and is completely normal. This is very different from traditional furnaces, which are often oversized and therefore do not run continuously even on the coldest days of the year. When you're used to a traditional furnace, it can be daunting to keep your heat pump running continuously, but it's perfectly normal.
2. The local heat pump is not sized for winter heating
One of the biggest causes of misinformation about geothermal heat pumps and winter heating is that the system is not properly sized.
There is a situation where a geothermal heat pump cannot provide enough heat to your home during severe winters. This can happen when a heat pump or ground loop isn't big enough and doesn't provide enough heat to keep your home at a comfortable temperature, even when running continuously. In this case, you'll need to rely on backup heat to stay comfortable. Since this backup heat is less efficient, you'll see your utility bills skyrocket accordingly.
This can happen if the geothermal heat pump installer didn't choose a large enough heat pump for your home, or the ground loop was undersized, or both. Sometimes this is done to save money or reduce installation costs. We do not recommend this practice and you should ask your installer if this is a practice they engage in.
In cold climates, a geothermal heat pump can be a great asset to your home. It will provide comfortable and efficient heat to your home even in harsh winters. Plus, there are no moving parts exposed outdoors, so you don't have to worry about parts getting covered in snow and ice. Finally, they don't lose efficiency, and if sized correctly, they don't need backup heat. This makes them a great choice for cold climates.
To find out more about whether geothermal is right for your home, please contact us.