A luxury home as reported by AzCentral in Scottsdale’s DC Ranch has taken environmental design to the next level, using geothermal cooling and heating to greatly reduce the owner’s utility bill.
Operating quietly and mostly out of sight and out of earshot, the geothermal heat-pump system takes the energy of the Earth and uses it to cool and heat the home, nestled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains.
“Geothermal is not new, but it is the last great frontier for environmental awareness,” said Jay Egg, an expert in the field. “The fact that there is nothing to see is one of its greatest qualities.”
Around the country, geothermal is a growing but underutilized means of heating and cooling homes, said Egg, author of two books published by McGraw-Hill on the subject and a consultant to the industry.
The western United States has been especially slow to adopt the technology, he said, while in the Midwest and East, at least a dozen entire neighborhoods are tied into geothermal technology.
The home is about 3 miles east of the intersection of Pima Road and the Loop 101 freeway. It is cut into the hillside overlooking the DC Ranch golf course, with views toward downtown Scottsdale and Phoenix interrupted only by Camelback Mountain.
The amenities of the upscale home include the finest equipment in the kitchen and laundry room, a butler’s pantry, at least two large gathering spaces, numerous fireplaces, high ceilings, hardwood and tile floors.
Upgrades are everywhere — sizable rooms, exposed beams in the ceilings, large windows to the west that overlook an infinity-edge swimming pool and pool house.
But what is not seen or heard is what makes the 13,000-square-foot house special and has folks interested in energy efficiency taking notice.
Using the Earth
The system features 10 geothermal wells sunk beneath the driveway, protected by a 20-foot-high retaining wall from the hillside above, wide enough only to accommodate two runs of flexible pipe.
In back, hidden by the natural slope, are four cooling towers, which resemble standard air-conditioning units. Inside, behind closed doors, sits a room full of equipment.
Taking advantage of the constant temperature of the Earth, about 70-75 degrees, it is clear how little supplemental heating or cooling will be needed to keep the home comfortable.
Not only can geothermal cut electric bills in half, it lasts longer, requires less maintenance, does the job better and takes away the clunky look of rooftop air-conditioning units and solar panels, advocates say.
But with fewer than 10,000 homes nationwide using it, geothermal needs better marketing, Egg said.
Although energy efficiency may work for some potential buyers, the fact that it is out of sight and silent, hygienic and reliable, is the best way to sell it to others, he said.
Egg said the efficiency of a geothermal system is remarkable.
Even though it might cost more than a standard system to install, it can cut in half a home’s energy consumption.
At the Scottsdale home, on a 110-degree day in the desert, the temperature inside was a reasonable 78 degrees.
No thermostats were visible because it was all controlled electronically and wirelessly from an iPhone or iPad.
Jeremy Meek, president of Desert Star Construction, which built the home and installed the system, said the installation cost for the house was comparable to a standard heating and cooling system when federal tax incentives for the geothermal system were taken into account.
It will save the homeowner 57 percent on his energy bills, he said.
The home has many other energy-efficient features: good insulation, advanced air filtration, and walls and roofs sealed against the desert heat.
In this particular house, there are four cooling towers and four air handlers.
Without the geothermal boost, the large structure would require 13 air handlers, Meek said.
The Meeks, father Jerry and son Jeremy, note that the geothermal system would not be as efficient without the other energy-saving features, such as upgraded air filtration, advanced insulation and well-sealed doors, windows and other openings in the house.
Jeremy Meek said the homeowner, who asked to remain unidentified, was able to knock 40 percent off the cost of the system through government incentives.
Cost is a factor
Meek would not disclose the cost of the home or the geothermal unit, but numerous studies have been done on the value of such systems.
One technical book, “Geothermal HVAC,” by journalist Brian Howard and Egg, the geothermal specialist, laid out the following example for a standard home of 2,000 square feet:
The geothermal system would run about $43,000. A standard home-heating and -cooling system would cost about $23,000, a difference of $20,000. Federal incentives covering 30 percent of the system’s cost would make up about $13,000 of the difference, leaving $7,000.
With reduced energy and system-maintenance bills, the homeowner would make up that difference in three to five years.
Meek said that, for the Silverleaf home, “after the incentives, up-front costs are on par with a normal heat- pump system, but the long-term savings are significant.”
“Choosing to pursue geothermal was a bottom-line decision,” the homeowner said. “With the federal and local incentives available, it made good financial sense for us to pursue.”
Anthony Floyd, manager of Scottsdale’s Green Building Program, said the Valley does not have many geothermal systems set up, especially in private homes where costs can be prohibitive.
He said costs can increase because drilling can be difficult in the Valley’s soil. Some systems forgo the cooling towers, Floyd said, and others can use the water in a swimming pool as a place to deposit excess heated water.
Arizona Public Service’s Damon Gross said the utility has 146 residential customers and five non-residential customers who use geothermal heating and cooling. The Silverleaf house did enough in terms of energy savings that it qualified for LEED certification.
LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a program of the U.S. Green Building Council, which establishes standards for energy efficiency.
LEED certification is a goal for many new buildings in Arizona, but few of them are private homes.
In Arizona, geothermal has attracted the attention of high-end custom homebuilders but not production builders, said Spencer Kamps of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.
“Custom builders blaze the way because their customers can afford it,” he said. “There are a lot of good, energy-saving technologies out there, but not a lot that are financially feasible.”
Even those that are feasible take time to win public support, Kamp said. That is changing as energy bills increase.
Connie Wilhelm, president of the homebuilders group, has had a geothermal system at her home in central Phoenix since she built the place in 2010.
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