NORTHFIELD, ILLINOIS — The concept of the home was at once ambitious and straightforward. First, it would be multi-generational, bringing three generations of a family — two sets of grandparents, their children and grandchildren — under one roof.
To do that would require plenty of space: 12,000 sq. ft. And as long as you’re spending the money why not throw in a few luxury amenities like a 50' X 20' indoor swimming pool?
Second, it would be highly efficient. The owners were willing to have high costs on the front end to create long-term energy savings. To that end the design included high-efficiency windows, high insulation value exterior walls, as well as rooftop photovoltaic panels.
For heating and cooling they opted for a geothermal system, and to design and install that system they went to Geothermal Energy Solutions, Inc., in Northbrook, Illinois.
Geothermal Energy Solutions
Geothermal Energy Solutions Inc. has been in business since 1998. They are a team of engineers, certified designers and installers who assist property owners, architects and general contractors in the design, engineering and installation of geothermal systems. The company has engineered and built more than 300 geothermal systems for single-family homes and apartment buildings.
Michael Vdovets P.E and his partner Garry Birman Ph.D. Birman are co-founders of Geothermal Energy Solutions. Birman is responsible for the firm’s design-build operations, with over 40 years of experience in the field. Vdovets has extensive construction management experience in a wide range of commercial, industrial and residential projects.
“My partner, he’s like the grandfather of geothermal in the area,” Vdovets says. “He was one of the first contractors in the area to specialize. Very low profile, he built his whole reputation through word-of-mouth. We don’t need much advertising to keep the company busy.”
Birman works more on the construction side, while Vdovets is more on the business side. “My original background is in finance and engineering,” Vdovets says, “I invested in the company initially and got more and more involved over time.”
Geothermal Energy Solutions offers turnkey design-build for geothermal systems. They are an authorized GeoPro dealer, the highest designation in the WaterFurnace system. Last year, the company’s business was 60 percent residential, 40 percent commercial.
On the commercial side, the company has made a name for itself replacing cooling towers with geothermal equipment. “There is tremendous payback,” Vdovets says, “it could be as little as three to five years.”
They have recently used their system for a large, publicly traded company. Geothermal allows for the same cooling function, without losing so much water to evaporation. Along with delivering amazing efficiency, geothermal requires less space for the mechanicals, provides quieter operation, and has the added benefit of energy recovery.
And many of those same advantages translate into the residential space.
Geo for the home
Maybe the biggest hurdle Geothermal Energy Solutions and other geo contractors face in the residential space is public awareness. Wind and solar power are well known and generally accepted by the public, but geothermal — perhaps because the mechanical components are concealed — has yet to reach the same level.
“Unfortunately geothermal is not well known,” Vdovets says, “that energy from the ground can heat the house. It’s well-proven, but poorly recognized technology. Well proven with a great track record… the majority of new projects in Scandinavian countries are geothermal for heating and air conditioning.”
The critical component of any geothermal system is the geothermal field or loop. For the home in Northfield, the system uses nine geothermal wells in a vertical ground loop that delivers 27 tons of capacity.
“It turned out the owners had a very large parcel of land,” Vdovets says. “In this situation vertical was more economically feasible. It allows for future use of the yard if the owner decides to go into the ground for some other purpose.”
Geothermal Energy Solutions had a specialty drilling company they contract with for digging the 450-ft. deep wells, with drillers who are specially trained and licensed. “It’s not every well driller who can do the work,” Vdovets says. “There’s significant possibility of damage to the environment if the driller is not experienced.”
The system uses six WaterFurnace 5 Series units, as well as a dedicated heat pump just for the swimming pool. The 5 Series is an EnergyStar-rated geothermal appliance with a multi-step design that helps remove moisture during humid summer months without driving out moisture during drier winter months.
“WaterFurnace is a company dedicated to geothermal technology,” Vdovets says. “We’ve been a dealer since 1998. They offer a high engineering level, great technical support and great equipment quality.”
To distribute the heating and cooling the system uses a mixture of forced air (via ductwork) and radiant, with the radiant heat delivering the high level of comfort expected in a luxury home.
The distribution system is divided into eight zones. With the addition of programmable thermostats, individual zones can be set to heat or cool at specific times. The overall system becomes more efficient — unused areas of the home are not heated — and more comfortable since the thermostats can control the “ramp up” time needed to heat the radiant slab.
Another critical component is the ERV (energy recovery ventilator) that brings fresh air into the house. By pre-heating the air during the winter and pre-cooling the air during the summer the ERV boosts the overall efficiency of the entire system.
The home was completed more than a year ago. Since then, Geothermal Energy Solutions techs returned to offer the family a final round of training on how to use and program the system.
“We haven’t heard back from them,” Vdovets says, “Since the system is under warranty, if they had a problem they would call.”
For larger homes and busy homeowners, the company offers a semi-annual service agreement. Twice a year Geothermal Energy Solutions will come in, check the system, change and wash the filter, and provide any adjustments as needed.
“The payback period for them is probably around six years,” Vdovets says. “And after that they will have free ground-source energy for life, and significant savings for heating and air conditioning.”
But for all the advantages to be gained from harnessing geothermal energy, Vdovets offers this word of caution:
“Geothermal HVAC is unlike conventional HVAC. It requires special training, certification and knowledge of geothermal equipment. It’s a drastic difference from conventional systems… We have, unfortunately inherited a number of situations where geothermal system owners attempted to hire conventional contractors for service and repair and it turned out to be a disaster.”