An aerial view of Whisper Valley homes.

Net-Zero Planned Community Relies on Advanced Geothermal Infrastructure

May 26, 2023
Whisper Valley houses the largest geothermal infrastructure in the US, and is the first zero-energy capable master planned community in Austin.

AUSTIN, TX — Last year Austin, Texas was named second fastest-growing city in the US (according to a ranking from the American Growth Project). Warm weather, cultural offerings, an influx of tech companies and a concentration of venture capital has drawn residents from around the state and around the country, pushing the population past the one million mark with no signs of slowing down.

GFO Homes

And all those people need homes. Over the last decade, sustainable building and real estate development have become a top priority for builders, homeowners, and investors across the country. At the same time geothermal exchange technology become increasingly sought-after, especially after the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) introduced a Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) of up to 30% for geothermal systems.

GFO Home, a Texas home builder doing business in Austin, Dallas and Houston, has been providing the Whisper Valley community with homes that focus on innovative design and versatile floor plans since 2019. Whisper Valley currently houses the largest geothermal infrastructure in the United States and is the first zero-energy capable master planned community in Austin.

All GFO homes built in Whisper Valley feature comprehensive geothermal infrastructure from EcoSmart Solution. Since 2014, EcoSmart has been involved in the design and scaling of GeoGrid™ infrastructure. "We are actively expanding to new states, such as Florida and Massachusetts, with the aim of bringing zero-energy capable communities to different regions," Greg Wolfson, Chief Technology Officer for EcoSmart said.

Vital Air and Energy

The geothermal installer for Whisper Valley is Vital Air and Energy, a company created just for the project that has it origins the business and personal relationship between Steve Smith, CEO of Enertech Global (a manufacturer of geothermal heat pumps among other products) and Brian Houchin, Owner/Operator of Bratcher Htg & A/C.

"Brian and I started Vital Air and Energy (VAE) to provide professional installations for the development," Steve Smith said. "Enertech has 148 employees, Bratcher Heating & A/C has 65 employees, and VAE is in growth mode as it has had a great start. Brian has 25 years experience in geothermal systems and I will be at 40 years at the end of this year."

Despite the planned nature of the project, Smith and Houchin have had to rely on their years of experience to make the project the success it has become. Considering the technology it is employing, Whisper Valley has demanded more in planning, scheduling and execution than a typical residential project. "When six builders are converging in one development, the pace keeps companies on their toes!" Smith said.

With 7,500 homes planned for the development, VAE sees plenty of work in its future.

How it Works

All the homes at Whisper Valley interconnect to EcoSmart Solution’s geothermal infrastructure. The GeoGrid© uses geothermal exchange to provide Ambient Temperature Geothermal water to Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP) for heating, cooling, and domestic hot water. The vertical ground loops, which are housed in boreholes, are installed well in advance of home construction. These boreholes are drilled to depths exceeding 300 feet below the surface.

The GeoGrid™ district infrastructure is installed prior to other wet and dry utilities during early stages of a phase’s construction. Once a lot is prepared and a home is constructed, an approved vendor then interconnects the home's ground source heat pump to the GeoGrid™ and commissions the unit.

At Whisper Valley, there are 867 lots served and connected by four GeoGrid™ infrastructure districts. This includes over 400 homes equipped with EcoSmart's system, which incorporates solar PV, energy storage, ground source heat pumps, smart thermostats, and prewired EV charging.

The geothermal heat pumps at Whisper Valley transfer heat to and from the ground through ground loops. These loops are installed approximately 10 to 100+ feet below the frost line. The ambient loop water temperature ranges from a low of about 60 degrees in the winter to a high of about 90 degrees in the summer.

The GeoGrid district connects each home's local loop (LotGrid) to the system energy center. The Energy Center at Whisper Valley performs pumping and auxiliary cooling during peak cooling periods, ensuring overall system control and optimization. The LotGrid provides each home with a base load borehole capacity and a heat exchanger to access GeoGrid™ thermal capacity for handling peak loads. The interconnection of all homes through the GeoGrid™ captures the diversity of thermal loading, enhancing system resiliency and reliability.

How it's Working Out

All homes in Whisper Valley receive a third-party certified Home Energy Ratings Index (HERS) score. While EcoSmart Solution guides all builders at Whisper Valley to a target developer-agreed HERS rating of 25 or lower, GFO Home at Whisper Valley feature HERS ratings in the teens or lower, saving homeowners thousands in utility bills.

Over the course of 30 years, an EcoSmart home contributes to saving the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those produced by 45.8 vehicles driven for one year, saving 23,868 gallons of gasoline, and powering over 27 million smartphones. Whisper Valley homes achieve a minimum 50% reduction in energy consumption, resulting in lower monthly utility bills.

During major storms in Texas, the GeoGrid™ has demonstrated its resilience against environmental damage and power outages.

"While many Texas homeowners experienced days without power following these storms, Whisper Valley homes were restored power within hours or maintained uninterrupted power throughout the entire event," Greg Wolfson said. "A 3-ton Enertech ground source heat pump had only about 3kW power demand throughout the week. In contrast, a 4-ton conventional electric HVAC unit (such as an air source heat pump) would have shown more than 15kW power demand throughout the week because of the conventional HVAC system’s need for backup resistive heating in cold weather events."

As modern consumers continue to demand more sustainable homes, GFO Homes, EcoSmart and Vital Air and Energy are demonstrating that their technology can protect homeowners not just from volatile energy prices, but also from extreme weather events. And demonstrating the ability to scale geothermal systems across climates will hopefully drive greener housing throughout the United States.

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