Does Switching to Geothermal Heating Make Sense?

So wondering if it would make sense to switch to geothermal heating & cooling…

Tl;dr = probably yes.

To answer this question, I grabbed and cleaned some data from Mass Energy and Environmental Affairs.  Here are the seasonal distributions of oil prices in the Boston area over the past 15 years:

oil-prices
Figure 1. Boston-area seasonal oil prices over the past 15 years. Prices are sampled weekly over the heating season, red lines are medians.

I modeled a few cases based off our oil usage in 1660 sqft and Boston-area oil prices over the past 15 years <insert piles of details & assumptions>.  MassSaves offers 0% 7 year loans and MassCEC offers a rebate.  Including these incentives, here is a snapshot of what the numbers would mean for us over a range of oil prices based on figure 1:

geothermal-vs-oil
Figure 2. Costs of switching to geothermal versus oil heating and AC.

I considered 3 cases given this model, (1) average oil price, (2) highest oil price, and (3) lowest oil price:

  1. If we switch to geothermal, against the 15-yr average oil price of $2.60/gallon we would pay $68 more per month in the first 7 years, and then break even on those extra payments 2.5 years thereafter. After the first 7 years we would only pay $58 monthly and after 9.5 years we would be saving at $194 per month compared to if we had stayed on oil.

  2. Against the maximum oil price of $4.18/gallon (which occurred between 2011-2014), we would save $65 per month in the first 7 years, and break even 1.4 years early. After 7 years we would be saving $327 per month compared to if we had stayed on oil.

  3. On the other end of the spectrum, if oil prices drop to $1.10 per gallon again (prices we haven’t seen since 2001), we would burn an extra $195 per month in the first 7 years and we could see granddoggies to the babies we don’t have yet before we break even in 27.3 years.

Since oil prices are trending upwards and unlikely to return to the lows we saw 15 years ago (considering political climate, falling prices of renewable energy, technology advances relating to energy, etc etc), it looks like switching to geothermal makes The Sense.  The only caveat is that this is so long as we can take on up to $200 per month cashflow out for the next 7 years.

References:

http://www.mass.gov/eea/energy-utilities-clean-tech/home-auto-fuel-price-info/heating-oil-price-surveys.html

http://www.masssave.com/en/residential/heating-and-cooling/offers/heat-loan-program

http://www.masscec.com/get-clean-energy/residential/ground-source-heat-pumps

Toekick heater conversion in our kitchen

I keep meaning to write up the toekick conversion we did in our kitchen baseboard heat, which I described the motivation in this post.

But it was complicated!  And my Massachusetts friends tell me it’s actually illegal to do plumbing work your owns in Mass (but not so in NH).

So I will give a high-level description of what we did, and if one wants to do their own project some additional research will be needed.  I will say all information we needed was found in Youtube videos, online forums, and diy articles.  This project was still not for everyone, it took us 3 weekends and some mid-week shopping.

Quick problem recap

We wanted to put more cabinets and work space in our kitchen, but the remaining wall was taken up by baseboard heat.

Solution

Convert baseboard heat into toekick fan that fits under cabinets.  We got the Myson Whispa Kickspace III 7000EZ from Houseneeds.com.

How

We dropped the hot water pipe behind the baseboard under the floor and created a short parallel loop up to the kitchen that fed the toekick fan.

Weekend 1

(1) Measure in & out of kitchen baseboard pipe and find supply pipe under floor, access from garage ceiling below.

(2) Figure out zones, supply, and return lines for hydronic heating system to boiler, also other major parts zone valves & pump.

(3) Plan new pipe layout, to describe in Cartesian coordinates (x,y,z): x & y will be same as original baseboard pipe layout except now below floor (we had an L), other z considerations are floor joists for the direction in which the pipe can’t go between joists (we went under joists, then build soffit box around).

Mid-week

Buy materials needed, including monoflow tee (only at plumbing supply store), copper pipe, pipe cutter for tight spaces, abrasive cloth, assortment of elbows, tees, and couplings.

Pipe cutters and gear needed
Pipe cutters and gear needed

Weekend 2

(1) Drain water from system: shut off water supply to boiler, valve between supply & return, and only open zone valve for zone to be drained.  Connect hose to drain outlet and open drain valve, remove water from system.

(2) Cut old pipes leading up to kitchen, remove baseboards and old pipe in kitchen.

(3) Cut new pipes for new layout planned in weekend 1, fit the pipes together.

Weekend 3

Solder pipes, refill water in system, bleed air, turn on heat.

Done!

(It was so not that easy..)

More kitchen space by removing baseboard heat

We’ve been rehabbing our kitchen this year slowly*.  Some little things like painting the cabinet faces, changing out the hardware, remove wallpaper, new appliances! Ok maybe not so little things.  As these things things have been in progress, we come to realize what we really need is more space (and more money but that’s a different problem).

The more kitchen space thing really began when we got a fancy new refrigerator which we love and for which we installed a new water line. The new water line was required to move the refrigerator to a new location. There were two problems with the old location, (1) it was adjacent to the dishwasher which gets hot while refrigerator makes cold = energy waste + bad for refrigerator life, and (2) more counter space would be nice. The new location is along a wall with nothing on it, except a baseboard heater.  We can remove the baseboard heat and reclaim the entire wall, thus fixing both energy waste problem and kitchen space problem.

The space reclaimed by removing the baseboard heat effectively doubles the working space in our kitchen!!

Great, but the problem with removing the baseboard heat is that then there is no heat. In Hawaii this isn’t a problem. In New England, no heat is a BIG problem.

* Before diving into the answer to this heat problem, I must put in a plug here for myself :D.  The Mr. in  the “we” situation here, or shall I say Dr., has been at the start disagreeable to all of this.  The Me in our “we” has had to be quite crafty, in addition to leveraging my engineering training, to convince Mr. Dr. to do any of this.  First, why don’t we paint the cabinets it is cheap and not too hard?  Second, changing the hardware only needs a screwdriver surely we can do that.  Next, these appliances are on sale your mom will disapprove of the old ones and love the new ones.  Well, now we have this beautiful new fridge with all your beers we can’t put it next to the dishwasher!  But now it’s in front of the heaters!  Gah!

In our house, we have oil fuel and hydronic baseboard heat. We have an oil tank in the basement, and a boiler that burns the oil to heat water. The heated water is pumped through 3 loops, (1) into the adjacent hot water tank for our household running water, (2) in a loop of pipes that run along the baseboards to heat our first floor, and (3) in a loop of pipes that run along baseboards to heat our second floor. Baseboards are just the hot water pipes surrounded by metal fins that increase heated surface area in contact with air. The problem with baseboards is you can’t really put permanent furniture blocking them because they heat the back of the furniture rather than heating the room. Couches are ok to pull out a couple inches from the baseboards, but kitchen cabinets and refrigerators definitely can’t go in front of baseboards.

Whats to do? Convert the lost baseboard into a toekick heater says the internets. Rather than having a whole wall of hot pipe to heat the room, drop that pipe under the floor and bring just a little loop up into the kitchen to feed a little toekick heater. The toekick fits under just a single cabinet and heats the entire room. Toekicks heat the same room while taking up less space by adding an electric fan to actively blow warm air off the hot metal pipe & fins.

More internets later, there are a handful of toekick manufacturers**. We ended up  buying a Myson Whispa Kickspace III 7000EZ from Houseneeds.com.  Here were my shopping criteria:

  • We went with the Myson because internets says they have access panels that make servicing the unit later easy.  I figured this would be important since someday permanently installed cabinets would be on top of this little guy.
  • We bought from Houseneeds because they were shipping from Vermont, which isn’t too far from New Hampshire.
  • We got the 7000 model based on the length of baseboard we were replacing.  We were at the high end for the 5000 or low end for 7000 model, so we went with 7000.  One could also calculate BTUs needed for room size, but that seemed too difficult (there’s only three sizes of kickspace and our kitchen is not that big (which is why we need the toekick)).
  • We went for the EZ model because it comes with the hookup hoses.  It also says it has plugin electrical, although it isn’t clear from the web descriptions or the product manual whether the non-EZ models have plugin-type or hardwire electrical.

** I wish I could cite some internets sources here for completeness, but my records are quite crap and I can’t really say which forums were actually any good anyways because I am not an expert in this field so I recommend doing ones own research also.

I did call a plumber to get an idea of cost, and he quoted me $800 including the cost of the toekick unit.  We would have to use the toekick manufacturer he provided (don’t recall which), he would need access to run pipes below, and he didn’t do the electrical for the toekick fan which was hardwired.   I figured, since we didn’t exactly have access below (garage ceiling is sheetrocked) if we hired out the entire job we would need 3 professionals, (1) handyman to create access below, (2) plumber to do the heating system, (3) electrician to wire the toekick unit.  My guess is the total price to hire out would be easily over $1000.

Thinking we were so wonderful after doing the refrigerator line ourselves, we decided to do the toekick conversion ourselves.  This was an adventure and is not for the faint of heart.  I will write about this experience in another post…

Moving a refrigerator water line

I wanted to move the refrigerator to the other side of the kitchen, opposite the sink. This meant running water to the new location somehow. Here is what we did and what we learned:

Run a new line, don’t snake the old one

Moving the refrigerator was easy, cleaning the old location was gross, and dealing with the water line was not easy.

For the water, the best way is to find the nearest cold water pipe in the basement below and run a new line from there. Water should come from below, not snaked around or over from the old place.

Of course if the refrigerator is near the sink then go from the sink. Our sink is on the otherside of the room so we went from the basement.

Strategy for adding a new line

Once I identified a nearby 1/2″ cold water pipe in the basement, there were two ways advised to add the new refrigerator water line:

  1. Use a saddle valve that clamps on and pierces an existing pipe
  2. Cut the pipe to install a tee for the new line

The saddle valve option may be ok but it looks and feels really flimsy.  I was worried that if the line were accidentally yanked, there would be a random hole leaking in the pipe.  Thus we went with the second option.

So the plan is…

Cut 1.25 inches out of our existing copper pipe in the basement, fit the tee, add a short length of PEX pipe, then a stop valve (sometimes we might want to shut off water only to the refrigerator), and last is 1/4 inch copper pipe snaked up to the new refrigerator location.

It was not that easy.

Materials list

  • 20′ of 1/4″ flexible copper refrigerator pipe (distance from existing 1/2″ pipe in basement to new refrigerator location plus 6-10′), $20
  • Sharkbite 1/2″ tee, $10
  • Sharkbite 1/2″ to 1/4″ quarter turn stop valve, $10
  • Sharpie pen
  • A short (6″) piece of 1/2″ PEX pipe to connect the tee and stop valve, free or almost free
  • Pipe cutter with a short enough handle to fit 360 degrees around existing pipe (between nearby joists and pipes), $20
  • Compression cap and brass collar for connecting 1/4″ pipe to refrigerator intake, $2
  • Wrench

Total monies: around $60

First, basic stuffs I learned:

Water pipe 101

Most pipe in the basement is copper and most copper pipe is 1/2 inch.  Some pipe is PEX, which is a tough plastic that is slightly flexible.  Compared to PEX, copper is not flexible.  Refrigerator pipe is typically 1/4 inch outside diameter and best is flexible copper.  We have plastic pipe in our condo and it breaks and leaks annually, it is bad.

Fittings 101

For professional plumbers and large jobs, people use copper fittings that require soldering.  I have soldered me electrical boards in electronics class and lab, but the addition of water makes things more difficult.

At Home Depot, they recommended these Sharkbite fittings which have fancy o-rings that allow push-in connections without soldering.  The Sharkbite fittings cost about 10x more than copper fittings, but $10 vs. $1 is a great trade-off when you only need one or two parts and you’re saving yourself hiring a plumber (=$hundreds) and you have little skill with plumbing.  I imagine for a more complicated project and depending on one’s mechanical ability a real professional should be hired (I have a degree in engineering).

For this refrigerator water line project, I bought a Sharkbite 1/2 in tee and a 1/2 inch to 1/4 inch quarter turn valve.

Now, basic stuffs I messed up:

Cutting pipe

I should have googled this before buying anything. For one, our house already came with a pipe cutter I just didn’t know what one looked like and didn’t know we had it until after the fact. A pipe cutter looks like a rotary cutter on a clamp. Actually, that’s what it is. From scrap booking to plumbing, same deal. The rotary blade is on a clamp because you clamp the cutter around the pipe, then turn.

After buying an adjustable cutter with a long handle that looked like it would be easy for a weakling like me to apply torque, I found that that was not smart. The long handle did not fit between the joists and other pipes. I mangled the pipe ends trying to jam the cutter around existing joists and not knowing how tight to make the clamp. I ended up having to go back and buy another smaller cutter.

To use the adjustable pipe cutter, position the clamp around the pipe then tighten the clamp just so that the blade touches the pipe. Turn the knob just a quarter or half turn more. Don’t crush the pipe. Spin the whole cutter device around the pipe multiple times to cut all the way through, tighten knob slightly more as necessary.

So before cutting any pipe, I first turned off the main water supply and opened the faucets to drain as much water as possible. Then positioned a 5 gallon bucket under the pipe to be cut. You will get wet, water will come out of the pipe when you cut. Also, if you’ve never cut pipe before I suggest buying a practice pipe for a few extra dollars; we didn’t do this but in retrospect…

Prepping the cut end

The cut ends need to be smooth and round, not squished. Special deburring tools are sold, but the guy at Home Depot suggested just filing or sanding with abrasive mesh or cloth sold in the plumbing section. This step is incredibly important for the Sharkbite push system.

How much to cut, getting the tee installed

The Sharkbite tee we bought had three 1″ long fittings and a section 1.25″ intervening, so I cut 1.25″ of pipe.  Pulling apart the existing pipe to get the tee in was not easy.  I was not strong enough.

It turned out that cutting a little more, say 1.5″ or 1.75″ (1/4″-1/2″ more) made getting the two pipe ends apart enough to fit the tee much more doable.  We also had to loosen some nearby brackets to get the 1/2″ copper to give enough .

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VERY IMPORTANT: draw a mark 1″ in from the end of the pipes to indicate how far in they will go into the Sharkbite fitting before trying to attach any Sharkbite anything.  This way you will know if the pipe has been pushed in far enough or not.

Compression fittings

Compression fitting are the general way that 1/4″ pipe for refrigerators etc are connected to anything.  For copper pipe, you just need a brass collar and the screw cap with a hole in the top of the pipe to fit through.  Basically you put the 1/4″ pipe in the hole of the screw cap, then the collar around the end of the 1/4″ pipe, and screw the whole thing into wherever.

In our setup, we had two compression connections: (1) to the stop valve, and (2) to the refrigerator.

It should have been easy, but we had some combination of missing parts (you need the collar), extra parts (for PEX pipe but not copper pipe you need a little insert that goes inside the end of the pipe), and no googling (what is this compression thingy?).

Conclusion

It’s great!  It took us one stressful evening, $60, 3 trips to Home Depot, and now we have a new refrigerator with tasty water and ice!!!!

Moving with a cargo van from Lowes is amazing!

Last weekend we rented a cargo van from Lowes to move some furniture and it was amazing! It rocked U-Haul out of the water.

The Van

A Mercedes Sprinter Cargo van, definitely big enough to move a small apartment. We had a queen sleeper couch, storage ottoman, and chair, plus full size bed frame, 6-drawer dresser, full mattress, and queen mattress. It all fit easily. There’s a fold out loading ramp that spans he whole width of the back of the van so getting stuff in and out was a breeze. Oh and it was a clean, comfortable ride.

Gas

Included. The diesel engine was very efficient, we drove over 60 miles and the needle hardly moved. They ask you to return the vehicle with at least a quarter tank and the gas card is inside the vehicle to pay for it. We didn’t have to use it.

Cost

$15 per hour. Gas & insurance included. Mileage was $0.30 or so per mile, this is less than half of what U-Haul charges. There were no extra fees, insurance costs, etc.

Experience

We went to the Hertz 24/7 kiosk at our local Lowes the night before. I had tried to sign up online but it didn’t work. The kiosk has you live video conference with an agent, she was competent and helpful. It did take about 15 minutes to get setup and reserved. They require the usual stuff: driver’s license, name, address, credit card. It was much much much better than going to a U-Haul or car rental place.
At the end the kiosk printed an instruction sheet and a plastic membership card that lets you scan into the vehicle at your rental time without any further interaction. Literally just walk up to the van in the parking lot, hold your card to the scanner in the windshield, and get in.
We ended up needing way more time than we thought (I hired bad movers), and the time extension process was incredibly seamless. The instruction sheet has a phone number, you call and give your name or member # and tell them how much longer you want. There was no wait time.

Overall

We will totally be renting from Lowes again, hope they keep this deal around. It was amazing, thanks Lowes!
(Now please don’t do anything / pull a Hobby Lobby that makes me have to boycott your store)

We grew grass! And other thoughts on first-time homeowning in Southern New Hampshire

We’re entering our second summer as first time homeowners in Southern New Hampshire. We moved from Cambridge/Boston/city and wow has there been so much we didn’t know.

First thing: there are lots of bugs — flying bugs, biting bugs, ticks, mosquitos, mayflies that bite, spiders, ants, ants that eat your house… You will need to use insecticides on your lawn, GrubEx, diatomaceous earth on ant colonies, mosquito beater, bug repellent (we like the deet-free Off Botanicals), etc. Start in May, don’t wait until you have an insect crisis and have to hire pest folks unless you want to part with $500 unnecessarily. Use the spreader (see below) to put insecticide on the lawn and dust a perimeter around the house. Sprinkle the mosquito beater around the deck and front door. Check the dogs for ticks relentlessly and put the frontline to kill fleas.

Second thing: yes you need air conditioning in the summer. We have a standard rectangle house with 4 bedrooms. Each bedroom that we use required a small window air conditioner and we have one large window unit downstairs that blows all the way across the house. Last year we thought we could save money with fans and open windows, and it was really really miserable because (a) heat, (b) see the first thing. We tried buying the ACs at the store, but found them loud and ineffective. So we had to order, but then 2 weeks of miserable ensued before they arrived. Just save yourself the trouble and budget $1000 or so for window AC’s (unless you want something more powerful). Get them in May before it gets hot so you have time to figure out how to install them, and get the LG ones with dehumidification.

Third thing: yes you need a lawn mower. You need it in May when the grass is growing fast, not June when you already have a jungle. You need a gas (or battery powered) self-propelled mulching lawn mower at least, not a manual reel mower. Urban eco-friendly hipster reviews on Amazon may tout how pleasant and effective manual reel mowers are, but they are not sufficient for New Hampshire sized lawns. Lawn mowers cost $300+ or $1000+ for the riding type, maybe check CL. Don’t cut the grass too short or it won’t grow back next year, you just have to deal with cutting it more often — to 3″ every week or more. You will also need a leaf blower, weed whacker (+ gas cans), wheel barrow or cart, and spreader (see below).

On grass: all your neighbors will have perfect lawns and look like they know what they’re doing. Here’s what we learned to make our house appear inhabited and keep our lawn at least at the low end of average:

  • Your lawn is probably larger than 10,000 sqft, and certainly larger than 5,000 sqft (they often sell the bags of stuff in 5,000 sqft increments).
  • You have to use the spreader to put fertilizer in the spring and fall, otherwise the grass will be brown. We have the Scott Snap Spreader and we just refill the bags with other stuffs — we aren’t smart enough to handle a real spreader with complicated settings.
  • If you have pine trees you have to use the spreader to put lime to raise the soil pH otherwise nothing will grow right except moss and weeds and more bugs; we used Jonathan Green MagiCal. If you work in a biology, chemistry, biotech, or other lab (not unlikely if you’re coming from Boston) you can use the pH strips to measure your soil pH, just suspend some soil in di-water, incubate 30-60 min, and read.
  • You have to put the GrubEx in the first week of June or you will get tons of beetles that fly around and die in your house and look disgusting and eat your garden.
  • You can use the spreader to overseed your lawn with grass seed in the spring or fall (fall is better), this will prevent your grass from looking bare and dead. Overseeding just means putting new grass seed over your existing grass. The internet says many steps to doing this, but make sure you water the seeds. Buy a timer and an oscillating sprinkler (<$50) — you’ll probably need multiple sets, or seed only one area per week and move the sprinkler weekly. Or install in-ground automatic sprinklers like all our fancy neighbors.
  • You could also hire people to do all this stuff.

On leaves: leaf peeping is great when you drive north from the city and view pretty fall leaves from your car, but when you have a yard those leaves *fall* and become your problem. Don’t try to rake that many leaves, you will spend hours, make yourself sore, and new leaves will fall there tomorrow. Use the mulching lawn mower to mulch the leaves. That was so not obvious to us.

On snow: you will need a snowblower or hire a snow plow. The snow plow people cost 10x less than they do in the city — $30 or so per storm.

We are by no means done learning, but fyi it weren’t easy nobody told us anything… probably because it’s all so obvious.

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