Fall Home 2022: Milton couple turns to geothermal for long-term savings

Robert Ellis and Anntonette Zembrzuski inside their Milton Home; A look at part of the geothermal system installed (inset)
Robert Ellis and Anntonette Zembrzuski inside their Milton Home; A look at part of the geothermal system installed (inset)

MILTON Gone are the days when propane contractors were frequent visitors to 1 Kelmic Drive in Milton.

They are not missed.

“Being here and suddenly in the summer the electricity bills are enormous, and then I thought in the winter this truck is coming weeks [after weeks] and leaving with $1,000 every time they show up,” said Robert Ellis alongside his partner, Anntonette Zembrzuski.

Ellis had become fed up with paying energy expenses in the Northeast since moving in with Zembrzuski from Seattle in 2010. Bolstered by her then-position at National Grid, Zembrzuski explored more energy-, cost- and climate-friendly options.

The pair eventually bought a geothermal heating and cooling system (GHC) from Ballston-based Aztech Geothermal in 2019. Built with interconnected loops roughly 300 feet below the property, the electric-powered GHC manufactured by Indiana-based WaterFurnace captures and circulates ground heat (the process is reversed for cooling). Installation cost $25,000.

“The thing that people need to look at and think is that if you can afford a more efficient system and you intend to stay in the house longer, it makes sense,” Zembrzuski said.

Savings are expected to exceed upfront costs between 2024 and 2026. They’ve spent some $3,500 to $4,450 less on heating so far, and $1,500 more on electricity. Zembrzuski contributes part of the increased electric bill to charging her hybrid.

The outdoor fireplace, pool and tap water still run on propane, but now only one delivery — less than half a tank — is needed per year. Sitting in the backyard amid some weeds is the dusty old 500-gallon propane tank with “limited uses,” Zembrzuski said.

“We’re letting it revert back to nature,” she quipped.

The family has considered connecting ground loops to the hot water heater as well as making the house fully electric. For them, the cost of such a transition remains unclear.

“The major benefits are cost, comfort and carbon footprint,” Zembrzuski said.

Heating 11 million homes, natural gas still dominates the Northeast despite a national shift toward electric energy. GHCs remain just a fraction of the latter market.

Home installers annually fit some 50,000 GHCs. There are roughly 700,000 residential installations and counting in the U.S. as of 2020, according to the Department of Energy. Roughly 60% of geothermal installations in the U.S. are currently based in commercial or institutional settings.

Zembrzuski and Ellis don’t know of any other local GHC homeowners within their social orbit.

“I think the reason is that the cost to come in is a lot,” Zembrzuski said. Home loop installation prices can vary between $15,000 and $34,000.

“That extra step [loop installation], which is an expensive extra step, used to make it so only the ultra-rich might access it,” said Aztech President John Ciovacco.

The former recyclable plastics entrepreneur launched Aztech Geothermal in 2008, hopeful that renewable tax credits passed by Congress at the time, along with growing disdain for oil prices and increasing environmental awareness, would move the needle for GHCs.

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“We want things to be affordable and accessible,” said Ciovacco, who also serves as a policy advocate and board member of the New York Geothermal Energy Organization. “That’s where we have to head, and it has to be clean.”

New York currently offers roughly $5,000 in credits. The recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act provides a 30% benefit for residential systems fitted before 2033. Commercial projects can up the tax credit rate to 50% by employing local workers and services, as well as working in brownfield environments.

The benefits frequently shift.

“It’s basically every year you have to figure it out again,” said Ellis, who also works as an environmental attorney.

National Grid offers home project rebates between $6,000 and $10,000. Some firms offer additional rebates for multibuilding installations. Zembrzuski attempted to get her neighbors involved in the deal.

“Drilling is really the lion’s share of the cost,” Zembrzuski said. “So nobody on our street was really willing to make the change quite yet.”

Institutions have been historically more likely to install multi-unit systems. This phenomenon dates to the 1970s and ’80s, when GHC networks were seen as an alternative to coffer-draining oil and gas prices. Mostly untapped, the market has “vast potential to rapidly deploy GDH [geothermal district heating] in many parts” of the country, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

About 19 million to 28 million households could benefit from geothermal installations by 2050, the DOE wrote during the Trump administration. This would cover roughly 23% of residential energy demand.

Ciovacco has noticed some shifting attitudes toward geothermal energy in nontraditional service areas.

“All the things that I started the company around, there’s a concern for the environment, there’s an incentive and there are higher energy prices,” Ciovacco said. “All of those things are amplified right now.”

For much of its history in the residential sector, Aztech has typically served single-family, electric-powered households that “can take a tax credit.” Lately the company has experienced a bump in serving urban, traditionally natural gas-powered areas. Aztech currently has a contract with the Albany Housing Authority. Ciovacco expects up to $400,000 in rebates.

With the help of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s Community Heat Pump program, the Ballston contractor also plans to install a 109-unit geothermal network within the city’s mostly residential Sheridan Hollow neighborhood. Between Albany and Milton, geography doesn’t limit most installations. Primordial heat remains a consistent energy source roughly 30 miles apart with ground temperatures typically 52 to 55 degrees nationwide. Additionally, internal installations don’t require much of a learning curve for conventional HVAC service technicians.

One of the industry’s biggest barriers, Ciovacco claimed, is a major skills gap between HVAC workers and ground loop installers.

“That’s very far outside what they [HVAC workers] are accustomed to,” Ciovacco said. “So we end up going from 95% competency to almost zero.”

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