HVAC contractor decides to bring the work in-house.

The popularity of ground source heat pumps (GSHP) among homeowners has been on the rise in recent years. The market has grown 10 percent to 20 percent each of the last 10 years, and according to industry sources, much of that growth can be attributed to energy savings and the green factor. Ground source heat pumps have been popular in new home construction, but that trend is changing based on the recent economic conditions.

“I’ve watched the transition over the last few years go from new construction to retrofit,” says Mike Kapps with WaterFurnace International, located in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Ground source heat pumps were a great option for new construction, and it was easier for the homeowner to justify the cost by rolling it into their overall mortgage. Now, the retrofit market has expanded, and makes up about 70 percent of ground source heat pump sales – compared to only 10 percent a few years ago.”

What’s behind the shift? New home sales are down, and homeowners are living longer in existing homes rather than staying a few years and moving to other homes or upsizing. So investing in a ground source heat pump system makes sense, because they will be living in the home for a longer period of time. Current energy and government incentives also are driving the retrofit market.

Challenges Create Opportunities

The steady growth of the ground source heat pump market also has created some challenges. Growth is good, but it also can be detrimental if the market grows too fast for the industry to keep up with the market’s expanding needs. That’s always on the forefront with the ground source heat pump industry players – not leaving anybody behind, and delivering the tools that are needed.

This rapid growth of the market has created a shortage of experienced loop installers, and many times, a project must be delayed to accommodate the schedule of a loop installation contractor. “There are regions of the United States where there’s a shortage, but then there are areas where, if you need a residential loop installation contractor, you could get three or four contractors to quote a single project,” says Kapps.

Ground source heat pump manufacturers have some concerns about the number of contractors jumping into the loop installation market. Competition is good, but the manufacturers and HVAC contractors want to make sure the quality of the work meets industry standards. “We are seeing a number of contractors flocking to the ground source heat pump installation market,” says John Clapp, with the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA),  based in Stillwater, Okla. “Many of these individuals and companies have the best intentions, but they just don’t have the right training and experience to install loops. It’s definitely a big hurdle right now.”

Being at the mercy of a subcontractor to install the loops is prompting some HVAC contractors to bring the installation of the loops in-house.

An Easy Decision

For Williams Comfort Air, based in Indianapolis, the decision to bring GSHP loop installations in-house was an easy one. It boiled down to scheduling. “When using a subcontractor to install the loops, we were at their mercy,” says Terry Biggs with Williams Comfort Air. “It was difficult to commit to a customer as to when their system would be up and running, because you’re using a subcontractor who works for several other different HVAC contractors. Another factor was controlling costs, and we felt we could do a better job in-house.”

Williams Comfort Air began installing GSHP systems in 1983, and brought the loop installation process in-house in 2007. Today, the company has two full-time loop installation crews that typically install up to 200 systems annually.

Biggs looked at a number of installation options, and chose horizontal directional drilling as the preferred method for the company’s area and customer base. “The majority of our work is focused on residential retrofits that feature well-landscaped yards,” relates Biggs. “So we chose the most homeowner-friendly installation option we could find. With horizontal directional drilling, we can come in and excavate a 3-foot-by-6-foot entry pit and complete our boring within that space. When we are done, the soil goes back in the hole, and the sod is replaced – within a few weeks you can’t tell we were even there.”

Williams Comfort Air uses a patent-pending process called The Williams Vertizontal – a dead-end hole or steep-angle bore – to install and house the loops. The Vermeer D22x22FX Series II Navigator horizontal directional drill is positioned at the entry pit at a 30-degree pitch angle. The crew then drills to a depth of about 100 feet, at which point the drill head and stem is extracted, and the loop is pushed down into the borehole and grouted. Once one loop is installed, the drill rig is rotated slightly, and another borehole is created. The process is repeated until the required number of loops is installed.

Horizontal directional drills are becoming a popular equipment choice for loop installations. Manufacturers are building units that are more compact and lighter, allowing contractors to access space-restricted areas and reducing damage to the existing landscape. Depending on the manufacturer and model, some units also can complete both vertical and horizontal loop installations. Finding an experienced operator for a horizontal directional drill can be a challenge. However, most drill manufacturers and their dealership networks offer training to support your company after the sale.

The Vermeer D22x22FX Series II is capable of drilling from 18-degree to 90-degree entry points. The unit is built for vertical and steep-angle geothermal loop installations; it also functions as a horizontal directional drill (HDD) that can install horizontal loops and conventional utilities. “It’s an ideal installation method for our area since some of the yards are only 85 feet wide, and that really limits our options,” says Biggs.

However, Biggs did face some challenges bringing the loop installation process in-house. The biggest was understanding the geographical conditions. The White River flows through Indianapolis, and, with a river, you have a lot of sand, gravel and rock below the surface. So understanding how best to bore through these different formations was an education process.

The second challenge was learning how to operate a directional drill. Biggs and his team watched other contractors and learned some tips, but it also involves just going out and doing it yourself. “We purchase Vermeer horizontal directional drilling rigs, and their sales team has been great in spending time with our teams to educate them on the drilling process,” says Biggs.

Training to Be the Best

Training abounds within the industry to help contractors better understand how ground source heat pump systems work and how to properly install them. However, it all begins with industry standards, and those have been developed by the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association.

IGSHPA offers an Accredited Installer Program. This three-day workshop covers all aspects of the ground source heat pump system installation process. Topics covered include the basics of designing the system, the loop installation, and the installation of the mechanical equipment inside the residence or building.

A more focused training program – Accredited Drillers Training Program – covers aspects of the loop installation process. It’s really designed for underground and water well drilling contractors who are interested in installing vertical loops. It also is a good resource for HVAC contractors looking to bring the loop installation process in-house.

“Attending a training program creates a better education model for contractors, and helps them compete in the marketplace,” explains Clapp. “It gives them all the tools necessary to know how to correctly design and install a ground source heat pump system, and better-educated contractors lead to better-installed systems, and that helps improve the market as a whole.”

IGSHPA isn’t the only entity offering training to contractors. Heat pump manufacturers like WaterFurnace also offer training and support. Clapp points out that some states also may require the underground contractor to complete state-specific licensing requirements. Those requirements vary by state – and even down to the county – level in some states. So it’s important to communicate with your state Department of Natural Resources to completely understand the licensing and regulation process.

Training is only the beginning. Just because contractors complete a training course and become certified, it doesn’t mean they have the experience to install a loop system. “Whether you’re installing horizontal or vertical loops, the drill operator needs some experience to complete a quality job,” says Ed Savage with Vermeer Corp. “When installing horizontal loops, you can get into many different soil conditions over a 500-foot bore. But when drilling vertically, it’s amazing how many different types of soils – topsoil, clay, gravel and sand – you can drill through in a single bore. Training gives you the tools to complete a successful bore, but properly boring that hole takes some experience.” 

Savage encourages contractors to visit with HVAC companies already installing ground source heat pump loops, and equipment manufacturers. They can share with you their experiences, and that can provide valuable insight.

And when it comes to equipment, make sure you’re aligned with a manufacturer or dealer that understands your market, and has the pieces in place to support your equipment, team and business after the sale.