Growth in ground source heat pump systems holds promise for steady work, additional income.

It’s a situation that all too many installation contractors throughout the country have experienced firsthand. The most dramatic economic downturn the nation has seen since the Great Depression left the construction industry in peril, and the vast majority of contractors struggling. But Rick Schmitt refused to go down without a fight.

Schmitt founded NEBCON, Omaha, Neb., in January of 1998, at the height of the fiber explosion. When the bottom dropped out of the fiber installation market in the early 2000s, he was able to weather that storm by making some adjustments, exploring new services and expanding his company’s expertise. As a result of his receptivity to trying new things and a great sense of determination and resilience, NEBCON has enjoyed steady growth over the years, and currently has 14 employees. Schmitt is proud of the track record established by NEBCON for putting quality ahead of quantity and just taking things one step at a time.

In 2009 – less than a decade after the fiber bust – Schmitt found himself in a similar predicament and facing a similar set of challenges.

“After the economy went haywire, we experienced a downturn of work in our current market with the types of installations we had been doing in our area, so I started studying about ground source heat pump (GSHP) systems,” Schmitt explains. “We looked at several other markets and did a lot of research before settling in on ground source heat pump loop installations or what is commonly referred to as geothermal. There seemed to be a lot going on with it – a lot of momentum – and I felt there was tremendous opportunity and promising potential for growth.”

Schmitt turned to HVAC contractors, ground source heat pump suppliers and equipment manufacturers to gather information about the market. He discovered there were many similarities with ground source heat pump installations and the experience in horizontal directional drilling (HDD) honed by NEBCON during the company’s proud 13-year history.

“With so many people looking at the green thing in the world, a lot of people see [GSHP] as the right thing to do,” Schmitt says. “The more consumers learn about it, the more receptive they are to making the additional investment in this renewable form of heating and cooling. Ultimately, I think the catalyst that will make this thing explode will be the realization that although the systems may cost more to install initially, over the long haul, they eventually pay for themselves.”

System Generalities

Ground source heat pumping is a process by which heat is moved into and out of the earth for the purpose of heating and cooling a building or dwelling, as well as providing hot water.

A typical ground source heat pump system features a heat pump, air-distribution system (ducts, etc.), a hot water system, and a series of long plastic pipes (loops) buried underground – either vertically or horizontally. The heating and cooling needs of the structure dictate the cumulative amount of loop in the ground. The loops are filled with environmentally safe antifreeze, and connected to the heat pump located inside the structure.

During the heating cycle, the system automatically pulls heat from the ground via the fluid in the loops, and circulates it through the heat pump, which concentrates the heat and distributes it throughout the structure via duct work. At the same time, the antifreeze continuously cycles back through the loops, where it reheats, and the process repeats itself.

In hot weather when air conditioning is needed, the system reverses itself. Heat is extracted from the structure, and is directed to the water heater or back into the ground where it can be stored for reuse during cold-weather months.

Simply put, in the winter months, the ground source heat pump moves heat from the ground into the building. During the summer months, the system moves heat from the building to either the water heater or back into the ground. The system uses renewable energy because the earth becomes a natural sink for storing heat to be used by the geothermal system. It is up to five times more efficient to move heat than it is to create it with a conventional system that uses fossil fuels, such as natural gas or oil.

The Right Equipment

After completing all the research, educating his staff and getting drill operators proper training and certification, Schmitt turned to Vermeer for help with identifying equipment that would be best suited for the types of ground source heat pump geothermal installations NEBCON intended to pursue. Initially, Schmitt felt most confident focusing on residential systems – both horizontal and vertical type installs – and his Vermeer dealer had an answer.

“We’ve used Vermeer equipment for several years, and have been very pleased with their dealer and factory support,” Schmitt says. “Our sales rep suggested we try the D20x22FX Series II flex-angle drill, a model developed specifically for installing ground source heat pump systems. The drill has a lot of things going for it that other conventional well drills don’t with different angles, especially the ability to drill horizontally, vertically or, for that matter, any angle in between.

NEBCON starting installing geothermal systems in the spring of 2010, and currently has logged more than 30 successful installs. According to Schmitt, the D20x22FX Series II flex-angle drill has worked well; especially for entering the house to connect the loop system to the heat pump located within the confines of the home. “We can drill out from a 90-degree and then go to a 60-, a 45- or a 30-degree angle without having to reposition the drill. The ability to lessen the footprint is a huge advantage, especially in tight, confined spaces that we often encounter in yards and such when installing residential systems,” he says.

The International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA) requires vertical installations have a 15-foot separation between loops. Schmitt explains that to accomplish this using traditional well drilling equipment would require the drill rig to be physically repositioned and moved 15 feet to begin the next bore. But the flex-angle design of the D20x22FX Series II drill allows the operator to keep the drill positioned in relatively close proximity and drill out at different angles to achieve the necessary loop separation. “We just move the machine a little bit, actually no more than 6 feet, and we can still achieve the 15-foot separation within 20 feet

down and then continue drilling out,” he notes. “This is a feature that is very, very useful. The ability to change angles with minimal movement of the drill allows us to install several loops within close proximity of each other and keep our footprint much tighter. We don’t have to tear up nearly as much yard, which is a huge asset.”

Continuous Learning Curve

Despite having more than a couple dozen installs under its belt, NEBCON continues to hone its ground source heat pump installation skills, and learning new techniques definitely is an ongoing process. Among the most interesting has been adjusting to the difference in vertical installations vs. horizontal. “Vertical drilling certainly had a learning curve,” Schmitt relates. “You go through a lot of different layers of the earth’s crust, and that brings a lot of different situations. We learned to adjust many aspects of the drilling process – things such as mud mixings, how to effectively clear cuttings from the hole, and adjusting to the many different types of material that could be encountered. Learning to become a good vertical driller likely will be an ongoing process and probably not something that anyone can learn in less than a year.”

With regard to installation specifics and drill plans, Schmitt explains that the HVAC contractors they work with leave it up to NEBCON to handle the details. Among the things Schmitt and his crew must consider in advance of starting a new install are things like the location where the bore will penetrate the house, specifics regarding the location of the loop system, or in the case of vertical, the physical location of the bore, materials and fabrication, and actually connecting the system to the heat pump and making it operational. “For the most part, we try to penetrate the foundation through the floor and come up close to the new geothermal heat pump,” he explains. “This provides for a much cleaner installation. We also choose the loop placement, a decision that requires knowing the intricate details of the existing septic system (if applicable), and any utilities – gas, water, sewer and such – along with consideration for the terrain, including hills, slopes, low-lying areas and property lines.”

With the site plan completed, Schmitt then will draw up the drill plan, including specifying drill positioning to minimize footprint, drilling angles, tooling most effective in navigating specific and anticipated soil conditions, the type and size of loop material to be installed, estimates for time necessary to complete the installation, and anticipate any adjustments that may be required along the way.

To this point, Schmitt is well-pleased with the performance of the D20x22FX Series II drill and the capabilities it offers with the flex-angle design. “As with any new piece of equipment, we had a few bugs to work out initially,” Schmitt says, “but we are very happy with how the drill has performed. The ability to go horizontal, vertical or any angle in between eliminates the need for another machine. It has done everything we expected, and in true Vermeer fashion, has been reliable. It’s been there to run every day we’ve needed it.”

Future Looks Bright

Schmitt is delighted with the expansion into ground source heat pump installations, and remains optimistic about the future. “Adding ground geothermal systems installation to our menu of offerings have expanded our business and allowed us to provide a greater breadth of services to a whole new market,” he says. “Doing so has helped to flatten the peaks and valleys of our workload, and also created a more consistent stream of revenue and income for us.”

And the future for this renewable form of heating and cooling looks bright. “I think there’s a lot of growth yet to come for ground source heat pumps, especially since we seem to be lagging a bit behind some surrounding states,” Schmitt adds. “There are a lot of contractors that are avoiding geothermal systems loop installations because they are scared of it, I suppose. We hope to bring them some education from what we’ve learned, and possibly open up a lot of avenues for our peers to explore along the way. We plan to get more aggressive with marketing, and expect the acceptance and growth to follow.”