SALEM – After moisture from their previous air conditioning system caused a bedroom ceiling to deteriorate and collapse, Coy and Betsy O’Connor decided to fix the problem by trying something that City of Salem building officials had never seen before.
The O’Connors decided to go green by converting to geothermal and solar systems to heat, cool and power their home. For the last two weeks, employees of Tinbenders Geothermal Heat Pump Specialists have installed a geothermal heat pump, Powermark Electrical workers have worked to install solar panels, and a crew from Rorrer Well Drilling has drilled four wells on the couple’s Roanoke Boulevard property.
Though the many phases of the conversion did not require a zoning permit, the geothermal installation process was something new to City of Salem building officials, as the O’Connors’ home is the first Salem property to have geothermal heating and cooling installed. Glenvar High School is installing a geothermal system as part of its renovation project, but that project is being overseen by Roanoke County Schools.
While the geothermal system is a new concept to the city, solar energy seems to have already caught on in the area as several Salem residents and businesses have installed solar panels in recent years, including Roanoke Valley Wine Company located on Intervale Drive.
“It’s big for the city to know this can be done, especially in a residential area,” said Ed Ricci, supervisor of Tinbenders’ geothermal installation. “It’s something new to [Salem’s building officials], but Salem does a lot of things great and its building department is one of them.”
Though zoning wasn’t an issue with the project, the O’Connors’ front door was still covered with various permit papers earlier this week. Salem Building Official Todd Sutphin said the geothermal wells are regulated by the Virginia Health Department, and issued one of those permits for the installation of the wells. Additionally, the geothermal system within the house must be installed to comply with the Virginia Building Code and the solar panels must be installed in accordance with the National Electric Code.
As of this week, Rorrer Well Drilling had completed digging three geothermal wells –all of which are six inches in diameter, 250 feet deep and 15 feet apart – and a fourth well for water. The water accumulated in the wells will be siphoned into the house’s new Water Furnace geothermal heat pump in its basement, from which pipes will extend up the back corner of the house to quietly provide air for each floor of the home.
Betsy O’Connor said the new system would replace the house’s oil furnace system, which has been in place since the house was built in 1938. She and husband Coy expressed their excitement about the new climate controls that would be installed as part of the new system for each floor of the house. Coy said he would be able to control the thermostat using his mobile devices, and would be able to view how much sunlight was accumulated through the solar panels and generated into electricity.
Along with the likelihood of much cheaper electric bills, increasing the value of their property, and the many other benefits of using renewable energy, the O’Connors will also benefit from their power switch with a 30 percent tax credit from the state through 2016. Though the retired couple did not share the total cost of the project, they did say that savings on electric bills should help offset the price and save them even more in the long term.
How geothermal energy works
According to literature about the Water Furnace geothermal heat pump, a geothermal heat pump taps into the renewable solar energy stored in the ground to provide savings up to 70 percent on bills.
Using a series of underground pipes, it exchanges heat with the earth instead of outdoor air. While temperatures can vary greatly from day to night or winter to summer, the temperature just three to four feet below the earth’s surface remains an average of 55-70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.