Friday, October 9, 2009

Geothermal Heat Pumps: Open-Loop Systems

Q: What is an open-loop system?
A: The term “Open-Loop” is commonly used to describe a geothermal heat pump system that uses groundwater from a conventional well as a heat source in winter and a heat sink in summer. The groundwater is pumped through the heat pump where heat is extracted (in winter) or rejected (in summer), then the water is disposed of in an appropriate manner. Since groundwater is a relatively constant temperature year-round, it is an excellent heat source/heat sink. An example of a groundwater installation

Q: What do I do with the discharge water?
A: There are a number of ways to dispose of water after it has passed through the heat pump. The open discharge method is the easiest and least expensive. Open discharge simply involves releasing the water into a stream, river, lake, pond, ditch or drainage tile. Obviously, one of these alternatives must be readily available and must possess the capacity to accept the amount of water used by the heat pump before open discharge is feasible. A second means of water discharge is the return well. A return well is a second well bore that returns the water to the ground aquifer. A return well must have enough capacity to dispose of the water passed through the heat pump. A new return well should be installed by a qualified well driller. Likewise, a professional should test the capacity of an existing well before it is used as a return.

Q: How much groundwater does an open-loop system need?
A: Geothermal heat pumps used in open-loop systems need differing amounts of water depending on the size of the unit. The water requirement of a specific model is usually expressed in gallons per minute (l/s) and is listed in the specifications for that unit. Your heating and cooling contractor should be able to provide this information. Generally, the average system will use 6-10 G.P.M. [0.4 – 0.6 l/s] while operating. An extremely cold day might result in a usage of 6,000-10,000 gallons [23,000 – 38,000 liters] of water. Your well and pump combination should be large enough to supply the water needed by the heat pump in addition to your domestic water requirements. You will probably need to enlarge your pressure tank or modify your plumbing to supply adequate water to the heat pump.

Q: What problems can be caused by poor water quality?
A: Poor water quality can cause serious problems in open-loop systems. Your water should be tested for hardness, acidity and iron content before a heat pump is installed. Your contractor can tell you what level of water quality is acceptable. Mineral deposits can build up inside the heat pump’s heat exchanger. Sometimes a periodic cleaning with a mild acid solution is all that’s needed to remove the build-up. Impurities, particularly iron, can eventually clog a return well. If your water has a high iron content you should be sure that the discharge water is not aerated before it’s injected into a return well. Finally, you should opt against using water from a spring, pond, lake or river as a source for your heat pump system unless it’s proven to be free of excessive particles and organic matter. They can clog a heat pump system and make it inoperable in a short time. If water quality is a concern, a closed-loop system should be used.

Q: Does an open-loop system cause environmental damage?
A: No. They are pollution free. The heat pump merely removes heat from or adds heat to the water. No pollutants are added whatsoever. The only change in the water returned to the environment is a slight increase or decrease in temperature.

Q: Are there any laws that apply to open-loop installations?
A: In some localities, all or parts of the installation may be subject to local ordinances, codes, covenants or licensing requirements. Check with local authorities to determine if any restrictions apply in your area. Geothermal Heat Pumps: Parts of the System.

Q: What are the components of a geothermal heat pump system?
A: The three main parts are the heat pump unit, the liquid heat exchange medium (open or closed loop), and the air delivery system (ductwork).

Q: Are all geothermal heat pumps alike?
A: No. There are different kinds of geothermal heat pumps designed for specific applications. Many geothermal heat pumps, for example, are intended for use only with higher temperature ground water encountered in open-loop systems. Others will operate at entering water temperatures as low as 20°F [-7°C] which is required for closed- loop systems. Geothermal heat pumps can also differ in the way they are designed. Self-contained units combine the blower, compressor, water heat exchanger and air coil in a single cabinet. Split systems allow the coil to be added to a forced-air furnace and utilize the existing blower.

Q: Will I have to add insulation to my home if I install one of these systems?
A: Geothermal heat pumps will reduce your heating and cooling costs regardless of how well your home is insulated. However, insulating and weatherizing are key factors in realizing the most savings from any type of heating and cooling system.

Q: Can a geothermal heat pump also heat water for my home?
A: Yes. Using what’s called a Hot Water Generator (HWG), some types of geothermal heat pumps can save you up to 50 percent on your water heating bill by pre-heating tank water. The HWG is a factory-installed option.

Q: Is a geothermal heat pump difficult to install?
A: Most units are easy to install, especially when they are replacing another forced-air system. They can be installed in areas unsuitable for fossil fuel furnaces because there is no combustion, thus, no need to vent exhaust gases. Ductwork must be installed in homes that don’t have an existing air distribution system. The difficulty of installing ductwork will vary and should be assessed by a contractor.

Q: Can a geothermal heat pump be added to my fossil fuel (Gas, oil, propane) furnace?
A: Split systems can easily be added to existing furnaces for those wishing to have a dual-fuel system. Use the heat pump as the main heating source and a furnace as a supplement in extremely cold weather if additional heat is needed.


  1. Hello there! This is a good read. I will be looking forward to visit your page again and for your other posts as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about geothermal heating in your area. I'm glad to stop by your site and know more about geothermal heating.
    Closed loop geothermal heat pumps circulate a carrier fluid (usually a water/antifreeze mix) through pipes buried in the ground. Single-home systems can be "vertical loop field" systems with bore holes 50–400 feet deep or, if adequate land is available for extensive trenches, a "horizontal loop field" is installed approximately six feet subsurface. As the fluid circulates underground it absorbs heat from the ground and, on its return, the now warmer fluid passes through the heat pump which uses electricity to extract the heat from the fluid. The re-chilled fluid is sent back into the ground thus continuing the cycle. The heat extracted and that generated by the heat pump appliance as a byproduct is used to heat the house. The addition of the ground heating loop in the energy equation means that more heat is generated than if electricity alone had been used directly for heating.
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  2. Hi there! great stuff. Thanks for sharing a very interesting and informative content, it helps me a lot, keep it up!

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  3. Geothermal heat pumps, also known as ground-source heat pumps, can be one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to heat and cool your home or building. However, occasionally geothermal installations go wrong, often as the result of an inexperienced designer or installer. Here are some of the common pitfalls and ways to avoid these issues.

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