They also have a reputation for being expensive--very expensive.
And with drilling costs in this region historically being quoted as high as $15/lineal foot, this reputation is well deserved. These prices usually put this technology out of the range of economic justification for typical projects.
So what can a designer do to minimize costs, yet still provide the energy benefits of this technology?
Add a cooling tower.
To understand how adding a cooling tower to a ground loop saves costs, first you have to understand a simple concept about closed ground-loop systems. While the ground loop is often referred to as a "heat exchanger", the ground-loop (and the ground it occupies) acts more as a leaky heat storage battery. Unless there is sufficient ground-water movement through the well-field, most of the heat that is rejected into the ground remains there throughout the year unless it is later removed by the ground loop itself.
That means that over time, if the heat added is not balanced by heat removed, the ground temperature will continually increase over the seasons, increasing loop temperatures and decreasing system efficiency.
(graph showing increase in temperature over time for imbalanced loop of differing bore hole numbers. From here)
The best situation for a designer is when the heat added to the ground over the course of the year (by the process of cooling the building) is balanced by the amount of heat removed from the loop (by the process of heating the building). But a heat-pump does not just move heat from one source to another. Because a compressor is needed to perform this work, a heat pump always adds the heat of compression to the equation. This is a benefit in heating, since the heat of compression is added to the amount of heat moved from the loop to the building. This is a hindrance in cooling, since this compressor heat is added to the heat moved from the building to the loop. In practice, about 1.2 to 1.8 tons of heating are needed to balance out 1 ton of cooling. This means that many ground loops will see an imbalance where more heat is rejected to the loop than is removed from the loop over the course of a year. This effect can be significantly compounded (or mitigated) by the configuration and use of the building served--buildings with significant yearly cooling loads will be more affected than by buildings dominated by heating loads.
A ground-loop designer typically combats this effect by increasing the volume of the well field by increasing the number wells to a point where the relatively small amount of heat-leakage out of the well-field and added volume is enough to account for the imbalance of the system and minimize the heat gain. Thus ground loop well-fields are often sized due to the minimum requirements of either heating or cooling demand for the building. Cooling-dominated well-fields are more common throughout the US, especially in the southern portion of the country.
If the designer could correct for this imbalance and build the loop to the smaller size required by the heating load of the building, then fewer wells would be needed, and thus the overall cost of the loop would come down. One of the most cost-effective ways to provide extra cooling to balance out the loop on such a system is by way of a cooling tower or fluid cooler. When a cooling tower is used in conjunction with a ground loop, you have what is called a hybrid system.
Hybrid systems can be extremely effective at bringing down first costs of ground loop systems. A study by Kevin Rafferty of the Oregon Institute of Technology found that hybrid systems can reduce the cost of a ground loop by as much as half for some systems:
But can we expect similar reductions in first cost for the Puget Sound region, where we have a generally cool climate and a long heating season? For some systems, it appears the answer is yes. A presentation by Scott Hackel of the University of Wisconsin at the ASHRAE 2007 summer meeting investigated the cost savings possible using hybrid systems throughout the country. His study showed very significant reductions in ground heat exchanger (GHX) loop lengths for school, retail and office applications in the Seattle region:
(Click for larger image)
Hybrid loops may just make the next ground loop you consider pencil out.