Should You Invest In A Geothermal HVAC System Or A Heat Pump?

If you've grown tired of high heating and cooling bills and are looking for a more environmentally friendly alternative, you might be investigating the various types of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that make use of your property's natural resources to provide warm air, hot water, and air conditioning to your home. Read on to learn more about the differences between geothermal systems and heat pumps as compared to other HVAC systems, as well as some factors you can use to decide which one is the right choice for your home. 

How do geothermal systems and heat pumps differ from other HVAC systems?

Throughout the U.S., homes are heated in a variety of ways -- from heating oil or propane forced-air systems to radiators to wood-burning stoves to electric baseboard heat. One common element of each type of system is either the combustion of fuel (wood, gas, or oil) or the use of an electrical current to warm an element. This burning fuel or electrified element can help heat the air surrounding the system, flowing heat through your house.

During the warmer months, these same homes can be cooled through evaporative coolers, window or central air conditioners, or even high-powered fans. Although evaporative coolers are fairly energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly, air conditioners and fans also consume quite a bit electricity during warm months.

Geothermal systems and heat pumps are different from other HVAC systems in that they can perform both heating and cooling functions without requiring the use of fuel or much electricity. Over time, these systems can allow you to become less reliant on public utility systems for your home's heat and air conditioning, as well as save you a substantial amount of money on monthly heating and cooling bills. 

  • Heat pumps are the smaller, more scaled-down version of a full geothermal system. These pumps operate by funneling warm air from the ground into the home during winter and cool air from the ground into the home during summer. This air is sent through a vapor compression system (similar to that inside a refrigerator or air conditioner) to ensure it's the proper temperature and humidity before it enters the home. Most residential heat pumps are reversible, so that they can perform both heating and cooling functions as the seasons change.
  • Geothermal HVAC systems also make use of the earth's constant comfortable temperature by flowing water through a series of pipes installed underground. This water is then used to help generate warm air (in winter) and cool air (in summer). Most geothermal systems are customized to provide all the heating and cooling needs for a specific home and can significantly reduce utility bills year-round.

How can you decide which system to choose? 

The right decision for your home primarily depends on three factors -- your property characteristics, your budget, and your expected sale timeline.

The installation of a geothermal system can involve a bit of excavating -- so if you live on a very small lot or steel hillside, it may be more difficult to lay these pipes correctly than if you have a large, flat area within close proximity to your home. On the other hand, a heat pump is similar in size to a central air conditioning unit, so can be placed just about anywhere.

Heat pumps are also much less expensive than a full geothermal system -- however, the vapor compression unit does use more electricity than the electrical components of a geothermal system, so you won't see quite as much cost savings on a monthly basis. Most full geothermal systems cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to install, while a heat pump alone is closer to $6,000 for an average-sized home.  

Finally, you'll want to consider how long you plan to stay in your home. Because of the high up-front cost of a geothermal system, it often doesn't make sense to invest in a system just before you sell your home. Although you'll be able to fetch a higher sales price than a home with another type of heating system, you still may not recoup all your costs -- and you won't have had much time to take advantage of lower monthly bills. On the other hand, if you're planning to downsize or move in the next few years, a heat pump can help you lower your bills while packing much less of a financial punch.