Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.


One Earth Lifestyle

For those talking about climate change, the environment, resilience and sustainability, a term known as environmental footprint, often enters the discussion. For use here, environmental footprint refers to the impact or damage, a person’s lifestyle has on the natural world - water, soil, air.  These impacts are the consequences of driving a car, food choices, size of home, vacation and whatever else a person does that impacts the natural world.

Important to add, that footprint should include impact and damage on the well being of society. One’s lifestyle not only affects the natural world, it also affects public health, politics and social cohesion.

The more energy and resources one uses, the bigger the environmental footprint.  Big homes with few residents and cars cause more damage to the planet than a modest home and a bike. Beef has a bigger footprint than beets.  

A map of the world that compares countries and their environmental footprints, shows the United States stands out.  The average person in the United States uses far more resources than the average person in almost any other country, even affluent countries like Sweden or Japan.

Closely related to environmental footprint, a newer term, “one earth lifestyle,” provides a more nuanced appraisal of how we live.  A one earth lifestyle means a lifestyle where a person consumes only their share [approx 1/7 billionth] of the world’s sustainable resources and planet earth could safely process the waste of 7 billion one earth lifestyles.

There are many aspects to any lifestyle such as food, shelter, transportation, recreation, employment. The attributes of a lifestyle all add up and affect the environment and community.

Its important for people to gain an understanding of how their lifestyle affects both the social and natural environments.  Putting that awareness into the context of a one earth lifestyle is a useful, if sobering task, that can help motivate people to make lifestyle adjustments for reducing their footprint to a sustainable level.

Most people take affluence and convenience for granted and would be surprised to find their footprint exceeds a one earth lifestyle by, perhaps a wide margin.  Most of the world does not live like middle class America, although most people all over the world would like to. Its clear, the earth cannot support its current human cargo, even with billions living far less than one earth lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, there are thoughtful surveys on line to help those with a concern to gain an idea what fraction of an earth or how many planet earths would be needed to support their own personal lifestyle.

What would a one earth lifestyle look like?  What might one seven billionth of the global pie look like?

I have taken such as survey and was moderately impressed with the questions.  It did not cover all the bases, certainly, but I would recommend that survey to others.  Its educational, simply answering the questions most of us never think about but are important.  I will describe highlights of the survey in terms of my own answers and results and would encourage the reader to extrapolate their own answers to the survey questions.  I am using www.footprintcalculator.org/   

I have no financial interest in this entity and know only about the group from what is described on their website.  Again, its not a perfect survey but it does have educational value and the items I mention below are only part of the survey.  Here we go.

Diet is a big deal and this calculator asks a lot of questions. Meat or veggie, what kind of meat, local, processed, packaged, how often? I am veggie, not quite vegan, eggs from my own hens and a pound of cheese lasts a month.

Another set of questions is about housing. How many people live in your house?  What kind of residence? Is it an apartment, townhome, detached house.  Other questions ask about energy efficiency and how many people live the house. I own my own home, it is a modest detached house, it has insulation all around, its all electric, has significant passive solar heating and four people live here.

A survey could ask a lot more questions about shelter.

Another question, where does your electricity come from?  Here in the Northwest, its by far mostly hydro and even hydro has a footprint.  I have a solar hot water heater and heat pump.

Another set of questions is about how much trash does one create and related, how often does one buy clothes, appliances, electronics, books, magazines.  My responses, very little of any of the above.

Transportation is another big deal.  The survey asks about what kind of a car one has and what is its gas mileage.  How much is it used or does one use public transportation and how often.  How many hours per year in a jet plane.  For me, I drive a car rarely, maybe 5 days a year. Bike trip last year I took my bike to Arizona on Amtrak and returned on Amtrak.  Last year I had two return plane flights to Texas.  Around town, I use a bike.  I borrowed a friend’s truck for a load of llama poop.

There are other questions aboout diet, shelter, what do we buy, transportation are all good ones.  My results came out to about .9 earths to support my fair share lifestyle - veggie, modest home shared with 3 others, don’t really buy new much of anything, ride a bike, fly only occasionally.

Not to boast or be critical, but I use a lot less of just about everything than even most of my progressive friends (see my house above), and compared to the average middle class lifestyle in the US, they are modest.  I have a contact who I would guess, has a 20 earth lifestyle with multiple homes, cars, trips all over the world, lots of solo driving.  Even his level of consumption is spare change compared to really wealthy people.

Again, the survey could be more detailed, I don’t know their methodology, but I trust the calculation does have some validity.

My take home message for this blog, we all know about climate change and a natural world in decline.  We are well aware of many social and political challenges that affect us all. Virtually all of the deepening trends we face are easily traced to lifestyles that consume too many resources and produce too much waste.  Having an honest look at the damage caused by our own lifestyles, in terms of a one earth lifestyle, is a helpful if intimidating move towards creating homes, neighborhoods, economy and culture that are green and resilient.

Jan Spencer has been transforming his quarter-acre suburban property for 15 years. The project shows what home economics and suburbia can look like — taking care of more needs closer to home, including food, energy, water, and culture. Read a draft preface for his forthcoming book, Notes from the Suburban Frontier at www.SuburbanPermaculture.orgHe is available for making presentations about transforming suburbia, economy and culture. Find his contact info, CV and more topics he can address on his website, and click here to read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.


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The Significance of Your Kitchen

Michael Johnathon kitchen 

When people ask me where I live, my answer is simple: I live in an airplane and a car seat. When I’m not on the road, however, my precious time is spent in a most romantic setting. I am a tree-hugging, banjo-picking, log cabin dweller.

The first room you enter when coming into my farmhouse is, as it should be, the kitchen. The kitchen is the architectural welcome chamber in abodes worldwide.  It has been this way since mankind first figured out that food and a sense of community are interchangeable and inseparable.  In the earliest of times, when people lived in caves, the kitchen was always at the the mouth of the cave.

Obviously, the first room you entered by necessity - it was the only place to set the fire so the smoke could get out. Even so, it is fitting that the kitchen should forever be the first place to set foot in when entering someone’s living space. 

I’m glad you’re here — and this is the place that says so.

My kitchen in our log cabin is the most wonderful, pleasing and lonesome room in this house. It is welcoming in a great many ways. It welcomes you with the smell of breakfast in the morning. It welcomes you with the lilting fragrance of homemade pine-nut and sunflower-seed pasta sauce simmering into its fourteenth hour on the stove. It welcomes you with sights of a large bowl of garden salad set in the center of my long wooden table.  It welcomes you with growing plants in the windowsill, bright green, living and breathing as they reflect the afternoon sun.

I love my kitchen. And I love my table.

My kitchen table is six feet long and completely made of wood. I can seat six wooden chairs comfortably around it and it takes up the most prominent place in the room.  It is of an early Americana design that I found in a second-hand store for $75. It has small, hand-shaped metal edges that decorate the corners of the table top. The surface of the pine table is finished with a clear rubbing oil and has a decidedly woodshop fragrance to it. A good, solid table is important.  It is the center point of life in your home, the communal gathering point of your kitchen.  Great dreams, brilliant poems, homework and wars have all been planned and decided upon at kitchen tables throughout history.

My kitchen, when the house is empty but for me (rare because we have two 4-year-old twins), is also the room that begs the question, Where is everyone? Your kitchen seeks out your friends and family. It longs for laughter and noise and conversation. It is the one room that speaks loudest when your home is silent. This makes the kitchen the loneliest room in the house.

To understand my appreciation for this gastronomic temple, I must first tell you why I love my place.

I live in a log cabin on a hill surrounded by seven acres of woods and meadows. We live in the country, a 15-minute drive to downtown Lexington but I'm surrounded by large farms, meadows, woods and a creek. I enjoy Lexington. It is a wonderful hometown full of creative and passionate people. It is the gateway to Appalachia and sits at the crossroads of America’s folk and bluegrass music.  It is a songwriter’s heaven and a folksinger’s paradise.  It has a wonderful “I wish I was Cincinnati” aggressiveness but with a quaint, small-town atmosphere.  My children are growing up here and I like that.

My home  is indeed a wonderful setting. I get up in the morning, pour a hot cup of tea, gaze through my kitchen window into the earthy expanse of trees, meadows and fields and thank God someone else is financing my view.

Ahhhh, life is good. I savor this moment each morning I am home. It is a "Michael ritual" that runs a complete cycle each day. Like Thoreau, I believe in waking up slow, drinking in the morning and letting gentle appreciation of the day ahead set upon you softly.

Then I attack into it like a roaring Viking at siege. ‘Gentle appreciation’ has its limits when you are trying to get things done.

My home is the place where all the songs and books were written. It has seasoned wooden floors and windows laced with plants. And yes, they are all healthy.

Other than the kitchen, my second favorite room is the living room. I designed the placement of the furniture in that room so everything faces my passionate and adoring lover, the one whom I turn to for warmth and conversation on lonely, snowy nights, the one who occupies my mind and body and senses. My mistress who reflects what I wish my life could really be like someday ... my fireplace.

Other than my wife, of course.

I have a very passionate, ongoing relationship with my fireplace. If your couch faces the TV in your home then you are doing it wrong. A fireplace is nature’s TV set. No remote control or cable needed. It has one stunning channel that has entertained people with the same untiring script and song for generations and for thousands of years.

The kitchen’s equivalent to the living room fireplace is, of course, the table. That is why I expound so much about it. The kitchen table is the altar of your home. You should take the shape and length and design of your table very, very seriously.  Your kitchen table reflects the inner desire of what you wish the quality of your life should be. It really does. For example: Does your life feel cramped and artificial? Do you have a small, round formica table?

You do, don’t you! Coincidence? I think not.  'nuff said.

My living room compliments my kitchen because it is the place to retreat with friends after your kitchen has exhausted all of its treasures.  Your living room is the place to go when you are ready to bask in the afterglow of the kitchen’s glory.

Of course, it also has my DVD surround-sound system which is especially useful during summer months when the only practical use of a fireplace is to serve as one more plant stand. Plus, Lord knows, I have to watch WoodSongs every now and then.

So much for “nature boy.” But unlike the living room, a kitchen has limited interchangeable uses. When I first moved into this old home I thought long and hard about my kitchen. I built my pot rack to hang from the ceiling above the stove.  I placed the pictures on the wall in just the right places.  I picked out the plants and the garden pots they will rest in with deference to the window and the sunlight they will soak in.  But something was missing, something was oddly un-present. Something was completely wrong with the ambiance of my kitchen.

And then I discovered an odd and amazing fact of life: The kitchen didn’t turn into a “kitchen” until I finally plugged in the toaster.

Really. It wasn’t until I bought my toaster, plugged it in and stuck my knife into the butter that my farmhouse temple achieved its spiritual nirvana. The kitchen depends on the fragrance of home to become a real kitchen.

And nothing smells of home more than wafts of toast in the morning as your coffee perks. What a great way to start your day!

Among the throngs of artists in the music world, few have elevated “dreaming” to such a high art form as folksinger Michael Johnathon. He has a successful career as a touring songwriter, author of four published book, playwright of the Walden Play performed in 42 countries, composer of the opera, Woody: For the People, organizer of the national association of front porch musicians called SongFarmers, and as the host of the live audience broadcast of the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour with a radio audience with over two million listeners each week on 500 public radio stations, public television coast-to-coast, American Forces Radio Network in 173 nations and now on the RFD-TV Network nationwide. His latest album release is DAZED & CONFUZED and his fourth book will be released June 2019. Connect with Michael at MichaelJohnathon.com, WoodSongs.com, WaldenPlay.com.


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A Couple's Decision to Build a Tiny House on Wheels

woman builds tiny house

“What do you think about building a tiny home?” When I asked my partner Mary Beth that very question, it felt a bit crazy. “Can we do it?” “Can we afford it?” “Where do we start?” All of these questions were suddenly already bouncing around in my head. For the first month or two after I initially proposed the idea (nearly two years ago), we certainly had more questions than we had answers. But after the idea sank in a bit, it began to feel like perhaps we were onto something. We don’t have a piece of property to call our own, we both enjoy travel, we’re both striving to pay off student loans as early as we can, we’re constantly working toward shrinking our footprint, and we’ve both been focusing on paring our possessions down to the belongings that really matter. Neither of us have ever built a house, but we knew people who had, and we both had the mindset that what we don’t know now we can learn from others, from books, and from the internet. We’re both also fortunate enough to have incredibly supportive family and friends that we knew we could call on if we needed help.

After we took some time to fully digest the idea, identified the benefits and risks, scoured blogs, watched videos, and read articles on the topic, we felt even more confident about it. Others are out there doing it, and with a growing number of folks successfully living in tiny homes on wheels, we knew that (while it wouldn’t be easy) we could figure out a way to make it work for us too. The positives really began to outshine the doubts, and so we dove in.

Why Tiny? The Initial Idea

I think to fully understand how Mary Beth and I began on our journey, we need to start from the beginning, when a chance meeting with a very special woman planted the tiny seed that grew into this big idea. I was working on my permaculture design certification, and through the course of my studies, our class visited this special woman’s property to participate in a practicum course to present permaculture designs and put them into action. During lunch, I sat down and struck up a conversation with the property owner. During the course of our talk, she shared that she envisioned hosting a young couple on the property in exchange for helping her keep up the place. I really enjoy working outdoors, so this idea intrigued me. It stuck with me for months, until that little seed began to grow into an idea. Perhaps we could be that couple? Months after our initial meeting, I called her and she invited us over for lunch. We talked about the idea more in-depth, and we came to the conclusion that it could be a positive thing for both her and us, and so we began taking steps toward making it a reality.

man builds tiny house

While Mary Beth and I were hunting for apartments closer to the potential build site and my job in Topeka, Kansas, Mary Beth’s mom graciously extended the opportunity to live in the finished basement of her home for little more than help with the utilities. I can’t even express how helpful this was. It provided a giant boost in how quickly we could save up the funds for our tiny home project and made us that much more confident in fully committing ourselves to building a tiny home.

Decision to Build on a Trailer

We were originally exploring the possibility of renovating an existing small building on the property, but, after talking it over, we eventually landed on the idea that perhaps something mobile would be better. This would allow us to keep our investment (take it with us, sell it, etc.) if we decided to go a different route in the future. However, it also opened up a lot more complexities and some hurdles that we’d need to overcome. And that’s what Mary Beth and I are going to be sharing in this series, not just our perspectives, but also our goals, our obstacles, our solutions, and everything that goes into a journey like this. You can look forward to how-tos, how-comes, and how-nots in our tiny home series of posts: everything from what to look for in a tiny home trailer, how to install windows, what type of framing we went with and why, our design process, dealing with zoning, and so much more.

community builds tiny house

Mary Beth and I may be on the same path, but our perspectives, strengths, fears, and experiences are very different. So we’ve decided to blog individually but in tandem, sharing two perspectives of a shared journey. We hope you’ll find them both useful and entertaining.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, sit down and buckle up. We’re in for a ride.

Read all of the posts from Russell and Mary Beth’s journey to build a tiny home on wheels by clicking here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Going Green: What Should You Do with Your Old Phone?

mobile phones 1

When it comes to today’s smartphones, there’s always a shiny, newer device out there to tempt you. Most phones should last at least four to six years, but with technology moving so fast, it’s not uncommon to feel like your two-year-old device is obsolete.

Thankfully, smartphones are one of the easiest electronics to recycle, and there are many ways to put your old phone to good use. If you’re looking to upgrade, keep the “three Rs” in mind when disposing of your old device.

Reduce

mobile phones 2

Giving your old phone to someone who needs or wants it may not prevent new devices from entering the market, but if more people did, it could certainly put a small dent in demand. When it comes to the environment, every little step counts!

If you’re looking to hand your phone down, consider asking your family members if they’re looking for a new device, giving it to your son or daughter, donating it to a local charity (or a national one like Cellphones For Soldiers), or selling it online using a site such as gazelle.com, eBay.com, or swappa.com.

Reuse

mobile phones 3

There are so many new ways you can put your old Android or Apple smartphone to use. Even if you’ve stopped paying for the monthly cellular data plan, your old phone can still do much of what it used to over WiFi and Bluetooth. Remember, it’s a computer, and just like any other computer, all it needs is a little tinkering and some new software to have a whole new purpose. For example, you can turn your phone into:

A remote control for your TV/Smart Home

Download just the apps you need to run your home’s connected devices. Put the phone on a charging stand in the living room for a handy home control device.

A dedicated video conferencing device

Do you work from home and do a lot of video conferences? Buy a charging dock for your old phone and set it up exclusively for Skype, Lync, or Duo chats.

A distraction-free consumption device

Remove all the apps from your phone and load it up with just music, digital books, and magazines – if they’re downloaded to the phone, you can access them without WiFi.

A child’s first phone

Kids under 12 who are begging their parents for a phone generally just want it for games and messaging friends. Pre-load the phone with just what you want them to have access to (such as the Kindle app and a messaging app that works over WiFi), then lock down the App store so they can’t download anything else. Put a few games on there, too, and choose ones that don’t need an always-on Internet connection so they can use it out of the house.

Recycle

mobile phones 4

If your phone is unusable or broken beyond repair, make sure it’s recycled properly. The plastics and metals from smartphones can be melted down and resold (one ton of melted aluminum can go for up to $1,000), and it’s a lucrative proposition for recycling companies. Check out Call2Recycle for a drop-off location near you.

Many manufacturers and retail businesses have trade-in/recycle programs, so you can send your device to them to be recycled, or even get some money for it if it’s still in usable condition. If it does still work, they’ll give your old phone a new life by sprucing it up and reselling it as “refurbished” or by shipping it off to be resold in bulk.

Sell it back to your carrier

If your smartphone is in excellent working condition and you just want to upgrade to the latest and greatest model, take it back to your phone carrier and put its value toward the cost of your new device.

As you can see, there are many ways to make sure your old phone doesn’t end up in a landfill. Just remember to erase any personal data before passing it on by going into “Settings” and looking for the option to “Factory Reset” or “Erase all Content and Settings.”

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and contributor for Xfinity Mobile. She writes about green living, mobile phone technology, consumer tech, and small businesses for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

An Earthbag World at 84!

Three Moons Earthbag World in Nevada

You might think building mud homes, especially earthbag houses, is age-dependent. But let me introduce you to Jehane Rucquoi, one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in the natural building world recently. Her creations will mash to a pulp any age-related limitations you harbour about earthbag construction. At 84 she’s not just building an earthbag house, but she’s founded and is constructing and entire off-grid world. It’s beautiful, daring and sustainable. 

The 3-Moons Project in Nevada

Nestled in the dusty landscapes of Arizona, a magical world of domes is being born. The 3 Moons Project is an inspiring exhibition of alternative building techniques. Jehane has been committed to creating this off-grid natural haven for years. Like all pioneers, she’s experienced her ups and downs. Initially she began the project somewhere else, and then had to move. But now 3 Moons has settled near Nevada, and is growing.

Earthbag Dome Construction

Jehane is very experienced in earthbag building. Indeed she met the famous Iranian architect Nader Khalili, who invented the technique. Earthbag inspired her to such an extent, she stayed at Cal-Earth and studied with Khalili himself for almost two years. Her speciality is definitely domes.

Jehane and friends have already constructed two perfect earthbag domes at Three Moons. The design is fascinating; one is covered with a deck (a brilliant idea because the deck protects the dome from sun and rain), the other is topped by a cupola. Both domes are completely naturally plastered with earth, clay, lime and sand to create a rustic finish on both exterior and interior walls.

Jehane's Earthbag Dome 

Earthbag Building Basics

For those who don’t know how earthbag building works, it’s a system that utilises polypropylene, burlap or hemp sacks filled with moist clayey earth. The sacks are then laid end to end and tamped flat with something smooth and heavy. 2 courses of barbed wire are then run between each layer of bags. The barbed wire grips the sacks preventing them from sliding in an earthquake. Earthbag building is sometimes called superadobe, and has been proven both on the shake table and around the world to be one of the toughest, most earthquake resilient construction methods around. If you'd like to know more about it, have a look at my step by step earthbag building guide.

Using Tubes

At 3 Moons, Jehane and friends have used special polypropylene tubes in their build, as opposed to the individual sacks that many people build with. With earthbag construction, the clayey soil mixture cures in the bag within the wall itself (in contrast to standard adobe where mud bricks are formed and dried in the sun before being used for construction). The sacks hold the damp earth in place until they are properly dried, thus forming a semi-permanent mold. Whether you use sacks or tubes, both create strong, earthquake resistant structures if used properly. The key is tamping the moist earth sufficiently to create a solid brick. You can learn more about how to fill tubes and sacks here.

Dome Building 

Earthbag in the Desert

Jehane has chosen the right construction technique for her climate. All mud homes, be they earthbag, adobe, cob or rammed earth are perfect for the desert. Earthen walls provide thermal mass. This means they absorb the heat and store it (at a rate of about an inch of wall an hour). If you are in a hot, dry climate like Arizona, this is what happens: The house absorbs the sun’s heat in the day, and then at night when the temperature drops the walls radiate the heat back into the house. By morning the earth has released all the stored heat and has become cool. So in the heat of the day the opposite occurs; the walls release cool air into your house instead. It’s a type of natural air-conditioning.

Other Features at 3 Moons

3 Moons is completely off-grid, solar powered with composting toilets, and a rocket stove and solar oven for cooking. One of the most striking natural building features is the now enormous snaking bottle wall that runs through the property. Made from hundreds of bottles mortared together with earthen plaster, the wall is a testament to tenacity and patience, and shows exactly how far you can get with glass bottles and mud mortar.

The Earthbag Greenhouse

Still in the making is a greenhouse with earthbag stem wall. This structure is square, not round, and will be topped with glass to house a number of plants.

Volunteer at Three Moons

The Three Moons project has been open to volunteers for a while now, and runs from March to June. The community is going to suit folk who are comfortable living in simplicity off-grid in the desert, who are open to group creativity, and to all things Earth-loving.

People with campervans are welcome too. Bear in mind you can expect freezing nights in March, and boiling days in July. For those who stay and work, there are two small beds in the earthbag shed, and two queen sized beds north and south of the trailer under the sun shed. Meals are basic, often cooked in a solar oven. Nearest stores and eateries are 18 miles away in Pahrump, NV.

Rustic interior of one dome 

All photos are courtesy of Jehane Rucquoi and the Three Moons Project.

For more details and a way to contact Jehane go to her website. https://jehanetogo.wixsite.com/mysite. For more information about earthbag building pick up my free PDF and email course on the subject. http://www.themudhome.com/earthbag-pdf.html

This story was covered by Atulya K Bingham, natural builder and prize-winning author. Her most popular books include Mud Ball, the story of how she built her earthbag home in Turkey, and the recently released Dirt Witch.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Geothermal Heat Pumps: How We Installed Our Green Alternative to Fuel Oil Heating, Part 3

Geothermal Water Furnace 

Geothermal Water Furnace. Photo by Allison Ehrman

This is part three of a three article series on geothermal heat pumps. Part one can be found here and part two can be found here.

Living with a geothermal system has been great so far. We only ended up using the cooling function for two days before autumn arrived in our part of the country, so I may revisit this topic again in an article next summer. But other than dealing with a torn-up yard as winter settles in, we’ve been very happy with the end results.

Our geothermal company sent a representative to our home several days after installation to teach us how to use the system. As tech-savvy as my husband and I are, I didn’t really think this was necessary, but it turns out there were a few things we still needed to learn in order to maximize the furnace’s efficiency. Anyone who buys a home with an existing geothermal heat pump or installs a new one should find an expert to demonstrate how that specific setup is meant to be used. 

At our old home, we allowed the indoor temperature during the winter to get down to 55 degrees at night and kept it at 68 during the day. But geothermal heat pumps generally come with an auxiliary “emergency” heat generator to supplement the main furnace’s heat on extremely cold days or to kick on if the system fails for some reason. Large temperature fluctuations also cause the emergency heat to run because the system is trying to play catch up, and emergency heat consumes much more energy and is therefore much more expensive than regular geothermal heat. Our thermostat automatically triggers the emergency heat if a temperature change of more than 2-4 degrees is suddenly required (we’ve since set the default to 4 degrees). So we now keep our thermostat at 70 during the day and 68 at night. We were keeping it at 72 during the day and 70 at night, but it was just too warm. The highest daily bill we’ve seen so far has been $3, but it’s only been getting down to just below freezing outside. We may adjust it to be cooler inside as winter really settles in. 

Another difference is that our system has a variable speed compressor. This means we can control how fast the cool or warm air comes out of the vents around the house. When the system was first installed, the company had the speed cranked up as high as it would go. I found the increased “whooshy” noise a little annoying and didn’t feel that we needed to be blasted by conditioned air in every room. A simple change reduced the flow back to normal. But I can see how such an option could come in handy some days. 

Although it isn’t noticeable this time of year, I know we will also enjoy not hearing the drone of an outdoor AC unit during the warm months. A geothermal pump doesn’t have an outdoor compressor and is just as silent in the summer as it is in the winter. Since the old unit was situated between our deck and patio, this will be a wonderful change. 

And the system can be set to automatically switch from heat mode to cooling mode, which is convenient for those times of the year when the weather is in transition.

Lastly, geothermal is also helping to heat our hot water. I can’t tell a difference at all, but I do feel less guilty when I stand a little longer under the shower on sleepy mornings, especially when I remember all the flood rain our well received this summer. The expert from the geothermal company did tell us that we may want to consider switching off the hot water option when outdoor temperatures get very low because using it at such times can also help trigger the emergency heat. So we’ll be keeping an eye on that as well. Luckily, our smart thermostat makes monitoring and controlling everything quite simple. 

Water Furnace Thermostat

Water Furnace thermostat. Photo by Allison Ehrman

All in all, I highly recommend geothermal heat pumps as a green alternative, especially if you find yourself in the market for a new system. Current rebate incentives make the price comparable to traditional systems, and the cost and energy savings can’t be beat. As for the comfort they provide, I really don’t mind not having to wear three layers of clothes in my home at night while still using less energy for heat each month. 

If you live in Northern Maryland and are looking for a reliable geothermal company, I recommend the services of Ground Loop, Inc.

Allison Ehrman works in the corporate world, but her heart and soul reside in her Northern Maryland country home, where she and her husband grow and preserve herbs and vegetables, prepare exotic dishes from locally-sourced foods and craft natural body care products. You can read more of her Mother Earth News articles here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Geothermal Heat Pumps: How We Installed Our Green Alternative to Fuel Oil Heating, Part 2

Vertical ground loops. 

Installing horizontal ground loops. Photo by Steve Ehrman.

This is part two in a three article series on geothermal heat pumps. Part one can be found here.

Our geothermal installation took five days and was followed by an inspection and training session. The amount of time and effort involved in setting up a new system varies, depending on the location of your existing heating and cooling units in relation to where the ground loops enter your house, and on the location and configuration of your ductwork, electric wiring, and hot water heater.

Day 1

We awoke early in the morning as the ground loop installation crew arrived. A large flatbed trailer parked in front of our home, carrying an excavator and a compact track loader. This day’s work consisted of digging the horizontal trenches for the ground loops, laying the loops, replacing the removed soil, and running the loops into the back of the house.

In total, our Water Furnace required four 150-foot horizontal trenches, each five feet deep. These were joined at the end of our yard by a “header” which routes the water/antifreeze mixture from the house through each of the loops in parallel and then sends the heated or cooled mixture back to the house.

It was a little disturbing watching our entire back yard being dug up so quickly, but we were excited and took more photos and videos than was probably necessary. We had been told by a neighbor that he had been present during the original construction of our home and had never seen such rocky soil in his life. So we were a bit nervous that the condition of the ground would add extra time and expense to this portion of the installation, especially since our contract stated that this could be a possibility. Luckily, the large excavator easily handled the stones and the workmen said our yard wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

By the end of the day all of the loops were in place, along with the header, and they had been filled with pressurized air and left for the weekend to make sure there were no leaks.

Day 2

The crew returned early on Monday and began by confirming that the ground loops had maintained pressure. This day consisted mostly of removing our existing heating and cooling systems and beginning to make alterations to the ductwork to accommodate the new unit. Our home was built in 1977 and the positioning of some of the ducts in the utility room had us scratching our heads because one glance was enough to see that they were inefficiently and poorly placed. Our geothermal company reconfigured the ductwork nearest the location of the new furnace at no additional charge.

If you are replacing an oil tank, you will need to check with your geothermal company to see if they will remove and dispose of it. Our company did not provide this service, but that wasn’t a problem for us since the previous owners had completed that process already. Our company did, however, remove and dispose of the interior furnace and the exterior air conditioning unit. This was probably the noisiest day of work inside the house, and the workers opened the windows and doors to the basement while we set up fans to help remove the smell of oil from the old furnace. I can’t tell you how glad I was to see that old system go.

Day 3

The third day was spent installing the new Water Furnace, connecting it to the header for the ground loops, and beginning electrical updates. Our setup consists of a Geolink variable flow center which pumps the water/antifreeze solution through the ground loops to and from the 5 Series Water Furnace. The furnace uses a compressor to heat and cool the house and also sends supplemental hot water through a separate loop to our water heater using a desuperheater (DSH) generator. A Little Giant pump removes any water that condenses during the heating and cooling cycle, sending it out into our yard through a drain pipe. It is all controlled through a Water Furnace color touchscreen thermostat which was installed in place of our old thermostat and provides us with information on temperature, humidity, furnace and fan settings, and real-time cost and energy savings calculated by entering local electricity costs.

Day 4

The big day had finally arrived! It was now time to fill the loops with water and ethanol and finish the electrical and duct connection. When I got home from work that afternoon the installation crew had already left for the day and my mind was preoccupied with other matters. As I stepped into the house, my first thought was, “Geeze! Why is it so cold in here?!” Then it hit me. The Water Furnace was running and the icy cold air rushing through the vents was being cooled by the ground loops in our own yard. Nothing beats the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made your home more comfortable and more efficient.

 Digging ground loop trenches.

Refilling and smoothing the ground loop trenches. Photo by Allison Ehrman.

Day 5

The final task of installation consisted solely of running heated water from the Water Furnace to our existing hot water heater. This took a full day’s work in our home because our water heater is on the opposite side of the basement from the furnace room. The geothermal company ran pipes from the furnace to our existing 17-year-old water heater, and connected them via a valve at the bottom of the tank. This plain water is warmed in the DSH and is completely separate from the closed outdoor loops. This function was optional with our installation, and only serves to supplement the hot water heater when there is a surplus of heat from the geothermal system.

By the end of day five, the system was completely in place and running. And due to a timely weather transition, we went from cooling our house with geothermal the day before to heating it with the same system the following day. 

Follow-up

A week after the work was complete, the county sent an inspector to take a look at the installation. This was a very brief walk-through, as the geothermal company had taken care of all required permits throughout the entire process. The company also sent an expert to our house to train us on using the new system, which is a critical step for getting the most in energy and cost savings from the setup. I will go into our experience managing and living with geothermal in the upcoming third article of this series.

If you live in Northern Maryland and are looking for a reliable geothermal company, I recommend the services of Ground Loop, Inc.

Allison Ehrman works in the corporate world, but her heart and soul reside in her Northern Maryland country home, where she and her husband grow and preserve herbs and vegetables, prepare exotic dishes from locally-sourced foods and craft natural body care products. You can read more of her Mother Earth News articles here.


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