How to Find the Best Geothermal Installer
We’ve had conversations with hundreds of quality geothermal professionals and a theme always develops in these discussions –“I’m the guy who fixes other peoples screw ups” they’ll proudly explain.
Questions the homeowners should ask to identify the BEST installer, in order of priority.
Q. Do you guarantee your work?
Good Answer – Yes sir, we have a guarantee built in that guarantees your savings over your existing system or guarantees operating cost based on specified assumptions (like you don’t leave your windows open all winter).
Bad Answer – We have a 5 year factory warranty on the equipment…. (this doesn’t help you at all when the system design is bad).
The best in the industry realize that HVAC companies are popping up all over the map to offer geothermal systems and they don’t know what they are doing. To prevent competing with their inexperience the best contractors put performance in writing. This is one of the BEST indicators.
Q. What percentage of your work is geothermal?
Good Answer – Lots and growing. Currently Greater than 50%. We’ve installed 50+ systems and can provide references from our early customers.
Bad Answer – Plenty, 5%. Or we’ve done 5 systems total.
Geothermal customers usually do their own research online (like you) and call specifically asking for it. If you didn’t ask however – an average installer wouldn’t push it (because of the long sales cycle and sticker shock). The BEST installers find themselves very busy doing geothermal, so much so that it usually becomes the majority of their business.
Q. Can you provide me with a 3-5 references? (Call them and ask how their system is performing, what their electric bills are)
Good Answer – Here is a list, call whomever you’d like. Some of those customers have had systems for 15 years.
Bad Answer – Here is one guy we installed for last week.
References and reviews are important – other than the customer having a pleasant experience ask them about their savings. The longer they’ve had the system the better.
Q. Are you IGSHPA accredited?
Good Answer – Yes I am, and everyone in my company is too.
Acceptable Answer – We’ve went through the training however I don’t continue to pay to be listed. He is my proof.
Bad Answer – What’s IGSHPA?
IGSHPA – International Ground Source Heat Pump Association is the training entity which provides a basic course on how to install geothermal. An accredited installer is good, a certified GeoExhange Designer is BEST.
3 Things Every Customer should know before a installing
#1 – All Geothermal is NOT created equal
These systems work, they work extremely well. The manufacturing processes are good, the material components are high quality and the support/technical documentation is made available to geothermal professionals. This is why they come with great part warranties. Any horror story involving geothermal was 99% the fault of a contractor. Why? Geothermal Heat Pumps are part of a system which involves two other components – the loop field (outside underground pipes) and the distribution (duct work in the house or radiant flooring). All parts of the system need to be designed correctly. It’s the geothermal installer’s job to size the system properly, this includes all 3 components (equipment, loop field, distribution). System Design – This is the part that separates the pro’s from the Joes.
#2 – The Key to Geothermal Happiness is proper system design
The key is system design, it’s not rocket science however its often short changed. What you do not want is a contractor using “rules of thumb” to design your system… For example “Oh I did a house just like this one so therefore it will be a 4 ton system with 600 feet of pipe in the ground”. It’s not to say that this statement couldn’t be accurate – you just want the homework to be done before the checks are signed. The homework is a full system design. That will start with a heat loss calculation – otherwise known as a Manual J. Ask them for a print out of it. Note that some guys charge for this service – I don’t blame them because it’s the most valuable part. They physical act of installing the system is what everyone can do – the calculations that go into it are what the best do correctly.
#3 – Sizing a system means homework for the contractor
Let’s use a dumb example to get the point across – you walk into a department store looking to buy a $10,000 pair of shoes which are non-returnable. The salesman comes up and says “Based on your height I’m saying you’re a size 11 – here you go”. Of course you’re going to try them on to see if they fit. You realize they don’t fit, you really needed a 10. Not a bad guess by the salesmen – but he was off by 10%. Let’s say you don’t have the luxury of trying the shoes on. Now this scene would likely be – “Sir I’m going to take some measurements of your foot to ensure proper sizing”, and when you get that pair they fit perfectly.
What happens in the geothermal realm is this – Installers use rules of thumb (educated guesses) to size a system. When they install them they end up being 10-20% off. Now the system will work – the homeowner won’t really know until they get their winter electric bill and see that its $650. They will start to question whether or not this geo thing was really worth it. What happened is the system was 10-20% undersized which caused the auxiliary back-up heat (it’s an electric strip built in the unit) to run constantly and essentially they heated their home that month with electricity.
WHY? WHY? WHY? Well this is where the educated consumer comes in to the picture. Many times homeowners shopping geo get quotes than go with the lowest bid – wrong move. Contractors are always getting beat up about price – so naturally they want to provide the best price possible. What produces a smaller price? A smaller system – this doesn’t mean if it should be a 5 ton they say 4 ton – most times the homeowner gets shorted on the loop field! One famous rule of thumb is 150 feet of pipe per ton. 4 ton system would equal 600 feet of pipe. The house might need more heat than that size loop field can provide, but the contractor still puts in 600 feet. Why not just oversize it? Price! The contractors know most homeowners think it’s all the same – why come in with an extra 150’ of pipe ($2,000 more!). I’m putting a BIG DISCLAIMER on that previous statement – contractors that under size systems don’t normally do it on purpose – they just don’t know how to properly size a geothermal system. With other conventional systems the sizing isn’t as critical, they can get away with rules of thumb. The BEST geo installers take great pride in their systems and this pride and confidence comes from understanding how to design the system.
Want to talk with a geothermal professional in your area – find a pro.