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Heat pump business is hot, naturally

Increasing energy costs have made geothermal heat pumps an attractive solution to heating buildings. The New York Times reports business is booming.

"We started as many jobs by April of 2008 as we had done in all of 2007," said Bruce Wollaber, president of Comfort Engineered Systems in Nolensville, Tenn., a designer and installer of heat pump systems. Bill Beattie, co-owner of Rockford Geothermal in Rockford, Ill., said, "If we stay on track, we're probably going to grow by about 40 percent this year."

All this comes with some growing pains for the industry, which has its sights set on capturing 30 percent of the heating and air-conditioning market by 2030. System manufacturers have a backlog of orders, installers say. Trained workers are increasingly difficult to come by. Still, said Jim Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, an industry and advocacy group, "it's not a pipe dream. It can be done."

In case you're wondering, the pumps work like this:

The pumps, also called geothermal heat pumps, use the relatively constant temperature just below the earth's surface -- six feet below, in many cases -- to draw warm air into a building in winter and remove warm air in summer. Advocates say the systems can save building owners 25 percent to 65 percent on energy costs while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The systems use a network of water-filled pipes laid either horizontally (6 feet under) or vertically (often 200 to 300 feet down), that attach to a heat exchanger.

The technology can be used almost anywhere, on any type of building. "We've got them all the way from Texas to the Arctic Circle," said Mr. Bose, a professor of engineering technology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

Although the article claims drilling 200-300 feet is usually adequate for the pump, this custom-built six story house in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York required boring more than 1,000 feet down. If you don't have the resources to install one of these in your home, but you live next to a train station, maybe you should look into using body heat generated by crowds to warm your house, much like how a Swedish company plans to supply heat for a new retail center.

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