Millions of US citizens still use oil and natural gas to heat their homes during the winter. Many would like to switch to geothermal, a cleaner and ultimately cheaper system that leverages the natural temperature of the earth. A few feet below the surface, the soil sits at a reliable 50- to 60-degree Fahrenheit all year round. Pipes known as 'ground loops' push round a special antifreeze solution that absorbs this constant temperature in winter and disperses unwanted warmth in the summer. A large indoor heat pump uses the mixture to boil a refrigerant fluid; the resulting gas is then compressed to higher temperatures and distributed around the home.
Installing the necessary equipment is expensive, however. Dandelion, a company that started inside Alphabet's X division, is trying to make geothermal cheaper and easier to install. While not the most eye-catching technology, especially compared to electric cars and sea-cooled data centers, it's arguably one of the most important for the environment.
A typical geothermal system costs between $10,000 and $40,000 to install, depending on the size of your home, the makeup of the soil in your yard and whether you have ductwork for the heat pump to attach to. Dandelion's system, meanwhile, will set you back $10,994 to $19,744 after relevant tax credits and incentives. Alternatively, you can pay nothing upfront and spend $79 to $137 per month over 20 years. The latter is unusual and highly attractive because it allows cash-strapped homeowners to install a system and start saving on their utility bills straight away.
There's a trade-off, though: flexibility. Most companies will send an engineer to assess your home and design a bespoke or highly customized system. Dandelion, meanwhile, has a fairly standardized product. "We designed a [geothermal heating] system that works for most homes," Kathy Hannun, chief executive and co-founder of Dandelion explains. "And a home can either qualify for it or not. If a [customer] qualifies, then they qualify for a very standardized product that will work well in their home."
The startup has developed its own geothermal heat pump, too, called Dandelion Air. It was built in partnership with AAON, a specialist manufacturer of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, and comes in four different sizes. According to Hannun, Dandelion is able to make and sell the pump at "a fraction of the cost of what has been available on the market before," which contributes to its aggressive pricing plans. Unlike most heat pumps, many of the parts come pre-assembled. The exterior is also made of aluminum, rather than steel, so it's easier to carry down stairs.
"It's better than something that was just so, so bad already."
Dandelion Air units are fitted with "state-of-the-art monitoring and controls," Hannun said, that check the system for problems. These are critical because Dandelion relies on regional companies such as Aztech Geothermal and Lake Country Geothermal to drill the holes and install some of its residential systems. The first time the pump is turned on, it runs through a self-check 'commissioning sequence.' Dandelion can then monitor the system remotely and intervene if there's a problem, maintaining quality and customer trust in the underlying technology.
Households can access their data to see how much they're spending, and Dandelion surveys its customers to determine how much, on average, they save by switching to geothermal heating. "Having that real data will just, I think, lend a tremendous amount of credibility to an industry that hasn't had that much credibility in the past," Hannun explained. "It's definitely an investment, but it's one that's well worth it."
These improvements are welcome and long overdue in the industry. As Forrest Meggers, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, explains: "It's better than something that was just so, so bad already. That's really it. The HVAC industry is just the slowest moving."