You’re a ‘do-it-yourselfer‘. You do your own plumbing, home improvements, and even change the oil in your car. You’re interested in geothermal heat pumps. Obviously, a DIY geothermal install would save you money, but is it a good idea? Should you attempt it or are geothermal heat pumps just too complicated for even gifted amateurs?
Is DIY Geothermal Installation a Good Idea?
The answer is a little complicated.
Working with the interior half of a geothermal heat pump system is similar to installing any conventional HVAC system. Obviously, there are some technical differences, but nothing obnoxiously complicated. You need a location for the pump, convenient connections to the interior ductwork, and easy access to the exterior ground loop.
There is electricity to consider, of course. Any good electrician should not have a problem connecting a geothermal unit. If you know your way around wires and utility boxes, this too is an area you should be able to handle.
These two DIY geothermal aspects, interior and electrical, are fairly straightforward. They are not, however, the end of the story.
Mother Earth and the Buried Loop
Before you begin any DIY geothermal project you have to consider what sort of ground network you’re going to use. The ground installation type will determine how much earthwork is required.
Still, no matter what style ground loop you use there is always going to be some digging involved for any geothermal heat pump system. If there wasn’t, it would be much of a ‘geothermal’ system now would it?
Horizontal installations are quite common, since it’s easier to dig over a broader surface area than to dig deep vertical shafts. That doesn’t mean horizontal geothermal is something to take lightly. Even relatively shallow excavation, about six feet or so in our case, can be dangerous.
If you don’t know how to operator an excavator or don’t have access to one, then horizontal DIY geothermal is probably out of your reach. You can do a lot of it yourself, true, but at the end of the day you’ll need to hire a contractor to dig the necessary trenches.
A word of warning: if you’ve never used heavy digging equipment, do not attempt this part of the install alone.
The main alternative to a horizontal loop is a vertical loop. As you probably guessed, vertical loop geothermal uses a contained pipe network buried vertically instead of horizontally. A vertical install may use a single deep shaft or a series of slightly shallower vertical shafts.
Now, when we talk about digging vertically we are talking about digging much deeper than we would with a horizontal install. A vertical installation shaft will require sophisticated excavation equipment of a type used mainly by well digging companies. Unless you happen to own such a company, you’ll need to contract this service.
You cannot dig the necessary vertical shafts with a shovel, and it would be exceptionally dangerous to attempt. So, don’t.
Pond or Lake Loop
When it comes to DIY geothermal, the easiest installation available to most homeowners is going to be a pond or lake loop. These systems are pretty simple. All you have to do is submerge the heat exchange piping into a suitably deep pond or lake.
It really is just that easy.
Now, some digging will be involved. For aesthetic and pipe protection reasons, you’ll want the connections between the lake loop and your home to be buried. This particular connection does not need to be particularly deep, so it is within the capabilities of most DIY’ers. A foot or two, and you’re good.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be tiring digging a shallow trench out to your pond, but it is far less complex than a 300 ft vertical shaft or a couple hundred square feet of 6 ft trenches.
The downside to this DIY geothermal installation is that most people don’t have a convenient lake or pond next to their house. Obviously, if you don’t, you can’t use this method.
The final option open to geothermal homeowners is an open loop installation. All our previous examples used closed loops in which the geothermal heat pump operated as part of a self-contained system. An open loop install is the opposite of that.
Geothermal open loop systems interact directly with well water in order to heat and cool your home. They’re the most inexpensive type of installation, but they’re not available to everyone. Many municipal and county governments forbid ‘pump-and-dump’ operations even though this type of geothermal operation does not pollute in anyway whatsoever.
If you can install a geothermal open loop, you probably already have access to a well you can use. If you don’t have access to a well, then, obviously, you’ll need to have one dug.
I’m going to assume that average American DIY’er is not capable of digging their own well. You’ll need to hire someone to do that.
So is DIY geothermal possible or not?
Yes and no.
Yes, some people will be able to install their entire geothermal heat pump without specialized help. And no, because many people will need to hire specialized contractors or heavy equipment to complete the installation process.