MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Here's one way to reduce your heating and air conditioning bills and get rid of that noisy air handler in your yard - install geothermal heat pumps. They use the constant mild temperature underground to heat and cool homes with much less electricity.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that geothermal heat pumps are becoming more popular, thanks to a big tax credit.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Suzi and James Bryant started thinking about going geothermal after their first winter in their house. It came with a rumbly 50-year-old oil furnace in the basement.
Ms. SUZI BRYANT: We looked at the, you know, at the $2,000 heating bill last year. We're like: Oh, do I want to sink another two grand into this winter? So I was like, no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHOGREN: Suzi Bryant says if that wasn't enough to convince them, their aging air conditioner just wasn't keeping up.
Ms. BRYANT: Last year, our house kind of sat at 80 with the crazy summer we had.
SHOGREN: With two toddlers and a baby, there are lots of demands for the Bryants' income. Suzi Bryant is an electrical engineer turned stay-at-home mom, and her husband is a software engineer. They did a lot of research and number crunching before they decided to take the geothermal plunge.
Ms. BRYANT: We looked into it, and our payoff was about, you know, three to seven years, so it kind of just made sense.
SHOGREN: So for a few days this winter, their 1,900-square-foot house in Northern Virginia became a construction zone. The Bryants are among a growing group of homeowners replacing conventional furnaces and air conditioners with geothermal heat pumps.
Geothermal systems started getting more popular several years ago, but mostly for new construction. The high initial cost of the systems could be wrapped into mortgages.
Two years ago, the federal government started offering 30 percent tax credits to entice people to install the systems. Some local and state governments offer tax breaks, too. They hope to cut greenhouse gas emissions and create green jobs.
(Soundbite of drilling)
Mr. MIKE BARLOW (Owner, Thermal Loop and Well Drilling Service, Inc.): That's a down-the-hole hammer, actually drilling frozen ground.
SHOGREN: Mike Barlow has been installing geothermal systems for 20 years.
Mr. BARLOW: It used to be primarily the bigger homes. Now, it's gotten down to where it's town homes, small homes. We've done 1,000-square-foot homes to 40, 50,000-square-foot homes. Anybody can really afford it.
SHOGREN: At a house near Baltimore, Maryland, Barlow watches his crew drill boreholes. They use a powerful rig to dig 35 stories into the earth. When the drilling is done, Barlow's team pushes hundreds of feet of black piping into the hole. It's called a loop.
Mr. BARLOW: We circulate water down one side of the loop and back up the other side. And that's where we get our heat exchange.
SHOGREN: The water from this loop and three others will be sent to a heat pump inside the house. The system takes advantage of the fact that the temperature underground stays constant year around. In this part of Maryland, it's about 56.5 degrees.
Mr. BARLOW: What you do is you capture that 56.5 in the wintertime and you use that to heat the home. It takes very little energy to complement that.
SHOGREN: And bring your house to a comfortable temperature. Traditional air-source heat pumps have to work a lot harder. In winter, they have to suck what heat there is out of, say, 30-degree air. In summer, they have to cool outdoor air from, say, 90 degrees. Barlow says the basic technology is so simple that even cavemen figured it out.
Mr. BARLOW: You're basically doing what they did by staying in a cave in the winter to stay warm, and they stayed in a cave in the summer to stay cool.
SHOGREN: Barlow says saving money isn't the only reason to do it.
Mr. BARLOW: It's a very good way of having green energy. So it will help generations to come as far as their dependence on fossil fuel and just the protection of the planet in general.
SHOGREN: Despite the lofty benefits and the smaller electric bills, geothermal systems make up only about 1 percent of heating and cooling systems sold each year. They're not nearly as well known as solar panels. But the two technologies have something in common - their initial price tags chase lots of people away.
(Soundbite of running water)
SHOGREN: Back at the Bryants' house, Jim Keicer is crouching under the basement stairs. He's flushing water through the new geothermal heat pump. I asked him what his other clients think of their systems.
Mr. JIM KEICER: The initial cost is a shock, but they love it. I haven't had any complaints.
SHOGREN: Do you have it?
Mr. KEICER: I wish I could afford it.
SHOGREN: The Bryants expect to spend about $20,000. But they did everything they could to keep costs down. They even rented a backhoe to dig trenches for the loops themselves. Suzi Bryant says they're thinking about the future.
Ms. BRYANT: Don't you have to?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BRYANT: With three little kids, I think that's the only way to think - save money, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BRYANT: Plus the tax credit doesn't hurt.
SHOGREN: I checked in with the Bryants after they'd had their geothermal system for a couple of months. They say it took a while to get the bugs out, but now it works perfectly. Their yard is still a mess, but they'll be planting grass soon. And they're already cashing in. They spent only about $100 a month to heat their house in January and February. That's just a fraction of the $600 a month they spent last year with their old furnace.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.