On cold winter nights last year, our kitchen had the temperature of a refrigerator, and if you opened a cabinet door you got a blast of cold air.

This year, it’s much different. We went “green” with a geothermal heating system. We paid about 10 percent of the value of our house to dig 300-foot holes so that we can extract the heat from the earth, and we believe that our “payback” will come in seven to ten years.

The chief digger of the 300-foot holes, whom I had gotten to know and for whom I had developed the utmost respect, posed the pertinent question. “Do you mind my asking,” he said, “you are getting along in years, why are you doing this?”

Why indeed. Last year this newspaper published my riff on what it’s like to turn 70, about how I expected to live 10 more years but planned to count only on the next five.

I could claim altruism and cite statistics: The amount of energy absorbed by the ground represents 500 times more than the world needs every year. Geothermal systems emit no greenhouse gases, and they deliver three to four units of energy for every one unit of energy consumed. Yet only recently has the installation of residential systems in the U.S. moved out of the fractions of one percent and into the single digits.

But I have to admit the real reason is closer to our standard answer: “It’s a better investment than the stock market.” We expect an eight percent return. And when the government offers you $10,000 back, plus a 30 percent tax credit — in all, more than half the total bill — it’s an offer that’s hard to turn down. Plus we’ve been promised a much more comfortable house.

Have you thought about changing to geothermal?

Imagine that on a July day, two men and one humongous hydraulic rig, with chest-high tires and a four-story hoist, are digging a 300-foot hole in your front yard. The noise of the compressor is unnerving, if not horrendous. They have been at it for three days, and they are working on their second hole.

When they finish the hole, they will thread, down into it, 600 feet of polyethylene pipe, doubled in a loop. They will fill up the hole with a mixture of cement, sand, and water, a special heat-exchanging grout. The ends of the pipes will stick up out of your lawn like three-foot cobras, waiting to join their sister loop.

Then the humongous drilling machine will leave and a backhoe will move in, to dig a tunnel to your house. The loops, now spliced into an “in loop” and an “out loop,” will thread through the tunnel and into the basement wall, where they will join your new heating, air conditioning, and hot water heating system — a geothermal heat pump.

In September of 2009 we began our year-long fun-house tunnel journey, full of twists and surprises, not quite knowing what in-our-face problem would pop out next.

It all started when I went to a Princeton Chamber breakfast where Scott Needham, second-generation owner of Princeton Air, told about state and federal rebates for green houses. If you do green-energy improvements that effect at least a 25 percent heat energy savings, said Needham, you will get 50 percent of the cost back as a rebate, up to $10,000. At that time, he could add $1,500 in federal tax credits and $1,000 from the New Jersey Clean Energy Program. The catch: you have to deal with a general contractor certified by the Building Performance Institute.

My husband and I had dabbled with this idea before. I had written about an architect, William Wolfe, who reconfigured his own home with solar panels and geothermal to effect a negative energy footprint (U.S. 1, September 17, 2008). We asked him to look at how to “green” our 4-bedroom, 1.5 bath Cape Cod in Princeton Borough using geothermal in the ground and solar panels on our roof. But our roof faces west. To add solar panels, we would have to cant the roof south, a nifty architectural solution that would give us two extra rooms and a bath. But it would cost about $250,000.

That was in the fall of 2008. Both my husband and I had just retired from our fulltime jobs and the stock market had dropped. We were willing to invest in energy savings but not in expansion, and we abandoned the idea.

Then along came Needham with news of big money rebates. Even the entry fee was a good deal: Pay $125 up front to get your house assessed, and you get it back if you sign the contract for air sealing and new HVAC equipment.

I wrote about it for my blog (Princeton Comment, September 24 and 28, 2009), and we took the bait. The very characteristics that had made our house somewhat miserable to live in made the house perfect for this program. All three of our HVAC appliances (furnace, central air, and hot water heater) were ripe for replacement. We lacked the right kind of insulation in the attic and the basement, and particularly in the kitchen. Now was the time.

November 6, 2009: Princeton Air’s Colin McCollough, certified by the Building Performance Institute, comes with his blower door apparatus — a big fan and a shroud to air seal the door. He calculates the precise air leakage of the house. The results aren’t pretty. Like what my father would have called “dumb clucks,” we had spent 30 years with an uninsulated kitchen, a former garage that sucked heat out of the rest of the house. Our air leakage, McCollough said, is 1.8 times the Building Air Tightness Standard. Our 1,700 square-foot 60-year-old house is below average in five areas and “very inefficient” in the attic.

November 25, 2009: We learn that our past neglect gives us an excellent chance to meet the goal of 25 percent energy saving. Princeton Air will remove the siding, cut holes in the kitchen wall, and blow the insulation into the walls, plus add lots of other home-sealing, everything but windows. By insulating we can save $410 year (15.7 percent) and by changing out the HVAC equipment we can save $605 per year (23.1 percent).

Geothermal isn’t in the picture, because at this point Princeton Air doesn’t offer it. We sign up for a conventional fossil fuel package that changes out what we have now. It costs $27,085, divided between $11,435 for insulation and $15,650 for a new gas furnace and hot water heater, plus a new central air conditioning unit. We will get a $1,000 rebate for air sealing and a $10,000 no-interest 10-year loan from New Jersey’s Energy Star program, plus a $10,000 state rebate, plus a federal Energy Star tax credit of $1,500. The federal credit represents 30 percent of the cost, capped at $1,500, according to the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. (Many of these subsidies are still available — see sidebar, page 32.)

The upfront cost will be $6,085. Best of all, the contractor will take care of the red tape. We pay $3,000 down on the day before Thanksgiving.

April, 2010: The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, and by the time all the approvals are in place, lo, Princeton Air has added a geothermal arrow to its quiver. Aha! We can salvage part of the dream.

Princeton Air reconfigures all the red tape to add the geothermal component. It will replace our gas furnace and hot water heater with a water furnace geothermal heat pump and hot water heater. The extra cost ($4,342 more to Princeton Air for different HVAC equipment plus $14,600 to drill the holes) will be offset by a bigger Federal Renewable Energy Tax Credit, good for 30 percent of the cost. For an ordinary system, the tax credit is capped at $1,500. With geothermal (and/or solar) there is no limit to this tax credit so we can get back an additional $13,808.

Only later do we realize that — hard as it is to believe — the geothermal plan is going to cost us $5,866 less than the fossil fuel plan, thanks to the generous federal tax credit. We will also learn that the unexpected “extras” cost more than the original bill.

So we start off on our geothermal adventure. Eight months have passed since Needham spoke to the chamber and his company is inundated with clients aiming to qualify for the rebates. I must confess that, having done an article involving geothermal, I don’t pay too much attention to the process. I am not even home when the geothermal consultant, Edmund Haemmerle of NJ Renewable Energy, a geothermal consulting firm based in Princeton Junction, comes by to assess the site.

When I speak to Haemmerle by phone, he emphasizes that the drillers would wreck the lawn. This is no surprise, because my neighbor had geothermal installed and had complained about it. Since our crop of crabgrass is already a disaster, whatever the drillers did to the lawn is OK with me.

April 26, 2010: The first day on the job. Three Princeton Air workers lay drop cloths and troop upstairs to start insulating the attic. They cut a hole in the ceiling to get access to the “Devil’s Triangle,” the space between the ceiling and the roof. Out comes vermiculite. It looks like cat litter, but it sometimes contains asbestos. They are horrified. I am horrified. They don masks, carefully sweep up the droppings, close the hole in the ceiling, and go home. They aren’t covered for HazMat work.

This crisis could stop the train. All the paperwork for the loan and the rebate could depend on doing the attic. Trying not to panic, I go into reporter mode and poll remediation experts. Scott Bisbort, project manager of the six-person Environmental Waste Management Associates office on Everett Drive, calms me down. Treat it like asbestos, he says, but get it tested before you panic. His company could send samples to the test lab in Cherry Hill, the national testing site by industry leader EMSL Analytical, but it will be cheaper and faster to take it ourselves.

So spouse trundles down to Cherry Hill that same day, and 48 hours and $400 later we get the good answer. The vermiculite is only three-quarters of 1 percent asbestos, below the 1 percent that is EPA’s recommendation for remediation. Nevertheless, we want it out of the house so there will never be another question.

In the meantime, trying to salvage the contract, I have obtained three outside bids on doing the insulation job. Magrann from Gloucester County drastically under bids everyone. For $1,200 it will remove and dispose of the vermiculite and blow fiberglass into the attic. Princeton Air agrees to subcontract to Magrann, which will also take care of the kitchen crawl space for $1,000.

June 15, 2010: The Magrann crew arrives with a giant vacuum, big tubes, EPA certified bags, and a crew that includes the Skinny Guy. Insulation crews have at least one small person who can fit in terribly uncomfortable small spaces. He vacuums the vermiculite from the Devil’s Triangle, the place between the ceiling and the top of the roof. Vermiculite pours through a tube, out of the window, across the lawn, into a disposable bag. It is all according to EPA standards, but I don’t like the cloud of fine particle dust that surrounds those bags and settles on the adjacent plants. Am I polluting my neighbor’s herb garden?

Another Magrann worker replaces all the batts in the crawl space under the kitchen.

Friday, July 16: After a vacation hiatus, we are back on schedule. We have moved everything away from the walls of the crowded basement to prepare for the insulating crew. The diggers arrive and position their equipment.

Saturday, July 17: The diggers start digging. Carpenters from Kane Brothers Restoration begin work. Independent of the insulation jobs, they are tearing out the upstairs “knee wall” and moving it back, to expand a second floor room.

Monday, July 19: The insulators arrive, attacking on several fronts: Under the eaves they install insulating poly board. In the Devil’s Triangle over the kitchen they blow loose fill cellulose fiber. Through the outside walls of the kitchen (removing and replacing the siding and drilling holes in the walls) they blow in cellulose fiber. I am dismayed to discover that the little particles sometimes find their way into the interior of my kitchen cabinets.

After that, I make sure to empty the cabinets, which needed cleaning anyway.

It is beastly weather. (Remember the heat wave?) I run around making notes, taking pictures, making more ice, and stocking the cooler with cold drinks.

It is also very exciting and somehow familial. One of the Kane carpenters is married to a friend from church. And the insulation crew consists of personable young men who are graduates of the job-training program at Isles, a non-profit in Trenton, and are going to Mercer County Community College at night. I let them put their lunches in the fridge and eat in the relative cool of the kitchen. They have aspirations beyond this job: Crawling around in tight hot spaces is not what they want to be doing for the rest of their lives. They are getting good training, under the supervision of an experienced carpenter, Wes Laning.

Meanwhile, out on the lawn, Jackson Geothermal’s chief digger, Butch Arendt, is drilling away incessantly at high volume, sometimes with a helper, often working alone, juggling the steel pipes, the airplane-like instrument console, and the shovel.

Arendt, 48, digs well holes for geothermal companies now, but he comes from four generations of dowsers, those who use intuitive powers to find water or precious metals underground. He demonstrates, using a coat hanger as a dowsing rod. In his hands, it jerks down when he walked it over water. (I believe him, because there’s lots of water under our property.) In my hands, the coat hangar is not so responsive.

Arendt grew up in West Branch, the county seat of a landlocked county in northern Michigan. His grandfather, Robert Arendt, was one of the first in the state of Michigan to get a well driller’s license. Arendt is one of 11 children — “my mother was pregnant for 99 months, pretty much straight,” he says — and he is the second boy of six. Two of his brothers carry on the family digging business, and two of his four sons, all in their 20s, have geothermal jobs in Iowa.

His earliest memories of his dad’s drilling: “I’d be at my grandmother’s house and be watching the rigs come in and out.” Back then, the cable tool method (pulverizing the earth or rock with an up and down tool strung on a cable) was more popular. That was the method used at my neighbor’s house, and the din was awful. Arendt is using a rotary drill, a rotating bit that forms the borehole and a continuously circulating drilling fluid that removes some of the cutting.

We have had a day to get used to the noise, but the Princeton Air crew is taken aback by it. They jockey for space in the driveway and on the street and don earplugs to shut out the din. The diggers don’t stop for lunch.

Tuesday, July 20: More of the same. The insulators are glad to be working in the cellar, away from the heat and the noise. The diggers work from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Wednesday, July 21: The noise stops, and not for a good reason. The drilling machine has broken and remains silent for five days.

Tuesday, July 27: The rig is sufficiently healed to finish the last hole. Final cost: $15,227. We could have paid $1,500 less by gambling they wouldn’t strike water, but that would have been a bad deal, because they struck water at 220 feet on one hole and at 20 feet on the next.

As the water gushes up out of the holes, the diggers try to contain it by shoveling dike walls, but it inevitably spills up and over, turning the lawn and the sidewalk and the street into a clay swamp. They will try to clean it up, not always effectively; traces remain in our gutters. As promised, the lawn is a disaster.

Thursday, July 29: In comes the backhoe to dig trenches and bury the geothermal pipes. All goes well until the backhoe crew drives away to “buy parts.”

Turns out, the needed parts are PVC pipes to repair my sewer. Turns out, when the diggers bored the first hole, they unwittingly hit the roots of our former giant locust tree, which had invaded the sewer pipe. Turns out, disturbing the root put a big hole in the pipe. Turns out, when the grout was piped into the hole, the grout got into the sewer. Turns out, 50 feet of sewer needs to be replaced.

At least, that’s what the Roto Rooter man says the next day as he tries, and fails, to snake his little camera into the sewer pipe.

Friday, July 30: I’d been a good sport during the asbestos/vermiculite caper. I’d patiently waited out the digger truck breaking down. I’d put up with all the mud, mud, mud and the noise, noise, noise. But at that point I fell apart. And spouse isn’t home. I had just come back from church (it was Vacation Bible School week) and spouse has just left on a two-hour errand.

Surely if the diggers caused the damage they would have to pay for it, he said, when I reached him by cell phone.

Wrong, I learned. It’s our sewer. We pay the bill and we try to be happy about having no future sewer problems.

But at least I didn’t get pressured into signing the $9,900 Roto Rooter contract to get the job done the next day.

I give Roto Rooter $230 for telling me what we already knew and begin my three-day worry fest. It is late on Friday afternoon.

The backhoe crew, sympathetic to my plight with the sewer, offers to pull out the bushes that will be discarded in the future landscaping. I’m not saying that this act of compassion causes the backhoe to break down, but the backhoe barely makes it onto the truck.

Today is my mother’s birthday. I had hoped to spend the day reminiscing and pondering her life. Instead, I am calling sewer contractors, and figuring on canceling our plans to leave for Maryland on Tuesday to see six of our eight grandchildren.

Contacts from Princeton Air summon two bidders. Tony Mangone’s $6,575 bid is not the lowest, but he can start right away. His bid proves to be the more accurate.

Tuesday, August 3: Mangone digs the sewer and my morale is at its lowest point. I fear we might not get to go on vacation. I am quite afraid that the cement might have escaped our line and gone into the public sewer. I spend most of that hot day weeding the patch between my driveway and the neighbor’s, pulling weeds — a wheelbarrow full — between the butterfly bushes and the lavender plants. At least the scent of the lavender is soothing.

More surprises. Nobody believes the water pipe could run parallel to the sewer line all the way to the street. That’s illegal now, because of the danger of cross pollution. But that’s how they built it 60 years ago, so Mangone’s workers dig the trench manually. His giant backhoe also demolishes 16 feet of the sidewalk.

The cement has, indeed, gone all the way to the street but thank heavens did not get into the public sewer. It passes inspection. Mangone finishes the job on Tuesday at 3 p.m. Hurray! We leave at 4 p.m. for six glorious days with the grandkids.

Now we have a new sewer line and the (required) opportunity to spend $1,700 to replace 16 feet of cracked sidewalk.

I tell myself that a new sewer, replacing a 60-year-old line, is a good thing to have. Think how many Roto Rooter clean out bills we won’t have to pay. Now we know exactly where the water pipes are. Surely we won’t have any more surprises.

Wrong. Under stress, I do foolish things. That week, supposedly unconnected to this job but not really, I break the garbage disposal and lose my Blackberry in the Chesapeake Bay. I tell myself that a new garbage disposal and a new smart phone are good things to have.

Monday, August 9: We return from Maryland to our next surprise: one daughter and her two children will make an impromptu visit on the same day that the new WaterFurnace geothermal heat pump arrives. With a lot more pushing and shoving of things around the cellar, we prepare to receive both the furnace and the family.

Tuesday, August 10: Until now, monitoring the job was my nearly full-time occupation, but now I go into Grandma mode. I’ve visited these children, ages 3 and 7, but they have never been to my house, and I am eager to show them a good time.

For two days we don’t have air conditioning, and the 95-degree heat wave is still on. We buy a fan and get through two hot nights. On Thursday morning, just after the family leaves, I go down to the cellar to inspect the wonderful new geothermal system, which will handle both heating and cooling (see sidebar, page 36).

Hallelujah! The air conditioning component is now working. But what’s that, I say, pointing to something complicated that is two inches from the cellar floor.

“It’s a circuit board, the brains of the furnace.”

Uh-oh. Our cellar sometimes gets five inches of water. In the excitement, I forgot to mention that.

Spouse insists on getting the furnace raised, which involves redoing the duct work, and we set a date for that. Cost: $1,200.

Thursday, August 12. Still to be replaced is the hot water system. I am hosting a ladies luncheon on Monday, so it will be installed the following Friday.

By the time the luncheon rolls around, I’m feeling pretty good. The lawn is nothing but dirt, but the inside of the house is spruced up. We have air conditioning. Boy, do we have air conditioning! We can have it as cold as we want at no extra cost.

Monday, August 16: The 50-gallon Eternal water heater arrives with no problems that can’t be fixed. However, as soon as a tradesman enters an older home, he tells you all the things that are wrong. We learn that the set up of our washer and dryer leaves much to be desired and won’t pass inspection. We schedule five hours of plumbing work (different plumber, David Lanning) to clean up the bad piping arrangement and install a second sump pump. Cost: $985.

Monday, August 23. Colin McCollough of PrincetonAir gives us our official Green Homes certificate, three days before our $10,000 New Jersey rebate would expire. After our trip through the fun house, we are at the end of the tunnel.

The grand total for the insulation and the whole geothermal system is $46,654. But we had to pay only $21,846, and half of that we put on New Jersey’s arrangement for a $10,000 no-interest loan. Thanks to generous federal tax credits for geothermal systems, we saved $5,239 over what we would have spent on a fossil fuel solution.

However, the “extras” cost us $14,330 or well more than half of the original bill. They included expected costs (like lawn repair) and what we needed anyway (installing a second sump pump). They also included the unexpected, like the new sewer line, the asbestos analysis, repairing the sidewalk, and having to raise the furnace after it was installed.

Now we have plenty of hot water and as much cool air as we want. The thermostat is set at 75 degrees in summer, 71 degrees in winter. The house is tightly sealed; the geothermal heat pump has the sound-absorbing quality of a luxury car. With no outside AC unit, no ignition, and a variable speed fan that runs 24/7, it’s quiet and comfortable, always the same temperature, like living in a well-engineered office building. Our six-year-old grandson, said, in December, “It’s like summer in this house!”

There’s no need to jigger with the thermostat to save money when we won’t be home. Jiggering is now verboten. Think of a freighter steaming down a channel, then trying to back up. It takes forever. So it is with a geothermal heat pump. “Set it and forget it” is the new motto.

Now we have a wonderful new lawn and upgraded landscaping, thanks to Cesar Ortiz of Lawrence Landscaping. Thanks to Ortiz’s drainage system, we also expect to have less water in our basement.

Now we are promised at least 25, probably 37 percent savings in energy use. In six months we have saved more than $700 on utility bills.

It was, nevertheless, a messy job at every stage. Removing the vermiculite brought tiny particles of dust to my neighbor’s herb garden. During the drilling, those same leaves got covered with clay, and clay lined the gutters. When it rained, we tracked mud into the house. When it didn’t rain, we tracked dust. Even the insulation got messy when it was blown into the walls of the kitchen.

Was it worth it? We sure think so. The house is much more comfortable in heat and in cold. There is less dust, and it’s quieter. On the hottest days we don’t hear the AC come on. On the coldest days we are comfy warm — even if we get up in the middle of the night. (Remember that set it and forget it dictum? We don’t turn the heat down at night.) Best of all, we can walk in to the kitchen, barefoot, at 3 a.m. and not feel cold air blasting from an open cabinet door.

Our neighbors agree. Amazingly enough, even though they had to endure the noise of the drilling, and they know only too well how much mess it made and how much trouble it was — all three of our adjacent neighbors are eager to install geothermal in their own homes.

We have a new respect for energy that comes from the bowels of the earth.

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