Geothermal in the Hamptons

slide6In a description of Linden Estate, an important property in Southampton, the list of exceptional features includes a 30-room Cotswold-style mansion, 12 bedroom suites, an indoor pool and spa, two outdoor pavilions, a grass tennis court, and . . . “an environmentally friendly geothermal energy system.”

That the $45 million home’s heating and cooling apparatus should be given the same emphasis as the property’s grass tennis court and wine cellar/tasting room is testament to the growing popularity of the systems that derive their energy from the earth.

“Every single one of the houses I design from now on will incorporate geothermal energy,” said Jay Bialsky, a high-end developer. Because he builds houses with lots of sun-welcoming glass panels, he feels an obligation to provide his homeowners with a product that “can be 30 to 50 percent more efficient than a conventional air cooled system.” And he can afford to eat the higher cost of installation. “A builder who doesn’t have a higher budget won’t be able to.”

The cutting-edge method of heating and cooling is actually as old as the hills, when cavemen gathered at hot springs. Both ancient Romans and Chinese used water heated by the earth in their spas for centuries. It has caught on locally where many homeowners are both innovative and green. While ancient peoples were stuck going to the heat. With modern technological advances we can bring it to us.

Here’s how it works: Using a pump, the system draws hot water from a well in the ground during winter. In summer it sends the heat right back down from whence it came – to a second well.

“I think anyone building new or planning a major renovation should consider geothermal energy as an option,” said architect
Maziar Behrooz. Mr. Behrooz famously used it in East Hampton’s Arc House where he utilized cavernous underground spaces to propel cool air up into the center of the arc, and convect it back downward.

The thermal engineer behind that project and dozens of others is Bill Chaleff, of Chaleff & Rogers Architects in Water Mill. The firm has built over 300 energy efficient homes since 1985. From that you would assume that Chaleff is an ardent fan of geothermal energy. True, with reservations. For the Hamptons, Chaleff believes it is the answer for cooling, not heating. The highly informed architect can and does spew forth technical reasons for his conclusion. In short, to move heat upwards out of the earth and to heat it further from the constant 52 degrees it’s harvested at uses electrical energy supplied by our local utility. The energy from PSEG, which sources its electricity from fossil fuels, is highly inefficient. “That’s the dirty part [of geothermal],” said Chaleff. “We’re making it an elsewhere problem.”

And it’s not as inexpensive to heat a house as geothermal companies might have you believe. “When they give you performance data they don’t count the well pumping costs,” he said. But that’s not really cheating. “They can’t because everybody’s well is different.

But given the law of nature that heat only flows from hot to cold, removing the heat and sending it back into the earth is tremendously efficient. Chafee estimates that it’s 20 times more efficient than geothermal’s heating mode. “Using it only for cooling you cut two-thirds off your electric bill.”

So, geothermal energy may not be the answer for everywhere. But in the Hamptons, where the majority of homeowners are here only in summer, therefore don’t need to heat their homes, geothermal makes sense for cooling. Unless you live close enough to the beach to rely on cooling ocean breezes.

Written By Heather Bryce
Photo By Matthew Carbone