The “green” conversation between lawyer Don Batterson and home builder Tom Sundling started on the sidelines of their kids’ ballgame. As soon as Batterson learned about geothermal heating and cooling, he was hooked.

Since having geothermal installed in his newly renovated home, Batterson has been “extremely pleased with the decision to put it in.” While he has only been back in his home for four months following the extensive renovation, he’s finding the house is operationally “phenomenal” and much quieter than expected. “Initially I worried that the machines would be too noisy, but I’ve been really pleased with the noise level, and surprised,” said Batterson of the system.

He isn’t ready to report on the cost benefits of the new system. But installation of geothermal “made sense and works great.” The home is “perfectly cool when I want it to be cool and perfectly warm when I want it to be warm.” And it also made sense to Batterson to be more environmentally friendly.

For developer Tom Sundling, owner of Thomas Patrick Homes, it makes sense to put geothermal into new homes because “the extra cost associated with it is easily absorbed into the overall cost of the house with a 15-, 20- or 30-year mortgage.” Sundling lives and works in Oak Park and is currently building a home on Marion Street that includes not only geothermal but incorporates as many of the green guidelines of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) as are economically feasible. “We are doing as much green building as we can,” he said. And “geothermal from the very beginning was one of the technologies I really wanted to include in this house.”

Reflecting on the homeowner’s perspective of the cost of geothermal versus the payback or environmental impact, Sundling thinks some people believe “geothermal is the responsible way for the environment and are willing to absorb the additional cost” [to their project]. He also thinks people install geothermal knowing that the payback may be 10, 12, or 15 years out, and because it’s the right thing to do.

From the builder’s standpoint, geothermal installation is more feasible in custom homes and new construction rather than retrofitting it into older homes, but some people see both economic and environmental benefits regardless of their home’s age.

Kathi Elwood lives in big old house the Ridgeland Historic area. When it was time to install a new furnace a few years ago, she wanted to be sure she also got central air to replace the window units she had been using. She “accidentally” found geothermal on the government’s energy star website.

“I talked to my husband and that sounded like what we should be doing for the environment,” she said. Her initial investment for the geothermal heat pump (including air conditioning and furnace in one) was $12,000, plus $3,000 for the drilling of eight 80-foot wells next to the home’s driveway.

Instead of paying $400-500 a month during the winter season, the Elwoods now pay between $60 and 70 a month for heat. “We were pretty sure it would save on the environment, but we would never have done it unless it would save us money. It paid for the drilling long ago,” said Elwood.

As the first Oak Parker to install geothermal what would Elwood tell homeowners or contractors considering geothermal? “Do it. There is nothing that you can think of that would be detrimental. You don’t see it, you don’t hear it. You cannot tell from the outside. It’s a win, win. You cannot go wrong.”

How it works

Geothermal heating and cooling systems take advantage of the relatively consistent year-round temperature of the earth below the frost line. A geothermal system is made of an indoor unit and a buried earth loop. A substance is fed through the buried pipes, warming or cooling the substance to about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the home, a heat pump extracts heat from the substance to warm the house or cools the home by taking heat and deposits it into the substance.

Geothermal has little impact on the environment, because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels, although it does use electric power to operate the unit’s fan, compressor and pump. According to, “A geothermal system is more than three times as efficient as the most efficient conventional system. Because geothermal systems do not burn combustible fuel to make heat, they provide three to four units of energy for every one unit used to power the system.”

For more information and an excellent Q&A on geothermal systems, see  

-Jill O’Mahony Stewart

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