Geothermal heat-pump well innovations support building electrification

Building electrification is becoming a major tool in fighting climate change and reducing emissions and the Convection Enhanced Geothermal Heat Pump (CEGH) can be a key tool.

By Dean Azzam March 23, 2022
Courtesy of: Aztech Engineering

Building electrification is becoming a major tool in fighting climate change and reducing emissions. As electrical generation becomes cleaner with wind, solar and hydro, building electrification makes sense.

Concurrently, the air-source heat pump market has been on a steady rise, with the adoption of inverter-based technology. Though the newer air-to-air heat pumps can keep heating with the refrigeration cycle down to lower outdoor air temperatures, there are inefficiencies at these lower temperatures trying to absorb heat from 0°F air.

Geothermal—ground source heat pumps (GSHP)—solve the low temperature issue because the ground is at a constant 50°F to 60°F temperature. This provides increased efficiency during heating and cooling. The largest obstacle to geothermal heat pump adoption has always been the wells and their associated costs.

Closed GSHP wells do not require environmental permitting and are not dependent on ground water flow. However, they are inefficient at heat transfer with the ground and require a lot of well per ton. Many vertical wells would be required for even a modest commercial building. Open loop GHSP wells provide better heat transfer efficiency but are dependent on considerable local ground water flow. Reinjection is very difficult and usually require extensive environmental permitting.

What if there was a GSHP well that encompassed the best of both systems: one that is completely closed loop but with much greater capacity per linear foot and could make GSHP systems practical for larger commercial buildings. The convection enhanced geothermal heat pump (CEGH) well may be the answer.

Figure 1 CEGH WELL DETAIL

Figure 1 CEGH WELL DETAIL

Increasing capacity

The problem with closed loop wells is that they rely only on conduction through non-conductive material for heat transfer to the ground. The CEGH is a closed loop well/system that increases heat transfer with the ground by inducing ground water flow around the well piping, thus adding convection to the heat transfer process. A pic tube is installed in the center of well (convector tube) with strategically drilled perforations. The well piping is routed down the well, between the convector tube and the wells outer walls. A typical submersible pump is placed in the approximate center of the tube. The submersible pump moves the ground water from the bottom half of the well to the top and distributes it radially around the well piping through perforations in the PVC center tube and cap and baffle placement.

The CEGH is patented, and a prototype has been built and tested against a conventional closed loop. The CEGH showed significant heat transfer and absorption gains over the over the conventional well in the test.

As the CEGH is a new concept, no test has been developed. Instead, a tester or test assembly, as it will be referred to here, was designed and constructed. This was done to provide quantitative data and information about the CEGH’s performance and be compared to a conventional well.

The custom test assembly enabled flexible use and custom data acquisition. One borehole was drilled. A conventional closed piping loop was inserted into it and a thermal absorption test was run on that loop. Then, the conventional closed-loop piping was removed so that the CEGH assembly could be installed in the same borehole. The same exact test and measurements were performed on the CEGH.

Heated water was circulating at as constant rate through each well assembly. Water temperature entering and leaving each well and water flow were measured and recorded in gallons per minute (GPM). British thermal units per hour (BTUH) and total British thermal units (BTU) absorbed by each test well (conventional and CEGH) were derived from water temperature and flow measurements.

Test assembly construction

Figure 2: Test assembly. Courtesy: Aztech Engineering

Figure 2: Test assembly. Courtesy: Aztech Engineering

An electric boiler, pumps and required hydronic specialties (pressurized system) were all constructed in an aluminum weatherproof enclosure. An electric boiler (Thermolec Model B-15U-FFB, 51, 180 BTUH capacity, 15 kW, 208V/3Ø) with silicon-controlled rectifier (SCR) control was used. The SCR enables modulating boiler output control (as opposed to on/off) to maintain discharge water temperature without a dead band.

A three-speed grundfoss pump was used to circulate the water through the well and test assembly in the source water piping. A Dwyer Instruments Series MFS2 Magnetic Inductive Flow Sensor was installed in the test assembly. ACT A/TTK-1-2.5”-GD water temperature sensors were installed at the inlet and outlet of the boiler and test assembly.

The flow sensor measured water flow in gpm and the temperature sensors measured temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. All five measuring devices are tied into a Dataq Instruments DI-808 web-based data logger. In the end, the test assembly produced a consistent flow of water with constant heat to the well. For each test, these flows and temperatures were measured and recorded every couple of minutes for several days.

Prototype construction

Figure 3: CEGH prototype test well. Courtesy: Aztech Engineering

Figure 3: CEGH prototype test well. Courtesy: Aztech Engineering

Lengths of straight 3” PVC pipe (convector tube) with (6) ¾” HDPE pipes along the outside of the PVC pipe with well gaskets at different locations were fed 400 feet into a 6-1/2” inside diameter borehole. The (6) ¾” HDPE pipes start as approximately 3’ diameter coils. (6) coil holders with rollers and pipe straighteners made of rollers were fashioned to hold the HDPE coils and assist in lowering the pipe into the borehole. Rolling or unwinding the coil feeds the pipe out through the pipe straighteners and down into the well.

Along its length, small holes of varying sizes were drilled into the convector tube. A well gasket is located at the approximate middle of the well to hydraulically separate the bottom (suction) half from the top (discharge) half of the well.

The submersible pump—with its electrical power connection and tube gasket—were lowered down into the convector tube to its approximate middle. A “tube gasket” was constructed to fit the space between the pump discharge piping and the convector tube, which hydraulically separates the top half (discharge) of the convector tube from the bottom (suction) half. The tube gasket is located at the same approximate level as the well gasket. Holes were drilled in some of the discharge pipe lengths for the pumped water to discharge into the interior of the convector tube, through the tube’s perforations and into the well and earth.

Three of the six ends of the ¾” HDPE pipe coming out of the well were connected to a (3) ¾” to (1) 1-1/4” pipe manifold. The other three ends were connected to another similar manifold to make an inlet to the well from the test assembly and an outlet back to the test assembly. One of the 1-1/4” pipes was connected to the inlet of the test assembly and the other to the discharge of the test assembly, just as with the conventional base case test. The test assembly and well were filled with water and the test assembly was started. The test was run as it was for the base case conventional well.

Results and analysis

The water flow (GPM) and water temperatures entering and leaving the test assembly and boiler were continually measured throughout each test run. These measurements were recorded every two minutes by the data logger and made available in CSV files. Heat absorbed by the well in MBH is determined from the flow and test assembly water inlet temperature (or well return water temperature – RW) and the test assembly outlet temperature. The test assembly system was typically putting out about 40 MBH into the well system.

Table 1 below summarizes the test results by indicating the Cumulative Heat Absorbed by the well with the different assemblies in them (conventional and CEGH) calculated from the measurements at the first 2-minute recording after each test’s return water temperature reaches the milestone temperatures of 70°F, 75°F, 80°F, 85°F and 90°F.

RETURN AIR WATER TEMP CEGH 5-2018 BASE CASE
TIME ELAPSED HOURS CUM HEAT ABSORBED KBTU TIME ELAPSED HOURS CUM HEAT ABSORBED KBTU
70°F 4.07 193.41 1.37 60.34
75° 8.37 328.8 3.20 141.79
80°F 16.03 633.21 6.50 293.06
85°F 31.60 1233.19 13.17 594.59
90°F 69.36 2646.53 23.97 1097.10
Courtesy: Aztech Engineering

Courtesy: Aztech Engineering

The test performed simulated a heat pump system in cooling mode, where the well absorbed the heat of rejection from the heat pump’s refrigeration system. The return water temperature is the temperature of the water coming out of the well that would be going back in to heat pump system to “cool” the system’s condensers. Water temperature entering a heat pump (return water temperature from the well) above 90°F is not useful. The return water temperature relates to the well temperature. As the well temperature rises, heat exchange with the well (ground) is reduced as the delta T between the water entering the well and the surrounding ground is reduced.

As the above summary shows it took the CEGH 69 hours and 2,646.53 MBTU of total heat energy before the RW temp rose to 90°F while it only took only 24 hours and 1,097.10 MBTU for the RW temp of the base case (conventional well) to get to 90°F. Thus, the CEGH absorbed 2.4 times more heat than a comparable conventional closed loop well before reaching the end of the useful well return water temperature, meaning that the CEGH could have approximately 2.4 times the capacity of a comparable conventional closed loop well.

Conclusion

The prototype test proved the main concept of the convection enhanced geothermal heat pump. By inducing ground water flow around the piping of a closed loop geothermal heat pump well, the capacity of the well can be increased. It also showed that the general design and construction of the CEGH works to induce ground water flow around the well piping. A functional system that rendered very positive results was accomplished in the first attempt, which encourages the notion that this is a feasible concept.

There is reason to believe that the convection enhanced geothermal heat pump well in this location and installation was not optimal. Better results can be expected for future installations in different locations. Bedrock was not hit until 120 feet down and water was not reached until about 250 feet down. Steel casing covered the first 120 feet of this test well and the rock from 120 feet to 250 feet was tight, with very few cracks that water could pass through.

As the conventional closed-loop geothermal well depends only on conduction, this condition did not affect its performance. The convection enhanced geothermal heat pump was likely very affected by this condition, with only about 150 feet out of the 400 foot well being usable for convection (ground water flow).


Dean Azzam
Author Bio: Dean Azzam, President, Aztech Engineers, Inc.