This is a very nervous time for the geothermal industry and I can feel it when I’m on the phone with installers. There’s a lot of geothermal companies that have been around for 20+ years and now there’s a lot of innovation happening around policy, real time monitoring, and playing around with different ground loop heat exchangers, that industry veterans haven’t had to deal with before and it’s uncomfortable for them.

Here’s my main message to the geothermal industry: if you’re asking everyone to look at new ways to heat and cool buildings, you also need to be looking at new technologies, policies, and ways of doing things yourselves. Some of you are, but on average I notice more hesitancy within the industry than excitement about embracing (inevitable) change. I could be wrong on this, just my perception.

Monitoring projects means that we’re going to find great, good, and bad systems. In fact that’s the goal. Matt is a little more soft spoken so he wouldn’t say this, but yes, we will find bad systems.

With that being said, I’m super excited to be working with Matt and publishing this data. There’s only a small group of things the geothermal industry can do to proactively (unlike waiting around for fuel prices to increase by 300%) increase the adoption of the technology; including working for better policy, better ground loop innovations, decreasing customer acquisition costs, and verification of system performance.

Geothermal technology has a low margin of error, if anything is messed up during the design, installation and (most overlooked) operation of the system, the efficiencies will be shot. Here’s some of the interesting bits of information that can easily be found monitoring more than just kWh of the system:

  1. How much does the COP drop due to pumping losses
  2. Equipment failures; low refrigerate, valves, and pumps.

If you want more on monitoring check out these previous resource:

  1. Performance Based Contracts Are the Future of Geothermal
  2. Lessons Learned about Ground Loop Sizing from 100,000+ Hours of Real Time Geothermal Monitoring 
  3. Free Course: How to Install, Commission and Use Real Time Geothermal Monitoring

Matt and Ground Energy Support’s data is a robust but small sample size, compared to the whole industry. But it shows the possibilities of what we can figure out with a larger sample size and more data. If you’re a manufacture, distributor, installer or driller, utility, or state energy official and would like to go a monitoring and verification study. Feel free to call me, Chris Williams at 800 393 2044 ex. 33, or Matt Davis at (603) 867-9762

Future posts will include

  • Geo Monitoring Quality over Quantity: Why All Data is Not the Same
  • Characteristics of the Best Monitoring and Verification Study
  • How Monitoring can Eliminate, or Prevent, Angry Customers Once and For All
  • Expected Versus Actual Performance: Comparing LoopLink Predictions to GES Data

Enter Matt Davis from Ground Energy Support


This article is the second in a three-part series prepared by Ground Energy Support LLC (GES) that will highlight some of the lessons learned from over 100,000 hours of real-time ground source heat pump (GSHP) monitoring data. This is written for GSHP installers of residential and light commercial systems who want to learn how to leverage real-time Performance Monitoring to build better GSHP systems, reduce their risk and callbacks, and ensure customer satisfaction.

The previous article focused on showing how data from real-time monitoring can be used to assess how the ground loop is performing relative to both the installed capacity and the measured heating load. The daily load profiles presented in that article are now available to GxTracker™ users as part of their Performance screens (login required to view Load Profile graph).

This article focuses on the overall system performance, factors that affect performance, how real-time monitoring can be used to evaluate performance of installed equipment, and identify and address issues before they become problems.

The number of sites represents a relatively small sample size and the different measurement techniques used at the sites result in different levels of accuracy.  In spite of these limitations, we are able to identify and illustrate several factors that affect system performance.   As more sites are instrumented with web-based monitoring systems that have the capability of quantifying ground loop performance, geoexchange, and electrical consumption, there will be an unprecedented ability to assess a wide range of GSHP designs over a wide range of geologic and climatic conditions.

Measuring GSHP System Performance

GSHP systems have the potential to significantly reduce the energy needs for space heating and cooling (an estimated 4 Quadrillion BTUS in the US) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, these benefits will only be realized if the systems operate efficiently. Efficient operation requires proper design, installation, and maintenance.

One common method for assessing system performance of residential systems is to review the customer’s electric bills on a regular basis. While lower electric bills are a clear indication that the systems are operating efficiently, it is often difficult to parse out other factors that contribute to the overall electrical consumption. Additional challenges to using a customer’s electric bill to assess system performance include: new construction has no baseline for comparison; retrofits will often combine the addition of a heat pump with other efficiency measures, making it difficult to attribute the savings to the GSHP; and finally, when an electric bill is higher than expected, the cause may be unrelated to the GSHP system. One of the biggest disadvantages of relying on electric bills as a measure of system performance is that the homeowner is left to identify and report GSHP performance problems. In short, the most effective way to demonstrate that a GSHP system is performing efficiently, and thus ensure customer satisfaction, is to monitor the system in real-time so as to assess key performance metrics.

Many factors contribute to the overall performance of a GSHP system. Through our monitoring activities to date, we have found the main factors to be:

  1. Heat pump performance and ground loop temperature
  2. Pumping energy necessary to circulate loop fluid
  3. Heat pump cycling patterns
  4. Auxiliary electric heat

One of the key metrics of assessing how a GSHP system is performing in heating mode is the Coefficient of Performance (COP). The COP is the ratio of useable thermal energy to the thermal equivalent of the electricity used to operate the system.

While measuring the COP is not always the primary objective, all of our real-time monitoring systems include, at a minimum, measurements of entering and leaving water temperature (EWT and LWT), heat pump status, and an estimate of fluid flow. When power measurements are not available, power consumption is modeled using the heat pump specifications, a pump penalty based on type of system and flowrate, and measured runtimes. These methods provide representative values of COP with an error of +/- 20% and are intended to show overall trends in system behavior.

In some installations, a higher level of accuracy is desired and additional measures of power consumption and, if necessary, flowrate can be included. When accurate measures of both flow and power consumption are available, the accuracy of the COP improves to approximately +/-5%.

Because the accuracy of the computed COP varies from site to site and quality assurance measures are necessary to insure the values are representative, COPs are not computed automatically as part of our performance metrics. Rather, the necessary components are available by downloading either the minute-resolution observations or integrated daily values.

Daily Average System COPs


Figure 1. Daily Average Measured COP at 5 installations ranging from US Climate Zones 4 to 1. See Table 1 for site designations and seasonal average COPs. Power measurements are included for Sites B, C, and E.

The Daily COP values presented in Figure 1 and summarized in Table 1 illustrate some of the main factors that affect performance. Overall, there is an upward trend in performance as heat pump technology has gone from single stage to multi-stage compressors.

The system with the lowest performance (Site A) has single stage heat pumps using a standing column well. The two-stage heat pump on a standing column well (Site B) has a higher COP, but is adversely affected by the power required for fluid pumping. The COP of the two-stage system on the closed vertical loop (Site C) varies more through the year due to both the change in EWT and the use of the auxiliary electrical heat in late February. The performance of the two-stage system using two well groundwater loop (Site D) is comparable to, and slightly higher than, the other two-stage heat pump systems. The system with a variable stage heat pump (Site E) has the highest average COP. This is likely due to a combination of the variable-stage technology and its geographic location which enabled it to maintain higher EWTs throughout the winter.

These COP values are consistent with those reported by Puttagunta and others in their 2010 study of residential GSHPs. We have also found that, while the in-field performance is typically less than the AHRI rating, the systems are seen to provide a reliable technology for heating and cooling at consistently lower cost than conventional systems.

Table 1: Seasonal Average System COPs, Winter 2012-2013
Site System Description Average COP
A Standing Column Well, 2 Heat Pumps, Single Stage 2.74
B Standing Column Well, 1 Heat Pump, Two Stage 3.15
C Closed Vertical Loop, 1 Heat Pump, Two Stage 3.27
D Open Two Well System, 1 Heat Pump, Two Stage 3.33
E Closed Horizontal Loop, 2 Heat Pumps, Variable Stage 4.18

Factors that affect System COP

There are several factors that affect the overall GSHP system performance. Because of the wide range in GSHP system designs and equipment available, there is not a single best approach to optimizing performance. Rather, we show how monitoring can help characterize the elements that affect specific installations. Again, the lessons learned and examples presented in this initial series of articles focuses on heating mode and uses examples from installations ranging from US Climate Zones 4 to 1.

Heat Pump Cycling

It has long been recognized that rapid cycling of heat pumps diminishes performance and increases mechanical wear on the equipment. In recent years, more efficient dual stage heat pumps have become common that enable heat pumps to operate for longer cycles, produce lower heat output, and use less electricity.


Figure 2. Three examples of heat pump cycling patterns. Each diagram represents the GeoExchange for a six hour period of heating (heat extraction). Top image is from a system with two single stage heat pumps (5-ton and 3-ton units). Middle image shows the GeoExchange for a two-stage (4-ton) heat pump. Bottom image is for a variable stage (3-ton) heat pump.

Figure 2 shows the heat pump cycle patterns for three different systems: one with two single-stage heat pumps, a two-stage heat pump, and one with a variable-stage heat pump. While the single-stage heat pumps reach their expected heat of extraction (~22MBtuH for the 3 ton and ~40MBtuH for the 5 ton), the average production of the heat pumps (while running) over this same period was 17 MBtuH and 32 MBtuH, about 20% below their steady state production. In contrast, the two-stage heat pump is able to maintain its steady state heat production in part load for cycles of approximately 30 minutes and then, when additional heat is necessary, switch into full load. With two-stage heat pumps there is much less efficiency lost from cycling on and off. The final example is a new variable stage heat pump that operates over extended periods of time, adjusting the heat output to meet demand. In general, the lower stages provide greater performance by varying heat output over multiple stages thereby increasing overall performance.

Loop Temperature

Entering water temperature is well-recognized as one of the leading factors affecting system performance and heat pump manufacturers provide performance specifications for temperature ranging from 25 to 100 ° F.


Figure 3. Measured COP for 15-minute intervals during which heat pump was running continuously. (A) Measured COP for different times of the day relative to manufacturer COP for different loop temperatures. COP values in (A) include power from both compressor and flow center. (B) Same measured COP values (green) compared to the COP in (A) with the pump power removed (yellow)

In the example shown below (Case A from last week’s article on Loop Performance), the power consumption of the heat pump circuit (which includes the flow center), and the Auxiliary electric heat are being monitored separately with a WattNode power meter. The COP is calculated for 15-minute intervals through the 2012-2013 winter. To remove the variability of performance associated with the heat pump cycling on and off, we only include 15-minute intervals for which the heat pump was running continuously. The EWT ranges from 33 to 51 °F. While there is an overall correlation between COP and EWT, there is also considerable variability at a given temperature.

In the article last week on Loop Performance, we conjectured that the pattern of thermostat settings (set back at night resulting in a greater call for heat in the morning) might affect the overall performance. While the average COPs for the morning period are lower than the night, the difference is not statistically significant. If any difference exists, it appears to be related more to the operation at full load rather than lower loop temperatures.

Pump Penalty

One of the most notable features of Figure 3A is the departure of the measured from the manufacturer’s specified COPs (dashed line). The primary factor explaining this departure is the power required to run the pump, which is included in Figure 3A. To illustrate the significance of the pump penalty, we remove a constant value of 500W from the total power measurements and recompute the COP to represent the pump penalty and re-compute the COP for just the compressor (Figure 3B). When the pump power is removed, the measured COP lines up well with the manufacturer specification for the COP based on the amount of thermal energy produced per unit of electrical energy consumed by the compressor.

As noted above, the average COP of Site B (Figure 1, Table 1) is significantly reduced by the pumping penalty that has been measured and averages approximately 800W. For a 3-ton heat pump, the pumping penalty alone reduces the COP from 4.2 to 3.2. It is important to note that the high pump penalty is not indicative of the open loop, but rather the pump selection and materials used in installation.

Auxiliary Electric Heat

When auxiliary electric heat is installed as part of a GSHP system it can augment the heat provided by the ground loop and compressor during times when the thermostat is calling for additional heat. In the example in Figure 1 with the closed loop vertical borehole with a two-stage heat pump, the auxiliary was used for a short period of time in late February 2013. In this example, the auxiliary heat was used for short periods of time to supplement heat provided by the heat pump; and while it had a significant effect on the daily COP, it had a relatively minor effect on the overall average COP for the winter season. In cases where the auxiliary is used more frequently throughout the day and over longer periods in the heating season, it will quickly erode the overall system performance.


Figure 4. Power consumption for 24-hour period at Site C in which heat pump (blue line) cycles between part and full load and calls for auxiliary heat (orange line) to supplement. While the auxiliary heat itself has a COP of 1, its impact on the daily average COP is modest (see Figure 1)

Equipment Malfunctioning

The analysis above focuses on how individual components contribute to overall system performance when the system is functioning properly. In addition to the benefit of helping to understand the performance of a specific installation under normal operating conditions, monitoring can also help identify when components of the system are NOT operating normally. Some specific examples of equipment malfunction that monitoring has both detected and helped to diagnose include:

  1. Faulty Expansion Valve was indicated by periods of heat rejection to the ground during heating mode. After the repair, the performance of the heat pump increased by 80%
  2. Low Refrigerant charge was indicated by lower-than-expected geoexchange. After a service call, the performance increased by 30%.
  3. Circulating Pump running when compressor is off, due to problems with the control board and heat pump going into freeze protection.

Web-Based GSHP System Monitoring

There are several options for web-based ground loop monitoring on the market today, and more options will undoubtedly come onto the market in the future. The following discussion pertains to GES’s monitoring system, the GxTracker™ . The GxTracker™ system is modular, with components added or subtracted based on the characteristics of your GSHP system, and what your monitoring objectives are. For reference, a basic GSHP monitoring system for up to two heat pumps that can produce the data shown above can cost less than $1,000.

The basic components of the GxTracker™ monitoring system include 1) sensors and optional meters that capture data about the temperatures and optionally, the flow and electrical consumption of your GSHP system; and 2) cloud-based data processing software presented in an easy-to-use online interface.

Data Capture

The GxTracker™ measures EWT and LWT with calibrated sensors attached to the outside of the EWT and LWT pipes for each heat pump. The sensor design and installation instructions ensure a good thermal connection with the pipe. For example, the sensors must be attached to metal, and are equipped with special thermal pads to maximize the thermal connection. The system flow rate is either taken as constant (system design rate) or measured with a flowmeter(s). The heat pump on/off status is detected either with a current switch, current transducer, or flow meter (if installed). GSHP system kWh usage is based either on heat pump design specifications coupled with heat pump runtimes OR is captured by installing an optional power meter(s). Power meters and associated benefits are discussed in next week’s article. In addition, we pull outdoor air temperature from the nearest NWS weather station every 15-minutes.

Data Analysis and Presentation

At the web interface, GxTracker™ users can see a variety of useful system information, including system settings, real-time data, system performance data analyses, and cost and carbon benefit analyses. Data downloads are available through a password-protected user account. The user can download minute resolution data for the previous three months. Daily system performance metrics (total BTUs, geoexchange from each heat pump, runtimes, minimum EWT, kWh, heating and cooling degree days, and hot water generated for systems equipped with the GxTracker™ Hot Water kit) are archived and available to the user indefinitely.

  • Enroll in the HeatSpring Online Training Course to learn how to specify, install, and use a GxTracker web-based monitoring system to meet your specific needs.
  • Get a quote for a GxTracker Monitoring System.
  • If you are interested in conducting a GSHP Monitoring & Verification study,  call me at (603) 867-9762.