"We went with a geothermal heat pump."
David and Jen Schlegel, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania

How It Works: A geothermal system, or ground-source heat pump, taps into the earth's constant temperature of 55 degrees F to heat and cool a home efficiently. In a vertical installation, piping is buried up to 300 feet deep. In a horizontal system, the piping snakes under a wide swath of land, 3 to 6 feet below the surface. The pipes contain an antifreeze solution that flows beneath the ground and then through the heat pump indoors, which transfers the heat from the liquid to air handlers. In summer the unit cools the house by pumping heat back into the ground. The systems can cut heating and cooling bills by up to 40 percent.

What These Homeowners Did: David and Jen were burning through $1,150 worth of home heating oil and spending about $375 on electricity for central AC each year in their 1949 Colonial Revival. Just as important, their furnace, water heater, and AC compressor were close to shot. So last fall they brought in a local geothermal specialist to take a look at their 1,262-square-foot home. The company sank two pipes 190 feet deep into their yard. It took the crew about a week to do the work, which included drilling, removing the old furnace, wiring an electrical service panel, and installing a new heat pump made by ClimateMaster, which is based in Oklahoma City. The heat pump fits into the basement and, fortunately, could be used with the existing ductwork.

What They Learned: "You get nice, even heat throughout the house," says David. And a geothermal system provides an endless supply of heating, cooling, and hot water.

Keep in Mind: Drilling is costly, and nerve-racking, because you don't know what you may hit. David and Jen paid $11 per foot. But if the drill had hit water, sand, or stone, the price would have risen to $13 to $17 per foot. The larger the house, the more pipe you need underground.

Payback Period: 8 years
Their Cost: $11,600, installed, after a $300 federal tax credit
Yearly Savings on Oil and Electricity for Heat, Hot Water, and AC: $1,525

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