The geothermal alternative

Mike Otto started his company in 1992 in Rogers, Minn., building decks with a saw and hammer.

Now he’s drilling 80-foot-deep wells in Linden Hills to install one of the first geothermal home heating systems in the Minneapolis area.

“Nobody used to ask about geothermal options; now, just about every call we get people are enquiring,” Otto said. “We have three geothermal projects slated right now, one here and two in St. Paul.”

Otto has expanded his business to cover most of the metro area. He operates out of an office in the CARAG neighborhood, on 31st & Fremont.

Geothermal systems — which use the steady temperature of groundwater to heat and cool buildings — are becoming more attractive to homeowners who are gutting their heating and cooling systems, or substantially remodeling their houses. The cost of the system is $30,000. This includes both heating and air-conditioning. The cost of heating and cooling for a year in a geothermal home is around $800. Otto’s company, Mike Otto Construction Inc., has calculated that the system pays off itself after 10 years.

Geothermal pumps can save a home 30–70 percent on heating costs, and 30–50 percent on cooling costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Not every house is going to save the same amount.

“[Savings] depends on a lot of factors. Insulation, age of the house, what other types of work are being put into it,” Otto said.

But no matter what type of house people have, interest is growing quickly. Chris Friend of Genz Ryan heating and cooling has worked on four geothermal heating projects — all in the last six months. “People have become interested in [geothermal] because of gas prices, mainly,” he said.

Although geothermal heating technology has been around since the 1950s, it has only taken off recently. A growing national interest in being environmentally friendly has spurred geothermal projects. Friend said whenever anyone asks about the option, he recommends it because of the ultimate payoff.

In the Southwest area, there are now three geothermal homes, all recently installed.

A geothermal home in Minneapolis is a difficult proposition, considering the limited amount of yard space homes have, much of which is needed for the necessary geothermal wells. In areas with more space, wells are dug horizontally underground, which is cheaper and less cumbersome.

The geothermal system is relatively simple. At the Linden Hills home, 515 feet of tubing is run through the six wells and into the basement of the house. Through this tubing runs water, which is kept at a temperature of about 55 degrees by the geothermal heat 80 feet underground.

The water is then pumped into the house and the heat is extracted from it, in much the same way heat is taken from food items placed in a refrigerator. That heat is then sent to the different areas of the home.

Otto’s participation in the Minnesota Greenstar pilot program established him as a leading renewable-resources construction company in the metropolitan area. The Greenstar certification program sets guidelines to home building and remodeling that allow for homes to get certified at either bronze, silver, or gold levels.

The Minnesota Greenstar program is looking for a “well-rounded approach to green design and construction,” according to its certification rubric.

Construction companies such as Otto’s, coupled with green-certification programs suggest a bright future for the economic stimulation of sustainable living. Southwest Minneapolis homes have been on the forefront of what Otto hopes will someday turn into a movement.

There are already two geothermally heated houses in the Linden Hills area. Mike Otto’s project marks a third. And given the fuel climate, there are, most likely, many more to come.