Pros and Cons of Centralized Pumping

Monday, May 22, 2017

With a ground source heat pump system (as with anything else), the designer must strike the right balance between installation and operating costs. This is true of all aspects of design, but is especially true of the interior piping design as well as the pump layout and selection. Even with the best design, the efficiency gains from a GSHP system can be completely erased by poor piping and pumping design (due to excessive head loss, oversized pumps, improper control, etc.).

While there are many options with respect to pumping system layout and design, they generally fall into one of two categories: centralized or distributed. While there are merits to both approaches, the process of finding the best choice for your application starts with an evaluation of the the project.

Centralized Pumping Basics

A centralized system will use one or more pumps at a central location to induce flow through the loopfield and then distribute it to the units scattered throughout the building, as shown in the illustration.

For large systems that fall in this category, variable speed control is common (and may even be required)1.

In general terms, the use of a centralized pump will be well-suited for a building with a small footprint where the interior piping can easily be connected to the GSHP units that are scattered throughout2. Centralized pumping may also be ideal for applications with significant load diversity where ‘load sharing’ principles can be used to reduce overall loopfield requirements3.

To determine whether this design approach is the best choice for your system, start by estimating the installation and operating costs and then comparing them to a distributed pumping approach. Next, take a full accounting of the pros and cons of centralized pumping, a few of which are as follows:


  • Large pumps generally have better overall efficiency values than the smaller pumps used in distributed arrangements.
  • When required, maintenance is performed at the central pumping station (located in the mechanical room or dedicated pump house) which provides adequate access and minimal disturbance to the rest of the building.
  • Maintenance costs and personnel requirements are generally the lowest with this approach.


  • A large interior piping loop must be used to connect all of the GSHP units to the central circulating pump, which requires proper design, increases complexity, requires the use of larger pipe sizes and drives up installation cost.
  • VFD flow control can be complicated and central systems must be balanced for proper operation4.
  • Failure or shutdown of the pumping system will cause the entire system to be down.

Best Suited For:

  • Buildings with small footprints and/or significant load diversity2.

Additional Notes:

  • To avoid system shutdown due to failure or routine maintenance, redundancy with a standby pump (in parallel with the main pump) is recommended. With redundant pumps, duty cycling is important to help with pump longevity and to even out service life expectancy.
  • When variable speed control is required, flow control measures (such as zone valves and pressure sensors) are necessary.
  • With variable speed control, the pressure drop in the distribution piping should be kept low. Additionally, the system should be balanced during startup to ensure proper control can be achieved.
  • Variable speed pumps should be designed to never operate below 25% of design flowrate to ensure that the motor and VFD efficiencies remain relatively high. For most GSHP systems, a large percentage of operating hours for the year will be at the lower end of the flowrate (idle or with 20% to 40% of GSHP units operating).

In a large GSHP system, a centralized pumping solution may be beneficial because of the low number of pumps required along with their central placement (which comes in handy when maintenance is required). But the system designer must select a pump that meets pressure and flow requirements while also providing economical operation, which can be tricky at part load conditions.

Because of the increased complexity of system design and control, as well as the lower limit on flow with variable speed equipment, it may be worth looking at the Pros and Cons of Distributed Pumping (article coming soon) to see if it is a better fit for your application and more importantly, a better fit for your customer.


  1. Per ASHRAE 90.1 (2016), “Hydronic heat pumps and water-cooled unitary air conditioners having a total pump system power exceeding 5 hp shall have controls and/or devices (such as variable-speed control) that will result in pump motor demand of no more than 30% of design wattage at 50% of design water flow.”
  2. Refer to Chapter 6 in Geothermal Heating and Cooling: Design of Ground-Source Heat Pump Systems (Kavanaugh and Rafferty, 2014).
  3. LoopLink PRO can be used determine how much ground loop reduction is possible with load sharing principles for a given system.
  4. A recent GSHP field study indicated that less than 10% of the ground-loop variable speed pumps with differential pressure transducer control were operating as intended due to faulty controls or had pumps large enough to provide near full-load flow rate at minimum motor speed (Kavanaugh 2012).

Geothermal Loops: 5 Reasons for using HDPE & PEXa

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

With so many available options, why has the geothermal heat pump industry gravitated toward exclusively using polyethylene (PE) - specifically HDPE and PEXa - for ground loop construction, especially considering it is one of the most insulative piping materials available?

Aside from the fact that PE piping accounts for a tiny fraction of the overall thermal resistance in a loopfield1, it offers a lot more benefits than deficits.

Photo courtesy of ISCO Industries.

Industry Standards

HDPE and PEXa are the only materials that IGSHPA formally approves for use in the buried portion of a closed-loop GSHP system. Per Section 1C of IGSHPA's Design and Installation Standards:

The acceptable pipe and fitting materials for the underground portion of the ground heat exchanger are high-density polyethylene (HDPE), as specified in Section 1C.2 and cross-linked polyethylene (PEXa), as specified in Section 1C.32.

These recommendations were born out of a combination of past experience along with the acknowledgement of the many advantages that polyethylene (PE) has to offer. Aside from being the industry standard, here are the top 5 reasons for using PE over the alternatives:

1 Affordable & Available

Polyethylene is used in a wide range of applications such as food packaging, plastic bottles and bags, pool liners, and of course, geothermal piping. It is a commodity plastic and is among the least expensive types to make. Geothermal grade polyethylene pipe is mass produced and readily available in the marketplace at commodity prices.

2 Durability

Geothermal heat pump systems operate under a wide range of temperatures and pressures. It is normal for ground loop temperatures to swing from 25-30F in heating mode to 90-100F in cooling mode. Thermal expansion and contraction of the piping due to temperature swings will cause system pressures to follow suit.

Polyethylene is highly resistant to damage due to fatigue (as well as damage due to abrasion, weathering, corrosion, etc.). It can withstand the abuse of pressure fluctuation due to temperature changes, as well as the abuse of being transported and handled on the jobsite. According to the Plastic Pipe Institute, it can even withstand damage due to an earthquake:

The toughness, ductility and flexibility of PE pipe combined with its other special properties, such as its leak-free fully restrained heat fused joints, make it well suited for installation in dynamic soil environments and in areas prone to earthquakes.

The durability of PE pipe is tough to beat (pun intended).

3 Installation Ease

Mechanical fittings are not necessary when PE pipe is used. Simple heat fusion techniques are used to join pipe and fittings together in a leak-free, virtually fail-proof manner. Even if leaks or other errors occur, they are extremely easy to fix.

PE pipe is also relatively flexible, lightweight and very easy to manage on the jobsite. Pipe coils are generally available for purchase in any 100-ft increment, leaving it to the installer to pick the length that best suits the project without the hassle of a special order.

4 Service Life

The life expectancy of polyethylene is greater than any mechanical component inside of the building, and even the building itself. According to Chapter 7 in the Handbook of PE Pipe:

The service life of HDPE pipe manufactured from today’s materials is expected to exceed 100 years.

In fact, most pipe manufacturers offer a 50-year warranty to guarantee that the pipe will perform according to specifications without failure of the material itself.

5 Maintenance Free

The long service life coupled with the use of heat fusion in lieu of mechanical fittings virtually eliminates the need for maintenance on the pipe itself. Once installed, the buried ground loop will be a permanent fixture on the property for as long as there is a building to heat and cool.

Polyethylene is also corrosion resistant and inert to most chemicals. It does not promote biological growth and helps to minimize the amount of water quality-related issues typically associated with a water-source HVAC system. Alternative piping materials such as steel, copper and galvanized iron are much more demanding from a maintenance point of view.

All things considered, HDPE and PEXa are far and away the most practical choice for geothermal loopfield construction.


1GeoPro’s Importance of Grout TC illustrates the fact that pipe is a very small portion of the overall thermal resistance in a loopfield. In fact, LoopLink PRO can be used to show that the thermal resistance of a basic HDPE or PEXa u-bend accounts for only 10%-12% of the overall total.

2Refer to IGSHPA's Design and Installation Standards for further information on pipe manufacturing methods and materials, pressure ratings, dimensions, tolerances, etc.

Soil Identification for Horizontal Geo Loops

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Soil identification can serve as one of the largest obstacles to generating an accurate horizontal loop design. That’s because it plays a large part in determining how many trenches are needed and how long they need to be. While it may sound simple, soil identification isn’t an area that most people are formally trained in.

Soil Properties

To design a horizontally-trenched loopfield, the important soil properties - thermal conductivity and thermal diffusivity - need to be quantified. These properties are dependent on three primary factors:

  • Soil type
  • Moisture content
  • Density

As described in this article, it is generally best to be conservative and assume that both density and moisture content are average to below average, unless you have enough information to justify a different assumption. Beyond that, soil type is the only factor left to define, which is where your homework begins.

Possible Resources

There are a number of resources to help determine soil type at the job site. County soil maps, soil survey reports and geotechnical reports may serve as a decent starting point in your search. Local excavation contractors that provide services such as septic tank installation may be able to provide firsthand knowledge of the soil type in an area as well.

Possibly the best, most accessible source of information is the USDA’s Web Soil Survey (WSS).

Using Web Soil Survey

WSS is a free online service that provides access to soil data collected by the National Cooperative Soil Survey, and is very easy to use. Soil identification is done in three simple steps:

  1. Enter the project location. WSS accepts many different forms of input for location - address, latitude and longitude, Public Land Survey System (PLSS) coordinates, etc.
  2. With the correct location shown on the map, simply zoom to the area where the loopfield is to be located and draw a box to create an Area of Interest (AOI).
  3. View soil type(s) in the AOI.

Once the AOI has been successfully created, WSS provides a free pdf download of the soil report, which includes:

  • Soil map with legend
  • Detailed description of the soil types along with the occurrence level for each (expressed as a percentage)

To download the report, simply click on the “Shopping Cart” tab, name the report, choose the options in Table of Contents, and click Check Out to begin the download process.

Try an Example

For example, our office is located at 302 E. Warehouse St., Elkton, SD 57026. Enter this in the search box, zoom in to create an AOI as shown:

Once the AOI has been defined, the ‘Soil Map’ link will show a detailed map of the soil types in the area. For this example, the predominant soil type in the area is Silty Clay Loam (Z181A - Brandt)

Click here to download the sample report for this example.

Soil Identification in LoopLink RLC

Once you have identified the soil type in your area, assigning soil properties in LoopLink RLC is relatively easy:

  1. Assign soil density level (low, average, high)
  2. Assign soil moisture content (dry, typical, wet)
  3. Find a similar soil type in the Soil Estimator

In general, leave the selection for moisture content and density level at the default settings unless better information is available (i.e. a geotechnical report is available and provides enough detail to justify a change). From there, simply choose the soil type that most closely matches the soil identified in WSS. When making your choice, focus on the description in the table (clay, silty-loam, etc.).

Once you’ve made your selection, LoopLink RLC will provide recommendations for soil thermal conductivity and thermal diffusivity and you can proceed with the horizontally-trenched loop design.

Although soil identification can be intimidating (especially to the new designer), it is vital to accurate loop design. USDA’s Web Soil Survey breaks down this barrier. The service is easy to use and best of all, it’s free!

Understanding Auto-Header

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

In LoopLink PRO we spent a lot of time on header design. We spent so much time on it in fact, most users will never need to spend more than a few seconds on the page. But the speed with which the auto-header function does its job, belies the complexity and importance of what it is doing.

This article describes generally how the LoopLink PRO auto-header system works so it feels less magical and becomes more useful.

Fixed Assumptions

In order to automate the design of your loopfield headers, the LoopLink PRO auto-header tool was built using three fundamental assumptions.

  • Headers are broken into evenly-sized groups of bores we call circuits.
  • Circuits are designed using step-down, step-up reverse-return principles (SDSU-RR).
  • Regardless of u-bend material being used, the header pipe is constructed using HDPE.

We arrived at these assumptions through our own experience and by reviewing hundreds of header designs from other engineers and system designers. From our research, we have found that this method of piping design is the most common and least error prone.

Basic Logic

With those assumptions set, the auto-header function follows a pretty simple set of rules based on IGSHPA's Design & Installation Standards and supplemented by best practices. The scope of the problem is bounded first by the pipe sizes you select to include. After that, we simply analyze the theoretical velocity and pressure drop through a section of pipe and make a choice as to which pipe diameter makes the most sense to minimize head loss while maintaining the minimum velocity required for the flushing process.

You Choose the Available Pipes

The smallest pipe size available is always the diameter and dimension ratio of your U-Bend selection. When your header is initially designed, LoopLink PRO will by default use the same dimension ratio as your U-Bend selection for all sizes of pipe. After that, you can select the nominal diameter and dimension ratio pipe you would like to include in your design.

So, if for example you wanted to design headers to skip 1.25” pipe, all you would do is turn off 1.25”. If you want everything larger than 2” to be DR 13.5… turn those pipes on.

LoopLink PRO will only design your headers using the pipe sizes you specify.

When to Step

LoopLink PRO is designed to first minimize head loss then maintain minimum flushing flow velocities. The minimum flushing flow velocity is defaulted to 2ft/s based on IGSHPA's Design & Installation Standards. That said, you can easily override this value if specified by local code or as a matter of professional preference.

LoopLink PRO will first determine the smallest available pipe size that will result in a head loss value that is less than 3 ft. H2O per 100 ft. of pipe length but is still capable of maintaining the minimum flushing velocity specified in that section.

At every intersection where the header will ‘feed’ a loop, the loop’s design flow is subtracted from the total flow required to provide design flow to the last bore in a circuit. The auto-header then decides if the next section of pipe should be the same size as the last or if a diameter change is needed to minimize head loss and maintain flushing velocity.

The process is exactly what you would do if you were solving the header on paper… just faster and with a lot less eraser debris on your desk.

You Can Step In

LoopLink PRO does its best to behave like we do during header design but it isn’t always practical or reasonable to program common sense choices that fall outside of design standards. Sometimes an engineer needs to step in and apply their experience. Which is why we included manual edit mode.

This allows you to start with an excellent base header configuration and quickly apply changes to make the design your own. The system will even warn you if you fall outside of the standards and provide you with feedback that will help you choose if the decision is appropriate.

The auto-header isn’t meant to take the designer out of the equation. It is meant to take the tedium out of your design process so that you can iterate and optimize quickly to find the best solution for your application.

Top 4 Reasons Not to Use a Vault

A geothermal valve vault serves as a central point where the manifold collects flow from the entire loopfield with a single pair of supply-return lines running back to the building.

A well-designed vault has incorporated bypass and butterfly circuit isolation valves, which are used during system fill, flush & purge and pressure testing. These features are important and necessary, but you don't need to install a vault to include them in your design.

Here are the top four reasons to avoid using a geothermal valve vault in a commercial loopfield according to Howard Newton, Director of Geothermal Design at Image Engineering Group.

Photo courtesy of Image Engineering Group.

1 First Cost

As with any mechanical component, cost-benefit must always be considered. Whether pre-manufactured, or built on-site, The up-front cost for a geothermal valve vault can be significant.

If mechanical room space or distance from the building are non-factors, a detailed cost comparison like the one performed by Dr. Kavanaugh in ASHRAE's commercial geothermal design guide (Example 9.2 on page 353 - "To Vault or Not to Vault") to look at the loopfield investment with and without a vault.

2 Large Pipe Must Be Used

In order to accommodate the combined flow for the entire system, large diameter piping must be used.

  • Large diameter piping is expensive, and has much higher internal volume requirements, which results in the need for a large amount of antifreeze (when used)
  • Fusion equipment is larger, more expensive and unwieldy for the installer
  • Larger fusion fittings are less plentiful and accessible
  • Large diameter piping is heavy, less flexible and harder to work with
  • Large diameter pipe can only be purchased in straight lengths, which increases the amount of labor to fuse sections of pipe for long runs from the vault to the building

3 Site Work Complexity

The site work associated with a vault on site is generally more complicated and labor intensive:

  • A large pit must be dug to completely bury the structure.
  • Vaults require the use of concrete which leads to the need for a properly constructed and leveled gravel base, concrete forms, a concrete truck, etc.
  • If the water table is high on the jobsite, the contractor will have to contend with the buoyancy of an HDPE vault or the permeable walls of a concrete vault.
  • The height of finish grade must always be considered. Vault load ratings depend on the amount of backfill cover. Also, if the vault isn't installed at the proper depth, the manway may need to be extended or cut down.
  • If a sump pump or ventilation fan are required, electrical service will need to be provided.

4 Increased Exposure

While buried underground, a vault is still installed outside. With that being the case, the risks for possible damage due to work done by other trades, leaks or floods, etc. will be higher compared to a system with a manifold located in the mechanical room.

A steel manifold may corrode due to leaks, floods, or high humidity inside the vault structure, which is why their use is not recommended. This was a big issue on the project discussed in the "Burying Mistakes" webinar by Lisa Meline.

An interior manifold with circuit isolation valves, loopfield bypass, P/T ports and flush/fill ports can be used to provide the same level of functionality of a vault, at a fraction of the cost without the increased site work complexity and risk for damage.

About the Author

Howard Newton
Image Engineering Group

Howard Newton is the Director of Geothermal Design with Image Engineering Group (IEG), a MEP firm in Westlake Texas that specializes in Geothermal, Net Zero, and High Performance Schools.

Howard’s experience and expertise is based in the design and construction of ground heat exchangers for commercial GSHP systems. He also has experience with industrial ammonia refrigeration and has worked in a number of positions, including commercial service, sales, marketing, and as VP of a geothermal design/build contracting company.

Howard is a graduate of Texas State Technical College with an Associate's Science Degree in Air Conditioning and a Bachelor of Science degree from Oklahoma State University’s School of Engineering Technology.

Video: Burying Mistakes

Wednesday, March 1, 2017




Industry leader, Lisa Meline, P.E. shares a cautionary tale about what happens when geothermal designers trust but don’t verify. A failure analysis of a system points to a design that was sound in principle but not properly overseen during installation. The result was of course an expensive analysis and repair that could have been avoided.

About the Presenter

Lisa Meline, P.E.
Meline Engineering

Ms. Meline is principal engineer and owner of Meline Engineering. She has 25 years of mechanical engineering experience and over 30 years of experience in the construction industry.

Ms. Meline is a licensed professional engineer in four western states and a Certified Geoexchange Designer. She is Standards Sub-committee Chair for ASHRAE TC6.8, Geothermal Heat Pump and Energy Recovery Applications, Chair of IGSHPA’s Standards Committee, and recently served as Special Expert on the IAPMO Uniform Solar Energy and Hydronics Technical Committee.

Ms. Meline is an ASME Fellow and one of the founders of the California Geothermal Heat Pump Association.

Top 6 Reasons to Install a Geothermal Vault

Monday, February 27, 2017

Although some may argue against the upfront cost, there are many advantages to the use of geothermal vaults in large commercial projects. It can save both the owner and installer time and money over the long haul.

Here are the top six reasons for using a geothermal valve vault in a commercial loopfield according to Stuart Lyle, Director of Geothermal Sales at ISCO Industries.

Photo courtesy of ISCO Industries.

1 Create More Space

A vault can free up valuable area inside of a mechanical room by greatly reducing the number of pipes entering the building.

By utilizing a vault to create a manifold space outside of the building, the system designer can:

  • Maintain the integrity of the building by reducing the number of cored holes that must be drilled through the wall or foundation
  • Create more space for other system components such as pumps and controls
  • Decrease the loopfield contractor’s time inside of the mechanical room, which helps keep the project on schedule by reducing the need to coordinate work times with other trades

2 Separation of Scopes

Vaults not only serve as a central location for circuit piping, they also provide a clean stopping point for the loopfield contractor until system commissioning takes place. In new construction projects, the geothermal scope is often one of the first to get underway and also one of the first to finish. With a vault, geothermal contractors don’t have to wait on the mechanical contractor to finish their scope.

With a vault acting as a stopping point between the loopfield and building:

  • The loopfield contractor can properly pressure test, flush and purge the system without first having to connect to the interior mechanical piping.
  • With an incorporated bypass valve in the vault, the loopfield can remain separated from the supply-return lines that run back to the mechanical room. This allows the mechanical contractor to proceed with the interior installation without compromising the loopfield after it has already been tested.

3 Facilitate Repair

Another advantage of the separation between loopfield and building can be realized when making repairs to a damaged circuit or while searching for leaks. With the loopfield manifold located in the vault (and not in the building), the loopfield contractor won’t need to access the building’s interior to make repairs.

By having butterfly isolation valves on each circuit along with a building bypass, the loopfield contractor can identify the damage or leak, make the repair and complete the pressure test/flush/purge sequence without stepping foot in the building.

In the event that a leak occurs, the vault also prevents spillage or mess inside of the mechanical room, minimizes disruption of activities within the building, and allows the contractor to conserve antifreeze and rust inhibitors by isolating the problem during repair.


Prefabricated vaults offer the contractor a “plug and play” option. Rather than allocating valuable time and labor to building a manifold on site (often while paying prevailing wages), the loopfield contractor can focus on drilling operations and pipe installation while the vault is being made off-site.

Once the vault is on site and in place, the geothermal installer can easily connect the circuits, then sequentially pressure test/flush/purge the circuits, subfields and entire loopfield to prepare the system for operation.

5 Accommodate Larger Distances from the Building

In some cases, the loopfield can be separated from the building by a large distance (500 ft or more). A vault acts as the central point where the combined flow from the field is collected, and a single pair of (larger) supply-return lines are run from that point back to the building. A relatively narrow trench can be excavated to accommodate those lines. Also, supply-returns can be sized for minimal head loss such that distance from the building to the loopfield is a non-factor.

6 Plan for Future Expansion

In some cases, a loopfield may be installed in multiple phases. A vault can be designed with extra circuits to allow for future expansion. In such cases, loopfield expansion can be completed with minimal disturbance inside of the building.

With the many advantages of using a vault as part of a commercial geothermal loopfield design, the first cost can typically be justified.

About the Author

Stuart Lyle
ISCO Industries

Stuart Lyle serves as geothermal sales director and provides technical support for ISCO’s customer base in the United States and Canada. A 10 year veteran of the geothermal industry, Stuart has served in both operations and sales roles. Before joining ISCO Industries, Stuart served as a project manager for a nationwide geothermal installation company. Prior to entering the civilian workforce, Stuart had a prestigious military career in the 3rd Marine Division where he earned a meritorious promotion to the rank of Sergeant and the Navy and Marines Corps Achievement medal for outstanding performance while serving abroad. After completion of his tour in Afghanistan, Stuart continued his military service in the Georgia Army National Guard while simultaneously earning a BS in Physiology and BA in Criminal Justice from the University of Georgia in 2006.