The Confused Environmentalist

To Geo or Not To Geo
by Jennifer Weiss -- September 18th, 2012

My A/C unit stopped working a few weeks ago. Luckily, we were no longer experiencing the 100 degree weather that has haunted us here in North Carolina this past summer. But, even 90 degree weather is hot when you have no air conditioning. The repair technician was able to fix it with a small part to get us through the rest of the summer. But, as all good sales guys will do, he highly suggested that we replace the unit soon. It’s old (2001) and a SEER 10. This is one of the lowest efficiency ratings an A/C unit can have. As an environmental management graduate, I know that I need to replace my aging units with new, more efficient units. I know I should do it sooner rather than later. But knowing this and actually doing it are two different things entirely.

This is not the first time the A/C dilemma has crossed my mind. Each year when I am forced to turn the switch on my thermostat from “heat” to “cool,” I hold my breath and wait to see if the system kicks on. When it does, I rush around the house to feel if cold air is actually being pushed through my vents. Most of the time, I am rewarded with a nice cool breeze and I can sit back and relax for a month or two. Occasionally, I have to call a service tech to replace a coil or, as was the case this year, a capacitor. Small things, but I keep thinking that the next time I may not be so lucky.

Now I know in theory that I should replace my 11+ year, 10-SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) units with more energy efficient units. I probably should have done it years ago. As a student of the environment, I know that upgrading my 10-SEER units to the more efficient 15-SEER units will save an average of 30% on my electricity bills. Even the electric company knows this makes sense and will offer me rebates to upgrade my units.  And still … I have put it off, not wanting to commit to the rather large price tag that accompanies this improvement in energy efficiency. Despite the fact that I know I will save money in the long run, and despite the fact I know that I am reducing my energy use, I can not get over the price tag hurdle.

So, now that I know that I need to replace my units, what have I done? I have been investigating geothermal. Yes, despite a price tag of at least twice as much as a traditional system upgrade, I have been investigating geothermal renewable energy – a way to use the earth’s constant temperature to heat and cool my house. In my defense, the fact that the government offers tax credits (up to 65%  in federal and state credits) for the installation of a residential geothermal unit is quite compelling. And, truth be told, it feels like the right thing to do environmentally.  And yet ….

Here’s the trouble. My monthly electric bills are just not that high. Or at least not high enough to send me rushing to replace my aging system with an expensive renewable energy system.  I know it is the right thing to do from an environmental perspective.  I know that with tax credits it might actually be the right thing to do from a financial perspective. I know these things in my heart. It’s my brain I’m having a hard time convincing.

And so I am wrestling with my options. Do I replace my system with geothermal and wait for the tax credits and longer term environmental benefits to kick in? Do I replace my units with more efficient, higher SEER units? Or do I continue to wait until my A/C units completely give out and I am forced to make a hasty decision?

Lucky for me, the temperatures in North Carolina have dropped and I no longer need to depend on my A/C for comfort. This has given me a little more time to weigh my options.  At least until the next time that my aging A/C units decide to shut down.

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