About Geothermal

Geothermal: How it Works

Types of Systems

Geothermal systems use the earth as a heat source and heat sink. A series of pipes, commonly called a “loop,” carry a fluid used to connect the geothermal system’s heat pump to the earth.

Closed and Open Loops

There are two basic types of loops: closed and open. Open loop systems are the simplest. Used successfully for decades, ground water is drawn from an aquifer through one well, passes through the heat pump’s heat exchanger, and is discharged to the same aquifer through a second well at a distance from the first. Generally, two to three gallons per minute per ton of capacity are necessary for effective heat exchange. Since the temperature of ground water is nearly constant throughout the year, open loops are a popular option in areas where they are permitted. Open loop systems do have some associated challenges:

open loop system

1. Some local ground water chemical conditions can lead to fouling the heat pump’s heat exchanger. Such situations may require precautions to keep carbon dioxide and other gases in solution in the water. Other options include the use of cupronickel heat exchangers and heat exchangers that can be cleaned without introducing chemicals into the groundwater.

2. Increasing environmental concerns mean that local officials must be consulted to assure compliance with regulations concerning water use and acceptable water discharge methods. For example, discharge to a sanitary sewer system is rarely acceptable.

Closed loop systems are becoming the most common. When properly installed, they are economical, efficient, and reliable. Water (or a water and antifreeze solution) is circulated through a continuous buried pipe. The length of loop piping varies depending on ground temperature, thermal conductivity of the ground, soil moisture, and system design. (Some heat pumps work well with larger inlet temperature variations, which allows marginally smaller loops).

Horizontal Loops

Horizontal closed loop installations are generally most cost-effective for small installations, particularly for new construction where sufficient land area is available. These installations involve burying pipe in trenches dug with back-hoes or chain trenchers. Up to six pipes, usually in parallel connections, are buried in each trench, with minimum separations of a foot between pipes and ten to fifteen feet between trenches.

horizontal loops

Vertical Loops

Vertical closed loops are preferred in many situations. For example, most large commercial buildings and schools use vertical loops because the land area required for horizontal loops would be prohibitive. Vertical loops are also used where the soil is too shallow for trenching. Vertical loops also minimize the disturbance to existing landscaping. For vertical closed loop systems, a U-tube (more rarely, two U-tubes) is installed in a well drilled 100 to 400 feet deep. Because conditions in the ground may vary greatly, loop lengths can range from 130 to 300 feet per ton of heat exchange. Multiple drill holes are required for most installations, where the pipes are generally joined in parallel or series-parallel configurations.

vertical closed loop

Slinky Loops

Increasingly, “Slinky” coils — overlapping coils of polyethylene pipe — are used to increase the heat exchange per foot of trench, but require more pipe per ton of capacity. Two-pipe systems may require 200 to 300 feet of trench per ton of nominal heat exchange capacity. The trench length decreases as the number of pipes in the trench increases — or as Slinky coil overlap increases. (Illustration below shows a slinky coil in a pond)

slinky loops - showing a pond loop too

Pond Loops

Pond closed loops are a special kind of closed loop system. Where there is a pond or stream that is deep enough and with enough flow, closed loop coils can be placed on the pond bottom. Fluid is pumped just as for a conventional closed loop ground system where conditions are suitable, the economics are very attractive, and no aquatic system impacts have been shown.


Geothermal heating and cooling systems can be connected to the earth in a variety of ways — all thoroughly field proven. However, high performance requires the use of experienced professionals who understand local conditions. Contact Ground Loop today to discuss the best system for you.

(Thank you to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium for the information contained on this page and the vapor compression cycle diagram. © Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 by Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, Inc. Used with permission.)