In three decades, ECONAR has pioneered and popularized the geothermal heat pump industry.
"After 30 years, I'm an overnight success," jokes Del Overholser, president and CEO of ECONAR, a geothermal heat pump manufacturer he founded with his wife, Susie. He also is a founding father of the geothermal industry, and he has watched geothermal technology blossom
gradually from bright idea to worldwide implementation.
Geothermal heat pumps extract heat--read: free energy--from inside the Earth's crust to heat homes and other buildings via underground pipes. In the heat transfer cycle, a water/antifreeze mixture travels through the pipes carrying heat up to an exchanger. The exchanger then
transfers heat from the liquid inside the pipes to the air inside a home's ductwork. In the summer, the geothermal process works to cool homes by utilizing the Earth's cooler underground temperatures. The eco-friendly, all-electric system costs between 40 and 70 percent less than
traditional natural gas, propane and electric heating and cooling methods.
Pioneering a new industry has been a monumental challenge, according to Overholser. Before parts for the geothermal industry were developed, he pieced together geothermal heating systems using modified components from the air conditioning industry. Today's ECONAR products use
heat exchangers and compressors specifically designed for geothermal heating and cooling systems. The company has installed 26,000 units in the United States and around the world in Canada, the United Kingdom, Romania, Hungary, Japan, China and Korea.
Many ECONAR products are designed with Minnesota winters in mind. While competing geothermal systems fall short on heating when temperatures drop below zero, ECONAR's systems are suitable for cold climates. To date, they are the only geothermal systems in the United States
that provide enough warmth to heat a home when temperatures drop to 20 degrees below zero. "In Minnesota, air conditioning means less to us than heating on an annual basis. In the middle of July we want air conditioning, but most of the year, we need heating," Overholser says.
"So we provide more heating capacity in our units."
Contrary to most companies, the recession and rising gas prices have been a boon to ECONAR's sales as savvy home and business owners look to save a buck and preserve the environment as well. For U.S. customers, installation is especially economical due to a 30 percent tax
credit. Safety is another advantage. "It's an all-electric system. There is no carbon monoxide poisoning [risk] taking place," Overholser says. "There is no reason that we need gas in a house and to subject our lives to the dangers of it when this system exists."
The geothermal industry is three percent of the total heating, ventilating and air conditioning market, but it is growing rapidly at roughly 20 percent per year. Though he admits the industry has a long way to go, Overholser is proud of his company's accomplishments. "We've
created a whole new occupation and new jobs," he says. "We're up to 80 employees, and we started with just me in my basement."