Approximately a year ago, a local start-up company offering geothermal heating and cooling systems for homes and offices was facing rapid expansion: they had 12 systems in the ground and five in the works.
Twelve months later, according to its owners, Sierra Eco Systems has completed 13 systems this year, has 19 open jobs, and 16 qualified prospects. The company has also become one of the top five Hydron Module dealers in the entire country.
Partners Ric Rowlatt and Bruce Sanguinetti attribute this growth to customer referrals, increased marketing and more education on renewable energy.
"We are seeing a more educated customer," said Rowlatt. "With the economic crash, people are staying in their homes, remodeling, and figuring out how to fix costs. Properly designed solar and geothermal are the only ways you can zero out utilities completely."
"Homeownership is now a lifestyle choice instead of an investment," added Sanguinetti. "We're proposing these systems to a lot of modular homes, where retired people have chosen to live on their own but are now looking at propane destroying their future. They're taking thousands and thousands out of their savings to live comfortably."
Sierra Eco Systems is predicated on the time-tested, though underutilized, principles of low-temperature geothermodynamics. A closed loop system installed in the ground, connected to a Hydron module, converts the differential between surface and ground temperature into either heat or cool air.
Each system retails at about $30,000-$35,000, but pays for itself within 3-5 years with a 30 percent federal tax credit, the partners said.
"Not so much on the western slope because it's double the cost of electricity, but on the eastern slope, with a 5-year simple interest loan, the savings will pay for the loan with zero out of pocket," said Sanguinetti.
Rowlatt said the systems offer an incredible return on investment.
"There isn't anything else out there you can install and recoup the cost on," he said.
There is one challenge to current sales on the horizon. Although it could be extended, the federal tax credit for such installments is set to expire in 2016. That doesn't scare Sanguinetti and Rowlatt, however.
"Numberwise, the system would pay for itself in 5-7 years instead of 3-5 years," Rowlatt said.
"We're taking strategic, long-term steps to be in business should the tax credits expire in 2016," added Sanguinetti.
High growth potential helps assuage any concerns. Rowlatt said about 100,000 geothermal heating and cooling systems are installed in the U.S. annually, versus 200,000 in Canada and more than 1 million in Europe.
"There's growth potential there, but also some backwards thinking," Rowlatt said of the U.S. market.
In the last year, the partners have widened their own market area to Stockton and Vacaville to the west, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes to the south, Fallon to the east and Sierra Valley to the north. They've been using Blue Ribbon Personnel Services for labor, but are now in a position to bring some experienced workers into lead positions. While based in Genoa, the company has two mobile workshops (retrofitted trailers) and is looking for a third.
"We'd like to set up a crew on the other side of the mountains," Sanguinetti said, "with a facility and a lead person full-time."
Whatever logistical changes up the road, both men believe that geothermal is the future of home heating and cooling. To that effect, they will be giving a 30-minute presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session, during the Green Living Festival 11 a.m. Sept. 15 in Lampe Park.
"I do see this happening in the future, geothermal replacing propane," Rowlatt said. "But right now, geothermal is still the new black box."
For more information about the company, visit www.sierraecosystems.com.