Water-loop heat pumps and net-zero

December 11, 2015

All images courtesy WaterFurnace

by Alan Niles
Designing net-zero-energy buildings for new construction or renovation presents many challenges. It requires analyzing the unique energy use of the entire facility and then designing a system that can reduce the net-energy footprint without sacrificing functionality or comfort. As energy consumption is reduced, onsite renewable energy plays a larger role in efforts to reach the goal of net-zero energy. Water-source heat pumps (WSHPs) can be important in this respect.

The type of HVAC system selected must offer fundamental characteristics. It needs to:

A WSHP system can meet these criteria while also being very simple to design, install, operate, and maintain. By including non-HVAC equipment into the system design, it can actually reduce the first cost of construction.

Understanding WSHP systems
Using uninsulated water piping to connect the individual WSHPs that have been selected to meet the expected cooling and heating load of each temperature zone, energy is transferred into and out of the water loop for use throughout the building. A WSHP in the cooling mode will move heat from the local conditioned space into the water loop, while a WSHP in the heating mode will move energy from the water loop into the local conditioned space. As each WSHP operates independently, the net-energy water loop system
is completely scalable to any size of building. Further, the system increases in efficiency during part-load operation.

In the most basic configuration, the net-energy water loop system operates without any additional transfer of energy while the water loop temperature ranges between 18 and 38 C (65 and 100 F). As fewer units cycle on at any given time, less energy is required to maintain this temperature range.

With this basic system in place, the path to net-zero energy becomes simple. Optimization revolves around three processes:

A look at geothermal heating and cooling system installation at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Understanding how these mechanical systems work can help design professionals work with the rest of the project team in accommodating the most energy-efficient system.

Removing waste heat from the loop
The first process of removing waste heat from the net-energy water loop could be accomplished with
a basic fluid cooler or cooling tower. However, this should be the last stage of heat removal because additional offsite energy is being used by the fluid cooler, and the energy removed is not recovered for use elsewhere in the building. In short, one is paying money to get rid of usable energy.

One optimization strategy for reusing waste heat connects the domestic hot water system to the net-energy water loop system. Adding storage tanks in the domestic hot water loop would allow a water-to-water heat pump or a heat recovery chiller to move energy from the WSHP water loop system into the domestic hot water system. Increasing the water volume of the domestic hot water system with larger storage tanks significantly reduces the size of the water-to-water heat pump and associated equipment required to move energy to the domestic hot-water system.

Domestic hot-water systems are generally sized for a recovery time based on peak water flow usage. However, in commercial buildings and in hotel applications, these domestic systems normally experience long periods with no or little flow. During this time, a very small water-to-water heat pump can move an immense amount of energy out of the WSHP system to preheat enough hot water in storage tanks to meet the large volume of hot water required by a hotel during morning showers. Eliminating large boilers from the domestic hot-water system and its associated energy consumption offsets the costs for implementing this optimization strategy, and, at the same time, moves the building closer to net-zero energy operation.

Another optimization strategy for reusing waste heat involves connecting the outside air system and the exhaust air system to the net-energy water loop system. A water-to-water heat pump can move energy out of the WSHP system and into the outside air system for pre-heating the make-up air. When there is no waste energy in the WSHP system, the water-to-water unit or a six-pipe modular heat recovery chiller with simultaneous hot water and chilled water production from a single compressor can take waste heat from the exhaust air system and reuse that energy for pre-heating the make-up air. It also adds energy to the net-energy water loop, if needed by the domestic hot-water system.

Should the amount of recovered heat exceed the building’s need for energy and the building’s ability to store the heat for later use, then the addition of passive heat of rejection to existing greywater and blackwater piping in the building uses significantly less energy than running a fluid cooler.1

Typically, a boiler is employed to maintain closed loop temperatures above 15.5 C (60 F), and a cooling tower to maintain loop temperatures below 32 C (90 F). These systems are applicable in medium to large buildings regardless of whether the load is heating- or cooling-dominated.

Adding heat to the loop
The second process of adding heat to the net-energy water loop could be accomplished with 
a boiler. However, this should be the last stage of adding energy to the loop, because a boiler uses additional offsite energy, which increases the energy footprint of the building. Even in northern climates, most buildings produce enough waste heat to completely eliminate the need for boilers.

One optimization strategy has already been mentioned—moving energy from the exhaust air system into the net-energy water loop. This recovered energy can be used by the WSHP system and the domestic hot-water system. Several other strategies to recover waste heat throughout the building to maintain the minimum temperature range of the net-energy water loop are available from non-HVAC systems and from renewable energy options described in this article.

In ideal conditions, an open-loop application can be the most economical type of geothermal system. It utilizes a well, lake, or ocean as a direct energy source.

Improving other components
The third process of increasing the efficiency of other equipment in the building ties into this second process of adding heat to the net-energy water loop. Greatly underused is the expansion of the net-energy water loop to also include refrigeration and ice-making equipment. Instead of noisy, low-efficiency, air-cooled refrigeration cases, freezer cases and ice-making machines in cafeteria kitchens, restaurants, coffee shops, mini-marts, and gift shops, water-cooled refrigeration cases, freezer cases and ice-making machines can be used for about the same cost.

These water-cooled versions are 20 percent more energy-efficient than the air-cooled versions, reducing the building’s energy footprint. The HVAC cooling load is also reduced for that zone, which lowers the building’s energy footprint. Further, the heat rejected by these water-cooled versions is a reliable source of recovered heat to the net-energy water loop.

Now that the system has been optimized, onsite renewable energy can be easily connected—energy from hot-water solar panels can add heat, as can an onsite cogeneration plant (while also generating electricity). Onsite solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will have a greater impact on achieving net-zero energy, because the diversified part-load operation of the net-energy water loop reduces peak electrical demand.

Designing a net-zero-energy building seems to be a complex task at first—effectively adding onsite renewable energy can create another hurdle. Fortunately, selecting a low-first-cost, simple-to-install/operate water-source heat pump system as the backbone for the net-energy water loop allows for the application of various optimization strategies unique to the building. With a seamless connection to on-site renewable energy, the WSHP system provides a relatively simple path to a net-zero-energy design.

This system is very economical to install when a large body of water is available. Coils of pipe or a submerged heat exchanger are simply placed in the pond or lake.
The ideal choice when available land surface is limited. Well-drilling equipment is used to bore small-diameter holes from 30 to 120 m (100 to 400 ft) deep.








This assembly combines boiler tower and geothermal loop technologies to achieve optimal efficiencies, while meeting the challenges of both loop field space and budget constraints.

Alan Niles is western region sales manager for the commercial sales group of WaterFurnace International. He is an active member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers; and is an ASHRAE Distinguished Lecturer. For more than 25 years, he has been presenting at local, regional, and national trade shows to provide technical assistance to architects and engineers. Niles is a member 
of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, and holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Oklahoma. He can be reached at 

  1. [Image]: http://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/DSC03023.jpg
  2. [Image]: http://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/DSC03038.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Boiler-Tower-¬.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/OpenLoop-¬.jpg
  5. [Image]: http://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/PondLoop-¬.jpg
  6. [Image]: http://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/VertLoop-¬.jpg
  7. [Image]: http://www.constructionspecifier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HybridLoop-¬.jpg
  8. alan.niles@waterfurnace.com: mailto:alan.niles@waterfurnace.com

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