A heat pump, for what it’s worth


By CCHRC Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy, and the many other parts of home life.

Q: What is a heat pump and can it work in Fairbanks?

A heat pump is a mechanical system that uses a series of liquidfilled pipes or tubes run underground to heat (or cool) a building. The liquid captures the ground heat and uses it to heat your home. You might think our Fairbanks ground would be too cold to support such a system, but even at lower temperatures a heat pump can still function appropriately. In Alaska, this tubing has antifreeze added.

In Fairbanks, these tubes need to be buried below the frostline (about 10 to 12 feet down) where the temperatures are fairly stable across the seasons. Heat pumps use more electricity than the typical house, but the increased costs are offset by the savings in fuel. There is some concern that, depending on your site, the heat pump will take enough heat from the ground to cause freezing, however more research needs to be done on this question. Locally, we’ll probably see more of these systems being installed in the next few years, but for now, it is an emerging technology for our area.

Q: My boiler needs to be cleaned. Is that something I can do myself, or should I call a professional?

You can do it yourself but it is a messy and sometimes difficult job. Older boilers may require removing side shields, top pieces, gaskets or other parts that can be damaged and cause leakage.

Most newer boilers have hinges and open from the front, making them much easier to clean. These boilers make it simple to get a brush onto the heat exchange surfaces and leave few places to gather soot. In the long run, it is probably best to have a professional do the cleaning.

Q: If I want to build a higher tech home and add some solar panels or wind power, how does orientation play into that?

Fairbanks is a tough place for wind power because it is generally a calm region of the state. The orientation of your home will not be a hindrance to adding any type of wind system as long as you have the wind resource. High areas in the hills around Fairbanks have the best potential for this kind of renewable energy system. Fairbanks is certainly a good place for solar much of the year. Solar systems should be oriented to the south in order to catch as much light as possible.

If you are building a new home, orienting it as much as possible toward the south will be advantageous for any kind of solar energy collection, whether passive or panels.

If you want to add solar panels on to your house, place them on your roof or outside walls at the height they will collect the most light.

Before making any decisions it is best to contact a solar installation company that can do an assessment of your property. These companies can do an analysis that will tell you where panels will receive the most sun exposure year round.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, e-mail us at mailto:akhomewise@cchrc.org. You can also call the CCHRC at (907) 457-3454.