Detroit has endured a rapid rise in size and power in the 20th century and a world-renowned fall in the 21st, influenced by the auto industries and manufacturing in Southeast Michigan. During the height of the Great Recession, more than half of the Detroit residential lots lay vacant, but now, for the first time since it was founded in 1701, the City of Detroit is fundamentally a clean slate for redevelopment, modernization, and rebirth.

Jarmila Senkyrikova, an environmental enthusiast and an avid member of Detroit’s urban farming movement, purchased a previously condemned home located in downtown Metro Detroit. Senkyrikova had lived in Detroit for nearly 10 years in a gated community but desired a home of her own. During the house-hunting process, she found that all readily livable housing presented astronomical price tags for subpar living spaces.

She began volunteering at the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative and discovered a century-old home owned by the farm. The structure was due to be demolished along with several hundred other abandoned properties as part of the mayor’s 2010 initiative to clean up Detroit. After nearly six months, Senkyrikova obtained a clear title to the home located at 256 Horton Street. In September 2015, she began rehabilitation efforts to create a sustainable, green energy project called the Detroit Demolition List House Rescue.

Blocks from the famous Fisher Building and near one of the largest urban farms in the nation, 526 Horton Street is a 3,300-square-foot, two-story residence with a full basement and finished attic. From day one, Senkyrikova dreamed of converting her historic Victorian home into an ultra-energy-efficient home. However, the extensive rehabilitation to the structure itself was not the only hurdle in her mission to bring the property off the grid.

She had a long way to go with no windows, municipal services refusing to provide for her property, and one of the biggest needs — a heating and cooling system that could ultimately aid in taking her off the grid entirely.

With so many heating and cooling options on the market, the first step involved ruling out traditional HVAC units. Senkyrikova researched and found conventional systems weren’t environmentally friendly and varied in efficiency. Through further investigation, she found geothermal to be the next step, but due to her small urban lot size, she worried her project may not be a candidate.

Senkyikova was able to quickly eliminate water-based geothermal heating and cooling manufacturers after just a few exchanges with local contractors. Because of her lot size, she was told geothermal was not achievable due to the lack of space to place the loop. Even open loop was not practical from a cost-of-operation standpoint due to the high Detroit water and sewer rates.

Unwilling to give up, Senkyrikova hit the internet in search of another manufacturer. She located EarthLinked Technologies and requested a local dealer to take on her project.

“I reached out to a lot of local Detroit geothermal vendors, and they all turned me away saying, ‘I don’t work in Detroit.’ Or they wouldn’t call me back once I gave them my zip code,” Senkyrikova said. “Then, EarthLinked connected me with their dealer, Scott Roberts.”


Matching a client’s passion

Scott Roberts of Roberts Geothermal Solutions is based in Niles, Michigan. He exclusively promotes, installs, and services EarthLinked units. Upon receiving the homeowner’s request, Roberts gladly accepted the project with the knowledge that a geothermal renewable energy system could meet all of Senkyrikova’s requirements and more in the space she needed.

“It was nice to finally find someone who felt the same way I did about my project,” Senkyrikova said.

Roberts, along with EarthLinked President and CEO Jeffery Miller and Director of Sales Phil Albertson, visited the job site with high aspirations for the project.

“This project demonstrates the power of an educated consumer and the persistence needed to achieve goals outside of the conventional process of inner-city rehabilitation,” Roberts said. “Even in the infancy stages of the project, our client met resistance from people unwilling to think outside the box and share in her vision.”

Direct-exchange geothermal systems are rather simple systems and operate without requiring anti-freezing agents, system flushing, circulating pumps, water well drilling, or plumbing. Ground loops are pre-engineered and factory-assembled to further simplify the installation process. Since copper ground loops have a very high thermal conductivity and there is a significant temperature difference between the contained refrigerant and the earth (R-410A allows for a higher temperature differential than an antifreeze solution does), the length of the ground-loop system can be minimized, reducing the installation cost of drilling and excavation for a given system capacity.

Because of their small ground-loop size, refrigerant-based geothermal systems have a smaller footprint and can be installed in relatively small areas and in relatively shallow soil; typical loop depth does not exceed 100 linear feet. They also require smaller drill rigs when compared with water-well rigs, which makes it easier to get into smaller spaces. Shorter loops, less drilling, and smaller borehole diameters comprise a system that is less expensive to install for the contractor, provides greater flexibility of installation, and makes it an available option in more areas and for more properties. The relative simplicity of refrigerant-based systems translates not only into a simpler and less expensive installation, but also into less maintenance, as well; unlike antifreeze-based systems, they do not require maintenance to top off water and glycol levels.

Roberts, lead contractor for the project, finalized installation of the system’s earth loops on Earth Day of this year. Drill contractor for the job, Buschur’s Refrigeration, completed the diagonal loop installation in a mere 24 hours within a 4-by-8-foot header pit.

“Header piping and the lines from the header pit to the house are buried approximately five feet deep and enter the home at the box sill area,” Roberts said. “We were able to penetrate the home above grade, eliminating the possibility of foundation leakage, because we are not dealing with a loop filled with water or antifreeze.”

Buschur utilized a total of ten 75-foot copper loops — two per ton — and placed them into the shallow earth to accommodate the needs of the EarthLinked PRIME series system.

“Scott Roberts gave me the best possible system that I could get at a price I could afford,” Senkyrikova said. “My lot is 30 feet by 90 feet, which is extremely small. More than half of the lot is covered by my house, so that leaves me with very little space to really do anything, let alone [install] a geothermal system. Living in the city, the PRIME system was not only the best heating and cooling option, but the only option compatible with my urban lot size.”

Based on a customized ground source heat pump design report, EarthLinked anticipates that Senkyrikova will benefit from up to 52 percent energy savings with her geothermal renewable-energy system. With her system operation at up to 4.1 COP and up to 20.5 EER, it is a wise choice for her future plans of having a net-zero home. If the energy savings were not enough for this environmentally conscious homeowner, the extremely minimal carbon footprint of her home will be. Based on an annual CO2 emissions report listed by technology type, she will average roughly 4.9 tons of CO2 per year with her system.

Senkyrikova continues to renovate and restore the property with her most recent accomplishment being the completion of the fourth-floor living space. She hopes to have the remainder of the property completed soon with long-term goals of the property being a vacation destination listed on Airbnb.


This article was originally titled “Off the grid in the Motor City” in the December 2016 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.