Marsh Madness

July 1, 2011

A gracious home in a beautiful setting. An old, inefficient furnace that was "barely limping along." Comfort issues in a child's bedroom. Twenty-four inches of snow on the ground. Homeowners who were determined to lower their high heating bills.

Those were the ingredients that greeted Corey Hickmann and the team from Comfort Matters Heating & Cooling, Inc., Hanover, MN, at the home of Mark and Alison McPhail in Maple Grove, MN.

The McPhail's contemporary, 3,700-sq.ft. home sits on a large lot on a private drive, and backs up to peaceful marshland. Unfortunately, it was saddled with an old pulse furnace that was using large amounts of expensive LP gas each winter, and still couldn’t keep up with the heating load caused by the large windows overlooking the marsh — particularly in the basement bedroom used by the McPhail's 7-year-old son, Conor.

Homeowner Mark McPhail was a very analytical person who had thoroughly researched energy and green technology. It turns out that he also didn't mind rolling up his sleeves and doing what needed to be done to help Comfort Matters solve his home's comfort and energy efficiency challenges.

The system that Hickmann, Comfort Matters' president, and Jon Burfeind, home comfort expert, envisioned for the McPhails incorporated a 5-ton geothermal system backed up by a 95% efficient variable-speed gas furnace. It also included an energy recovery ventilator, humidifier, and zoning system. The realities of a Minnesota winter, however, were not about to make the installation easy for the team.

"The installation had a two-week delay because the temperatures were so cold we couldn't install the loop field for the geothermal system," Hickmann says. "We were experiencing a number of days in a row in which the temperature didn't go above zero, with nighttime lows of 15 to 20 degrees below. We finally got a short break in which the high temperatures soared to above zero for a few days, so we went for it."

Ironically, the thick cover of snow — there was a 24-in. base — had kept the ground from freezing. Although there were some concerns about potentially freezing the drilling rig, the team persevered and got the five-loop system installed.

The team then took a careful look at the ductwork to ensure that it could handle the airflow of the 5-ton geothermal system. Their inspection revealed the source of the comfort problems in the basement bedroom: the basement ductwork made a full circle to the mechanical room, and this was causing low airflow to the bedroom. New dampers and modifications to the ductwork increased the airflow in the bedroom to its proper level.

Another airflow challenge arose after installation of the system was complete. The static pressure in the system was 0.55-in w.c., well below the maximum furnace design of 0.8-in. w.c. Yet when the team was performing its final room-by-room air balancing tests, one return duct had inexplicably low airflow.

It was here that homeowner Mark McPhail stepped in to help. He cut a hole under the kitchen island, along the duct run, and discovered that the return duct was filled with fiberglass insulation. Clearing out the blockage made both the system and the homeowners breathe easier.

As energy efficiency was a high priority for the McPhails, Comfort Matters selected a Bryant split-system geothermal unit with gas backup. This allowed the system to be put on a dual-fuel program with the local electric utility, saving the McPhails one-half on their electric rate. To capitalize on this, a high-capacity 105-gal. water heater was installed. This water heater only heats at night, during periods of reduced electrical rate, and stores the water for use during the day. A Honeywell zoning system was applied to control both the dual fuel operation and the home's two zones.

The Comfort Matters team also installed a 40-gal. domestic water storage tank inline before the main water heater. The geothermal system uses a desuperheater to reheat this water, saving additional energy.

Good indoor air quality was placed in the capable hands of a Trane 5-in. media filter system, a Comfort Matters-branded whole-house humidifier, and a RenewAire energy recovery ventilator.

A key to the customer’s satisfaction with the overall system was the use of Ecobee energy management thermostats on each zone. The thermostats feature touch-screen controls and can be accessed via the Internet or an iPhone app. According to Hickmann, Mark McPhail has really taken to monitoring his home's energy usage and maximizing the energy efficiency of his system.

"Mark McPhail is an engineer for a large medical device company, and he reads the owner's manual for every piece of equipment cover to cover," Hickmann said. "He has been graphing his energy usage during his first year of using the system, and he recently sent us an e-mail in which he calculates that he will save $1,800 compared to the cost of propane with his old system."

Wrote McPhail in his e-mail to Comfort Matters: "I am pleased with the system and enjoy the challenge of squeezing every bit of savings I can get." He offered praise for the system and his ability to control it.

"Jon recognized that I was a technology geek, so he took the time to go deeper explaining my options, and when the final quote came in he made sure that the Ecobee thermostats were included," McPhail told Contracting Business. "The thermostats do a nice job of giving the homeowner the ability to control a dual-fuel geothermal system. They have configurable timers and temperature deltas to move through the stages of heating or cooling, allow you to select when the system will advance to auxiliary heat, and even have a setting to inhibit the auxiliary heat when the temperature is above a certain limit.

"The thermostats also have dry contacts on their boards that when tripped will display an alarm and send me an e-mail," McPhail adds. "I have mine configured so that I'm notified whenever there's a call for auxiliary heat. This helps me continue to refine the settings to maximize the geothermal and minimize the propane use, while maintaining comfort."

McPhail says his "next big challenge" is to optimize the system to better take advantage of the off-peak electric times.

Beyond all the technology, however, the McPhails were also impressed with the human side of Comfort Matters. "This is a huge investment that is made by a family," Mark McPhail says. "It was very important that Corey, Jon, and the team made sure that my wife, Alison, was included in the decision and review. They made sure to warn her of the disruptions that were coming. The other contractors focused on me only. In the end when we were evaluating quotes that appeared very equal on paper, my wife steered us to Comfort Matters based on the importance they placed on including her in the process."

Taking care of a "technology geek" customer who is very educated and involved, and who is determined to monitor system performance so carefully may seem to be a double-edged sword for some companies, but Hickmann and the team at Comfort Matters are unfazed.

"It's all part of what we call 'The Comfort Matters Experience,' which begins when we answer the phone and, as far as we're concerned, never ends," Hickmann says. "We stand behind our work, and we'll make sure Mr. McPhail and all of our customers are happy today and tomorrow."


  • Comfort Matters branded Tranquility (Amana) 95% variable speed furnace
  • Bryant geothermal split system
  • Trane 5-in. air filter
  • RenewAire ERV
  • Honeywell TrueZONE® zoning system
  • Ecobee EB-STAT-1 energy management thermostats
  • Marathon MR105245 105-gallon water heater
  • A.O. Smith ECS245 water storage tank
  • Comfort Matters branded humdifier
About the Author

Ron Rajecki

Ron Rajecki served in various editorial roles on Contracting Business during the 1990s to approximately 2013.