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I'm having a geothermal heating system installed in my home, and the contractor recommended heating my water using a buffer tank and desuperheater, which is a device that cools the refrigerant lines of the heat pump (when the heat pump is in heating mode) and uses the heat it captures for heating the drinking water in the buffer tank.

However, when the heat pump is in heating mode, the exiting refrigerant line is actually colder, not hotter, than when it enters. As a result, you cannot heat water during the winter.

I recently became aware of water-sourced heat pump water heaters, which basically act just like the heat pump for the home, except their only job is to heat a water tank. This seems to make a lot of sense for a house, however, because you could use the same geothermal water loop in the summer or winter to heat water; I would lose the "free" water during the summer and would have to pay for running the heat pump, but during the winter the price of hot water would remain the same low amount, instead of rising due to the need for full-time use of an electric or gas hot water heater.

Am I missing something important, or is there some reason why the internet and contractors seem to only suggest the desuperheater approach?

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I've been looking into a heat pump replacement.
You said "However, when the heat pump is in heating mode, the exiting refrigerant line is actually colder, not hotter, than when it enters. As a result, you cannot heat water during the winter."

That will depend on the location of the internal connections. The HP models I have seen with a desuperheater ( hot water generator ) place the HWG after the compressor before the reversing valve. That means the pump always runs forward, the HWG always has hot refrigerant to use and it works in summer and in winter. The reversing valve does just that - in summer it sends the leftover heat to the outside and extracts heat (cools) the inside. In winter it sends the heat to the inside and extracts heat from the outside. desuperheater connection

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    A de-superheater works whenever the the pump is working regardless of season. It is just more effective in summer since it is transferring heat to the hot water system while it is trying to cool so your hot water is practically free. In the winter it heats water at a COP of the heat pump so about a 3 or 4 to one efficiency for a geothermal. Heat pump water heaters are like a refrigerator and draw heat from your basement to heat the water. Not as efficient as the geothermal. – ArchonOSX Jan 1 '16 at 21:17
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As far as I know, none of the "heat pump water heaters" commonly available are water source - they cool the air around the water heater - if you have heat that is less expensive than electric resistance, they are more efficient than an electric resistance water heater in winter (they add to the main heat source's heat load, though), and provide "free air conditioning" in the summer.

If your main geothermal heat pump is water to water, it should be a matter of having correct valves to either heat water and house, or cool house and heat water.

If your geothermal heat pump is water to air, you can use a heat pump water heater, where the heat is coming from the air heated by the geothermal heat pump, and perhaps that could be combined with a desuperheater in the summer months. It's somewhat less elegant than what should be possible with a water to water heat pump, since it involves two separate heat pumps.

A potential issue with the elegant approach is what happens when your water heating needs exceed your cooling needs. If the system can switch all valves fully automatically, it should be able to change from cooling to heating mode and back as needed to cover that. If not, it would be a pain, and it's easy to see why installers would prefer the simplicity of separate systems.

  • I'm surprised no one makes a water source heat pump water heater. While the name sounds like a paradox, the science is sound. – David Pfeffer Jan 13 '14 at 12:59
  • Especially for large estates where apartments are already heated/cooled via heat pumps interchanging with service water running through the complex. In summer, the service water is passively cooled with cooling towers, in winter it's heated to 70-80F with boilers. Having the HWH interchange with the service water makes a lot of sense. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '16 at 21:10
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I'm surprised no one makes a water source heat pump water heater. While the name sounds like a paradox, the science is sound. – David Pfeffer

They do, that's what geothermal is(excluding direct exchange geothermal systems).

The problem with a water sourced heat pump for DHW is what do you do with the water? How do you heat it back up? Your gonna spend thousands of dollars digging up your back yard or having deep holes drilled just for DHW production???

Maybe if you used it for strictly DHW, and nothing else, you'd be able to scale it down enough that it wouldn't be so expensive to have the loops buried...or even possibly use an external tank full of anti-freeze treated water as a heat-sink.

But you are talking about a LOT in infrastructure/install costs for JUST domestic hot water production.

It's fairly simple to just keep blowing air by, even if that air isn't the optimum temperature and air isn't a great way of moving thermal energy...the simplicity still makes it an attractive option and results in far lower upfront costs.

It's one thing to add DHW production onto all the responsibilities a (water sourced)geothermal heat pump is filling...but it a whole another to install a scaled down system just for DHW production when air sourced heat pumps work fine(if the cold air produced is a problem just vent it outside) and a solar hot water system would cost far, far less.

  • Hello, and welcome to Home Improvement. Thanks for the answer; keep 'em coming. And, you should probably take our tour so you'll know how best to contribute here. – Daniel Griscom Nov 9 '19 at 1:06
  • I think you may have missed the point of the entire discussion. I know that geothermal is water-sourced heat pumps. The quote you snipped is that I'm surprised no one makes a "water source heat pump water heater" -- not a GSHP boiler. No GSHP boiler that I am aware of have a storage tank. Very few, save for a model from WaterFurnace, are rated for potable water at all because most of the heat exchangers are cupronickel. – David Pfeffer Nov 10 '19 at 0:30
  • In the end, I ended up buying a 2 ton GSHP boiler along with a 135 gal insulated storage tank and hooked it up as primary behind a tankless propane water heater secondary, because the recovery time is absurdly long. It only was economical due to the 30% tax credit, and even then barely made sense. But since we already had installed geothermal at that point for heating the home, it wasn't terrible. – David Pfeffer Nov 10 '19 at 0:32

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