Every once in a while you run into someone who’s really got it. Such is the case of 85 year old Russ Finch, a retired mailman who has embarked on his second career as a geothermal expert.
Actually, Russ has become an expert in using geothermal heating to make greenhouses, which allow growing of citrus trees in the frigid Nebraska wintertime. Yes, that was citrus I mentioned: oranges, lemons, limes. I also mentioned wintertime; the time when citrus fruit dies and the trees go to sleep.
I know that if I didn’t get the fruit off my own citrus trees before one of our rare freezes where I live, they would die on the tree. But here Russ is growing them in an area with an average daytime high of 37°F in December and February and an average daytime high of 33°F in January. He’s not losing any fruit either.
What’s his secret? He’s managed to find a way to tap into the natural underground temperature, cooling his greenhouse in the summertime and warming it in the winter. As far as his fruit trees go, he’s got an ideal growing climate, with a year round temperature of 55°F.
Related: What Foods Can You Bury Underground For Winter?
Finch has combined two growing technologies together to create his ideal growing environment.
First, he’s using greenhouse. But not just any greenhouses will do; he’s got underground greenhouses. These greenhouses are a little secret that most people ignore because of the extra work it takes to build them.
But that extra work is totally worth it, especially in a normally cold climate like Nebraska’s. Building underground, with only the sloped roof exposed, utilizes the natural insulation value of the earth to help keep the warmth in the greenhouse, rather than having it radiate out into the atmosphere.
He’s gone a step further than this, in building his greenhouses on an east-west axis and only having the southern slope of the roof glazed. The northern slope, which isn’t going to receive any direct rays from the sun anyway is covered and insulated, blocking another convenient means for heat to exit his growing area. What he’s left with is an extremely efficient greenhouse, with a sturdy Lexan sun roof.
That’s the passive part of Finch’s heating system, almost perfect passive solar. He adds an active geothermal system to that, drawing heat out of the ground in the winter and cool air in the summertime.
The amazing thing is that Alliance, Nebraska really isn’t considered the geothermal capital of the world.
Rather than the hotter underground temperatures that are found in the Western and Southwestern parts of the country, Russ is dealing with an underground temperature of a consistent 55°F. But compared to the above ground temperatures he’s facing mid-winter, that 30 degrees of temperature differential makes it seem toasty warm.
Here again, Russ is breaking with the norm and using technology to his advantage. Rather than using deep-well geothermal energy to warm his greenhouses, the system that Russ has designed and is using runs only eight feet below the ground.
That’s deep enough to get below the frost layer and down to the point where the ground temperature is consistent, year round. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s something that can be done with a backhoe, rather than the time and cost of drilling.
The other way that Russ is breaking with the norm is to run eight inch convoluted plastic pipe in his trenches.
Air is blown through them, rather than running pipes with water and then a heat exchanger is used to heat air. Then the air is distributed as if through a normal HVAC system.
One of the reasons why this combination is so effective in the greenhouses is that there is no need to raise the air temperature to the 75°F “comfort zone”, as you would for a home. He’s trying to keep it warm enough for plants to grow, not warm enough so that people can lounge around in shirtsleeves, watching television.
Related: How To Make A Lot Of Compost This Winter
Geothermal Cooling Too
Russ is doing more than just heating his greenhouses with geothermal, he’s cooling them as well.
In the summer, when the average temperatures are in the 80s, the 55°F air from his system works even better than air conditioning to keep his greenhouses cool.
The average air conditioning system will lower the air temperature 15°F, much less than the 25°F to 30°F temperature drop he’s getting out of his system.
To get this level of heating and cooling, Finch has 16 ducts running through the ground at a depth of eight feet. The loop these ducts make is about 225 feet long. This is enough to guarantee that his air output will be at 55°F, regardless of what the incoming air temperature is.
To put that into the perspective of a normal HVAC system, Russ has a 16 ton heating and air conditioning system, which is running on peanuts.
The only power this entire system uses is the power needed for his blowers and his thermostats.
I say blowers, because he currently has blowers at both ends of the system, either pushing or pulling the air through the underground duct system.
He’s experimenting with both, trying to determine which will ultimately be the most efficient. When he does, he’ll remove the other blower.
Related: Is It Legal To Go Off The Grid In Your State?
Lots of Potential
I must say that I’m extremely excited about the possibilities that this presents. I’ve been at the pencil and paper stage of designing such a system for cooling my home, as a cost-saving venture.
Living in a part of the country where temperatures hover around 100°F six months out of the year, it’s not unusual for me to pay $450 a month for electricity in the summer. A system like this could save me thousands of dollars a year, while still keeping my family comfortably cool.
But that’s actually nothing in comparison to the potential this has for the agricultural industry. If Russ Finch can grow citrus in Nebraska, 900 miles north of where it normally grows, that says huge things for growing food in areas where it was previously impossible to grow it.
Not only can citrus be grown in the northern parts of the country, year-round, but lettuce and other cold-weather crops can be grown in the hot south, where they won’t grow.
From a purely survival point of view, this concept could totally transform the idea of survival gardening. While there is still a need for some electric power, it is low enough that you or I could produce that power through solar or wind.
The closed nature of the greenhouse environment would drastically reduce the amount of water consumption in the garden, as well as reducing potential problems with garden pests. But the best part is, we could grow food year-round, greatly enhancing our ability to provide for our families.
Granted, there would be some considerable cost involved. Russ says that each of his greenhouse costs about $25,000 to build, with its geothermal network. You’d also have to have enough land to build it on. But if you were willing to do the work yourself and had access to a backhoe, you could probably lower the cost considerably.
Are you dealing more with a problem of trying to grow food in the cold or the heat? How could geothermal heating or cooling help your survival efforts where you live?
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i wonder how he handles condensate in the air tubes when cooling the air in summer
Fans, or open the vents. That’s what they do in N.M., down near the border where they had steam vents coming out of the earth. niio
Nebraska is pretty dry during the summer. Humidity runs pretty low. With this system moving so much air when needed, moisture should not be a problem.
Consider the potential for radon gas before constructing this type of system.
He is only 8 feet, usually Radon will be present in the water bearing gravel, which is much deeper
Radon gas is usually present in deeper strata than the depth of these cooling tubes, and assuming you Keep the air moving and not stagnant, small amounts of radon should be flushed to the external environment.
In Nebraska houses commonly have “action” radon levels with just basements.
Spike: True, but true everywhere due to inadequate ventilation in basements. In a greenhouse you have to balance ventilation with heating. No ventilation, fungus rot off the plants. Just as vital, plenty of CO2. No CO2, not plants. More CO2, and plants not only thrive, bur boom. Fungus uses oxygen and gives off CO2, so, for example, old growth forests produce as much CO2 by way of decay as oxygen. If they’re the lungs of the world, they’re suffering asthma. Operators can buy dry ice, but then you have a problem with heating. Radon is thought to be as bad for plants as people. niio
This is really cool If you have 8′ of soil, most don’t, and access to a large excavator, not a backhoe. It’s 60′ down to rock where I live, and I imagine stable temp at 8′ depth applies to a wide area. If I had the money I think I would build this system to cool my house, it really is genius. Wouldn’t use the corrugated flex pipe though, my experience building drainage systems is that even the pressure from 1′ of soil will partially collapse it and lower its efficiency. If you’re going to bury it forever 8′ deep spend the money on SDR35 pipe. And I gotta tell you, digging 300′ of 8′ deep trench is as big and bad a home construction challenge as there is. And I’d have to price it out, but figurin’ pie are square and digging a trench that size I’d be tempted to use one 24″ pipe instead of 8 6″.
Not sure, but I think they only get 24″ or rain and snow melt a year there. It’s the sand hills. Best place to run the pipes, for me, would be on the soil, not in it, to draw out heat. BTW, my soil is 2-3 feet deep, then sandstone. niio
I am far from an expert but dont you also have to take the conduction of the heat/cold from the air to the earth into consideration? I think that is why he used the thinner corrigate plastic stuff rather than the SDR35. That would also be why having three 6 inch pipes is better than 1 24inch pipe. Great videos on building “earthships” (which use a similar thermal mass ideas and conduction cooling) on youtube.
Yep. The basic exposed surface area and a thinner wall to allow conduction.
I have a friend, now deceased who took this to the ultimate end.
The place was always the perfect temperature and quiet, no matter what was going on outside.
I’ve helped install similar systems called cool tubes, back in the 1970’s & 1980’s and 8 feet around here is overkill. We used about 4 feet, since we used Ohio Building Code specifications for Structural Frost line that is 32 inches, a point at which the ground temperature is relatively stable.\ year round.
That would be true for drainage systems involving water; but, even a little collapse will allow air to pass through, especially if you use solid corrugated pipe, since you really want to exclude ground water. We also used a slight slope to the pipe with a T and cleanout, since summer humidity can build up and a built in drain sump can make the system less prone to moisture and mold or other problems.
My DIY projects have gotten pretty small over the years but this one sounds so cool it makes me want to start digging. Could probably answer most of the engineering questions with some research, but something we know 100% is that the system as built by Mr. Finch has worked well for a lot of years.
I hadn’t considered the heat exchange between air and ground, not sure the different types of pipe would make a big difference in that. A single 24″ pipe would have twice the volume of air carried by 8 6″ pipes, which doesn’t sound right but I believe my cipherin’ is correct, but would the extra volume of air cool sufficiently?
And if I did rent an excavator and start digging I’d probably end up building a swimming pool instead. Or a fallout shelter, depending on how optimistic I am at the time.
Amazing story! And good for him for using his brain and thinking outside the box.
I wonder if this would work on a commercial scale?
Not to take anything away from him; but, at his age, if he was paying attention like I’ve been doing for decades, this was a common theme in ”The Mother Earth News” and other magazines in the 70’s & 80’s and something I experimented with back then.
My Mother’s House Part IV: Installing a Passive Heating System
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editor / January/February 1982
With enough pipe and land to bury it, I don’t know why not; however, the system may need some additional fans and dampers to control such a large system and volume of air.
Ohio and Miz Kitty: Mother Earth News archives are open to the public. When it was a prepper mag, it’s was great, the southern version of Countryside & Small Stock Journal. Countryside is popular in Israel, where you’re expected to be a prepper. Iceland has had commercial greenhouses using goethermal for decades. Steam vents in SW NM are used the same. Reagan and Bush II wanted to tap Yellowstone for geothermal but were stopped. They would have had the plant two miles from the area and built underground, but purists morons sued. The Jicarilla and other Native Americans wanted to do that in the Jimez caldera, the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The owner of the ranch it’s on planned to donate the place to the Indians. Two men from kali-fornia jumped in and petitioned Coke-Nose Billy clinton to create a new park. Viola, liberals got it. It’s the same all over the nation. Every time Hawaii wants to build a new geo plant, the neolibs jump in. Hawaii is liberal, and just ignores them. niio
I know about TMEN and have all of the issues from #1, January 1970 until about 6-7 years ago, along with slip cases & 20 year indices. I recently purchased the entire kit & caboodle on a thumb drive and it takes up a lot less space than those stacks of paper. I also used to subscribe to the Countryside & Small Stock Journal; but, one has only limited space & time for such things.
Iceland has had commercial greenhouses using goethermal for decades.
Steam vents in SW NM are used the same.
These are the same morons that today wan to stop fracking and end the use of fossil fuels; but, are against nuclear, clearly not understanding that solar and wind just don’t provide the amount of power we need, when and where it’s needed.
Is this in the vicinity of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument?
That’s another one that Bill C pulled out of his, . . . well, nose!!!
Geothermal all around the Pacific Ring of Fire make so much sense that the libs have to hate it.
Personally, I think you’re far too kind and nice to the scumbag neonazi green fascist backstabbers, but you’re a nice man and probably shoo flies from the house. I do, too, and tell them to do the world a favor, go find a hungry spider. 🙂 And, many of these anti-intelligence eco-freaks are also coming against solar and wind generators. Solar disrupts rays from reaching the earth, oh my! Fires have broken out around solar farms–and may have been set on purpose. Wind generators kill a lot of birds and bats, both vital to aggie. Both have their place, but not as a corporate ripoff. Clergylady did her own solar array and most farms and ranches once had a few windmills with generators on them to power the house. The greedy neolibs under FDR destroyed that with Rural Electric, and a lot of people went broke paying to have, by law, poles and wires put in so the next town of voters had cheap electricity.
I spoke about MEN because a lot of people don’t know about the achieves. Countryside has been around more than a century and is pretty much unchanged. It’s a reader-generated mag but mainly for the Midwest and surrounding areas. MEN was Southeast and deep South. I had been subscribed to it from about 1971, a birthday gift, till after the publisher passed away. It started to change, as did Organic Gardening when Rodale passed on, and New Farm when his son died.
Iceland is trying to break free of Denmark’s pro-pedophile politics (Denmark is now the major pedo nation in the world). More, because too many green fascists are in government and want them to halt generating with geothermal. SW NM has some major vents, but the drought killed any idea of using them to generate steam. Greenhouses, yes. Up in the Jemez, they have enough rain and snowmelt to pump out pollutants yearlong. Of course, that’s natural toxins, so the whining neolibs ignore it. Then, they also ignore the colmnbanks from uranium mines along the Rio Pueroco, too. The dnc told them to and they obey.
Fracking: Penna is one of the major natural gas producers, but also one of the most expensive to buy from. Fracking is blamed for exploding water pipes and earth shifts. That’s bogus, pseudoscience. People up there always had a problem with gas in the water and the earth shifts are from deep coal mines, long abandoned because politicians own the land and use tax dollars to fill in, until stopped. Geologists joke about Lake Hazel, that when the honeycomb of mines collapse under the Hazleton Plateau, it drops from 300 feet above the valleys to a hundred feet below. Strip mining halted a lot of earth shifts, it was rare to hear of a house lost, but BO stopped most of the stripping.
Vales Caldera National Preserve, NM. It covers close to 90K acres, and was once one of the best cattle ranches in NM, of not the Southwest. The Grand Staircase/Escalante was over anthracite mining.
http://www.nmnaturalhistory.org/volcanoes/valles-caldera-jemez-volcanic-field The maps shows something occurring with new caldera opening up. Same green fascists who screwed the Indians did the same in Utah at the mines. But, that is the dnc constituency, the millionaires club. BTW, one of the reasons for the strong growth of plants in Jemez is due to a constant flow of CO2; no CO2, no plants 🙂
Like guns, you’ll never hear anything good from neolibs about geo. In kali-fornia, the limited intelligence of neolibs causes a lot of problems. Kali wants to go all-out geo, and the complaints are building where politicians grew fearful of losing power. In AZ, solar companies want to tap 4 places where the heat is building. We have almost as many ‘extinct’ volcanoes as Texas does along the Rio. Using geo slows buildup of future troubles, and AZ geomaps look like a broken plate stuck back together. We have two fault lines near town, and copper miners had to use oxygen in the lower levels before the EPA closed the mines.
Congratulations to Mr. Russ
for building the greenhouse and being active at age 85!
Could someone tell me where I could buy this green house. Also what is his Wx L of his green house?
Where does the frame come from? How deep is the “pit” and how tall is the frame (what tree height can you grow?) are there plans available?
How does this structure provide for pollenation? is the breeze from the fans enough circulation?
The pits and the air handling system would have to be deep enough to have a year round stable ground temperature that would vary with location. Here in north central Ohio that would be between 36-48 inches
Pollination would be provided like any garden or green house, using pollinating insects like bees as well as small fans.
Proper air flow would require the fans to be sized according to the size of the structure, taking into account the heat gain in summer and the required ground based air flow In the winter. You would also probably have vents that can be opened in the summer to allow heat to escape via convection, since even my little greenhouse can get quite hot during the heat of the summer.
TOP – This is a really great video but there is much I do not understand. It appears from the video that the pit is about 6 feet deep and he has said that the tubes are about a foot under that inside the structure to get thermal exchange inside the greenhouse. I’m guessing that the structure is a standard 40 foot structure in length. I am not able to guess at the width eithe internally or externally. The 250 foot loop at 8 feet seems pretty straight forward and appears to be a closed loop system. However, I don’t understand the extenal air induction or exhaust that he shows and the closed system interface. As to height, if the “pit” is 6 feet then he needs a 4 foot structure above ground to allow growth of a 10 foot tree….How big are his trees and what is the structure he has in place to accomodate them? There is only mention of two bugs that he controls with oil…there is no mention of, or visibility of, any pollinators (bees, butterflies, etc). If this is in fact a closed system where do those come from? If he had bees, I think he would have identified that as part of the ecosystem (he identified the future fish element) and as part of the financial reward (discussion of Farmers Market). An element that I did not initially ask about but for which I am curious is how he treats/maintains the soil (this is organic so no fertilizers). with all of this, it would be really cool to get a set of plans for both construction and planting, realizing that they would merely be a start point for each person to use to adapt to their individual situation.
It looks like he keeps the trees at about 20 feet or less. Many citrus are natural dwarf and semi dwarf (the kumquat and Meyer’s lemon in the backyard will likely never get over ten feet tall, but a neighbor’s tangerine and grapefruit, 40). https://homeguides.sfgate.com/long-oranges-grow-fully-developed-tree-59477.html
Citrus resist mold and fungus, but the fans should be enough for circulation, needed to keep oxygen from overwhelming and killing the trees. (to plants, oxy is as toxic as CO2 to us, but, no CO2, no plants, anywhere–as I like t point out to loonie global warming nuts 🙂
Citrus at those low temps will not bloom till it gets warm (between 55 F and 100 F), and by that time, probably March, he has to open vents to cool the greenhouses. Bees, pollinating flies, and most insects that eat pests feed on nectar and pollen in the adult stage and will pollinate.
Bro, plans are all over the net and YouTube on how-to greenhouses and those like his earth-sheltered. If they work in Alaska and the Sahara, they should work about anywhere.
https://besurvival.com/homesteading/build-a-300-underground-greenhouse-walipini-that-grows-food-year-round Clergylady has one, but it’s still under construction. https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/earth-sheltered-greenhouse-zmaz04fmzsel
Some missing from this discussion is sunlight.
We have an earth bermed greenhouse and with PEX tubing in the floor heated by solar water heating vacuum tubes + a wood stove for really cold nights, we can keep the temperature moderate enough to grow. What we can’t do (at least economically) is provide enough light from mid December to late February to make things grow.
MOST of what we plant simply sits there at “idle” until enough daylight comes back in March. So we now use it 3 seasons, and take the dead of winter off.
In the 70’s a guy had a hydroponics farm for tomatoes outside of Chadron. I visited the operation . The problems is one mistake in heating, watering can destroy the crop. After living in nebraska i respect anyone that can grow oranges or anything else in the winter but its not economically fesable in normal times.
Walapinis are a flavor of what this guy did. Also, check out this guy in Idaho who did the same thing — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA3YGYELZ98