Ground Water Canada

Features Geothermal
U.S. landmark updated with geothermal system

September 14, 2018  By Ground Water Canada

Newport, RI – A ground-source geothermal system has been installed at The Breakers, the former summer home of the Vanderbilt family in Newport, Rhode Island, in order to stabilize humidity and reduce the building’s carbon footprint.

The system combines 19th-century engineering and 21st-century technology to create an interior climate conducive to protecting and preserving the house’s precious collections.

“This is a major breakthrough in historic preservation because the geothermal system reduces the environmental footprint of The Breakers, thus helping to ensure the long-term sustainability of one of the country’s most visited historic sites,” said Trudy Coxe, chief executive officer and executive director of The Preservation Society of Newport County, the cultural organization that preserves and presents the historic property. “We are deeply grateful to the many donors who supported this project, led by generous grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Champlin Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Samuel M. Mencoff.”


The new system, which uses historic heating shafts built into the masonry of the building in the 1890s to circulate modified air to targeted areas, has proven a significant success. Despite record-breaking heat and humidity in Rhode Island this summer, interior humidity and temperatures in The Breakers have remained stable and comfortable. In winter the same geothermal system maintains stable temperatures and humidity with minimum additional heating.

Designed by Richard Morris Hunt for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1893 and completed in 1895, The Breakers is a 138,000-square-foot National Historic Landmark. Securing the interior climate of the main house was imperative to the long-term protection of this historic site.

Extreme fluctuations of relative humidity threatened the historic house’s delicate architectural finishes and its fine and decorative arts objects. After extensive research and planning, The Preservation Society of Newport County made the decision three years ago to invest in a state-of-the-art ground-source geothermal system using 75 in-ground wells with closed-loop piping. A refrigerant is circulated through the ground, which has a year-round temperature of about 55°F, is warmed (or cooled) to that temperature, and is then used to drive the heating/cooling process in heat pumps.

Historically, The Breakers was heated through the convection of hot air through ducts built into the masonry. The innovation of the geothermal system is its use of the existing infrastructure to supply targeted areas with modified air. Heat pumps supply 15 fan coil units located at selected shafts, which condense water out of the supplied air. The dehumidified, chilled and filtered air travels through ductwork to the shafts above the existing heating coils to supply the rooms. Return air is delivered back to the fan coils for retreatment. Because the system design uses the existing infrastructure, there was no need to interfere with the fabric of the building in any significant way, consistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

Since its completion in the spring of 2018, the geothermal system has already yielded remarkable results. Relative humidity has been recorded in the correct target zones of 40-60 per cent with temperatures in the low- to mid- 70s. The resulting climate is comfortable enough that doors and windows can be kept closed in summer, preserving the stable humidity for the building, protecting its precious collections and improving the climate conditions for the 450,000 guests who visit each year.

Prior to the geothermal installation, The Breakers traditionally consumed 20,000 gallons of oil annually for heating. The geothermal system provides savings in fuel costs and less maintenance, and ensures higher performance that effectively offsets the extra expense of installation, the release said.

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