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Level up the energy efficiency of your building: Control air leakages

We have been trained to think about energy efficiency best practices for buildings in terms of improving insulation. It’s an easy enough concept to understand because we can experience heat loss personally. For example, on a cold day, if  you don’t have a thick enough coat, you feel cold. It follows that more insulation will keep us warmer in colder weather. However, we often overlook other influences that affect energy efficiency, such as air leakage.

If you have ever had the wind blowing up under your coat in winter, chilling you to the bone, you can probably envision the impact of air leakage as it relates to your buildings; a similar experience occurs when cold air enters through unsealed or exposed gaps. In addition to causing discomfort, air leakages in winter can create massive heat loss as well as condensation, resulting in  damage to the building itself. 

Many faith community buildings are made of materials like stones, blocks, bricks, and plaster. These ‘heavy’ buildings are considered thermally massive, as they perform differently than our thermally insulative homes (having insulation in the walls). Thermally massive buildings act like energy batteries; they store heat in the masonry and then release it when the temperature drops. This process helps effectively regulate the indoor climate of the building. This is why tile floors on the north of a building feel cool. The tile floors remain cool because they don’t get warmed by the sun. By contrast, a stone path on a sunny but cold spring day feels really warm.

ceiling_vent_to_attic.jpgOld ceiling roundel at Calvary United Church in London, ON

Air Leakages – A Loss of Hot Air

In many houses of worship, if insulation isn’t the issue, then air leakage is usually the main reason for heat loss. Since hot air rises, the taller the chimney the greater the draught. Typically, faith buildings are REALLY tall, often with a taller chimney attached to it, called a bell tower/spire. These chimneys are so tall that the leaking air is sucked out of the holes at the top of the ceiling or into the tower. This air leakage can be measured as cubic metres of air per minutes. 

This means (jokingly) that you might as well be standing under the chimney with the collection plate until all the $20 bills are sucked up to plug the hole, because that’s how much it’s costing you! 

The point is, the conditioned air is not where it needs to be. Instead, this air is exiting from around attic hatches and doors to the bell tower, and through old ceiling roundels. The image depicted above is an old ceiling roundel, and is basically a four foot diameter hole in the ceiling straight to the attic. This roundel is causing a large amount of heat to escape from the room to the upper attic. I’ve seen a church that had two – eight foot roundels in their sanctuary. Can you Imagine how much heating dollars were leaving those open holes out to the sky?

Plug it up!

There are several ways to reduce heat loss in faith buildings. For one, air sealing the holes in the ceilings, attic hatches and doors to attic spaces, is extremely important in saving energy. In the attic, consider installing an air barrier across the access, and then adding in some insulation. Batts of insulation in black garbage bags can be an easy and lightweight way to safely  take care of this. The bags stop the air leakage, and the insulation adds thermal value to the hole. For attic hatches and doors, it is important to make sure they are tightly sealed. The same goes for doors; add weatherstripping and latches. You will see dramatic savings in your energy bills and a significant reduction in your building’s total carbon output. With the carbon you reduce and the money you save, you’ll be making a difference in your climate action goals.

Start the process with the free guides on our website. The DIY Faith Building Energy Audit Guidebook and the Energy Star Action Workbook for Congregations are amazing, free resources you can download, read, learn, and inspire action. You can also utilize our professional knowledge with virtual Green Audits that look at energy, air quality, food, water, waste, maintenance, rental agreements, heritage and much more. 

The more you can learn about your building, the more you can save energy, minimize maintenance costs, and maximize the usage of your amazing faith community building. 

Faithful Footprints Program

The United Church of Canada (UCC) Faithful Footprints program offers grants, tools and inspiration to help its congregations reduce their carbon footprint. With UCC’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions 80% by 2050, this one of a kind program offers up to $30,000 in grants towards energy conservation and renewable energy projects (conditions apply).

Faith & the Common Good is the delivery partner for UCCs Faithful Footprints program.  To date, we have engaged over 200 UCC congregations, camps, and buildings across the country. Your participation in the program puts your faith into action and helps UCC reach its target. 

Stephen Collette is the Building Manager for Faith & the Common Good and can be reached at 705-652-5159 EDT, [email protected] 


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