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.
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
- Genesis 2:15
Earth Day is an annual event where we step back, acknowledge local and global environmental protection efforts, and show our love for our common home. Many people celebrate this day by enjoying the great outdoors or sharing memorable photos of trips, encapsulating Earth’s breathtaking landscapes. This year’s Earth Day theme is ‘Invest in our Planet’ because the state and health of our shared home are under extreme threat. What used to be well-functioning ecosystems, providing us with services are becoming degraded, losing their integrity, or quickly disappearing.
Light Emitting Diodes, also known as LED lights, have become commonplace at home, but not so much with houses of worship. It's time that this changes.
For a bit of history, LED lights have been around for almost 100 years, however it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that we started to see them really being used. Where did we see them first? Christmas lights of course! The use of LED Christmas lights drove the cost per bulb down dramatically enough that the economy of scale picked up and we were spotting them more and more in fixtures of various kinds. Since then, incandescent bulbs are hard to get, and hazardous, mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs are on their way out. LED lights have been filling all the gaps within the lighting world today.
In admiring the stunning Gothic cathedrals that overlook our downtown centres, we can all agree that places of worship hold our collective cultural heritage. But what about our smaller faith community buildings? The rural church in a Nova Scotia village that may not have been built by hundreds of people, but by a local shipwright in the off-season, or the chapel in an Alberta community constructed by one mason and farmers, bringing rocks off their farms?
Refurbished radiators installed with electric heating coil inside. St Paul’s United Magog.
In a previous blog post, I recommended switching your fossil fuel-burning appliances over to heat pumps to heat your building. That recommendation still stands for everyone who has mid and low energy efficiency furnaces and boilers and anyone whose heating appliance is older than 25 years. I recently spoke with a congregation whose heating system predates their building from 1962 (it was used and donated to them). Their heating contractor estimates that it is currently operating at 15% efficiency! So keep that in mind folks.
But what if you have a pretty new boiler, for example, and still want to maximize efficiency? Is there anything you can do? Yes, there is! When we look at radiator systems with all the various parts, there are numerous opportunities to improve efficiencies.
We all love to gather after worship and share food and drink together. It’s at these times that we grow as a community. For this reason alone, a major hub of activity in faith communities (post COVID) is the kitchen. So it is worth taking the time to look at the major energy consumers within this space in order to save some energy and money.
Fridges and freezers are present in every congregation’s kitchen. Typically, the efficiency of these kinds of appliances increases dramatically every few years with newer models. That means that the energy consumption of a new fridge compared to one made approximately five years ago can be half the energy! That’s a lot of energy savings to be had.
Our buildings, our spaces matter. There are, of course, the practicalities of making drafty rooms comfortable and bringing energy and climate costs down. But more than these issues, our spaces house and embody our values. They hold our gatherings, celebrations, prayers and sacred ceremonies and should reflect who we are and what matters to us. So, when we decided to green retrofit our main building, Stewart Hall, we realized that this would be more than a bricks and mortar project. We began Phase I with two practical and strategic projects. The first was to replace our main roof and insulate it to R40 from R3, essentially putting a hat on. The second project was to renovate our sanctuary space, one of the most meaningful spaces in all of our buildings that would set the tone for what was to come.
With 18-foot ceilings, a wall of windows and lovely boat-shaped curves, the sanctuary space had been awe-inspiring in its day and still holds such meaning. I recently met a woman who married her husband in this chapel. It has remained an intimate place of coming together in song and learning, in prayer and smudging, grief and joy. While the magic of the space has been held by the people and talented facilitators, the room itself was beginning to feel tattered. Built in the fifties, it also had the unfortunate condition of being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
For faith communities, replacing a heating system is one of the single largest capital cost expenses (the other one is replacing the roof). Most congregational spaces have either boilers with radiators, or furnaces with ductwork that consume oil, gas or propane. While the typical lifespan may be 25 years for these appliances, I have seen many span decades of service.
Sure, they keep going, so why change them? Well, just like you and I, we get less efficient with age. For instance, a furnace from the 1990s may have started out at, say, 84% efficient (meaning, for simplicity’s sake that 84% of the fuel is turned into heat, and 16% of the energy is wasted), but after 25+ years may be operating in the low 70% range. Older furnaces and boilers could be much, much lower efficiency. Now take your gas/oil/propane bill for the year and find what that 30% costs you per year. It is a lot! Your payback to switching becomes much clearer.
Instead of swapping out old units for new ones and carrying on, many congregations are switching to air source heat pumps.
The United States (US) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created and manages the Energy Star program. You may know the brand when buying an appliance for your home, selecting the most efficient appliance possible. They also work with buildings, and specifically congregations! (As an aside, Natural Resources Canada created the EnerGuide program, which we sold to the US, and they rebranded it as Energy Star, and now we use both programs here in Canada). Although US- centric, their resources are really great tools to help Canadian congregations take on energy saving actions and activities.