N.Y. congregation takes leap of faith, embraces geothermal


The decision to move from a conventional oil heating system to a less traditional geothermal system was a leap of faith for the congregation of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church. But church council president Robert Richards said it was more like a sound business decision based on years of research, according to a press release from Water Furnace.

St. Michael’s, a small church in rural Akron, N.Y., serves a congregation of 140 members and is home to a preschool that meets at the church Monday through Friday. Although the

15,000-square-foot structure was built in 1952, St. Michael’s 153-year-old congregation actually pre-dates the church by some 92 years. For many in the church, the desire to keep the doors open another 153 years inspired the move to geothermal, according to Water Furnace, which supplied the system.

Prior to this year, St. Michael’s relied on a three-boiler, oil-fueled heating system to provide heat to the 61-year-old structure. The 30-plus-year-old boilers consumed as much as $17,000 in oil each year, a bill Richards and others believed the church could no longer afford.

So began the search for alternatives to oil and propane, the only fuel sources accessible to residents and businesses in the Wolcottsville area. Richards began reading about geothermal and took advantage of home shows in the Buffalo area to learn even more about the technology, talk with people who installed geothermal systems and get answers to his many questions.

A geothermal system takes advantage of free solar energy stored just below the surface of the earth. Using a series of pipes (an earth loop) buried in the ground and a geothermal (sometimes referred to as a ground source) heat pump, the geothermal heating and cooling system extracts heat from the earth and carries it to a building in the winter. An indoor unit compresses the heat to a higher temperature and distributes it throughout the structure.  In the summer, the process reverses and the system extracts heat from the building and rejects it to the earth. In both cases, the geothermal system delivers consistent temperatures and efficiencies that exceed those of conventional HVAC systems, offering savings as high as 70 percent for heating, cooling and hot water.

In addition to consistent temperatures, a geothermal system ensures good indoor air quality (IAQ). And, the average geothermal system lifespan exceeds 24 years – compared to 15 years for a more traditional heating and cooling system.

Last year, WaterFurnace introduced its 5 Series 502W12 high temperature hydronic heat pump, which is capable of delivering water at 150 degrees, making it the perfect replacement for a boiler, according to installer Buffalo GeoThermal Heating.

In addition, the church was coming off a recent success story that involved another nontraditional approach to energy savings. Last summer the congregation entered a 15-year lease agreement with Buffalo-based Solar Liberty. The agreement provided for the installation and maintenance of a 21-kilowatt solar panel system designed to cover 80 percent of the church’s electricity and reduce its annual electric bill from $2,800 to less than $1,000.

In the end, the congregation voted unanimously to install the geothermal system. One month later, the church raised $70,000 in donations toward the project.

The 28-ton heating system includes four 7-ton, two-stage, high-temperature WaterFurnace 5 Series hydronic heat pumps, placed in a parallel configuration. As one unit reaches its most efficient operating condition, the next unit in line comes on, optimizing the system for efficiency. Two variable speed circulating pumps provide redundancy in the event one fails, but run together, each at 50 percent of load design to further ensure an efficient system.

To further ensure efficiency, the church is divided into four zones. Whenever the valve in a zone opens to bring heat to the space, pressure inside the piping system drops, which sends a signal to the pumps to rev up, enabling the system to adjust to all circumstances. The system also features remote monitoring, so that heat can be turned on and the building warmed prior to the arrival of church members.

The other critical component of any geothermal system is the ground loop. In the case of

St. Michael’s, space outside the church for a horizontal ground loop was tight, and the drilling associated with a vertical loop was cost-prohibitive. Rather than using straight pipe, slinky coils use overlapped loops of piping laid out horizontally along the bottom of a trench.

The church is already reaping benefits, Water Furnace reports.

“We’re experiencing huge savings in fuel costs -- $10,000 annually – and our loan payments, with principal and interest, are actually less than our annual oil bill was,” Richards said. “It’s my hope that we can take the money we save and apply it to our 20-year loan, with the goal of paying off the loan in as few as 10 years. Once that happens, we’ll have a huge amount of breathing room.”

Topics: Architectural Firms, Building Owners and Managers, Construction Firms, Consulting - Green & Sustainable Strategies and Solutions, Energy Audit / Energy Management, Energy Recovery & Heat Recovery Ventilation, Energy Saving Products, Engineering Firms, Geothermal Heating and Cooling, Healthy & Comfortable Buildings, HVAC - Heating, Cooling, and Ventilation, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), Interiors, Religious Buildings, Sustainable Communities, Technology, Urban Planning and Design, Ventilation

Companies: WaterFurnace

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