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St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Akron, N.Y.

Church Takes Nontraditional Approach to Heating, Installs Geothermal

July 17, 2013
The 28-ton heating system includes four 7-ton, two-stage, high-temperature WaterFurnace 5 Series hydronic heat pumps.

For more than 30 years, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in rural Akron, N.Y., relied on a three-boiler, oil-fueled heating system. The boilers consumed as much as $17,000 in oil a year, an amount Robert Richards, president of the church council, and others in the 140-member congregation believed the church no longer could afford to pay. In their estimation, even a more efficient oil burner could not provide the financial relief the church desperately needed.

“Without question, new boilers would operate more efficiently,” Richards said. “But we would continue to be linked to oil and its volatile pricing structure. To remain dependent on oil just made no sense, especially if other, more affordable options were available to us.”

Richards began reading about geothermal and attended home shows in the Buffalo area to learn more about the technology.

“The more I learned, the more impressed I was by the technology,” Richards recalled. “It is far more efficient than the system we had, it is much cheaper to operate, and it’s good for the environment.”

There was one problem.

“It also required a tremendous financial investment on the part of our congregation, and I feared our membership would view a project that costly as something we could not afford to do,” Richards added.

Several area contractors were engaged to look at the 15,000-sq-ft church, built in 1952, and provide proposals. One—Jens Ponikau, part owner of Cheektowaga, N.Y.-based Buffalo GeoThermal Heating—quickly rose to the top.

Ponikau “understood the technology, he explained it in terms so that we, too, could understand it, and he always put the best interests of the church first, designing a system that not only met our needs, but did so in the least intrusive way,” Richards said.

Nevertheless, two years passed before St. Michael’s acted.

“Fortunately, we had time on our side,” Richards said. “Our boilers were still operating, so we weren’t in an emergency-response situation. We had time to carefully research and then intelligently discuss the options before us and make an informed decision.”

During that time, geothermal technology evolved, offering a solution that better served the infrastructure of the church and its high-temperature baseboard radiators.

The operation of a baseboard-radiator system is dependent on the creation of convection currents in a room. Air is warmed by aluminum fin tubes, rises, and displaces cool air. This process is difficult to sustain with the 130°F water most hydronic geothermal systems generate.

Introduced in 2012, WaterFurnace’s 5 Series 502W12 high-temperature hydronic heat pump is capable of delivering water at 150°F.

“The availability of this technology meant I could offer St. Michael’s a geothermal solution that integrated with their existing distribution system, acting more like a plug-and-play system and significantly reducing installation costs,” Ponikau said.

Learning this, Richards was even more convinced geothermal was the way to go. But he still needed to persuade other members of the church. His task was made more difficult by the church’s nonprofit status, which made it ineligible to receive federal tax credits. Additionally, as a religious organization, the church was barred from receiving grant money. Bolstering Richards’ case, however, was the church’s success involving another nontraditional approach to saving energy: During the summer of 2012, the congregation entered into a 15-year agreement with Buffalo-based Solar Liberty for the installation and maintenance of a 21-kw solar-panel system designed to cover 80 percent of the church’s electricity needs and reduce its annual electricity bill from $2,800 to less than $1,000.

“The solar system was working very well,” Richards said. “We were benefitting from significant savings, and it offered a power source for the geothermal system.”

The congregation voted unanimously to install a geothermal system. A month later, $70,000 had been raised for the project.

St. Michael’s Lutheran Church’s four WaterFurnace hydronic heat pumps.

Buffalo GeoThermal Heating installed a 28-ton heating system that includes four 7-ton, two-stage, high-temperature WaterFurnace 5 Series hydronic heat pumps in a parallel configuration. As one unit reaches its most efficient operating condition, the next unit in line comes on. Two variable-speed circulating pumps run together, each at 50 percent of design load, providing redundancy in the event one fails.

“In addition, the heat pumps respond to the temperature outdoors,” Ponikau said. “That means they only produce enough hot water to satisfy the load at any given temperature. So, the system saves energy by not having to run at the less efficient high-load temperature.”

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

For St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, two slinky loops—one at a depth of 8 ft and the other directly above it at a depth of 5 ft—were installed. The church’s solar-panel system can be seen on the roof.
Space outside of the church was tight for a horizontal ground loop, and the drilling associated with a vertical loop was cost-prohibitive. Ponikau proposed the installation of a stacked slinky system. Overlapped loops of piping were laid horizontally along the bottom of a trench. Buffalo GeoThermal Heating installed two slinky loops: one at a depth of 8 ft and a second directly above it at a depth of 5 ft.

“This type of loop allows you to install about 9 ft of pipe in each linear foot of trench, making for a significantly shorter trench, which saves space and speeds up the installation,” Ponikau said. “In this case, we buried 28,000 ft of polyethylene pipe in an area approximately 150 by 150 ft, which is really quite small for a 28-ton geothermal system.”

Ponikau, who completed his work in March 2013, streams data from the system live on his firm’s Website.

“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.”

In the meantime, “We’ve suddenly become trendsetters,” Richards said. “Because we’re the first church in the county to use solar and geothermal, we regularly receive requests from other churches and contractors to see our system and hear our story.”

It is a story Richards and the St. Michael’s congregation are eager to share.

“We’re excited to show other congregations, businesses, and anybody else that’s interested what we’ve done and what they, too, can do,” Richards said. “Call it whatever you want—a leap of faith or just a sound financial decision. It’s working, and because of our success, I’m confident we’ll have a church to hand to our children and their children. I don’t think we could ask for a better legacy than that.”

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