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The Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton, Mass., has had a lot of chilly choir rehearsals and vestry meetings.

Rebuilt on a shoestring after a fire in 1985, and without much thought given to energy conservation, the church was heated by a poorly designed hydronic system running on an inefficient oil boiler.

“The boiler room was like a sauna and had to have the windows open because it was so hot in there,” says Jessie Panek, a volunteer on the church’s sustainability committee. Meanwhile, the rest of the church was frequently too cold. The horseshoe-shape building had three zones, and the zone at the far end, which included a gathering space, offices, and a meeting/choir room, was never comfortable.

The very active sustainability committee has been working for the last five years to reduce the church’s huge oil heating bill and improve the church’s environmental impact. The group saw an opportunity to do both when the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts launched the Creation Care Initiative, a series of grants and loans intended to fund energy efficiency and environmental upgrades at congregations across the state.

“Like many churches, funding is always a problem,” Panek says. “Trying to make an improvement like changing over to a new heating system, even a more efficient one — we just don’t have the upfront cash to do something like that.” The church applied for and received a $10,000 grant to invest in a new system before their 19-year-old boiler gave out.

The committee looked at a variety of options, but they settled on a conversion to propane fairly quickly, Panek says. Natural gas would have been prohibitively expensive to bring to the site, leaving propane and oil as the only options.

“It was clear that any propane or natural gas system was going to be much more efficient [than oil],” Panek says. While most oil boilers are about 84 percent efficient, the committee found that propane boilers could affordably achieve efficiency levels above 95 percent. “As far as we can tell, we’re doing the best thing environmentally,” Panek says. “There’s less impact, less greenhouse gases produced from the propane side of the equation than from oil. So that really was a big deciding factor for us, coming at it from the environmental point of view.”

Battling winter’s chill

After settling on propane, the committee decided to work with Osterman Propane to install a pair of 96 percent efficient propane boilers. Manufactured locally in Massachusetts, the HTP Elite Fire Tube boilers are cascading — instead of one boiler running at full capacity, the two boilers can run simultaneously at a more efficient level. The dual systems also provide redundancy in the event that one of the boilers is offline.

The new sealed-combustion boilers vent to the outdoors, so makeup air is no longer needed in the boiler room. The technicians also upgraded the expansion tank and gas piping and installed a special circulator capable of handling the varied flow needed in the previously cold office wing.

Those heating system fixes were just what the church needed before the brutal winter set in. “We’ve had some spells of good cold weather this winter, and it seems to have been able to keep up incredibly well with the cold temperatures,” Panek says. She was happily surprised to learn that the system actually runs more efficiently if temperatures are not allowed to drop too low, so the sanctuary is no longer frigid on days when it’s not in use. “It’s more efficient, but it’s also more comfortable,” she says.

Despite operating through a much colder winter, the system was also much less expensive to operate, consuming about $9,300 worth of propane versus $14,000 worth of oil last year, for a projected payback of less than six years.

Creation care

While the annual energy savings provided by the propane boiler conversion will provide the Church of the Good Shepherd with a healthier budget, the reduced carbon emissions were just as important to the parish, Panek says.

“I suspect that at any church of any denomination, people are really beginning to recognize that that’s part of our obligation to the earth, to God’s creation, to take care of it,” Panek says. “And the best thing we can do is to try and minimize what impact we’re having. I said to the parish, we cannot argue to the diocese that they should give us a green grant to simply replace an oil furnace with another oil furnace, because it just doesn’t look like environmentally the right thing to do.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts raised the money for the $2 million, five-year grants program in 2010 after adopting the Genesis Covenant, a national effort by religious communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent within 10 years, says Esther Powell, grants and events administrator for the diocese. Out of 150 congregations, 69 have applied for green grants and several dozen have used them to put in more-efficient heating systems.

“One of the goals of the program is education of the congregation and the wider community,” Powell says. “As the congregation is going through the process of deciding what kind of heating system to put in or putting in a programmable thermostat — this process of paying the money upfront that’s going to save them money and certainly carbon emissions in the long run — it’s something they’re hoping the congregation will think about in their own decisions at home.”

With many homes in Massachusetts still fueled by inefficient oil boilers, Panek hopes the church’s decision will set a good example for the congregation. “Part of the idea of the green grants, and of making the change for the parish building, is to then encourage parishioners to say, ‘Look what we’ve been able to do for the church building,'” says Panek, who recently converted her own home heating system to run on propane. “You could do this at home. Next time when you need to replace your furnace, look at the options. We’re hoping for it to be an education tool for people.”

With the church’s propane boilers keeping the cold at bay throughout the winter, the congregation got first-hand experience with just how comfortable it can be to make environmentally sound choices.

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Jeffrey Lee