Church Thermostat Wars: How to win them

Once upon a time, the cost of energy was so cheap churches could afford inefficient thinking and design when it came to their heating and cooling needs at churches. These days, we can’t afford to be dumb, let alone allow ourselves the hubris of waste.

My former church was a perfect example of poor design. The thermostats for the Sunday School classrooms were in the HALLWAYS.  The doors to the outside were also in the hallway. On winter mornings, cold air blasted through the doors with each student arrival. And of course, the thermostats felt that blast of air and hallway temp, and thought it needed to trigger the furnace, which only made the classrooms HOT.

Question: What’s worse? a) Wasted money, b) Wasted energy, c) Or Hot grumpy kids and teachers?
Answer: Not realizing you can cure all three problems!

The teachers (and I) complained, and the response was to close some of the vents in the classrooms, -which of course didn’t stop the furnace from blazing away. For 5 years I pointed out that MOVING the thermostats was the only reasonable solution. The year I left that church, they had moved ONE of the thermostats –the one which controlled the adult classroom.

I guess that’s better than what other churches do: they put a lock box on the thermostat. And the way we worked around that (other than with a screwdriver) was to open windows in the middle of winter. It was a cheap solution in the days of cheap energy. But these days, we need to be SMARTER, not only to conserve energy and save money, but to HONOR volunteers and students by helping them be comfortable.

But even properly located thermostats can be IMPROPERLY USED.

Every Sunday morning in my former church, a designated gentleman arrived early to turn up the heat in the sanctuary to 70 degrees. But by the time 140 people got in there, the room temp was well above 70 degrees. Up front under the lights, it could be 76/78.  So they’d turn it back down sometime during the first part of the service when people were complaining. What was WASTED was the energy used to get the temp to 70. The temp should have been set to 66/67, taking into account the 5 or 6 additional degrees of heat the WORSHIPPERS would bring to the sanctuary.  This small mistake cost the church hundreds of dollars a year in wasted energy, and quite a bit of lack of attention created by the sleepy heat.

Part of the problem is the ridiculously ARCHAIC design of most heating/air/duct systems. For example, most furnaces sold today still only have ONE speed for their fan, and ONE setting for heat –on or off.  That’s Crazy. But so is the duct work. You’d think BY NOW they’d realize that the air will be less hot and less cool when it reaches the FARTHEST vent in the system –and that means the people in the “far room” want more heat. So the people closest to the furnace boil, or turn off their vent. And most of the air ducts are leaky sieves. Some of the hot and cool (read: expensive) air you push through the pipes gets wasted in the walls, basement and attic. Such an inefficient system was overlooked when gas cost 50 cents a gallon, and natural gas was pennies a cubic foot.  It’s inefficient, expensive, wasteful and theologically unacceptable today.

One answer for the 21st Century Green Jesus Church is to install a fully sensor-equipped, computer controlled, motorized vent, variable speed HVAC system. Yes, it will cost more to install. But it will save money every year, and create more COMFORT in all your spaces. It will also educate your parishioners about how THEY can conserve energy at home.

The government’s ENERGY STAR initiative has an excellent website that includes numerous helpful articles for churches:

Short of replacing your system, you CAN retrofit vents with inexpensive motorized dampers which respond to relatively inexpensive retrofitted thermostats/control panels.  Booster fans can also be easily added to “longrun” vents –improving the distribution of your GOLD …which is to say, your cold or warm air.

You can also RELOCATE thermostats to their proper locations (not in hallways!), and remember to adjust vents in classrooms in the fall and in the spring to “balance” the distribution of heat and air-conditioning.

While you’re at it, go to Home Depot and buy a $40 water heater timer. Few churches need a constant supply of hot water, and even a well insulated water needlessly eats money.

Consult a local energy/hvac expert for help in winning your church’s thermostat war.  And remember, it’s not just MONEY you want to save… you want to redeem everyone’s attitude towards wasting resources.

<>< Neil

PS… Remember to read my other post here in this blog about SHADE TREES near your building. Blocking intense sunlight on your church roof, blocking heat distribution from your large asphalt parking lot, and blocking cold winter winds will help your HVAC system work more efficiently and SAVE YOU MONEY, while conserving precious resources.

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5 Responses to Church Thermostat Wars: How to win them

  1. Micah Panjada says:

    Thanks for these tips, they were very informative. We always discuss how low to turn the thermostat in the winter time when the building is not in use. What do you suggest?


  2. Neil says:

    Hi Micah,
    How low you can set your thermostat depends on several factors, including: how cold your winters are, and how well insulated your walls and pipes are. You should be able to set your thermostat to 60 degrees and be fine. However, if you have a poorly insulated bathroom, for example, the pipes underneath that floor could freeze if you live in a very cold climate. Best to check that out. Also, keeping closet and bathroom doors open in the closed off section of the building will allow some warm air to circulate. <>< Neil

  3. Tammie says:

    We live in SW Michigan so have cold winters. Our church is cinder block construction and we made the mistake of programming our thermostats too far back at night (to 60 degrees). The rooms didn’t warm up quickly enough in the day to be comfortable. We were advised by our HVAC guy to only go back to 65 degrees in the evening.

  4. Neil says:

    Hi Tammie. I wonder where your thermostats are located. If they are in a sunny or warm location, they may turning off before the entire room/bldg is heated (this is the reverse problem I describe in the blog article where a cold draft constantly triggered the heat to come on). HVAC installers sometimes pay no attention to where they locate thermostats. Other problems: undersized furnace takes longer to heat a room; multi-speed fans preferred over single speed fans; poorly located or poor efficiency ductwork (a big problem as ductwork is often an afterthought); and of course, –energy loss through roof/windows/walls. Solution: have a professional energy audit done. In some locations, the utility company will do them for free.

    Note: A Univ of Georgia summary of various research found that 68 to 70 degree Fahrenheit with good ventilation was the OPTIMAL temperature for classroom learning. Above or below that “psychomotor” (learning) functions begin to decline. Which is to say, “slightly cool is better than warm or cold.”

  5. Scott Oldre WELS member says:

    I know this is an old post, but we have the opposite issue in South Carolina. On a 40 degree Sunday, the A/C still kicks on and I’ve seen the thermostat set to 62 on some Sundays. Simply cannot get the board to understand they are freezing out visitors and long time members. They see the people who are hot blooded waving the bulletin to cool themselves, but they never acknowledge the many who are shivering and going “Brrrrr” to each other in whispers before the start of the service. My wife has simply given up and stopped going to church. She suffers from reynauds and simply cannot recover once the A/C fans kick in. I’ve been on the board and attempted many times to get them to understand, but it always returns to the freezer norm. I’m originally from MN and I get cold. Just thought I’d share. Thanks for your Article. Scott O

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