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Geothermal heat/AC cuts church utility bills

3/11/1999 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS News Feature By Paul W. Widicus*

Treated water, held at a constant ground temperature of 55 degrees, circulates through 80 wells drilled 175 feet deep in the parking lot of Clinton (Ill.) First United Methodist Church.

These wells are the heart of a geothermal water furnace system that allows the congregation to smile at the low utility bills, even in extreme weather. The central Illinois church is one of the first to try this new approach to a common problem.

Two years ago, the 559-member congregation faced a dilemma. The church had little air conditioning, and it was very expensive to use. Attendance and offerings declined as the heat climbed.

At the same time, the large boilers that heated the church in cold weather became unsafe and needed replacing. What should be done with cold winter weather approaching?

With 30,000 square feet to heat and cool, the trustees consulted the electric company for ideas.

"Our electric company enthusiastically recommended that the church look into a geothermal system," trustee Tim Reeser said.

A group from Clinton went to Postville, Iowa, to visit a Presbyterian church that was one of the first in the country to install such a system. The group was impressed and came back to recommend the congregation compare prices and operating costs.

The church received six bids on the work, four for conventional systems and two for geothermal systems. The trustees chose a geothermal system from the Water Furnace Co. in Indiana at a cost of $223,099. The price was not much more than some of the bids for conventional systems, Reeser said.

The wells were drilled in the parking lot, and tubing was put in place in each hole. Connecting lines were run between the wells four feet under the lot. Six pumps were installed to circulate the treated water.

Nineteen units were installed in various parts of the church, each with its own thermostat. Temperature can be carefully controlled in all parts of the church. Systems were designed to overlap so that if one goes down there is a backup.

The units work so efficiently that the church is comfortable all year. An electric auxiliary furnace has never been used in two winters.

As the water circulates, the units exchange heat and coolness. Air is circulated through the units and into the church, bringing warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer.

"It is much cheaper to heat and cool the church than it was to just heat the church in the past," Reeser said.

How much has the new system saved the church?

"It is hard to know because we have only used it for one and one-half years, and the weather is different each year," said church treasurer Chris Clark. "There has been a significant savings."

For example, the heating cost with the old system was $2,361.41 for January 1996 and $3,1201.23 for January 1997. With the geothermal system, the cost was $1,159.81 for January 1998 and $1,943.64 for last January. Utility costs for the whole year are much lower, and now the church is air conditioned all summer. Savings are expected to be even higher in years with more extreme temperatures.

"The budget has $12,000 to $15,000 more for programming this year because of our savings on utilities," said the Rev. Howard Bell, church pastor.

"Members talked about how uncomfortable it used to be in the winter and the summer," said the Rev. Penny Barber, also pastor. "Now it is always cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Having geothermal heating and cooling has helped increase our attendance."

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*Widicus is editor of The Current, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church's Illinois-Great Rivers Conference. This story first appeared in that paper.

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