St. Michael's Church embraced geothermal WaterFurnace system to reduce annual costs


To reduce the high annual cost of an old inefficient oil boiler by replacing it with a state-of-the-art geothermal system from WaterFurnace.

Project Details

  • Location: Akron, New York
  • Building Size: 15,000 square ft
  • Unit Types: Four 7-ton 5 Series Units
  • Loop Types: 2 slinky loops at 8ft & 5 ft deep

Equipment Used

By some accounts, 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 according to church council president Robert Richards, it was more like a sound business decision based on years of research. 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. 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 to pay, especially if the congregation hoped to survive and prosper well into the future. 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 noted. “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.”

...the average geothermal system lifespan exceeds 24 years—compared to 15 years for a more traditional heating and cooling system.
And 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). That’s because the system doesn’t require combustion and therefore produces none of the byproducts associated with combustion, including carbon monoxide, which can be dangerous if not vented properly. And, the average geothermal system lifespan exceeds 24 years—compared to 15 years for a more traditional heating and cooling system

"The more I learned, the more impressed I was by the technology,” recalled Richards. “It is far more efficient than the system we had, it is much cheaper to operate and it’s good for the environment."
“But 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. My response to that line of thinking was simple: We can’t afford not to do it.”

As Richards and others researched the possibility of installing a geothermal system, they engaged several area contractors to look at the church and provide proposals to do the work. One contractor quickly rose to the top—Jens Ponikau, part owner of Buffalo GeoThermal Heating.

“Jens was fantastic to work with,” Richards said. “He 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.”

In the meantime, the small town, self-described traditional church, is suddenly anything but traditional. “We’ve suddenly become trendsetters,” admitted Richards. “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’s a story Richards and the St. Michael’s congregation are only too 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. 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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