Interview with First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, winner of EPA Battle of the Buildings

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First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

Could your congregation be saving more than $16,000 a year through energy-saving measures?

In May 2011, EPA launched the ENERGY STAR National Building Competition: Battle of the Buildings. In its second year, the Biggest Loser-style competition featured teams from 245 buildings across the country in a head-to-head battle to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And guess who won in the House of Worship category? The First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis!

As the battle drew to a close, the competitors had saved a combined total of more than 240 million kBtus of energy and $5.2 million on annual utility bills. We talked with First Unitarian Society member Bruce Nelson about the First Unitarian Society project, the importance of benchmarking, and finding those no-cost, low-cost energy efficiency improvements.

Joel Haskard: How did you first get involved with this project?

Bruce Nelson: In the late 1970s I did some work on envelope air sealing. I closed off three large passive roof ventilations intended for summer cooling that also served as massive air by-pass all winter. We later identified that these had virtually no ability to do summer night cooling.

Joel: Your church was built in 1953. How did you know where to begin implementing energy efficiency upgrades?

Bruce: In 2003 we replaced an original large inefficient window-wall with high performance window-wall. After ENERGY STAR energy benchmarking gave the building a poor grade, we came to realize in 2008 that the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) fans were running 24/7 all winter long. Over the decades, well-meaning HVAC techs had come to disable any control the thermostats had over fan operation. Night setback was also disabled. We contracted with NFS in January 2009 and the system was functioning almost as designed by February.

Joel: What was your biggest challenge?

Bruce: Virtually all of our recent savings has been from HVAC. Most of the building’s lighting has been converted to fluorescent, but a large amount of lighting in the sanctuary is still incandescent due to the need for dimming, and this continues to be a challenge.

Joel: Were there any surprises (either good or bad) along the way?

Bruce: The dramatic improvement realized in the electric power factor (which gives utility bill savings but not energy savings). This was probably due to dramatically reducing run times for partly-loaded motors.

Joel: How did you choose a contractor to work with?

Bruce: With utility support we had an energy audit done several years ago—which recommended several retrofits—none of which we have yet done, as extra cash has not been available (though I understand utility audits these days do identify low-cost & no-cost items). NSF saw the opportunity for dramatic savings with little capital investment, and I negotiated a shared-savings contract .

Joel: What did the congregation think about this project?

Bruce: $16,000+ savings in one year—need I say more?

Joel: How did the Clean Energy Resources Teams assist during this retrofit?

Bruce: We purchased two low-flow pre-rinse spray valves through the CERTs bulk purchase program.

Joel: If you had any advice for other congregations looking into improving the efficiency of their churches, what would it be?

Bruce: First, benchmark your building’s energy performance to determine your potential for energy savings. Then focus first on no-cost and low-cost opportunities. I can guarantee opportunities are there to be found!

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