Impacting Ministry Via the Thermostat

by | Facilities, Operations

With the warm summer months arriving churches will be turning on the AC in most of the country, increasing utility bills, possibly drastically. Tim Cool of Smart Church Solutions met with Certified Energy Manager Colby May to discuss how to control that impact, while keeping all inside comfortable year-round.

QUESTION. What is the biggest factor on a building’s energy use? Is it the HVAC, lighting, building envelope, or behavior?

Behavior, May says. According to the State of the Plate survey, churches across the country collectively tithed $50B in one year. Of the $50B, $10B was spent on utilities, maintenance and building operations, yet only $1B on missions.  Facility-related costs, including utility spend, are typically the second-largest budget item behind salaries.  But imagine ministry could be impacted by promoting smart energy use. Church buildings are needed for a number of uses, but the way we manage our facility, maintenance and energy has been ignored in many ways.

“Part of our call as God’s creation is to also be good stewards of that creation,” May says. “I believe Genesis 1:1 says it all: ‘God created the heavens and the Earth.’ If we, and all that exists, are part of God’s creation, are we to be wasteful with that which God created? Throughout the Bible, we are called to be good stewards. In Greek, stewardship, or oikonomia, is the same word used to define management and administration. We are called to be managers or stewards of what has been entrusted to us.”

On average (and this average changes based on building location, equipment and behavior) 50% of church electric use is typically the HVAC system, 30% is the lighting system, and the remaining 20% is plug load.  In addition, many things influence energy use.  The strength of the building envelope can account for 1/3 of our HVAC use.  However, the largest impact on our energy and maintenance is behavior.  According to the EPA, 30% of the energy we use is wasted, which means we can recapture those costs through no or low cost practices.

The role of thermostats

What do thermostats have to do with Ministry? Of course behavior impacts all levels of energy management, but the largest target on a typical church is the ability to control HVAC use.  Most churches have conventional thermostats or programmable thermostats that rely on continued occupant adjustments, but with that comes occupant error.  “Many times we will walk a facility and find thermostats locked at 65° 24/7 during hot summer months,” May says.  “This is a very expensive practice, but it also provides the largest opportunity. ”

One good option is to implement a computerized energy management system that will allow a church to control use from a centralized location.  These are really good systems available on the market, however there are problems that churches need to be prepared to understand.  Costs are extremely high to install ($1-2 per square foot), the systems require extensive training, some require long-term contracts, and many times replacement parts are hard to find.

Typically May’s first recommendation is to implement WIFI-enabled thermostats.  WIFI-thermostats allow a church to set schedules, setpoints, zoning and more from a centralized web-based location at a 10th of the cost. “Every degree adjust on the thermostat equips the HVAC portion of our utility bill by 1.5%,” he says.  “So an average cooling temperature of 72° verses 65° can save up to 10.5%.  Incorporating the thermostat software into church event scheduling will go a long way into saving money.  And in our opinion the more we can save the more we can impact ministry opportunities.  WIFI-enabled thermostats truly equip the facility team to make easier and centralized HVAC decisions, minimize user error, and more importantly redirect energy spend to ministry needs.”

Colby May is a Certified Energy Manager and Mission Pastor.  He founded the organization Lit – Energy Management Empowering Change with the mission to leverage energy management and sustainable principals to impact the local church in the most vulnerable areas.  For more information, go to

Tim Cool is the founder of Smart Church Solutions.

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