Chances are if you were born within shouting distance of the corner of 45th and Lowe in Chicago’s Canaryville neighborhood, you were baptized at St. Gabriel Catholic Church, founded in 1888, and buried by Thomas McInerney’s Sons Funeral Home, located just down the street, established in 1873.
And at some point in the 1930s, some members of the parish witnessed contractors piping two towering cast-iron Kewanee boilers, some 15 feet high, so big, in fact, the mechanical room had to be built brick by brick around the boilers.
For more than 80 years, those boilers chugged along on coal, fuel oil and natural gas to supply heat for the church, a three-story grade school, rectory and convent.
But three years ago, the steam system breathed its last BTU.
“What I try to do when I approach a project like this is to look at it holistically and consider the whole system,” says Jacob Preciado, construction manager for facilities and construction at the Archdiocese of Chicago. “I always tell the pastors, I’m here to change out this boiler once in my lifetime.”
Crews chopped up the boilers and rolled two steel Hurst boilers right straight through the mechanical room’s door. Once installed, the boilers produced a full head of steam in 20 minutes that took the old pair two hours to do and cut the parish’s annual fuel bill and other related operating expenses by as much as 40 percent in the first year of operation.
The boiler retrofit at St. Gabriel was completed three years ago. Since then, Preciado says three other church properties are in the process of retrofitting their heating systems, mostly old-school hydronics, but also HVAC, too.
Meanwhile, the retrofit work is part of an ongoing initiative for the archdiocese to become the country’s first to monitor energy consumption in all its 2,471 buildings — churches, schools, offices and multi-family housing.
Old and new
Of course, it’s not just the new boilers that are adding up to big savings. The parish’s new heating system is outfitted with up-to-date burners and control packages that can better supply warmth to six zones.
There are even new controls right on the radiators throughout the parish. Plus, anyone with a smart phone or computer handy can control the heat thanks to web-enable thermostats.
Preciado has been at the diocese’s administrative office for the past eight years, but he definitely knows the inside of a mechanical room, too. After high school, he went through the apprentice program at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399 and has also worked at Chicago-based contractor, Hill Mechanical.
“I used to be the guy who would troubleshoot heating equipment, do the maintenance, take it apart and put it back together,” Preciado says. “It's easier for me to understand what we have out there and how to fix it and how to address it and work together with contractors and pastors.”
The old system at St. Gabriel was centrally located and was basically switched on in October and switched off in April.
“There are still a lot of heating systems at parishes that operate that way,” he adds.
The old Kewanee boilers had to be massive since they held all the system water — thousands of gallons. Crews took out the old vacuum pump and old zone valves, lined the masonry chimney with steel, added a new vacuum pump, installed a better zone system and a couple of condensate return pumps throughout the system, and put in a boiler feed tank for chemically treating system water.
“The zone valves control certain areas of the school where we added averaging sensors as well,” Preciado explains. “It helps balance the school temperature as well as the church.”
That way the system doesn’t overheat the church Monday through Friday when the elementary school is in session. Likewise, on weekends, there’s no need to heat the school.
In addition to cutting energy costs, the retrofit projects always work with the local utilities to get rebates.
An estimated 28 percent of parishes have participated in the utility rebate programs. Chicago parishes have received more than $1 million in rebates from Chicago utility Peoples Gas since 2011. Suburban parishes have earned $183,000 in rebates.
Reducing energy waste requires that all forms of energy be regularly measured and tracked. Measuring and tracking can establish a baseline from which to calculate improvements to operations.
As work wrapped up at St. Gabriel, Archbishop Blase J. Cupich said that the archdiocese would be the first in the country to monitor its buildings’ energy use, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions through the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager, an online benchmarking tool.
The EPA developed the energy performance rating system for several commercial and institutional building types. These ratings, on a scale of 1 to 100, provide a means for benchmarking the energy efficiency of specific buildings against the energy performance of similar facilities. Energy Star energy performance ratings have been incorporated into some green buildings standards, such as LEED for Existing Buildings. Earning a rating of 75 or above is also the first step toward achieving the Energy Star for a building.
At the time, Archbishop Cupich said the church was making a commitment to following the pope’s encyclical, which took on climate change and environmental sustainability. (For more, see our sidebar.)
Much of the benchmarking legwork remains up to David Singler, energy and sustainability associate for the archdiocese’s real estate department.
It’s been a busy first year on the job for Singler.
“Being able to benchmark and track our energy is critical,” Singler says. It’s also paramount to a Chicago ordinance that took effect a few years ago. As of Aug. 1, 2015, the ordinance mandated benchmarking through the EPA system for all commercial and municipal buildings larger than 50,000 square feet and residential buildings larger than 250,000 square feet.
Singler says 18 church properties fell under the new law and are benchmarking their environmental footprints.
Since the archbishop’s pronouncement, Singler is currently working on a more systemic, individual approach to benchmarking parishes such as St. Gabriel. Considering the age and scope of church property over a geographic area of 1,411 square miles, the process will take time to implement. Just how many meters are there in almost 2,500 buildings? And not many of them are smart meters.
“At the archdiocese level, we can only do so much,” Singler explains. “It’s not just the benchmarking, as important as that is, but having it on the local level and being able to continuously track performance so everyone can understand what is happening. A lot of time, it's up to the parishes to take the action and know to work toward correcting inefficiencies.”
On a portfolio this size, the lesson learned is that it’s best not to try to do it all remotely. Instead, Singler plans to conduct the benchmarking in stages and make sure the accounts are set up correctly.
When we caught up with Singler by phone, he was just walking into the Lakeshore Campus of Loyola University Chicago to discuss a possible partnership with the university’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability to provide support to help the parishes benchmark and track energy use.
In the meantime, some buildings in the archdiocese are already eco-friendly. For example, the field operations center for Resurrection Cemetery has been heated with a solar thermal system since 1978.
Old St. Mary's School was built in 2011 with green building in mind from the start. Solar panels on the roof help generate electricity for the school. In the summer months, when school is out, the building receives an average of 40 percent of its energy from the panels.
In addition, St. Joseph College Seminary, completed in 2012, holds a LEED Gold certification.
But that still leaves plenty of considerably older buildings to update.
“A lot of our older churches within the city have central plants,” Preciado says. “If we can get move from central plants to each building having its own heating system, that's what we're trying to move toward.”
If he can’t separate a central system, Preciado will look to add zone valves and better controls in order to gain better control of the system.
“There are some parishes and projects in which we do as much as we can,” Preciado explains. “Sometimes we try to phase the project in so we'll do the main steam boilers. Then, perhaps, adopt a more simplified control system. Instead of multiple zone valves we might just have one for the school with just enough averaging sensors to divide and control it.”
Much depends on budgets since these projects are paid for by the parishes.
“No two parishes are the same,” Preciado sums up. “A system like the one at St. Gabriel might not work at another parish.”