Having written extensively on Laudato Si', I decided it was time to see how I could implement it in my life. I decided to start with the house I live in, an old three-story building with 15 bedrooms dating from the end of the 19th century. If I could make it more energy efficient, I would be reducing our carbon footprint as well as saving money for my community.
My guess is that many family homes, to say nothing of churches and other church buildings, could also benefit from such an examination so I am sharing my experience with you.
Luckily, a major improvement at our house was completed in the fall with the purchase of an efficient gas-powered hot-water heating system to replace the ancient oil-fired furnace. Natural gas is cheaper and has a smaller carbon footprint than an oil furnace. In addition, a constant gas supply is more convenient than depending on trucks for delivering oil.
The windows were also undergoing a major upgrade. Thus two of the most expensive improvements were already taken care of. It was my job to look for the simpler, cheaper ways of making our house more energy efficient.
I started in the basement where I noticed that some of the pipes around the new furnace were not insulated. A hot-water heating system works by heating water in a furnace and then circulating it with an electric pump through radiators in the building, with the water then returning to the furnace to be reheated before circulating again.
I figured that the pipes probably lost their insulation when the new system was installed.
The pipes were of a variety of sizes and I had no idea what size they were. Pipes are measured by their inside diameter. In addition, iron pipes are bigger than copper pipes with the same inside diameter. Very confusing. They did not teach about these things in theology.
Luckily, by Googling "pipe insulation" I was able to find a helpful table that allowed me to calculate the size of a pipe by measuring its outside circumference. I ended up ordering online 12 yards of insulation for one- to three-inch iron pipes. The shipping cost for 12 yards of insulation was high, but the price of the insulation was cheaper than from a store, so it looked like we would break even.
Fiberglass pipe insulation is actually very easy to install. Simply measure the pipe and cut the pipe insulation with a sharp knife or box cutter. (I only cut myself once). The insulation comes with a self-sealing adhesive strip for quick and easy installation. Make sure you wear old clothes and a cap. The tops of pipes are magnets for dust.
I felt very proud of myself and was ready to retire to the rec room for a drink when I noticed some other pipes that ran along the floor in the furnace room near the walls. I had discovered two of the return lines. They were not insulated.
All of these uninsulated pipes radiated heat in the furnace room where it was not needed. This required the furnace to work harder in reheating the water before circulating it back into the house radiators.
After ordering and installing insulation for these two-and-a-half and one-inch iron pipes, the furnace room was noticeably cooler.
I began to suspect that things were worse than I had thought, so I began to trace the heating pipes as they left the furnace room.
First stop was a storage closet filled with three bikes, paint cans, air conditioning units, rugs, and other junk. Other than the furnace room, it was the warmest room in the house. It had two five-inch, uninsulated iron pipes, plus smaller pipes shooting off from them. One five-inch pipe was the main source of hot water from the furnace, the other was the main return line.
Like an explorer in uncharted territory, I followed the pipes through the TV room, the laundry room, the exercise room, and the pantry. All these rooms had uninsulated pipes and were overheated. The pantry had a freezer, which had to work extra because the room was heated.
Finally the pipes (mostly one-and-a-quarter inch) went out into the hall where they were hidden by a false ceiling. You guessed it. Lots of the pipes above the false ceiling were uninsulated, and the false ceiling kept all that heat trapped up there!
By the time I was done, at a cost of almost $900 (including shipping) I had ordered and installed over 100 yards of pipe insulation for the heating system. Meanwhile, I discovered that some of the pipes from the hot water heater were not insulated either. Once the snow melts outside, I will go to a hardware store and buy and install foam insulation on these half-inch copper pipes.
Was it worth it? It will certainly reduce our carbon footprint and save money on our energy bill. How much it will save is hard to measure, but one source I found estimated that you would recoup your costs in less than two years, and I am not sure whether that included labor costs, which for us was zero.
I doubt that our house is unique in the extent that its piping was uninsulated. Visit the basements of your home, parish, school, or other building and the odds are good you may find them overheated because of the lack of insulation.
Laudato Si' calls us to take action on the national and global stage, but we should not forget that the church operates thousands of buildings for which we as a community are responsible.
This is not rocket science. It is simple to do and not costly. Put on your old clothes and get to work. It’s actually kind of fun and gives you a sense of accomplishment that you have done something that will continue to have an effect for decades to come.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]