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Don’t Procrastinate, Automate

Even the smallest church can take advantage of basic automation tool to improve energy efficiency and save money

Opportunities to add aspects of automation are as varied as the size of congregations and worship facilities themselves. For the large church with thousands of members and multiple sites, automation may involve a full suite of enterprise software for financial, scheduling and human resources management, energy management systems and audio/visual and lighting. For the small church, automation may mean a new thermostat that’s better equipped to monitor spaces and outdoor temperatures or motion sensors for storage spaces and bathrooms that can be picked up at a home improvement store for $30 apiece. Some of the more complex systems come with pitfalls, too, regarding how they perform with existing or future systems, who’s trained and adept at implementation and operations, and what happens if the people with that institutional memory are no longer in the picture.

Large or small, though, there are simple steps that any congregation can take. Energy Star, a joint program provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., estimates that only 2% of worship facilities have any type of advanced automation.

“When you have something like building automation, you think it has to be expensive and elaborate but it can be as simple as lighting controls and thermostat controls and set-backs,” says Steve Bell, project manager at Reston, Va.-based Energy and Security Group, a professional services group focused on expanding the use of clean energy and environmental technologies.

Begin at the Beginning

The first step in addressing automation and efficiency involves assessing where you already are in terms of energy usage and human resources deployment. Energy Star (www.energystar.gov) has a number of free, online applications that can help measure a facility’s energy efficiency and potential for automation. For existing buildings, Energy Star Portfolio Manager can take information such as 24 months of utility-bill data, square footage and zip code and help determine ways to enhance energy efficiency and decrease greenhouse gases. Similarly, Sure Savers offers a to-do list for facilities using information and experiences gleaned from private and commercial properties across the United States. Additionally, Energy Star’s Target Finder enables per-square-foot energy consumption targets for new construction.

Regardless of what tools you use to measure current usage and efficiency, the base information is critical to tracking return on investment on any automation measures you do take.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Bell says. “It’s tough to get a historical sense if you don’t manage data. By using these tools, it allows you to put programs like building automation before the congregation. They can see that we’re being good stewards and good stewards of the environment.”

That initial assessment also starts with a question-and-answer session for church leadership, the congregation and any potential vendors.

“For us, the function assessment is the opportunity to learn how a church can improve its efficiency and processes,” says Shawn Hansson, president of Denver-based Logic Integration Inc., a dealer of Rockleigh, N.J.-based Crestron Electronics’ A/V and multimedia automation systems. “We do this through asking questions about their church services and building uses, working to understand the style of worship and music, audience type and age groups and the church’s goals. Also, we want to understand how they will use technology and what they expect of technology.”

Crestron’s multimedia systems are constructed to blend in with a worship facility’s existing architecture and streamline lighting, music and sound and multi-panel video displays. The company and its dealer network have worked to simplify training, and, with installation and proper utilization, can make running A/V for services as simple as the push of a button, Hansson reports. It also makes it easier for churches to power down A/V systems and lighting and enhances energy efficiency and savings.

“Simplifying processes and training time for new volunteers has allowed the pastors and tech people to spend less time training new people,” Hansson says. “Church services run smoother and more efficient with automation.”

Of course, there are a number of questions to ask any vendor. Churches and other worship facilities need written guarantees regarding savings, routine and emergency maintenance and training; referrals; and information on backup, access and control of the systems, among other concerns, says Andrew Rudin, project coordinator with the Interfaith Coalition on Energy in Melrose Park, Pa., which works with religious organizations throughout the Northeast and Mid- Atlantic on energy-efficiency issues and improvements.

Small Church Concerns

For smaller churches, Rudin advocates a better focus on the basic systems like thermostats and boilers and reducing consumption and energy loss in the spaces that are generally afterthoughts— basements, attics, steeples and other areas that aren’t central to worship but can be sources of energy waste. Houses of worship can take advantage of energy-efficiency targeted rebates at the local, state and federal level, but smaller churches’ facilities generally aren’t nearly complex enough for advanced automation systems, Rudin reports. With smaller facilities, management by simply walking around and observing can be sufficient and improve both energy efficiency and security.

“We sort of forget that the buildings don’t waste energy,” Rudin says. “It’s the people that do. You can’t take your eye off the ball. If there’s an energy management system in a building, it grabs on to everything.”

Many providers of automation systems deliver products and services tailored for the small church as well as the megachurch. For example, Logos Management Software offers smaller churches the same features that its larger customers use but may limit capacity.

“The small guy doesn’t have to be left out,” says Tony Ferraro, chief visionary officer of Santa Paula, Calif.-based Logos. “There are a lot of companies out there that are mindful of ministry and have a heart for it.”

Churches have to approach automation opportunities as a business would, Ferraro says, and fully understand the scope of work, processes and potential pitfalls. Understanding the organization’s operational needs and where there are gaps, buy-in and training and maintenance of the system all play into the total cost of ownership, and 85% of all enterprise initiatives fail because of lack of user adoption, Ferraro says.

With proper training and utilization, automation systems can vastly reduce costs and improve financial and physical security. Financial systems will provide a true audit trail, while document management systems and scanners decrease costs and paper and administrative costs and recaptures facility space. Along similar lines, check scanning decreases the chance for error, deposits funds quickly and credits congregants faster, Ferraro says. Workforce and HR automation can manage employees’ files from application to termination and increase the integrity of hiring and people management— and also is essential in managing volunteers and background checks, not to mention compliance with human resources laws and regulations. Churches have a great opportunity to improve energy efficiency and decrease costs and emissions through properly integrating scheduling and energy management systems, Ferraro says.

“The key element is, do they have a desire to?” Ferraro asks. “They can incorporate these systems and gain these process efficiencies. To me, the smart church is one that uses all the resources that are available to deliver ministry in the most expedient way and follows good stewardship.”

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