Coralville’s Unitarian Universalist Society Members
Live What They Profess
In the middle of a worldwide heat wave that scientists declared resulted, in part, from human-caused climate change, we entered the campus of the Greenest Church in Iowa, the Unitarian Universalist Society in Coralville, Iowa. Feeling depressed by climate change news, the visit buoyed our spirits and gave us a glimmer of hope for the future of our planet.
One of the Unitarian Universalists’ principles is respect for the independent web of all existence of which we are a part of. The members of the Coralville church live the principle and others that form their core beliefs.
The Greenest Church in Iowa
As we turned into the Church campus, everything was softer and quieter. We drove past rows of photovoltaic solar cells. Just past them was a world of green. Nestled within native vegetation was a lovely contemplative labyrinth. A vegetated detention basin is both the home for pollinating insects and a place to catch stormwater, preventing it from scouring its way downhill.
We walked a delightful path circling the organization’s eight acres. Native flowers were alive with pollinators, and a children’s play area was meshed into nature. It’s almost as if this location were meant to be.
south facing solar panels
Water slows down as it percolates through the bioswale.
On entering the building, the Church’s low ceiling entry opens into expansive spaces, an echo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style. An immediate sense of calm and comfort enveloped us. Just beyond the cozy foyer, our eyes were drawn upward. East-facing windows framed an Iowa summer sky dotted with puffy clouds. Outside, deep green pines swayed in a gentle breeze. Members greeted us and Sally Hartman, chair of the Social Justice team, hosted us during the service. Worship leaders were engaging, the acoustics excellent, and the presence of the outdoors through the windows soothed us.
A lovely, open space
Visuals and audio enhanced the service.
Living the mission
How Did This Come to Be?
Depending on one’s perspective, this church and location have been in the making since the 1990s. More recently since 2013. Sally, also a member of the Iowa UU Witness Advocacy Network, and Kirk Witzberger, who served on leadership teams that developed and implemented the plans, explained. Over many decades, the Society recognized that even with renovations, the former Gilbert St. site in downtown Iowa City could not meet 21st Century needs. Different teams looked for new property. After an almost certain deal for another property fell through, a member happened to chat with a realtor who mentioned the current site. The Congregation voted overwhelmingly to buy and the couple who owned the land, former Peace Corps volunteers, were delighted to sell to an organization that respected the land.
Multiple meetings and myriad decisions followed. The result is a beautiful net zero building that the congregation shares with the community. The building burns no fossil fuel. Solar energy produces all its energy needs, including lighting, heating, and cooling.
Efficient and Flexible
The building includes a sanctuary, gathering spaces, offices, classrooms, and food service areas. Tucked into the property, it fits well. As attractive as its outdoor vegetation is, the building was well thought out. Just a few examples include:
- Efficient glass walls boost energy efficiency while allowing people inside to feel like they’re sitting in nature. We enjoyed watching clouds drift by during the service we attended.
- Flexible space can accommodate large groups of up to 600 or be compartmentalized into smaller, more intimate gathering places.
- All areas are easily accessible for folks with walking challenges. Even carpets are precisely flush with adjoining harder floors.
When we asked Kirk Witzberger, who was instrumental in the transition to this location, what the utility bill is he said, “We don’t have one. This is a zero net energy building…..it produces all its energy needs.” For members of an organization to live as lightly on the land as possible is impressive!
Free food and books.
Soft lighting directs footsteps.
Efficient east-facing windows let in light and bring a sense of nature inside.
Greenery softens the outside scape.
Living Other Principles
The Coralville Unitarian Universalist Society members live their commitments in other ways, too. Members take turns recycling compostable materials. When outside groups rent the space, they agree to a contract of sustainability – i.e. use only recyclable materials. The church is investigating how to be a “cool” refuge in summer and a “warm” refuge in winter. Further, members are researching ways they can offer a safe learning space for marginalized youth with activities like art and music. Members have held summer Nature Camps and environmentally-themed Trunk and Treats, and sponsored an environmental fair designed to raise awareness and action in caring for our world.
After touring the building and grounds we wondered why the model of the Unitarian Universalist Society isn’t more common in society. It should be. If people associated with all buildings everywhere did what they could to produce their energy needs through renewable sources the threat of climate change would be muted and our children could look forward to a cleaner and safer world.
Want to visit? The Church welcomes you. Details are on their website.
“That solar stuff is just a bunch of mumbo jumbo,” said the passenger sitting next to Rich on a recent flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Charlotte, North Carolina.
As the plane climbed over urban New Jersey, he could see solar collectors on large flat roofs below the plane. When it descended into Charlotte no solar was visible on similar buildings. Rich’s seatmate was a man from the Charlotte area who told him that solar is mumbo jumbo.
We LOVE this type of Mumbo Jumbo!
Really! Our May 2023 electric bill showed that we owe our utility $12.51. The average Iowa home’s monthly electric bill is $145. Ours is $132.45 lower. That’s neither chump change nor mumbo jumbo.
Our bill is low because we’re careful to turn off electric-consuming devices not in use, and when buying new appliances, we opt for efficient models. We installed a small net-metered solar system seven years ago. It cost about $9,000 but tax credits brought our cost to about half that. We’re reaping Solar’s benefits through reduced electric bills, and our system is projected to last at least 25 years.
Industrial and Commercial Uses
Peoples church installed solar panels after roof repairs and upgrading lights and HVAC.
Solar also disproved mumbo jumbo at Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapids. A solar electric system was installed in the fall of 2021. For the prior year monthly electric bills averaged $226. After solar it was $60 but about half of that was the cost of a leased parking lot light. When it was removed the Church’s monthly electric cost dropped to $22. That’s hardly mumbo jumbo.
Practice Conservation to Increase $ In Your Wallets
Some considerations need to be taken into account. These can be overcome when you want to install solar. A recent news article revealed that even people with average incomes lack $400 ready cash for emergency needs – i.e. a new appliance. So, families and businesses, schools and churches need to practice cost conservation from the “git go”. Replace inefficient lights. Turn off lights, especially those energy hog outdoor and yard lights. You don’t need them! Install motion sensors in areas such as classrooms, restrooms, and offices. Turn OFF computers when you are not using them. Leaving them on is just plain lazy. Unplug “vampire” appliances like toasters and coffee pots. They quietly wolf down energy spiking your bills. Turn off and drag up from the cellar that inefficient old freezer/refrigerator or stove. Alliant Energy gives you $ for these dinosaurs. Save that for buying a solar system. You end up with more space, less waste, and money in your pocket. Before you swap out air conditioners for an efficient one caulk your home to plug leaks. Other ways exist to save money and then save for solar. It is worth it.
Look Around for Examples That Disprove Mumbo Jumbo
Thanks to the declining cost of solar and new Federal tax credits, installing solar is a wise financial investment that reduces both bills and fossil fuel emissions. It is NOT mumbo jumbo.
Solar powers our home and the light needed for the coop.
The main building of the Leopold Center has Platinum LEED designation. mn
First net-metered solar panels in the state.
Are battery-powered chainsaws worth the money?
We decided to find out. *
Gas chainsaws have been around for decades. Rich wondered if newer electric battery-powered chainsaws would be as functional and easier to use. So, he acquired a Milwaukee saw with a 16-inch bar and put it to the test alongside his trusty Stihl gas model.
Back in the mid-1970s Rich worked in Idaho felling Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine trees. He used a heavy noisy gas fueled chainsaw that was amazingly powerful as it chewed through thick trunks. Years later he bought a Stihl gas-powered saw used to cut the four or five cords of wood we burn each winter for heat. It’s a well-built powerful saw.
A few days after the new battery saw arrived, we heard a crack/boom as a huge oak crashed down across one of our backyard trails. Rich guided the new saw as it sliced through the log, and emerged smiling. “It’s amazing,” he said.
After further use he developed this chart of the pros and cons of the battery vs the gas saw:
Gas: Pro – Plenty of Power, No need to recharge batteries, Longer bar
Gas: Con Noisy and heavy, Must mix/carry/store gas, Must replace gas & air filters, Engine stalls, Pull cord start hard on the shoulder.
Battery: Pro – Plenty of Power, Relatively quiet, Less maintenance, Fairly lightweight, Trigger start, No need to idle, Easy start
Battery: Con – Need a nearby electric outlet to recharge the battery, Shorter bar than a gas saw
Bottom Line. Which One to Buy
Rich has both a gas and electric battery saw. Both are well-made by reliable companies. So, if he didn’t own a saw and needed to cut up trees fallen in the yard which type would he buy?
“I’d buy a quality battery saw. They are easy to use, cut fast, and there’s no need to buy, mix, and store gas. They are also quiet, but I still use hearing protection when using one. There are major advantages of battery over gas. One is
eliminating the need to pull a cord to start it. You just pull the trigger. The second is especially helpful when cutting a fallen tree with branches. Often this requires cutting, then putting the saw aside to clear away the cut branches, then using the saw to cut more. Gas saws don’t idle well and often stall, requiring another pull on the starter cord. Also, when idling gas saws burn fuel and spew emissions. Battery saws excel when there’s a need to cut and then move wood.”
Battery-powered chainsaws use lots of electricity. He was able to cut 13 15-inch diameter black oak logs on one charge with a 12-amp hour battery. The saw will function well on batteries with lower amp hour ratings, but they will run down sooner. He suggests having two 12-amp hour batteries and notes that being close to a power source for recharging is useful. It is likely that the cost of recharging a battery is lower than the comparable amount of energy in gasoline but it’s difficult to make a comparison.
Operating any chainsaw must be done with safety in mind. Here is Rich’s list of safety precautions to keep in mind:
- Get saw training. In-person training is best but YouTube videos help.
- Always wear protective equipment that includes saw chaps, leather gloves, hearing, ear, head and eye protection, and sturdy leather boots.
- Saw with a partner nearby and carry a cell phone in case of emergency.
- Keep the chain sharp. YouTube videos show how to sharpen.
- Rest before you get tired.
- Be alert. Save the cold beer for after you are done.
Gas and battery saws with protective equipment.
Rich in protective equipment.
Quality gas and electric saws.
Rich has years of experience using many power tools and shares these thoughts:
Quality pays. “I buy quality tools, even if I have to wait until I save up enough money. Most of my tools are Milwaukee brand. The same batteries that power my chainsaw also power my drills, fans, vacuum cleaner, lights, inflater, hedge trimmer and other saw types. Many quality brands are on the market. They have their own specific type of battery that won’t work with other brands. So, I consistently buy the same brand for convenience.
Yard Tool’s Future
At Winding Pathways, we have replaced our gas lawn mower, snowblower, and now chainsaw with battery-powered equivalents. They are excellent and come with benefits over gas models. We see gas yard tools moving toward obsolescence and battery-powered ones becoming ever more versatile.
Rich has purchased, at retail cost, most of his power tools. Milwaukee has provided others for testing.
Power outages. They happen in an instant. Most are only a flicker but some can last for hours when the wind’s whistling and the temperature’s dropping outside. Or in summer when the heat rises.
What’s the best thing to do in power outages? Well, it’s best to anticipate it and be ready by having a few things ready to pull out of the closet when the lights go out. Here’s a short list:
Cooking and Food:
- Propane or gas camping stove with plenty of fuel stored away from the main residence. (i.e. in a stand-alone garage) If you live in an apartment or condominium have less volatile fuel options ready.
- A few days of nonperishable or dehydrated camping food.
- Several gallons of water stored where it won’t freeze.
Power Outages and Light & Heat:
- Cell phones and other electronic batteries drain quickly. A backup power source and solar-powered phone charger keep the phone working.
One More Important Item:
- In a widespread power failure credit and debit cards don’t work. Cash always does. Keep some cash in small bills to use during emergencies.
Many other items readily available in case of emergencies help keep life comfortable. Read about them on our other blogs. The list above covers only the most basic and sometimes overlooked, emergency items to keep on hand. Get ready now for power outages.
We found the meals tasty and filling.
This two-burner Sterno keeps food warm but is less useful for cooking. Great for old style fondue parties!
Want to buy gas for a buck a gallon? Well, you can but you won’t find it at a service station. It’s available at the electrical outlet in the garage or shop.
We switched to cordless tools gradually.
Nearly ten years ago we switched from plug-in carpentry tools to battery (cordless) equivalents. We loved them for their power, effectiveness, quietness, and ease of use. So, when battery-powered yard tools came on the market we gradually switched.
In 2018 we ditched our gas lawn mower and replaced it with a battery unit….with concern. Would it have the power of our gas machine to chew through tall grass and weeds? Would it have enough battery storage to mow the entire lawn?
Maintaining the labyrinth is work. And a way to connect.
We quickly learned our concerns were false. The mower chewed through tough prairie grass and buzzed off our traditional lawn with ease. We liked it so much we bought another one so we could both mow simultaneously. Then came a trimmer, chain saw, and snow blower that all run on the same battery system. We love them all and believe gas-powered equivalents are on the road to obsolescence.
How about operating costs? Experts at our utility, Alliant Energy, told us that one gallon of gasoline has the energy equivalent of 33.7-kilowatt hours of electricity. As of mid-June 2022, gasoline average cost pushed to $4.60+ a gallon in Cedar Rapids. 33.7 kWh of electricity costs, on average in Iowa, $1.03.
Operating our battery tools costs a quarter of our old gas equivalents.
Benefits of Electric Tools
Comparison of a gas mower and the EGO cordless lawnmower.
But, there’s more than cost savings with battery-operated tools. Here are aspects we love about our mowers, trimmers, saws, and snowblowers:
- No rope to pull to start the machine. We save the shoulders! Just press a switch.
- No filters or oil to change.
- No need to buy and store gasoline. Fuel is always at hand at the electrical outlet.
- No fumes to breathe while operating.
- No noisy internal gas explosions. Battery electric machines are quiet.
- Easy to fold and store.
So, what are the downsides of battery-operated tools? We had to think about that and came up with only one thing. They may cost more than gas machines, and batteries are expensive. However, the batteries last a long time, perhaps as many as 2000 charge/discharge cycles.
The cost of electricity varies from place to place. Utilities print the kilowatt-hour charge on monthly bills. To calculate the cost of 33.7 kWh of electricity multiply that number by your per kWh cost and add in any taxes or service fees. Almost certainly it will cost less to charge a battery than to buy gas.
Have a cranky old gas mower? We suggest replacing it with a battery-powered equivalent.
Many people dread the arrival of the monthly electric bill. We look forward to receiving it.
A few years ago, we hired Site Gen Solar to install an Enphase solar electric, or photovoltaic (PV), system on our barn roof. Although it’s a small system, when combined with our energy efficiency, monthly bills from Alliant Energy are tiny.
Our PV system does more for us than make electricity. It’s an instant weather scanner. We can access our Enphase app from anywhere and it tells us how much energy our system is producing in kilowatt-hours. One kilowatt-hour is enough energy to power a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours. Our bulbs are LED and on average consume 12 watts.
On clear days our small system produces about 12-kilowatt hours. It powers our refrigerator, furnace fan, computers, and lights. When it produces more than we use, the excess goes out to the grid, subtracting cost from our bill.
The app tells us more. See these photos. When snow covers some panels, we can tell from the app that they weren’t producing much. When all panels are producing poorly, we know it’s a cloudy day or snow is covering all panels. Sometimes when we are traveling we open the app and learn about Cedar Rapids’ weather.
The Enphase app shows which panels are covered with snow.
Production drops when panels are covered with snow or clouds cover the sun.