Renewable heat takes center stage at Berlin’s Grange Hall

5 min read

The Capital City Grange is a thriving center of the community. So, when its oil-fueled heating system failed, the organization saw it as an opportunity to switch to a more sustainable system that was more reliable and affordable to maintain, and better for the planet.

When the Capital City Grange Hall in Berlin reopened its doors to contra dancing this year, the community was ready. 

For many, it was their first big gathering since the start of the pandemic. Over the tops of their masks, everybody's eyes were as big as saucers. No less than 200 people of all ages showed up to twirl, pass, circle, and step in time with each other and the fiddle. 

“Twenty years from now people will be talking about this dance,” wrote one person on social media. “It was epic!”

The event is just one example of what the Grange does best: bringing the community together. Berlin is a rural area, and many local organizations don’t have another place to meet. People hold church services, weddings, classes, workshops, rehearsals, and just about any other event you can think of. Residents from the cooperatively-owned mobile home park down the road host an annual family reunion there. The building includes conference rooms and a large kitchen in addition to the dance hall and stage, and the rent is affordable–even free in some cases. 

But this spring, while the contra dancers generated plenty of heat to ward off the chill, other local groups weren’t so fortunate. The Grange’s ancient, oil-fired furnace–likely installed when the building was built by volunteers in 1952–had finally failed in March. The temps were no longer freezing outside, but they weren’t far off. Some of the community groups who’d planned to rent the hall that month made do with sweaters and resistance heaters, while others had to cancel their plans.

A reliable resource for the community

Grange volunteers had a conundrum to solve: how to find and pay for a new heating system that aligned with the Grange’s mission and values.

They could have simply replaced the oil furnace, which would have been the cheapest equipment to install. But Grange president Tim Swartz had overseen the building’s operating budget for years and knew how unpredictable the cost of oil can be. He was concerned that the ongoing cost of fossil fuel–coupled with the rising costs of building insurance and other maintenance–might make the Grange less accessible to the community in the years to come.

“I looked at the records for the Grange’s heating bills over the last five years, and the price of oil had gone up 45 percent.”

Tim Swartz , President, Capital City Grange Hall

Higher operational costs translate to higher rental prices, which goes against the Grange’s mission to provide a convenient, affordable, and comfortable community hall for everyone. Grange volunteers were also looking to reduce the building’s carbon footprint and wanted to explore their options for a heating system powered by renewable energy.

So, Tim called Efficiency Vermont with a question: which low-carbon heating system should they choose to keep heating bills low and predictable, year after year? And what programs were available to help the Grange cover the installation costs?

A local heating source with global benefits

Tim spoke with Rachael Mascolino, an Efficiency Vermont energy expert on heating and ventilation systems for commercial and industrial spaces. They reviewed the Grange’s goals, typical occupancy, and project budget, as well as proposals and quotes for three options of heating equipment Tim had received from contractors.

Ultimately, they landed on an advanced wood heating pellet furnace. The system works just like other forced air furnaces but is fueled by wood pellets instead of oil or propane. Wood pellets are a local and renewable energy source.

Tim was no stranger to pellet heating. In 2013, he installed an advanced wood heating pellet system in his home to save on heating bills and lower his carbon footprint. He was excited to bring advanced wood heating technology to the Grange because his home heating bill had increased just 18 percent over the past nine years–dramatically lower than the rise in oil costs to heat the Grange over a much shorter time frame. 

Tim chose a Vermont business, Bourne’s Energy, to purchase and install the Grange’s wood pellet furnace and to supply pellets fuel to the 3.5-ton pellet storage bin. The pellets are produced by Vermont Wood Pellet, another local company that prioritizes sustainable harvesting and local pellet distribution to further reduce carbon emissions. 

While Tim and the other Grange volunteers can look forward to lower heating bills this winter, the new pellet furnace did cost more than twice as much as an oil furnace of similar capacity. To incentivize the switch to a renewable fuel source, Efficiency Vermont provided a rebate of $3,000 and the Clean Energy Development Fund contributed another $3,000. The Grange received a low-interest loan from the Vermont State Grange and an anonymous donation to cover the balance.

A rich history of continuous improvement

Just as the Grange Hall has supported the community, the community has tended its upkeep. A stroll through the building reveals a long history of stewardship. Volunteers have insulated the attic and basement, replaced windows, designed gender-neutral bathrooms, and added an ADA-compliant ramp entrance. 

“People working together can do amazing things,” said Tim. “Everybody chips in what they can. Being cooperative is really what we're all about.”

The new central pellet furnace is just the latest reflection of how the Grange seeks to meet the needs of its community, by providing a space that is comfortable, affordable, and accessible for everyone.  

Learn more about advanced wood heating incentives from Efficiency Vermont and partners.