Washingtonville, New York, not too famous for anything except that George had lunch there, is a little village in cold, downstate Orange County, with a small First Presbyterian Church of 173 members. But thanks to a homemade solar heating device, the church has caused ripples all across the country and around the world. The reason? It has cut its fuel oil consumption by 40 percent: from 4,500 gallons to 2,700 gallons per year.

It all began in 1977 when Pastor Lee Poole, worried by the mounting expense of heating the church and inspired by a newspaper article describing a homemade solar device, sketched out plans for something similar that could be attached to the church. The initial response reminded him of what Noah must have faced when he set out to build the ark: a lot of talk and laughter about the pastor’s “beer can boiler.” The nickname was accurate, for the unit starts with aluminum beverage cans cut in half.

Pastor Poole persisted and convinced the men’s council that his plan was worth a try. The men agreed to pay for the materials ($540) and to donate their time to build the unit; somewhat skeptical, the trustees said they could hook it to the building.

Their pilot ran on a sunny August day produced a temperature of 173 degrees, registered on a hastily requisitioned meat thermometer. That was enough to convince the doubters and the men put on a public display of the unit. Happily, on the day chosen the unit turned out a reading of 203 degrees.

By now word was leaking out about the oddball preacher trying to fight the oil companies, but Pastor Poole by this time had more than enough support to put together two more units. All three units were ready for the entire congregation on Sunday, October 25, 1978. The people gathered in a Sunday school room and felt a steady stream of hot air. This was proof enough to put the device into service for its first winter test. It passed handsomely and netted the church a savings of $660 on its fuel oil bill. After that first winter, other churches, denominational leaders, and the press teamed about Pastor Poole’s “beer can” coup.

To those looking for sudden relief from fuel bills. Pastor Poole cautions that his units are strictly supplementary and do not replace the church’s standard heating units. Only one portion of the Sunday school building, 46,800 cubic feet, is warmed by heat from the three solar units. The system is designed to reduce the use of oil and not to store heat.

Directly behind the church stand three 4′ × 8′ solar collection panels. Tilted at 51 degrees, which is correct for Orange County in February, the sunniest winter month in the north, each panel has 476 halved soda pop and beer cans. Double insulation surrounds the cans, which are painted black to transform light into heat energy. The three panels produce enough heat to raise the temperature four to six degrees in the building on a sunny zero-degree day in February without the use of one drop of fuel oil. Ducts below deliver cool air from the building’s basement; ducts above return the heated air to the building.

The highest temperature recorded in the device is 263 degrees. In February, with zero degrees outside, the temperature will hold at 135 degrees with the 14-inch fan operating at full force, delivering 90-degree air into the building.

The insulation in the building guarantees that this subsidy of 4 to 6 degrees neutralizes about 50 percent of the common 10 to 15 degrees of heat loss overnight. This means that over three days the heat diminishes so slowly that no oil must be burned. It’s during this time that Pastor Poole juggles the church schedule so the building can be used during those days when there is accumulated heat from the solar panels.

Word of First Presbyterian’s successful fuel conservation project literally encompassed the globe. More than 11,000 inquiries have come from every state and 27 countries. The church is glad to send a mimeographed set of plans and instructions for $1.00.

The beauty of the project is that it can be done by anyone. Any church can put on an aluminum can drive and sign up volunteers to do the work. However, Pastor Poole cautions that churches must not anticipate heating rooms comfortably simply with his solar panels.

“That’s not the case.” he says. “It subsidized our heating program, which has included lots of insulation, lower thermostats, careful administration of heated areas, and a lot of prayer and hope. What we have proved is that we can do something to overcome rising costs of fuel.”

The next stage is a nine-unit permanent solar heater to provide 60 to 70 percent of the church’s needs.

Meanwhile, that first collection of cans symbolically made it to the White House. Pastor Poole and his board chairman, Jack Learch, were invited to the White House during a consultation on religion and energy last January. “We found out that very little is being done nationwide,” he reported. “We tried to give the hope that there is much everyone can do, because we did it.”

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