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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775

Energy Audits 101: Greening Behaviors and Buildings - Description and Q&A

Is your congregation looking to green its building and do you want to know how to start, where to look and what to do? The Union for Reform Judaism's Green Team and guest speakers, Kyle Epstein, AIA, President, Warren Epstein & Associates, Architects, and Rabbi Daniel Swartz, Temple Hesed, Scranton, PA, convened for a special summer learning session. This lively session focused on basic considerations for energy conservation in your synagogue; what to look for when "auditing" your building and how to use your synagogue facility to build a more sustainable Jewish community. Plus, this webinar offered greening tips especially for the season.

Lighting Issues
Q: CFL light bulbs cost four to eight times as much as incandescent bulbs but none of the CFLs I use at home have lasted more than a year. Plus recycling of CFLs is required. Are CFLs really meeting green standards considering these performance issues?

People have had mixed success with CFLs but we know, anecdotally from others, they generally last much longer than incandescent bulbs. It is true that proper disposal is paramount with regard to CFLs; fortunately, Home Depot and other such places offer CFL disposal at no charge - just bring your old bulb into the store and they'll take care of the rest. The amount of mercury CFLs contain is minimal compared to some other products we encounter daily. So, while CFLs are not a perfect solution to our energy crisis, they can help us save money and energy, and the technology is improving in terms of both efficiency and waste. (See LED question below for more energy efficient lighting options.)

Q: What about LED bulbs [as alternatives to incandescent and CFLs]?

LEDs are definitely a step forward - they are more efficient than CFLs and contain no mercury so recycling and disposal is less of a problem. However, LEDs remain less available and more expensive than CFLs since they are not in mass-production yet. However, if you can find and afford LEDs they are definitely a great alternative, and will probably become more popular and widely available in future years.

Read this report from Product Dose and take a comprehensive look at the differences between incandescent, CFL and LED lighting.

Q: Some people live in fear of mercury toxicity if a CFL breaks. How can rabbis and lay leaders dispel this fear as they move to green the lighting in their facilities?

According to the EPA and to light bulb manufacturers themselves, the amount of mercury in CFLs is so minimal that the greatest risk from a broken bulb is actually cutting yourself on the glass, not getting mercury poisoning. Like any other fragile product, CLFs should be handled and disposed of carefully. However, the risks from airborne mercury are minimal, and CLFs actually prevent mercury build up in the atmosphere since they use less energy than traditional bulbs!

Q: We want to show the congregation we are going green and care. How can we install a solar powered eternal light?

A great idea! There are many resources available to help in this endeavor. See the "Purchasing" page of the Greening Reform Judaism website for an example of how The Community Synagogue of Port Washington, NY created a solar-power ner tamid, as well as information about the Conservative Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, which started a program for solar powered ner tamids, as well.

Educational Resources
Q: What Union for Reform Judaism resources are available to congregations doing renovations?

The Union has created "greening guides" for homes and congregations to help evaluate what resources you are using and where savings are most easily available. You can find both room-by-room and category-by-category (water, food, etc) conservation guides on the Greening Reform Judaism website,, that can help guide the renovation process. The Greening RJ site also has suggestions on how to get funding for these projects.

Q: This is not a congregational question, but a community one. I'm teaching a class on Judaism and the Environment... [Are there] any resources out there on this subject specifically geared to 9th - 12th grade Jewish students?

The Living Talmud pages from the RAC and Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) are a great place to start and are available on the Greening Reform Judaism website. They are sophisticated enough for older students but can also be used with younger students, and are great for sparking conversation or building a lesson around Jewish teachings. In addition, the RAC has available, by request, the L'Taken program, The Greenest Generation, geared toward high school students. Contact Rachel Cohen ( at the RAC for more information.

Q: Could you speak about composting waste such as coffee grounds from onegs?

Many congregations are starting their own compost piles and encouraging congregants to do so at home. It's a great way to cut down on waste, engage congregants (especially young people) with greening in a very hands-on way and "make your own" soil if you have a congregational or community garden. You can compost almost all food waste, as well as biodegradable flatware (made from corn or soy-based materials). You can build your own compost bin with simple materials like wood planks and a newspaper base, or buy an industrial bin at an affordable price (the Religious Action Center just bought its first compost bin at You can also learn more from the EPA's basic guide to composting.

Q: What is the typical fee for an energy audit?

This is totally dependent on what sort of audit you want to do. Our guides provide a good outline for a free audit that you can do on your own, and many others (Interfaith Power and Light, Cool Congregations, etc) provide free "audit check lists" as well. (Find more information about audits on Greening Reform Judaism.) However, to do a professional audit, you should contact the EPA Energy Star for Congregations Program or your local utility, who can provide more specific information about the cost of an audit for your home or congregation. The price will depend on many factors like the size of the space, location, how in-depth of an audit you want to perform, etc. Audits can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $5,000.

Q: There is a big need for a funding source for professional energy audits for synagogues (and for churches and mosques, for that matter). Is there any source of funding or hope for government funding for this purpose?

The Funding Sources page of the Greening Reform Judaism website has some options, including the Database for State Incentives on Renewable Energy, which should be your first stop. Again, Energy Star for Congregations should be able to help you find locally tailored resources on audits, and what to do after your audit!

Q: FYI regarding audits: In NY State, federal stimulus package funding is available to, in most cases, completely fund an Energy Conservation Study (Energy Audit.) It is called PON 4 and is being administered in NY by NYSERDA. The PON 4 is only for 501c3s which [many] churches, mosques and synagogues are.

We appreciate your shared knowledge. Congregations are encouraged to do their own research - check in with your local power and energy providers as a start - and share their findings on the Greening RJ listserv, which you can sign up for on the Greening RJ homepage,

Q: Where do we get good reliable solar power energy proposals?

While we don't have a consummate answer as it depends upon where you live, a good place to start is your local EPA office and/or energy provider.

Q: Our electric company, LIPA on Long Island, NY, has done a free audit for our Synagogue - don't others do this?

Yes - great suggestion. Congregations are urged to talk to EPA Energy Star to see if this is done in your area.

Q: Has the Union for Reform Judaism looked into any "bulk buying" programs to offer discounts as well as reduce research energy for items like paper goods or cleaning supplies, going all the way up to larger purchases like heating and air conditioning equipment, by region?

Yes - we are "looking into it" - through the community formed at the COEJL Sustainability Conference. For now, look into buying through groups like Interfaith Power and Light, which has a special eco-friendly vending site for houses of worship.

Q: We are starting a Capital Campaign to renovate our religious school. What solar power companies are the best to use for synagogues with regard to rebates? Also, how do we sell this idea to our board and congregants, regarding the financial cost of installing solar power?

Regarding which solar power companies are best, we don't have any data but recommend contacting your local EPA chapter or your energy provider as a starting point. As you would whenever considering a large purchase, try to obtain a few if not several quotes and choose which offer works best for your congregation. With regard to "selling the idea", here are a few suggestions:

  1. This is an up-front cost, but it will more than pay back over time. It has to be sold as an investment in the future - both for the congregation's budget and for our environment. For immediate payment, consider reaching out to find a "green funder' who may be willing to underwrite part of the cost of installing solar panels; consider putting up a plaque (donor ‘tree of life" style) to honor their donation and include a Jewish text relating to how greening fulfills our commandment to be good stewards of the earth.
  2. There is clearly a non-financial benefit of installing solar panels - it's a teaching opportunity, a physical symbol of living out our moral vision, a way to attract positive press for the synagogue, etc.

Q: The Balto Jewish Environment Network has a new home greening program called Green Mezuzah which we are piloting this year. It is directly in response to synagogues that want to bring their greening efforts into the household. People can be in touch with me (Nina Beth Cardin, to find out more.

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