The Positive Effect of Low Temperatures on Pipe Organs

by Andrew Rudin, ICE Project Coordinator, March 1986

The Interfaith Coalition on Energy (ICE) has found that local organ repair people and organ tuners have not provided the religious community with consistent advice concerning the relationship of patterns of heating to the well-being of the pipe organs. The purpose of this report is to clarify this confusion.

Expert confusion

We know that some organ experts suggest continuously heating houses of worship with pipe organs, at a cost of thousands of dollars per year, in order to “protect the pipe organ.” We know of other experts who suggest that the temperatures can be set very low when the buildings are not occupied, without causing damage to the pipe organ.

During the summer of 1985, we received a copy of a brochure written by the Federation of Master Organ Builders in Britain. The brochure clearly stated that the major problems with British pipe organs resulted from heating, rather than from cool temperatures.

The Interfaith Coalition on Energy summarized the brochure in a three-paragraph statement. On December 3, 1985, ICE wrote letters to each of twenty-two members of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America (APOBA) to attempt to reach a consensus on the relationship of low temperatures to pipe organs.

We asked that they respond with their opinion about the three paragraphs about the effect of heat on pipe organs, which summarized the British brochure. We also enclosed a copy of the British brochure with our letter to the American organ builders.

Their responses form the basis of this article. On January 13, 1986 we sent each member a draft of this article for their final approval, resulting in a few additional minor changes.

The Consensus

Each member agrees that these three paragraphs are generally true. Most problems with pipe organs are a result of prolonged heating, rather than of low temperatures when the buildings are vacant. With very slight modifications from the original ones, the three paragraphs are as follows:

“In most cases, the temperatures in houses of worship can be lowered to 45 degrees F. when they are not occupied, without causing any permanent damage to the pipe organ. Prior to the worship services, the temperature around the organ pipes must be raised to that level at which the organ was tuned, in order that the instrument will play in tune. The overall duration of heating should be only as long as necessary to provide comfort during worship services.

“In northern climates, prolonged heating during dry, winter weather causes conditions for pipe organs which are in sharp contrast with the humid weather of summer. Continuous heating, under dry conditions, will almost certainly damage the pipe organ. The organ chamber should not be directly heated with radiators, pipes, or warm air discharge grilles.

“Those houses of worship with prolonged relative humidity lower than 35% during the heating season, may require special humidification.”

Added comments

Additionally, we asked the members of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America to share with us any statements that they have independently made about the relationship of heating and pipe organs. We received ten letters, some of them several pages in length. We made telephone calls to those who did not send us information. We communicated with all but two of the 22 members. The following is a summary of their comments:

Abbot and Seiker Organbuilders of Los Angeles said that they had no experience with low temperatures and did not wish to comment.

APOBA President
We received a letter from Lynn Dobson, president of the Dobson Organ Company, and also president of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America. He wrote, “My advice to churches is to turn the heat as low as they like, and to learn how long in advance they must turn the heat on in order for the

organ to be in tune. We have one church (in Minnesota) that turns the heat completely off during the winter. They must let the heat run seventeen hours before the hour of their church service to get the organ’s tuning perfectly stable.”

Mr. Dobson continued, “Incidentally, this church, which is sometimes as cold as 28 degrees F. during the week, has always taken less tuning than other organs. Also, there have been far less mechanical problems, which can be directly attributable to the fact that the humidity stays higher in that church than in any other.”

We received a lengthy and thoughtful letter from Charles Hendrickson of the Hendrickson Organ Company in St. Peter, Minnesota. Mr. Hendrickson wrote, “There is no harm noticed to organs which are kept at 45 degrees F. during the week, and then having the temperature raised to normal for Sunday.”

He also wrote, “It is my experience that dry heat is harmful to the pipe organ. I have seen many organs where the wood and leather have been dried out through excessive low relative humidity caused by continuous winter heating…. Our best solution is to turn down the heat down as far as possible to elevate the relative humidity during the week and to put up with the low relative humidity on Sunday,” he wrote.

“… I have seen worse problems from continuous winter heating than I have from having the organ cold. I am convinced that our oldest organs here have survived because of those churches being too stingy or too poor to heat the church during the winter. The great old organs of Europe survive in churches which are unheated, and the oldest organs seem to be in those churches which never had any heat!”

Ceiling fans bad

We called Mr. Hendrickson to talk with him further. In our conversation, he told us that, in his opinion, ceiling fans cause problems in trying to keep the pipe organs in tune. Apparently, the moving air makes it difficult to maintain constant temperature conditions around the organ pipes. He intends to publish an article about this subject.

Both Charles McManis, owner of McManis Organs in Kansas City, Kansas, and Fritz Noack of the Noack Organ Company in Georgetown, Massachusetts, said that they agreed with the comments of Charles Hendrickson, and with the paragraphs which we derived from the British statement.

Exhaust fans help

Alan Fisher, manager of the installation and service department of the Reuter Organ Company of Lawrence, Kansas, suggested the installation of a small squirrel cage exhaust fan in the organ chamber. The fan would pull heated air from the sanctuary into the chamber, and would exhaust air into a room in the basement.

We spoke with Mr. Holtkamp, president of the Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio. He said that the cold temperatures don’t matter at all, and that change in absolute humidity was the most critical factor in the health of pipe organs. He agreed with Alan Fisher’s use of the exhaust fan. Mr. Holtkamp interlocks the fan with the organ power switch. The fan runs all the time that the organ blower is off, and shuts off when the organ blower is turned on.

Mr. Holtkamp told us of the problems with carved altar pieces in Germany after central heating systems were installed in formerly unheated churches. The increased dryness caused irreparable cracks and disintegration. He pointed out the analogous effect of heat on pipe organs.

Jack Bethards, president of Schoenstein and Company of San Francisco, said that he did not face heating problems in his climate, but that he was in general agreement with our statement.

Peter Moller Daniels, president of the M. P. Moller Company in Hagerstown, Maryland, wrote us, “The temperature at which churches keep their sanctuary during the week is not critical to the care of the pipe organ.”

Pollution effect
In a phone call following his letter, Mr. Daniels told us of particular problems with organs in churches exposed to pollution. He told us of churches in New York City, in which the humidity in the air mixes with sulphur dioxide, causing severe damage to pipe organs.

Mr. Daniels told us that the relative humidity can go as low as 20% without causing problems.

Robert Arnold, vice-president of the Schlicker Organ Company in Buffalo, New York, told us that he was in general agreement with our statement. He was the only organ builder to express reservations about the 45 degree F. low limit on temperature. He suggested 50 to 55 degrees as a low limit, and 70 degrees as a high limit. He also suggested that humidifiers be installed in houses of worship to maintain proper humidity in the air.

Designed for cold
Manual Rosales, owner of Rosales Organ Builders, Inc. in Los Angeles, told us that the pipe organs were designed in the cold climates of Europe and Scandinavia. They have a colorful history of surviving the cold. Mr. Rosales suggested that we include a statement that the organ should not be exposed to continuous temperatures in excess of 100 degrees F.

Mr. Phares Steiner, partner of Steiner-Reck Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky agreed with the consensus statement. He wrote that the temperature of a vacant sanctuary could be lower than 45 degrees, “so, don’t worry about cold temperatures! Worry should be reserved, instead for the very damaging effect of low and very low air humidity caused by wintertime heating.”

Humidification impractical
Mr. Steiner adds, “Alleviation of excessive dryness by adding humidified air to the building is apparently a practical impossibility, I have been told by experts in the field: condensation on very cold windows and walls, and possibly insulation (if any) causes serious damage to painting, plaster, etc.”

George Gilliam, president of the Shudi Organ Company in Garland, Texas, agreed with Mr. Rosales about the 100 degree high temperature limit. He also told us that the mechanical action pipe organs are more susceptible to harm from heating than the other types.

Robert Reich, president of the Andover Organ Company of Methuen, Massachusetts, wrote us that he had observed damage in many organs caused by dryness. “Because of such problems, we advise churches to heat as little as possible.” In another part of his letter, Mr. Reich said, “There is nothing in an organ that will be damaged by lack of heat, neither the pipes nor the mechanism. Organs in churches that are used in the summer only and no heat whatsoever during the winter are likely to be in the best condition, having no cracks or other dryness problems.”

Mr. Reich added, “We often recommend installing heating units inside the organ, contrary to your recommendation. Naturally, we recommend as little heat in the church as possible, consistent with use, but when the church is heated the organ must be heated also.”

Morris Spearman, maintenance director for W. Zimmer and Sons pipe organ builders in Charlotte, North Carolina, suggests turning down the thermostat “as low as you can to conserve fuel.” He wrote, “… the longevity of an organ is improved by little and occasional heating, while its ‘tune’ is improved by constant and consistent heating. Some balance between these opposing concerns is needed.”

We talked with Greg Bover, foreman of the woodshop for C.B. Fisk, Inc. of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Although he could not speak for the company, he told us that he was in general agreement with the statement.

Mr. Gress, of the Gress-Miles Organ Company in Princeton, New Jersey, told us that his organs were not affected by cold temperatures because they
had an electric action. He told us of his visit to Holland in the 1950’s. It was cold enough in his hotel room to freeze the water in his wash basin. That morning, he played in a large church. The only heat was three wood stoves, and the organ seemed to be in fine shape.

Mr. Gress told of several churches where he had seen heated glass enclosures for the organist, outside of which the pipes and the congregation were much cooler.

Tune your own reeds
Mr. Gress wondered why organists don’t tune their own reed sections, the tune of which are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature. He said that his company trains organists to do this, pointing out that the pipe sections in some European churches are tuned once in a generation, whereas the reed section must be tuned frequently.

Warm air is worst
Frederick Mitchell is the vice president of Austin Organs in Hartford, Connecticut. He wrote, “…since the earliest Austin organs in 1893, they have all been engineered to be unaffected by changes in temperature and humidity.” He agreed with several of the other respondents that warm air heating systems seem to cause the most severe problems with pipe organs.

John Schantz, president of the Schantz organ company of Orrville, Ohio, wrote, “We can say without reservation that we agree with the statements in your letter.”

Pieter Visser, president of the Visser-Rowand Associates Organbuilders, wrote, “I can still remember my grandmother’s bringing her own foot warmer to church. The organist wore gloves with the ends of the fingers cut off.”

Later in his letter, he wrote, “ In our case, we have not had any mechanical problems because of heat or air conditioning and low or high humidity. This has been primarily due to the fact that we engineer the organs so that natural movement of the wooden structures is not impaired.”

In a phone call to us after he wrote the letter, Mr. Visser told us that he personally does all the engineering on his organs. They are the mechanical, tracker type, which are most susceptible to damage from changing temperature and humidity.

Mr. Visser told us that he has organs all over the country, and that temperature will not harm his organs, whether they are in Maine or Arizona.

Play the Organs
Mr. Visser told us that he thought it was a shame that the organs were not played more often, pointing out that even a beginner could not damage any pipe organ by playing it. He told us that the more the pipe organs are played, the better.

“Don’t lock them up, let the people hear beautiful music all week long,” says Pieter Visser.

He ends his letter to ICE with this paragraph, “I believe one sure way to overcome the turning on and off of heat or air-conditioning is to use the worship space full time, to turn our religious organizations back into community organizations and our churches and synagogues back into community centers where we can go at all times, not just once or twice a week, and do all things as a religious family. Without people actively participating in the community of faith, it will not matter if the organs in churches work or not.”

We leave you with that thought, and with our thanks to the members of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America for working with us to bring you this information.

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