As part of its ‘Shrinking the Footprint’ campaign to reduce carbon emissions, Exeter Diocese is exploring a variety of new and efficient heating systems for church buildings.
One option amongst others is a re-usable, portable hot cushion which enables churchgoers to stay warm and comfortable during services.
The Diocese purchased 100 ‘Hot Bott’ cushions in the Autumn of 2013 with a view to running a trial in a number of local churches. The intention was to explore whether this relatively new technology could help in keeping worshippers warm in church and reduce carbon emissions produced by burning of fossil fuels in churches (i.e. electric, gas and oil heating). The cushion packs retail at about £18 but were bought in bulk for about half this cost, as well as a few free samples.
The packs were investigated for their manufacturing and disposability, as well as embodied carbon. This would need to be offset against energy produced.
The cushion consists of cushion cover and a plastic bag filled with sodium acetate, in which is also found a nickel disc. When this disc is ‘cracked’ it triggers a chemical reaction which crystallises the liquid and release heat. The bag remains hot for about 90 minutes and it is suggested to maximise this warmth, it is placed on a worshipper’s lap or between their knees or used to sit on in the pew.
After use the bag in its solid state needs to be placed in boiling water for 7-8 minutes to reliquefy the acetate, after which it can be used again. This profess can be repeated for hundreds of times.
The trial ran from November 2013 to April 2014. The parishes participating in the trial were finalised as follows. These received the number of cushions indicated in square brackets.
- Marldon (South Devon), St. John the Baptist 
- Broadclyst (East Devon), St. John the Baptist 
- Shillingford (near Exeter), St. George 
- Whiddon Mission Community (Dartmoor), several churches 
- Shobrooke (Mid Devon), St. Swithun’s 
- Ideford (Teignmouth), St. Mary the Virgin 
- Atherington (North Devon) Church of St. Mary 
Comments received from users varied, but on the whole were not so positive. The following remarks were noted:
Most people reluctant to try them. One or two elderly people used more than once.
Did not like the smell!
Care needed when re-activating in boiling water.
2 main concerns – it is very easy to ‘switch on’ without knowing it (the button does not click). Also, it sometimes takes 2 or 3 boils .before the liquid returns to normal.
However it is a useful asset to those of us on the organ stool! Probably three quarters of an hour to an hour is the maximum time to get benefit of use.
Sadly not very successful. One was very hard to switch on and after being used once would not switch on again. Boiled in a towelling bag and needed at least 15-20 minutes (not 5-7) to soften again.
We experimented with 5 Hot Botts both at home and also in St. Swithun’s Church, Shobrooke. As home was warmer than the church ever is the Hot Botts lasted slightly longer there than in the church, but still not for very long. I personally found the one I was experimenting with extremely difficult to flex on. I spent a long time trying to make it work! Eventually it did, but then, after boiling, a number of different people in the church tried to get it to work and it was impossible and has not worked since. The other four worked in church, but all members of the congregation who had access to one, all ages and both sexes, all expressed disappointment that it was not warmer, even at the very beginning, but certainly after 20 minutes or so. Alls aid a hot water bottle would be more effective!
I made a small hand towel into a bag to boil them in and explained this to the congregation. The only implement in my kitchen which was large enough to boil one in was a wok. People said they did not have anything large enough and, as I feared, all the Hot Botts we had in church were left in one pew to boil up when I got home, as we do not have water in the church. I found it took much, much longer than 7 minutes to boil up the Hot Botts until the liquid contents returned – some still had hard crystals in them after 20+ minutes.
The general opinion was not encouraging! Nobody wanted to experiment again. Sorry to be so negative, but thank you for letting us try!
Unfortunately no positive comments from any users who were disappointed that the cushions did not feel very hot and certainly did not stay warm for more than 30 minutes. Nobody prepared to boil the Hot Botts so churchwarden ended up boiling all of them! No water supply in church.
This winter was milder than last year’s and there was only one occasion when the church boiler wasn’t working. We returned four hot cushions and bought two.
One parishioner (an elderly gentleman) found the hot cushion helped him to keep warmer during the service. The overall view was that they were easy to use for the first time but a faff when reheating. The hot cushions were prepared by one person because elderly parishioners did not like having to warm the hot cushions in boiling water.
Our church is large and apart from the halogen fires it is unheated. Individual heat pads were welcome and offset the discomfort of the cold normally experienced by the end of the services. Our regular congregation found these cushions beneficial and effective.
We had quite a number of people who complained that their Hotbotts had ceased to function. (Personally, I think this was because a mainly elderly congregation failed to prepare their Hotbotts properly and struggled with the very small metal device for activating the Hotbott. Those who did use the Hotbotts found them a pleasant source of gentle warmth but they didn’t make a great difference in a cold building.
There was a tension between the age of the parishioners most likely to use and benefit from the cushions, and their apparent inability or lack of willingness to reheat them. This resulted in problems but made easier when somebody else at the church took responsibility for doing this.
We live in a culture in which people expect comfort. On the whole we leave a warm home, usually travel to church in a warm vehicle and this contrasts strongly with entering a cold church. It seems this technology does not readily live up to the modern expectation of warmth and comfort.
My recommendation is to promote further to parishes but with the promise of identifying a person per congregation who will take responsibility for the cushions and their re-heating.
It is not likely that the cushions could substitute for heating systems in churches, although they could help to supplement them.
Martyn Goss, 14th May 2014