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Projecting Costs

Projecting The Costs Of Maintaining An Organ

Organs and Value

Organs are good investments. They last a long time, they are inexpensive to maintain, and they require no special treatment. However, they are not immune to misinformation, just as the virtuous person is not immune to gossip.

Example of misinformation: The Organ Committees at two different churches have reported to us recently that they got the impression from sales persons for electronic organs that pipe organs are expensive, that maintaining a pipe organ costs something like $4,000 per year, and that a pipe organ requires continuous heating and cooling.


Continuous heating and cooling is not required, although the heating/cooling system should be designed so that tempered air flows through the pipe space as quickly as it flows through other parts of the building.

Annual maintenance costs about ¼ to ½ of 1% of the Replacement Value of the organ.

Actual Maintenance Records

Following are the actual billings from our records for annual maintenance for three typical pipe organs of various ages built by three different firms.

First Christian Church, Abilene, Texas.

21 rank organ about 25 years old.

  • 1987 $162
  • 1988 $153
  • 1989 $837
  • 1990 $452
  • 1991 $580
  • 1992 $181
  • 1993 $-0-
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Texas.

10 rank organ about 35 years old

  • 1971-1993: average $270 per year.
Westminster Presbyterian Church, Arlington, Texas.

15 rank organ about 6 years old

  • 1988-1993: average $94 per year

Our Suggestions

Routine Service

An organ should be tuned and serviced twice a year. Annual cost is 0.2% to 0.5% of Replacement Value. That is, a church with an organ that costs $100,000 should budget $200 to $500 annually.

Long-term Repairs

The scope of long-term repairs depends on the type of mechanism ("action", in organists’ terminology). There are 3 types of action: tracker ("mechanical action"), electro-pneumatic, and electro-mechanical.

Electro-pneumatic action uses small pneumatic devices made of thin leather, one device under each pipe, to open the valves which admit wind to the pipes when the organist presses a key. The leather must be replaced every 30 to 90 years. Cost is 8% to 15% of Replacement Value.

Electro-mechanical action does not use pneumatic devices. Rather, it employs small electromagnets, one under each pipe, to open the valves. Rebuilding costs are less for electro-mechanical than for electro-pneumatic action, but we should not pretend that Murphy’s Law has been conquered.

All organs, regardless of action, use some sort of airtight, flexible material — usually heavy leather or rubberized cloth — for the wind pressure regulators ("bellows" or "reservoirs") and for pneumatic motors which operate the swell shutters (louvers which the organist opens and closes to regulate loudness). Rebuilding these larger pneumatic components costs 3% to 5% of Replacement Value, is necessary in 20 to 40 years.

Most organs, regardless of type of key action, use solid-state electronic circuitry for the combination action (pistons, etc.) and for stop and key controls. Conventional wisdom has it that solid-state electronic components last a very long time, but it is realistic to plan on significant repairs after perhaps 20 years and minor adjusting annually. It is safest if the electronic circuitry employs discreet components and if it avoids microprocessors.

The Difference Between Altering And Maintaining

A pipe organ is more like a house than an appliance. We keep houses a long time. We rebuild and enlarge them as our families change. We replace appliances, on the other hand, and we expect to replace a refrigerator or a t.v. after 20 years.

Many organs are enlarged or modified after 20 to 50 years. These should be counted as capital expenditures, not as maintenance costs.

Replace Or Rebuild?

Whether to replace or rebuild depends on the quality of the item, how well it serves current needs, and whether it was originally built so that rebuilding is practical.

Rebuilding is usually practical for an organ because it uses so few proprietary components.

Following are examples from our experience of how different churches have resolved this question.

Example of replacing: One of the Organ Committees referred to at the beginning of this essay was considering replacing a 20 year old electronic organ with a new model electronic costing $180,000. (December, 1997: It turns out that the church decided to replace the electronic with a pipe organ.)

Examples of rebuilding: Our firm is currently contracted to modify organs for three churches listed below. The fact that those churches have chosen to retain their organs rather than replace them is evidence that pipe organs are a solid, long-term investment.

  • St. William Laud Episcopal Church, Pittsburg, Texas. Organ built by our firm for a private residence in Dallas 20 years ago. Bought and moved by the church to Pittsburg 5 years ago.
  • Our work: additions, voicing modifications.
  • Central United Methodist Church, Rogers, Arkansas. Moller organ about 80 years old. Chests altered about 30 years ago.
  • Our work: new console, additions, revoicing.
  • St. Laurence Episcopal Church, Grapevine, Texas. Organ is a generous gift to the church by Fr. Blanchard Boyer of his residence organ, about 30 years old.
  • Our work: move organ, build new casework (enclosure) for pipes, re-configure chests and pipes to suit the church’s architecture.

A fine organ = genuine musical satisfaction + good investment + long life.

And, it can be recycled.