WESTMINSTER — Bellows Falls Union High School’s air system will soon need more than $244,000 in “high priority” repairs to get it right, with nearly $1 million more in the future, according to a comprehensive technical report released recently. has been made public.
The high school heating and air ventilation system study was requested last year due to indoor air quality and public health concerns raised during the coronavirus pandemic.
The report praised some of the work being done to filter the school’s air during the height of the pandemic, but it recommended installing an ultraviolet germicidal radiation system, at a cost of about $477,000.
And the report contained a revealing detail: The CO2 (carbon dioxide) sensors were installed on a column eight feet above the floor, “outside the occupants’ breathing zone.”
The report, dated April 8, was never discussed publicly until earlier this week, when Westminster director David Clark briefly raised issues in the report at a BFUHS meeting. Clark noted that the school has already spent a lot of money on the HVAC system in recent years. Clark and Grafton principal Jack Bryar requested the assessment at the start of the 2020-21 school year, during the height of the pandemic, when the school was forced to reduce student attendance in a hybrid mode.
The technical report, prepared by M/E Engineering, PC, of Schenectady, NY, said the current system is “under-ventilated” throughout the school building and the pressure in the building is negative, which could pose a potential safety hazard. Clark said.
The report said that the “energy wheels” on the roof are not being used and that there are also “production shortages”.
Clark said in a follow-up interview that the equipment installed in the school’s “D-Wing”, which contains the classroom, was missing parts when it was installed in 2018.
“Nobody checked it. The HVAC controls have never worked properly, so kitchen odors, which can become smoke from a kitchen fire under the right conditions, can fly to the “D-wing” when the cafeteria is in operation,” he said.
He said this was caused by negative pressure in the building, which should be positive pressure. He said that means “all the software programming that has happened over the years is inadequate.”
There are eight air handlers in the Holland Gymnasium, he said, and “four of them are dead.”
He said his “estimation” is that the school put $300,000 to $400,000 into the HVAC system in the 2013 and 2018 updates. “Now we have an immediate need to spend $243,000 to bring the equipment to a minimum level,” he said.
In parts of the building, the report said, rooftop ventilation units provided only 52 percent of the designed outdoor air volume, and improvements could accommodate more students safely.
“During the pandemic, labor shortages and increased demand for indoor air quality equipment, contractors, service providers and construction professionals have led to price volatility,” the report said. The report added that the $244,000 estimate did not include “soft costs” from the design, bidding and construction administration.
Clark said during the commentary portion of the meeting that the negative pressure problem in the largely wallless building could be very serious, as it could easily spread not only cooking fumes from the kitchen, but also a fire that started in the kitchen.
He advised the board’s Building and Grounds committee to address the recommendations in the lengthy report “so we can do some planning.”
He said it is not clear “how much of this was known to construction administration before the final publication of the final report in April.”
In addition, according to the report, some units arrived at the school “that were not perfectly manufactured with flaws”.
“We recommend identifying and correcting these deficiencies as soon as possible,” the report added.
Rockingham school principal Deborah Wright said she believes the company that most recently worked on the heating and ventilation system should “make a ‘fix’ and repair the damage they’ve done.”
She said she doesn’t approve of the school district spending another $250,000 on repairs that should be the company’s responsibility.
She said the entire report, which has not yet been discussed by the full board, would be on the agenda for the next board meeting in August, after school principals had a chance to study the full report.
But, she said, doing another $1 million in repairs to the HVAC system is too much for local taxpayers, given the number of students using the school.
“A full discussion is needed,” she said. “We have to let them fix what they broke.”
She compared the recommended repairs to the now-abandoned $1 million refurbishment of the school’s driveway, which was never legally approved by Rockingham voters due to an error in the wording of the article.
“We don’t have to renovate everything again,” Wright said.