WESTMINSTER — The air system at Bellows Falls Union High School needs more than $244,000 in “high priority” repairs soon to bring it up to code, with another almost $1 million needed in the future, according to a lengthy engineering report recently made public.
The study of the heating and air ventilation system at the high school was requested last year because of indoor air quality and public health concerns raised during the coronavirus pandemic.
The report praised some of the work done to filter the school’s air during the height of the pandemic, but it recommended installing an ultra-violet germicidal irradiation system, at a cost of about $477,000.
And the report included one revealing detail: the CO2 (carbon dioxide) sensors were installed on a column eight feet above the floor, “outside the breathing zone of the occupants.”
The report, which is dated April 8, was never discussed publicly until earlier this week, when Director David Clark of Westminster briefly raised issues in the report during a BFUHS meeting. Clark noted that the school already spent a lot of money in recent years on the HVAC system. Clark and Director Jack Bryar of Grafton 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 engineering report, done by M/E Engineering, P.C., of Schenectady, N.Y., said that the current system is “under-ventilated throughout” the school building, and that the building pressurization is negative, which could set up a potential safety hazard, according to Clark.
The report said that the rooftop unit “energy wheels” are unutilized, and that there are “manufacturing deficiencies” as well.
Clark said in a follow-up interview that the equipment installed in the “D wing” of the school, that contains the classroom area, were missing parts when it was installed in 2018.
“Nobody was checking on it. The HVAC controls have never worked properly, ergo kitchen odors, which could under the right circumstances become smoke from a kitchen fire, waft into “D wing” when the cafeteria is in operation,” he said.
He said that was caused by negative pressure within the building, which is supposed to be positive pressure. He said that means “that all of the software programming which has taken place 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 “guesstimate” is that the school had put $300,000 to $400,000 into the HVAC system in 2013 and 2018 updates. “Now we’ve got an immediate need to spend $243,000 to bring the equipment up to a minimum standard,” he said.
In parts of the building, the report stated, the rooftop ventilation units were only delivering 52 percent of the designed outdoor air volume, and that with improvements, more students could be safely accommodated.
“During the pandemic, a shortage of labor and increased demand for indoor air quality equipmment, contractors, service providers and construction professionals has caused price volatility,” the report stated. The report added that the $244,000 estimate did not include “soft costs” of the design, bidding and construction administration.
Clark, during the directors’ comments section of the meeting, said the negative pressure problem in the largely wall-less building could be very serious, as it could easily not just spread cooking fumes from the kitchen, but a fire that started in the kitchen.
He recommended that the board’s Building and Grounds Committee start tackling the recommendations in the lengthy report “so we can do some planning.”
He said it isn’t clear “how much of this was known to the building administration before the final release of the final report in April.”
Additionally, according to the report, some units arrived at the school “imperfectly manufactured with deficiencies.”
“We recommend determining and correcting these deficiencies as soon as practicable,” the report added.
School Director Deborah Wright of Rockingham said she feels the company that last worked on the heating and ventilation system “needs to do a ‘make good,’ and repair the damage they’ve done.”
She said she doesn’t approve the school district spending another $250,000 doing repairs that ought to be the responsibility of the company.
She said the whole report, which hasn’t been discussed by the full board, would be on the agenda of the next board meeting in August, after school directors had a chance to study the full report.
But, she said, doing another $1 million of repairs to the HVAC system is too much for local taxpayers, considering the number of students using the school.
“It needs a full discussion,” she said. “We need to have them fix what they broke.”
She compared the recommended repairs to the now-abandoned $1 million repaving of the school’s driveway, which was never legally approved by Rockingham voters because of a snafu in the wording of the article.
“We don’t need to repave the full thing,” said Wright.