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Officials Look Into Air Conditioning Failures At School

Officials Look Into Air Conditioning Failures At School

Two years after a $14-million renovation, the Beecher Road School building has experienced two major breakdowns of its new heating and air conditioning system, one during the winter break, when frozen pipes led to flooding in the fifth-grade wing, and most recently this summer, when elevated heat and humidity led to mold forming in classrooms in the north part of the building.

“It was a major failure in our [HVAC] system,” said Andy Esposito, interim chair of Beecher Ad Hoc Renovation Review Committee, when called to look into the problems.  He presented the committee’s findings at the September Board of Selectmen meeting.  “We’ve been trying to ascertain what really happened and reviewing what’s been going on over the last two years,” he said.

Humidity is not a new problem at the school, Esposito said.  “The AC was supposed to resolve that – but it was never resolved.”  The week before school was scheduled to open in August, evidence of mold and mildew was found in several classrooms.

District officials immediately called in Servpro to help get the classrooms ready.  For four or five days and into the weekend, several crews swarmed in and cleaned every room in the A, B and C wings, also the cafeteria and one room in the K wing.  Every surface, every pencil, every book and nook and cranny were wiped down, using chemicals that are recommended for these conditions, Gilbert said in a phone conversation.

The final walk-through with the Quinipiac Health District sanitarian happened the Sunday afternoon before school was slated to open on August 27.  Teachers were mentioning how “these rooms have never been as clean as that,” Gilbert said.  He said the district is continuing to monitor the situation closely.

The perfect storm:  Several issues seemed to compound the problems leading to the system failure, according to those who have been looking into it.  For one thing, the company that installed the system controls, Johnson Goodyear, went out of business.  As it turns out, they did not turn over software control information to building officials.  As a result, data can be viewed but no one is able to change the programming or parameters of the system as it is presently set.

The construction contract included training of school staff as well as a videotaped tutorial, but neither occurred.  Facilities Manager Vito Esparo was appointed to his postion just weeks before the pipes broke.  At the time, the school district hired Jim Saisa, Amity’s facility manager, to provide a facility assessment and to help them work through the HVAC issues.

Saisa turned to a consultant, William Donald with van Zelm Engineers, with whom he has worked at the high school in the past and who had helped the Amity District cope with its mold issues.  Donald found that the unit ventilators installed in three classroom wings, “are not effective at dehumidifying,” Saisa said.

He said the ventilators bring in outside air, which they are required to do.  However, as soon as a certain temperature is reached the coil will shut down the cooling valve, irrespective of the humidity levels.  “All these systems must run in conjunction,” he said.

The facilities manager should be able to calibrate humidity levels, CO2 and temperature as well as the fan motor speed.  “The current licensure does not allow for the real programming and manipulation of the Honeywell Building Management System – as an owner should have,” Saisa said.

Saisa recommended hiring van Zelm Engineers to review the whole system and propose fixes.  Selectmen unanimously voted in favor of the proposal and allocated up to $34,600 for that purpose.

Asked whether the district has contacted the general contractor responsible for the building renovation, Andy Esposito, a litigator by training, recommended restraint.  At this point the focus is on correcting the environment in the building, he said.  “We have [850] kids in that building; we don’t need mold in the building,” he said.

Town Attorney Gerald Weiner agreed.  “At this point we don’t know what the cause of the problem was, whether it was improper design, or improper maintenance, we need more information,” he said.

Serving on the ad hoc committee are two members of the original Building Committee, namely Jeff Kaufman and Board of Education member John Vultee, who has since moved out of town; School Supt. Robert Gilbert, District Business Manager Al Pullo and from the Town Hall, Sheila McCreven.

Facilities assessment:  In addition to the ad hoc committee, which deals with the renovation and its lingering HVAC problems, the school board also has a facilities committee, which recently received Jim Saisa’s comprehensive assessment report.

In it, he points out issues that will need addressing as part of a capital plan going forward.  The roof, for instance, although replaced in some areas as part of the renovation, in older areas shows ponding and drainage problems.

Exterior classroom doors need replacing; exterior windows; the band room carpet as well as several tiled floors; fluorescent bulbs should be changed to LED; outside, the parking lot at the North School and the lot behind the library need a new coat of asphalt.

By Bettina Thiel Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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