Heating system failure shuts VUHS for a day

VERGENNES — The problems that caused half of Vergennes Union High School to lose heat late last week and led officials to call off school on Friday, Jan. 27, are symptomatic of a larger issue in the school’s heating system that probably cannot be addressed until a new bond can be proposed in 2020, according to Principal Stephanie Taylor.
That is when bond payments on the major 2000-2001 VUHS renovations conclude. The VUHS board has long awaited their end to address needed upgrades and some deferred maintenance at the school, and Taylor and other Addison Northwest School District officials have said they expect the new ANWSD board to take the same approach.
At the same time, Taylor said, she expects the school to be able to handle the heating issue — corrosion in heating pipes that also caused steam leaks in some classrooms in 2014 — between now and 2020.
“We’ve taken preventative steps, and I’m going to give (VUHS maintenance head) Bob (Worley) credit for that,” Taylor said. “We’ve had experts assess the system independently and regularly get good reviews.”
The system consists of two identical fuel oil boilers that provide steam heat to the school’s older “C and D” classroom and office wing, to the left, and hot-water heat to the newer “A and B” science classroom and gymnasium wing to the right and rear.
The problem, Taylor said, is that joints in the older pipes in the steam wing are corroded, while the new pipes have also corroded because for many years rust-preventing chemicals were not mixed into the heating water.
“Water by its very nature is corrosive, and it needs to be treated by chemicals to not corrode the inside of the pipes it’s circulating through. And for the first number of years, and I don’t know how many, the water wasn’t treated,” Taylor said. “Five or six years ago we started appropriately treating the water, and I will say coincidentally that is when Bob Worley came on board.”
But periodically problems do crop up, and three were discovered late last week. First, a seal in a pump valve failed at about 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 25, shutting off heat to the A and B wing.
But Taylor said with fairly warm weather on Thursday and heat filtering over from the other side of the building, school could go on as normal on that day.
That evening, maintenance workers kept A and B classroom doors open and set up fans to blow over heat from the C and D wing, but it proved not to be enough to justify opening school on Friday, Taylor said.
While technicians were working on the first problem they discovered the second and third problems. The third, a valve that failed, was not serious, Taylor said.
But they also discovered an air exchanger condensate tank, in the basement near the boilers, was leaking from a corroded area. Patching was unsuccessful due to what Taylor called “punky metal,” and a new one had to be ordered and installed, something that could not be done until Friday afternoon.
The decision not to open on Friday was clinched, although Taylor said she still lost some sleep over it.
“It was difficult to predict how cold the school would be,” Taylor said. “We elected to cancel school. It’s like a snow day. You can’t win with those things.”
How much it will cost VUHS to fix the three problems won’t be known until the bill arrives, but Taylor said it won’t be cheap.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it exceeded $10,000, but not much more than that,” Taylor said, emphasizing she can only guess at this point.
The school does have money in its budget for heating system maintenance, however, and Taylor believes with continuing careful spending the overall budget can absorb the hit.
The larger issue remains, however.
“Bob believes all three (problems) are coincidental, but all related to the primary issue, which is the system is corrupted and we are experiencing corrosion within all those mechanical pieces,” Taylor said.
In the long run, at least the distribution pipes must be replaced, Taylor said, adding the facilities committee will be studying whether the boilers — which she said are in good condition, but are aging with parts availability an issue — should also be replaced, and whether VUHS should convert to natural gas. The system is also known to make some rooms hotter than desirable, and other rooms colder than ideal.
“There are decisions in the next few years on how to keep the building warm,” she said. 

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