After 51 years, the wheezing, hard-working heat and ventilation system at Brewster-Pierce Memorial School has outlived its welcome.
“You can’t even find parts for this system any more,” said Facilities Manager Sandy Heyman, recently showing off an air compressor that dates to the school’s construction. The building relies on two boilers that use about 6,400 gallons of fuel oil per year, as well as heating and ventilation boxes in each classroom.
“We can no longer do the Band-Aid repairs,” said Principal Sally Hayes.
School Board members at the small elementary school have their eye on a major upgrade. They are asking voters on Tuesday to pay for a new ground-source heat pump system, which would regulate the building’s temperature using a system of wells. The price tag? Up to $1.26 million.
It’s the biggest bond proposal for maintenance upgrades that Principal Sally Hayes can recall.
The cost of the project would be borne by the small town of Huntington, which has opted to retain its own school district for Brewster-Pierce rather than joining the regional school district. The School Board estimates that the bond would add about 2.8 cents to Huntington’s tax rate, or $28 on a property tax bill per $100,000 of home value.
Tuesday’s proposal emerged from a lengthy process of research and public outreach as School Board members chose geothermal over other alternatives, including a wood pellet system and an upgrade to the existing fuel oil system.
Residents wanted to move away from fuel oil, said School Board Chairwoman Andrea Ogilvie. The geothermal system also offers several advantages, including cooling in summer months and computer monitoring technology.
“With energy savings, the extended life span and the ability to add cooling, the (groundsource geothermal system) is only slightly more costly over its life than the other alternatives that were considered,” the School Board wrote on an informational website.
Vermont schools are no stranger to geothermal technology. The Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes in Burlington’s Old North End installed a similar system about six years ago, and a few people from Huntington drove over to take a look.
“Overall they’ve definitely worked well,” said Marty Spaulding, director of property services for the Burlington School District. “There’s certainly an upfront cost to these systems, but certainly they’re much more efficient.”
Norman Etkind, who works on school energy issues at the Vermont Superintendents Association, said getting away from fossil fuels is currently “extremely challenging” because of a lack of state construction aid and low fuel prices that can make alternatives seem more costly.
The key is to take a long-term view on fuel prices, Etkind said.
Public forums about Huntington’s geothermal plans have been sparsely attended, and Ogilvie, the school board chairwoman, said she’s heard minimal opposition.
If Tuesday’s vote fails, Ogilvie said the project would be delayed at least one year for a renewed decision-making process.
If the proposal succeeds, school employees are hoping for a quieter, more efficient way to move air through the school.
“My fingers are crossed that it’s going to last another 50 years,” said Heyman, the facilities manager at Brewster-Pierce.