At Jason Lee Middle School, not every classroom used to be equal when it came to the temperature. “You’d have two rooms next door to each other. One room would be too cold, one room would be too hot and I really had no way of controlling it,” said Building Operator Oren Burt.

The reason: an old pneumatic system controlled by air pressure, which must be kept even throughout in order to operate. The system was difficult to maintain and keep running.

“If you have a leak somewhere, everything past it starts to break down. So it’s a lot harder to granularize the control,” explained Johnathen Radelet, who programs controllers for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

But that’s about to change because of Radelet; Nicholas Hardin, a technician; Ricardo Balenbin, an electrician; and Burt. The team spent part of the summer performing a labor-intensive partial upgrade on the school’s heating and cooling system.

A streamlined, modern digital controller, one of most advanced on the market, will allow for better management of what Radelet called the “major energy consumers in the building: chiller, boilers, biggest air handlers and some of the biggest pumps. That’s how we’re going to be able to save as much energy use as possible and still be able to provide the right controls for the building.”

It’s a complex project that pushes the team’s expertise. But after more than 2,500 feet of wire, new sensors and valves and a lot of reprogramming, the expectation is that the end result will pay dividends in providing a comfortable environment for teachers and students where temperature fluctuations don’t distract from learning.

“The biggest thing is to get these kids to focus. Once you lose that halfway through your class, it’s over. Every minute they miss in education, they can’t make it up,” Burt said.

It’s also projected to produce a financial return on investment. Doing the job in-house at half of the cost of a professional bid and estimated energy conservation and incentives from Energy Trust of Oregon will result in tens of thousands of dollars in cost savings.

That’s not the only value, however: “Because the work has been done in-house, we have quality control. We know the kinds of issues we’re going to be facing if we don’t do it right, so we’ve done it right,” said Radelet.

Keeping the doors open

As large as that project is, it’s only one of more than 80 over the summer for the district’s maintenance department. In addition, the maintenance staff has been tasked with some 1,000 work orders.

Planning for summer maintenance begins the previous January and involves a massive budgeting and scheduling effort. Once the last day of school hits, there’s much to be done: replacing filters in mechanical systems, testing smoke alarms in advance of a fire marshal inspections, ensuring ramps are compliant for users with disabilities, painting metal surfaces to cover rust, ensuring that sports fields are irrigated properly to help prevent injuries, maintaining parking lots—and that’s only a tiny handful of the jobs that must be completed before school resumes, all while maneuvering around summer programs and community events in school buildings.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work taking place all summer long. My hat’s off to the maintenance staff,” said Maintenance Supervisor AJ Panter.

Yet even the best maintenance program can’t do everything for the district’s buildings, some of which are more than 40 years old and several of which exceed capacity. Said Panter, “We can’t keep up with everything with the aging of our buildings. Mechanical systems are old. Structurally, some of our buildings are ready for upgrades… There’s a lot of needs that we don’t have the resources to keep up with. We do a good job of maintaining, but we can’t keep up with the technology needs, either.”

And now that school’s about to start, much still lies ahead.

“We’re already getting ready for winter break,” Panter said.

But that’s all in a day’s work. Said Panter, “We’re here to take the call when situations arise. … We have the trained, qualified personnel to respond and make sure that the doors open and stay open throughout the school year.”

(Group photo above, from left: Jason Lee Building Operator Oren Burt, HVAC Technician Nicholas Hardin and HVAC Controllers Programmer Johnathen Radelet)