Ever since the new Cole Middle School opened in 2011, hot days at the beginning and the end of the school year have been an issue on the third floor. When three eighth grade students were removed from the school because of heat-related issues one day last June, school officials decided to explore possible fixes.
Cole was built without air conditioning because of the added expense – in the range of millions of dollars – and because the architect (SMMA) said schools in New England generally didn’t need air conditioning, said former School Building Committee Chairman Jay Gowell. None of the other five EG schools is air-conditioned, although each building – including Cole – has some limited air conditioning (usually the main office and maybe a classroom or library).
But in light of the June incident and ongoing complaints about heat, especially on Cole’s third floor, the School Committee asked the building panel to look a the issue.
The School Building Committee got details of three possible fixes at a meeting Nov. 5 but any kind of fix would be costly and not necessarily all that effective, according to facilities director Bob Wilmarth. Of the three options presented, prices ranged from $200,000 to $5 million, not counting the added electricity and maintenance costs.
“The initial estimates are highly cost prohibitive,” said School Committeeman Jack Sommer at the School Committee meeting Nov. 18.
The most comprehensive – and expensive – of the proposals would be to swap out the two current “energy recovery units” that sit atop the three-floor classroom stack of the building and replace them with energy recovery units that have an air conditioning component. Sadly, according to Wilmarth, it’s not possible to retrofit the current ERUs – they do not have enough room.
The energy recovery units do help keep heating costs down in the winter and they help, a little anyway, keep the building cooler in the summer, Wilmarth explained.
The cost to replace the two ERUs would be $5 million. “It would, however, be the most energy-efficient solution and also the longest lasting,” he said. “That’s really the way to do it” – if cost were not an issue.
The second proposal would be to provide each classroom with a “ductless mini-split” air conditioner, a cassette-type unit that attaches high on a wall. Several units could be connected to one central, optimally placed (i.e. in the shade) condenser outside.
According to Wilmarth, while they would not work as well as new ERUs, “they would work a lot better than individual window units [option 3] because they would offer better control, be more energy efficient and quieter.
To provide ductless mini-splits would cost around $750,000 per floor, around $2.25 million for all three floors.
That third option, the window units, would cost $195,000 to $225,000 for the three floors, said Wilmarth. One problem with window units is they need windows. And most windows at Cole were placed to capture sunlight, so the units would be working extra hard on the hottest sunny days. They also would need to be replaced every few years – more often than the other options.
In addition, said Wilmarth, they will be hard to service and less efficient. But, he said, “window unites would be the cheap, down-and-dirty way to go.”
Wilmarth noted another downside to both the second and third options: the existing ERUs would remain in place and their job is to bring in air from the outside. “In summer, that means hot air,” said Wilmarth. “It would be like paddling a canoe with a hole in it.”
At the meeting Nov. 5, the Building Committee told Wilmarth to hire a company to study the current ventilation system to see if there’s anything that could be done to make it work better. He is working on a proposal for that now.