BETHEL — The town’s public school district is on a mission to fix the high school’s dysfunctional heating, ventilation and air conditioning system — but doing so could cost much more than experts initially expected.
Bethel High School’s HVAC system — which was not updated when the school was renovated in 2007 to 2009 — has posed problems for several years.
“We’ve been having kind of like a battle with a lot of the units,” Superintendent Christine Carver said Tuesday. “They’re kind of in constant need of repair.”
Freezing temperatures in January 2018 caused the heating and air conditioning unit in the school’s gym, as well as other systems across campus, to fail — forcing the school to move some classes and install temporary heating systems until permanent repairs could be made. A large rooftop unit above the gym was so badly damaged that it had to be completely replaced.
Now, the school district has received a preliminary cost estimate of more than $9 million to fix these and other similar problems. The superintendent hopes this cost can be reduced.
In the spring of 2020, Carver said engineering consulting firm Kohler Ronan conducted “an extensive study” of the high school’s HVAC system, which identified “the biggest priorities in terms of repairs to the system and providing air conditioning in all the spaces.”
“We did it because we wanted to use part of our district’s ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds because we knew there were units that were having issues — plus, we wanted to see what it would take to air condition the un-air conditioned spaces in the high school,” she said, noting that there are 35 spaces in the high school that lack air conditioning.
With around $1.5 million already allocated to updating the high school’s HVAC system — $700,000 from the school district’s ESSER grant money and $855,000 from the town’s American Rescue Plan Act funds — the school district is seeking more funding through the state HVAC Indoor Air Quality Grants for Public Schools program.
The grant program — overseen by the Department of Administrative Services Office of School Construction Grants and Review — was established earlier this year to encourage public school districts to install, replace or upgrade heating, ventilation or air conditioning systems in order to improve indoor air quality.
As Finance and Business Operations Director Jennifer Variale said during the Board of Education’s Nov. 17 meeting, different parts of Bethel High School have different HVAC-related needs.
“We have some sections that were never air-conditioned and … there are other parts of the building where we have existing air conditioning but there are air quality issues and noise issues,” she said.
The administrative offices, media center and adjoining classrooms are among the school’s priority areas.
Variale said the way the system is set up now is “like having one thermostat for a huge area, where it really needs to be broken down into smaller areas so that they can have sufficient climate control.”
An engineer from Kohler Ronan who worked on designs for the school’s HVAC project said system adjustments would improve climate control, increase ventilation and improve indoor air quality in those areas.
Carver says there is one problem — the latest cost estimate for the HVAC work was “significantly higher” than Kohler Ronan had initially anticipated.
“Preliminary cost estimates came out at over $9 million, which is much, much more, and I think that’s an indication of a lot of things lately in terms of supply chain, escalations of cost and just general inflation,” Carver said Tuesday.
The estimated cost may change, as Kohler Ronan has expressed interest in reviewing the latest estimates to identify any inaccuracies and reduce costs and contingency.
Carver said “better estimates” will be available Nov. 29, when school administration meets with the boards of selectmen and finance to discuss the state HVAC grant application.
“We’re having a joint meeting to determine what they would like us to apply for in the grant and to what dollar amount,” she said.
Even though the cost estimates are higher than originally anticipated, Carver said she thinks they will still be able to take care of all the priority areas that Kohler Ronan originally identified in its 2020 study.
“At the end of the day, I think we’ll end up taking care of the biggest priorities,” she said. “We may not get all of the space air conditioned, but we’ll make another dent at it and address some of the infrastructure issues that weren’t done as part of the original (high school) renovation.”