Too hot, too cold in Haverhill schools

MIKE LABELLA/Staff photoHaverhill has purchased 300 of these air-purifiers for use in classrooms throughout the district. This unit is in a classroom at the high school.

Some classrooms are too hot and some are too cold.

For students and teachers at Haverhill High School, trying to get through the day in the midst of the pandemic is made more difficult by a heating, cooling and ventilation system that requires constant adjustments and repairs, school officials said.

With the arrival of cold weather and the need to keep school windows partially open for ventilation against COVID-19, maintaining a comfortable learning environment is a daily struggle, officials said.

They said the district has hired one company that specializes in the mechanical parts of the building's HVAC system and another company that specializes in the system's electronic controls. The work is ongoing.

The problem isn't limited to the high school, officials said — there are problems with HVAC systems in several other school buildings.

"The problem has existed for a long time," Haverhill High Principal Glenn Burns said of issues in his building. "Our contractors are in the the building every day."

He said that on a recent morning, for example, 10 of the 130 classrooms at Haverhill High were too cold and that having to keep the windows open a bit to satisfy COVID-19 ventilation requirements complicated the situation.

One morning, Burns received a notice from one teacher whose classroom was a chilly 48 degrees.

"We moved that classroom to the iSchool (another part of the building), where it was comfortable," Burns said. "Three other teachers reported their classrooms were in the 50s, so I put in a repair ticket for all of those rooms and I notified the custodian to check the temperatures."

Burns said that one of the district's HVAC vendors, the FH Maroney company, has been working in the building and was notified about the problems.

"The district has been working on a variety of issues with the HVAC system all summer," Burns said. "Before it was ventilation, now it's the need to calibrate the heat for all classrooms. Teachers report issues to me and I report them to facilities."

By "facilities,'' Burns means Assistant Superintendent Michael Pfifferling, who is overseeing building maintenance until the district's newly hired facilities director starts his job at the end of the month.

"The rule is for windows of all classrooms to be open at least three inches, which exacerbates the problem (of cold) in some rooms," Burns said of ventilation required by COVID-19 regulations. "From what some veteran teachers say, this (problem of inconsistent temperatures) has been ongoing for a number of years."

Pfifferling said he and Superintendent Margaret Marotta have been working on the issue for months.

"At the high school, a lot of issues are with HVAC controls and we are making progress as some rooms that were overly hot or cold are better, while some we have yet to dial in the right settings," he said. "This is an ongoing effort and is no different that any other school district that has heating issues."

He cited issues with equipment such as dampers that are either bringing in too much fresh air or not enough, and valves that allow too much hot water or too little to flow.

Pfifferling said that when one problem is resolved, another seems to pop up.

"We've invested a lot of time and money, but it's not coming along as fast as we'd like it to," he said.

Stellar Building Technologies of Norwood is handling the electronics portion of the HVAC system, while FH Maroney is handing the mechanical aspects of the system, school officials said.

Pfifferling said the LEFTFIELD company, an HVAC consultant, is helping the vendors communicate and coordinate their efforts, and is also helping to meet ventilation guidelines.

"Now that we have fresh air, we need to control the temperature," Pfifferling said. "Stellar has been here for almost two years under a three-year contract for all buildings and Maroney has been with us for many years, but specifically started this past spring when we identified six schools with mechanical issues ... they did not have consistent heating and cooling."

He said many classrooms at Haverhill High and other schools have ventilation machines called "univents." Some of those machines were identified as needing new parts, he said.

"We have been resolving years of neglect,'' he said. "Now we're on to preventative maintenance.''

Whatever warranties were in place after the high school's $33 million renovation project was done several years ago have expired, Pfifferling said.

"In the past if something was not operating properly, quick fixes were made instead of finding out why a valve wasn't opening and not communicating with their controls," he said of the HVAC system. "We're looking to fix the underlying causes but because of neglect, the problem is now much larger than it should be."


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