Dave Coles, a middle school teacher in Nampa, normally likes to dress up when he goes to work.
But this year, he had to make an exception. The HVAC unit for his classroom at West Middle School broke as temperatures in the Treasure Valley topped 100 degrees. Despite the multiple fans he set up, his classroom’s temperature rose above 80 on some days, he said. So Coles wore shorts.
Coles’ experience is one shared by many across the district. During the first month of school, more than 200 HVAC units across the Nampa School District went down, said Cortney Stauffer, executive director of operations with the district.
The outages forced the district to come up with contingency plans that included bringing in fans and portable AC units, and, in the most extreme cases, moving students to other areas of the building where it was cooler.
Most of the units are working again now, but the district is still waiting on the fix for some.
“We kind of had the perfect storm I believe, where we have an aging infrastructure, as well as the hottest summer on record that complicated our whole system,” Stauffer told the Idaho Statesman.
Some units ‘outside their time expectancy’
Some of the schools that struggled most with broken units were older buildings, Stauffer said. The record-breaking temperatures over the summer meant units were used more heavily, which may have expedited some of the issues the district saw this year.
“It was our more outdated systems that were being challenged and having problems keeping up with the heat,” Stauffer said.
Some of the systems, he added, are “definitely outside their time expectancy,” and the district plans for some buildings to be upgraded. The typical life expectancy is around 20 to 30 years, but the oldest units are nearly 50 years old.
One elementary school in the district that was built in 1976 still has its original unit. The district is no longer able to get parts for that particular unit, so it had to order a new one that is expected to take months to arrive. The district was able to patch some of the units that went out, but had to replace others.
The outages impacted a “very large percentage” of students,” Stauffer said. Some of the units that went out are classroom units and some are multi-classroom units, depending on the building.
The district worked to keep classrooms as comfortable as possible and said they were able to mitigate much of the impact.
HVAC outages a result of aging buildings
Nampa schools typically have outages, Stauffer said, but not to this extent.
“This was just extremely abnormal,” he said.
Normally, the district services 20 to 30 units a month — but most of those are “not completely breaking down” like what the district saw this year, Stauffer said.
The costs to repair and replace the units have topped $150,000, but that is expected to rise as the district processes pending invoices, Stauffer said. Because so many units went down, the district also brought in third-party services for some of the work. The district only has two HVAC personnel on the team.
Stauffer said he didn’t have a staff equipped to handle so many units in need of fixing.
The outages illustrated a larger issue: the difficulty in maintaining older buildings, he added.
“Now we’re starting to see the struggles of maintaining aging buildings,” Stauffer said. “I do think that that is a component to the Nampa School District. … You get to a point in time where we’re having to look at, what is the next step? How do we keep buildings to the standard that we have and (that) our community expects?”
For Coles, it wasn’t the first time he had issues with the HVAC system. Last year, he said, he lost heat in his classroom for about a week during the winter.
He said he’s tried to keep a positive attitude despite the heat, and his students have done well. Class periods are just under an hour, so students aren’t sitting in a hot classroom all day, he said.
Coles is still waiting on the replacement part to come in for the unit to be fixed, but he praised the district’s maintenance staff for doing everything possible to make it as comfortable as possible.
He said he’s grateful he wasn’t teaching his students the thermal energy unit, when, on the last day of the unit, he gets out propane burners and lets his class make s’mores. That’s perfect for winter, he said.