Wake’s school HVAC units haven’t done well in the heat. How will they handle the cold?

After a troubled start to the school year, Wake County school leaders hope the upcoming winter won’t bring more HVAC issues that cause students to be sent home early.

Widespread HVAC outages at the start of the school year have led multiple Wake schools to dismiss early or even close for the day because the campus has been too hot to hold classes.

During an update this week on HVAC maintenance, school board members asked staff about the potential for heating system failures this winter. Nate Slavik, who is the senior director of maintenance and operations, told the board that the district is in better shape with its heating systems.

“I feel like we’re in a better position,” Slavik said during the board’s facilities committee meeting. “But again, we are going to have issues and will do our best to address them as quickly as they show up.”

Slavik said two dedicated boiler technicians are on staff to make repairs and do preventative maintenance all year. That’s in contrast to air conditioning repairs, where Wake’s one in-house chiller technician position has been vacant since the person retired earlier this year.

In addition, Slavik said Wake runs the boilers in the summer to dehumidify schools, so the district knows what shape those units are in.

Cold winter temperatures can be a problem. Slavik previously blamed the excessively cold temperatures last Christmas for damaging HVAC units at several schools.

Milder weather brings HVAC relief

But the weather has been a friend lately to repair crews. After a blisteringly hot start to the school year, temperatures have been milder lately.

The front of Apex Friendship High School in Apex, N.C., in this 2015 file photo. Despite being less than 10 years old, it had to close for multiple days this school year due to the HVAC system not working at full capacity.
The front of Apex Friendship High School in Apex, N.C., in this 2015 file photo. Despite being less than 10 years old, it had to close for multiple days this school year due to the HVAC system not working at full capacity.

“Maintenance continues to work on outstanding HVAC issues around the district, and the milder weather has been very helpful,” Slavik said.

Milder weather has allowed Wake to schedule larger repairs at schools that Slavik says require HVAC units to be powered down for the day.

The HVAC Department will work throughout the winter to make sure units are ready for the spring, according to Slavik.

“There’s still a considerable amount of work to do,” Slavik said. “Many chillers are still in need of diagnosis and repair.”

Aging workforce

Wake has blamed HVAC issues on both staffing vacancies in the HVAC Department and a shortage of parts.

Slavik said that having a chiller technician on staff allowed them to do repairs and preventative maintenance all year.

“Losing that staff member, I don’t think we did a good enough job of passing along those responsibilities to an outside vendor,” Slavik said. “We will going forward.”

Slavik said some vendors have loaned them teams to work on the HVAC units.

But vendors are also dealing with staffing shortages. School board vice chair Chris Heagarty said most HVAC workers in Wake County in the public and private sectors are over age 50.

‘There’s a real shortage of skilled labor in this area right now where we live, so that’s going to be a real challenge for us,” said Heagarty, who chairs the facilities committee.