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The Case of The HVAC

An Update on AJA’s High School HVAC System

In an interview last November with Palette, Ms. Helen Haney, AJA CFO, predicted that issues with the High School HVAC system would be resolved “within the next two weeks.” Now a year later, with temperatures reaching above 80 degrees in parts of the 400s Hallway, it has become clear that these issues require more time than predicted. Throughout the past year, AJA’s facility team engaged in a constant push-and-pull battle with the High School’s HVAC unit as they worked to repair it, in Ms. Haney’s words, “once and for all.”

Although the timeline for repairing the HVAC has lasted longer than expected, Ms. Haney’s understanding of the faults with the system remain consistent. Just as she explained last year, Ms. Haney still believes that miscommunication between a large HVAC unit that rests on the roof of the 400s hallway and thermostats downstairs causes the overarching issue. The thermostats report an inaccurate temperature to the unit, and it heats or cools the hallway when it should not. Additionally, the people who constructed the High School installed the duct work running throughout the 400s improperly, so the air blown down the hallway does not optimally flow into some classrooms. Considering both of these issues, the facilities team last year looked into upgrading the HVAC unit above the hallway and potentially redoing parts of the duct work.

This process, however, took longer than expected. Although now part of the High School, the unit above the 400s hallways actually belonged to the older part of the AJA campus prior to the addition of the High School wing, making it approximately 30 years old. According to Ms. Haney, the parts needed to repair the system are “no longer existent,” so the HVAC unit requires an “upgrade… to a whole new system.” Supply chain shortages caused by COVID-19, however, extended the timeframe for this project.

While waiting for the pieces of this new unit to arrive, teachers in the 400s hallway felt the effects of the issues with the HVAC unit. For instance, math teacher Mr. Bill Feinberg reported that his classroom “unfortunately got to an incredibly uncomfortable 82 degrees.” He recalled, “I was ready to pass out.” Dean of Students and Hebrew Teacher Moreh Danny Nurafshan agreed, stating that the “scorching heat” in his room earlier in the year “was not conducive to learning.” To combat the heat, Moreh Danny attempted to take his classes outside, but he struggled to maintain the classroom decorum in an informal outdoor setting.

Throughout the past year, several teachers, including Mr. Feinberg, submitted tickets regarding the high temperatures in the 400s hallway. However, Ms. Haney explained that because the facilities team already understands the complex issues with the HVAC system, “there’s not that much that we [can] do other than fix things on the ground.” Ms. Haney and the AJA facilities team conducted several walk-throughs down the hallway to assess the need for fans and portable units and respond accordingly. Ms. Haney purchased three stand-up fans for each classroom along the hallway and installed “portable air conditioning units for a couple of the classrooms that tended to get more hot than others.” Yet, for Mr. Feinberg, “two big fans… in both corners of the room” still proved unsuccessful at combating the heat because “all it really did was blow hot air around the room.”

In contrast to the warm temperatures of the 400s hallway, the chemistry and biology labs upstairs reach cooler temperatures. Ms. Haney acknowledged feedback she heard from students who shifted between “really, really freezing” temperatures upstairs to “really, really hot” classrooms across the 400s hallway.

Although most of the classrooms upstairs drop to cold temperatures, Mrs. Hana Hecht’s Room 525 experiences warm temperatures, as it did last year. Mrs. Hecht attested that her room frequently climbs to “77 degrees, and when the heat kicks on, well, it kicks on.” She lamented, “I’m dying… it’s very hard to teach in such heat.” Contrastingly, Room 524 next door, where Dr. Corrie Stephenson and Mrs. Catherine Brand teach, drops to cool temperatures. For instance, one morning, Dr. Stephenson recounted that the room reached 49 degrees. “I don’t complain when it’s between 60 and 70,” she reasoned, “but 49’s a bit too cold.”

Noting complaints from students and teachers regarding the science labs, Ms. Haney clarified that the thermostat controls for these rooms reside in the HS Business office, so “if the teachers are ever too cool or thermostats need to be adjusted in any way, the teachers just need to email our Director of Facilities Mr. Steven Anderson or put in a maintenance request.” However, Dr. Stephenson and Mrs. Brand posited that adjusting the thermostat is not enough to adjust the temperatures in their classroom. Mrs. Brand explained that even when the facilities team sets the temperature higher in her classroom, it does not reach the set threshold in reality. The opposite effect occurs in Mrs. Hecht’s room. Dr. Stephenson recalled one occasion when “the heat was still blasting” past 76 degrees in Mrs. Hecht’s room “even though her temperature was set to 69.”

“….the reason for temperature fluctuations upstairs remains a mystery…”

Dr. Stephenson believes this phenomenon results from the thermostats measuring the temperatures in Rooms 524 and 525 incorrectly. Although last year Dr. Stephenson was “not entirely sure [of] what [was] causing the problem,” she and Mrs. Brand have since understood from HVAC companies that have worked on the High School’s system that “the sensor in Mrs. Hecht’s room that talks to the thermostat downstairs is too close” to their own room, 524. This causes “the heat in [Mrs. Hecht’s] room to kick on and overheat” due to reading the temperature from the cooler room next door. Mrs. Brand has taught in Room 524 since its addition to the High School building and heard from HVAC companies that the system’s faults trace back to the construction of the High School wing in that “the sensors weren’t where they were supposed to be according to the building plans.” However, the incorrect placement of the sensors remains a theory; according to Mrs. Brand, “the long and the short of it is that we don’t actually know what causes it, [but] I strongly suspect that mistakes were made with the initial installation of the HVAC system in the new construction, [and they] have just pervaded.”

While the reason for temperature fluctuations upstairs remains a mystery, Ms. Haney expressed prospects of resolving the problem in the 400s hallway downstairs. She explained that AJA worked with an HVAC company to place an order for the parts to replace the unit above the 400s hallway. Around Thanksgiving, Ms. Haney predicts that the final parts of the unit will arrive after extended delays, and the HVAC company will finally install the unit on the roof with a crane, work to repair the duct work, and upgrade the HVAC system throughout the hallway as needed.

Although the issues with the HVAC have persisted months into the school year, the installation of a new unit in the 400s hallway might mean the end of a long battle with the hallway’s HVAC system. In the science labs upstairs, however, the fluctuations in temperature remain a mystery that has yet to be solved.

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