New school heater literally a breath of fresh air

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Kyle Mittlestadt hooks up a thermostat to the new heating system at Libby Elementary School on Dec. 12, 2017. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

A new heater installed in Libby Elementary School could be helping more than just comfort. By improving the air quality in the classroom, the new system may actually help students stay healthier and learn better.

Libby Elementary Principal Ron Goodman said that the previous heating system lacked a way for bringing in fresh air. It was old enough that the only way to get parts for it was to find spares: no one made new parts for the existing system.

Originally, a possible State House bonding bill, House Bill 14, was expected to fund a new heating system in the elementary school, as well as replacing heaters in the middle school and high school and parking lot improvements and repairs.

However, when House Bill 14 failed to pass, the school district had to prioritize and instead paid for the elementary school heater out of the local levy, said Superintendent Craig Barringer.

Stale air

Sometime in the 1980s, the outside vents on the old heating system at Libby Elementary were sealed off, said Goodman. The idea at the time was to increase efficiency.

“There was no fresh air in this building — just what was coming through the doors and windows,” Goodman said.

According to a 2012 study by researchers at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, when carbon dioxide in a room reached 1,000 ppm, the cognitive ability of test subjects was noticeably decreased.

While carbon dioxide had not been considered previously except as an indicator of stale air because it is not inherently toxic, the study was the first time scientists looked at the effects of the common product of humans respirating in such low concentrations.

At higher concentrations, the decrease in capacity for decision-making tasks reached 94 percent in some subjects.

Goodman said that they had not been able to measure carbon dioxide levels before the new heating system was installed. After the installation, he checked the levels in a room where the heater had to be shut off when it needed maintenance.

The classroom reached 1,800 ppm, he said.

In rooms where the heaters are running properly, the carbon dioxide levels stay around 800-900 ppm even while classrooms are filled with students, he said.

In addition, while the year has seen many schools sending home large numbers of kids who are sick, Goodman said Libby Elementary has not seen the large spike other schools are seeing.

While he can’t conclude definitely that bringing in fresh air has made the difference in having children who are both more aware and healthier, Goodman said he suspects it has had an impact.

Keep on improving

While the heating system loses some efficiency by bringing fresh air into the building, the system can now be programmed to keep rooms warm only when they need to be, Goodman said. As a result, he expects the cost to heat to neither increase nor decrease significantly.

But, there have been other improvements, such as replacing all the lights in the elementary school with LEDs. Not only will it save energy, but time as well.

“The replacement of light bulbs and ballasts — that was almost a full time job,” he said.

In addition to ongoing roof repairs — the school has around 2.5 acres of roof — the school also made the bleachers more accessible, Goodman said. Previously, the first step was 17 inches he said.

For comparison, the common height of a step such as in a home is 7 inches, by international building standards.

In addition, there is ongoing work on the culvert that runs under the school parking lot, Goodman said. That work is being done to avoid potential flooding from the aging culvert collapsing.

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