Steamboat Springs With a flip of a switch later this week, the South Routt School District will move into the new century of heating systems as the district switches from coal-powered boilers to a new biomass-fueled system.
The switch comes after the district has spent decades using a coal-based system that contractor Ken Anders said he had only studied in classes long ago.
"In 30 years of doing business, I've seen a million abandoned (coal boilers), but this is the first I had seen running," Anders said. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"
Original plans were discovered that showed coal boilers in the schools in the 1920s, and new boilers were installed in the 1970s. A renovation in 2001 did not replace the antiquated system.
"They were past their useful life by 10 to 20 years," said Dave Edsall, site superintendent for McKinstry mechanical contractors.
The coal-based boiler was used to heat the Soroco middle and high schools until the end of last school year, when Anders' crew began retrofitting the system to work with biomass, propane and geothermal heat.
Biomass boilers burn small wood pellets to heat the building. The South Routt district has a contract with a Kremmling business to provide 28-ton deliveries of pellets created from beetle-killed trees.
Edsall estimated the school would need between one and four loads of the pellets per winter.
Superintendent Scott Mader said that along with clearing the school of coal soot, the new heating system also likely would save the district money during the winter. Estimates show it should cost $13,000 to heat the middle school, which relies solely on the biomass boiler.
"If it does that, it would be tremendous," Mader said. "That's just about as cheap as you can heat that."
There is also a guarantee by McKinstry that the system will cost no more than the coal-burning boiler it replaced.
Anders and his team began working last school year to complete the pipes in the school before the school year ended, working at night to not disturb the classes.
"We would come in during the evening, take down the ceiling (tiles), put in the pipe, and put the ceilings back up by the morning," he said. "Teachers didn't even know we were in there."
Anders said he typically had a team of four to 12 workers begin at 5 p.m. and work "just as many hours as we could stand," finishing at about 5 a.m. They started after spring break last year and completed the piping before the end of the school year.
But the quick turnaround also was one of the reasons, along with the new technology, that enticed Anders to work on the project.
"I haven't worked in the field for 12 years, but when I saw this job, I jumped at it," he said. "I don't know why, but I like the tight schedule. It keeps me sharp and on my toes."
The project will be finished this week as a technician from the Oregon-based manufacturer of the boiler, SolaGreen Inc., programs the device and trains local staff on its use.
"We're still making some adjustments where there are some cold spots or warm spots," Mader said. The school has been using a propane boiler in the place of the biomass burner during construction, and the propane boiler will remain in place as a backup system.
Gov. Bill Ritter in May visited the school and praised its transition to a new energy model. Ritter also estimated the school would emit 977 fewer tons of carbon dioxide annually by switching away from coal.
The improvements were funded through state grants and voters' approval of a $1.57 million bond issue in November.
The biomass boiler will be used primarily in the Soroco Middle School, where officials did not want to change the historic nature of the building by replacing the cast-iron radiators throughout the building. The middle school also is part of a larger, $5.1 million project to update all the heating systems in the schools.
In the high school, elementary school and administrative offices, the old heating system was replaced primarily through geothermal regulation, which uses liquid pumped through underground tubes to produce a constant temperature.
Two geothermal fields were installed during the summer, one on the hillside above the high school and one under the elementary school sports fields. Anders said the coils work like refrigerators, taking heat from the ground and expelling it in the school, and switching the operation in the summer to keep buildings cool.
Propane-powered infrared heaters are used to warm large open rooms in the bus barn, vocational technology building and the high school gym.
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