Photo by Matt Stensland
South Routt School District Superintendent Scott Mader says burning wood pellets has been a big improvement from the coal that was used in past years.
South Routt School District's first winter with new biomass and geothermal heating systems included some headaches but no regrets.
"There were definitely some adjustments that had to be made like any big project," said Superintendent Scott Mader, who said tweaks had to be made to make sure school buildings were being heated uniformly. "During those cold days, we'd really find out where those problems were. : But we're just so glad to have it other than coal. We're so happy with it."
The Soroco middle and high schools were heated with 30-year-old coal boilers until the end of last school year, when state grants and voters' approval of a $1.57 million bond issue allowed the district to replace the antiquated, dirty and dangerous system with a combination of biomass boilers that burn wood pellets, geothermal regulation and propane heaters.
Because of the growing pains, Mader said it is too soon to say whether the system has resulted in any measurable energy cost savings for the district.
"We really won't know what that looks like until we go through another year of it," Mader said. "Next year will be our base year for that. : I anticipate very few problems next year."
School Board President Tim Corrigan said energy costs savings were never the main goal of the project.
"I don't think we ever anticipated we were going to have any energy savings from the installation of that system," said Corrigan, who noted the low price of coal. "Our energy costs were always very low."
Although it may take some time to gauge the economic success of the new heating system, Corrigan and Mader said quality of life in the school buildings already has improved immensely.
"We had a constant cloud of dust, especially in classrooms and other areas that were adjacent to the coal boilers," Corrigan said. "It was bad. We always had a layer of coal dust on everything."
Mader only became superintendent in June, but he said that even he is starting to notice the disappearance of some lingering coal residue.
"I wasn't here, but people say it's an unbelievable difference," Mader said. "It's much, much better."
Corrigan said another benefit of the new heating system is that - now that the bugs are worked out - it requires much less attention from the district's maintenance staff, who now can attend to other needs.
"In the past, we had to have people constantly monitoring the coal boilers to keep them up and running," Corrigan said.
Mader said the district now is exploring whether it can heat the old gym on its secondary schools campus with the biomass boilers. The gym is heated by propane, and making the switch is dependent on the capacity of the boilers and would require new ductwork.
"We think that if we had that opportunity to heat it with the pellet boiler, it might save us some money," Mader said.