Ups and Downs of Jackson County Schools

August 7, 2006
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Contractor George Curry Jr., president of Hub Mechanical (right), and Assistant Superintendent Hal Holmes, who oversees school maintenance for the Vancleave Schools, examine the outdoor portion of a Mitsubishi ductless split system. (Feature photos courtesy of Mitsubishi Electric HVAC.)

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - George Curry Sr., president and founder of Hub Mechanical Contractors Inc., has known his fair share of ups and downs. He founded his HVAC, sheet metal, and piping company in 1978, earning a solid reputation for its workmanship.

In 1982, Curry Sr. suffered an extensive back injury. "Hub Mechanical came to a slow crawl," he said. In 1995, he decided to push the commercial contracting company back to the top, with "tough jobs, new construction, big machinery, round-the-clock shutdowns, and fast-track schedules," handled chiefly with his oldest son, George Curry Jr.

Last year, the 70-employee contractor did $12 million worth of work in the school and health care markets. On one school job in particular, Curry Jr. learned about some of those inevitable ups and downs.

Vancleave School District students will be able to hear their teachers and remain comfortable, thanks to new air conditioners installed in schools throughout Jackson County.

WELCOME TO JACKSON COUNTY

The Jackson County School District has a total of 16 schools (elementary, middle, and high). The district encompasses all regions of the county not covered by the school districts of Pascagoula, Gautier, Ocean Springs, and Moss Point.

The 744 square miles of Jackson County are considered the "Gateway to the Mississippi Gulf Coast." The easternmost of three counties located on the Gulf of Mexico, it has a current population of 134,000.

Assistant Superintendent Hal Holmes oversees school maintenance for the Vancleave Schools, which are part of the Jackson County School District. In 2004, Holmes called Alex Weddington, vice president of General Supply & Machine Co. Inc. (GS&M), Meridian, Miss. He wanted to find a solution for noise complaints that were coming from the schools' teachers.

In Jackson County's 282 schoolrooms, teachers were distracted by the 15-plus-year-old window air conditioning units. The noise often was so loud teachers had to shut off the units in order to be heard by their students, Holmes said.

GS&M, it turned out, had recently learned about a possible solution: ductless a/c. Weddington volunteered to remove one old window unit and install a test unit (a Mr. Slim® split-ductless a/c unit from Mitsubishi Electric HVAC) - in one of the classrooms. After just a few weeks of operation, the results were in: The teacher gave it an "A" for low noise and high comfort. The district got the go-ahead to install a lot more.

Contractor George Curry Jr. (right) shows Assistant Superintendent Hal Holmes how to get inside the indoor portion of the ductless split for maintenance. Maintenance entails periodical removal of a filter from each unit, washing and drying it, and replacing it in the unit.

SIX-WEEK TIMETABLE

Holmes had the budget to replace all of the inadequate and mismatched HVAC units in six of the older schools in Vancleave. After receiving a favorable bid from Hub Mechanical, Holmes ordered 282 wall-mounted indoor units and 282 outdoor heat pump units.

Thanks to a coordinated effort between Hub Mechanical, the school's maintenance crews, a local electrical contractor, and GS&M, the classroom transformation took place within the critical six weeks before the start of the fall school season of 2005.

"Holmes took the option for his crews to remove the old units," Curry said. All electrical lines were upgraded and placed underground prior to Weddington's delivery of the selected units to each school.

"Once the old, mismatched units were removed and the new, upgraded electrical service was in place, our crews were able to install 30 units a day," Curry said.

"All we had to do was punch a three-inch hole in an outside wall of each classroom, place the outdoor units on concrete pads supplied by GS&M, hang the indoor units next to the ceiling, and run the refrigerant piping and electrical wiring to connect the outdoor units to the indoor units."

Hub Mechanical boasts of its specialization in sheet metal work. "Our craftsmen take great pride in both the quality of their work and the visual beauty of their finished product," said Curry Jr.

"We know how to custom-build the basics - and the most unusual. We can fabricate even the most difficult and unique items from virtually any type of metal, including stainless steel, aluminum, copper, brass, and special alloys."

This may not be the type of contractor you would expect to champion ductless a/c systems. Yet perhaps it's the company's familiarity with sheet metal work, and the amount of labor it takes to do the job right, that also allows it to appreciate ductless systems.

TWO DAYS LATER

Now we come to the part of the story where George Curry Jr., and everyone else in the area, learned about one of the most dramatic incidents a community could face.

"Right after we finished that project, two days later, Katrina came," Curry said. "Two out of three schools were wiped out on one campus. They were completely gone."

Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc with the roofs of all 16 schools, demolishing an entire elementary school and a middle school six miles from the coast; the schools were totally submerged in the floodwaters.

Weddington, whose great-grandfather started General Supply in 1913, lost his family home to Katrina. "The lessons we all learned were that the smallest things in life we take for granted are priceless," he said.

"It could have been a lot worse," Holmes said. "Thanks in part to putting the electrical service underground, the six schools that received the [ductless] units two weeks before the hurricane only had minor roof damage. The outdoor units all made it through the storm."

Low air conditioner sound levels in the library are particularly important. The split ductless systems got an "A" for low noise and high comfort levels.

GETTING BACK ON TRACK

For the past year, Holmes and Jackson County Superintendent Rucks Robinson have been busy keeping schools open in temporary trailers, patching roofs, demolishing the two destroyed buildings, and working with the district's architectural firm on the design of two new schools. They are being designed to use ductless a/c.

"The old units were energy hogs," Holmes said. The new units draw less than 2 A per unit, versus almost 40 A with the old window units. "We have already seen huge energy savings on power bills."

The new units are also proving to be efficient in the heat pump cycle. Maintenance entails periodical removal of a filter from each unit, washing and drying it, and replacing it in the unit.

Weddington estimated that Jackson County Schools are cooling each classroom for less than $1 per day, for an anticipated seven-year payback.

Contractor Curry, the sheet metal specialist, has become a ductless devotee. "We've put a lot of these in residences," he said. "We're doing a school project in Lamar County (Miss.) on a $43 million bond; we're putting in Mitsubishi. They're efficient to run, don't waste space, and there's not as much to install."

"This technology is a very good fit for us," Holmes said. "Our teachers all love the improved teaching environment, especially the teachers who are challenged to keep the attention of elementary school children. With the old units, teachers could either shout and stay cool, or turn off the units to be heard in an oppressive classroom."

For more information, visit www.mrslim.com.

Publication date: 08/07/2006

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