FORT SMITH, Ark. - The Fort Smith School System has a stable enrollment and schools that date from 1908 to the 1980s. Many of the older schools have boiler heating systems and window air conditioners. The goal of its upgrade project was to bring contemporary standards of comfort and efficiency to school buildings.

Finding Resources For Building Modernization

"We contracted to have Trane do some major projects," said Lynn Ellison, the Fort Smith Public School District buildings and grounds director. "That allowed us to commit resources and staff to other projects. This was the rationale for a recent major school renovation activity."

This public school district is the fourth largest in Arkansas, with an enrollment of about 12,500.

According to Ellison, the enrollment in the school system is stable, and the district operates 19 elementary schools, four junior high schools, and two high schools.

"We are in the mode of keeping existing schools in good condition, not building new ones," he said. "Our buildings range in age from 1908 to the 1980s." He noted that the older elementary schools use boiler heating systems with window air conditioners, and the newer ones have packaged heating and cooling systems.

Window Cooling Systems A Problem

Ellison indicated that the older buildings are now in the process of having their comfort systems upgraded. "The window air conditioners are a problem," he said. "They're noisy, inefficient, unaesthetic, and they have high maintenance. It is a high priority to replace them with new, better systems."

The school district developed a priority list for the schools, depending on the urgency of the need and the availability of funding. Ellison pointed out that the priority on school renovation was established by the superintendent of schools, Dr. Benny Gooden. "Dr. Gooden has set a very high standard for the educational environment, and has been very supportive of these improvements," Ellison noted.

As with most school districts, the Fort Smith schools operate on a combination of state and local funding. Jim Bradford, sales manager at Trane Arkansas' Springdale commercial sales office, has worked extensively with the school district in recent years and commented on its approach to funding improvements.

"Lynn and his staff have to prioritize their needs, and the list of needed projects never disappears," Bradford said. "They look hard for ways to fund necessary improvements, and they make shrewd decisions on funding."

The district's investigation indicated that they were qualified to receive funding under Qualified Zone Academic Bonds (QZAB), a federal program that provides schools with low interest rate funding for certain improvement projects.

Because of the magnitude of the improvements needed, Ellison said the district would be unable to accomplish them using its own maintenance crews. "We have very competent people - electricians, plumbers, HVAC specialists - but even so, some projects are way too big," he said. "That's why we contracted a major part of these projects to Trane. That way we can commit our staff resources to other projects."

Trane Chosen As Project Partner

The school district chose Trane's Arkansas commercial sales office for this project work because of the sales office's experience with turnkey school projects and the reputation of Trane products. "Also, they offered solutions for improving operating efficiency, which we found attractive. And we were drawn to Trane because of their control systems," added Ellison.

According to Teri Borton, PACT specialist for Trane Arkansas, the Fort Smith Schools project required clear decision making about which activities the district would undertake itself, and which would be undertaken by Trane. "Because of the tight timetables, we didn't want any misunderstandings on who was doing what," Borton said.

For example, the Trusty and Howard Schools were scheduled for upgrading during the summer of 2002. Both Ellison and Bradford noted that a major challenge during the project was that the buildings are old and have been modified many times over the years. Documentation of some building modifications decades ago is poor, even nonexistent. Bradford commenteded, "We made a lot of discoveries as we went along."

Trusty School was built in 1928, with a major addition in 1948, and Howard School was built in 1949, with additions in 1956 and 1962. Both buildings have central heating boilers, and had used room air conditioners for many of the classrooms. Other areas, such as lunchrooms and kitchens, had no cooling systems. Plans were made to remodel the classrooms, improve acoustics, upgrade the comfort systems to provide better cooling and ventilation, and bring the buildings to modern standards for plumbing and electrical systems.

The school district itself would undertake flooring, ceiling, and lighting upgrades, and Trane would handle the balance of the projects. Plans were made to install split-system condensing units along the exterior wall of the school building, and to install air handlers and controls in newly constructed corner utility closets in classrooms and other areas. Trane worked with the school district to design and install architectural screens to conceal and protect the outdoor heat exchange units. The screens are constructed of brick that complements the schools' exteriors.

Fresh-Air Systems To Meet Ventilation Standards

Another feature of the new installation is the use of Trane Packaged Fresh Air Units, Model FAHA, in both schools. These units provide metered levels of conditioned ventilation air to the classrooms, thus ensuring that the classroom can meet the current American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers standard for classroom ventilation of 15 cfm per occupant.

The Model FAHA unit includes an outside air intake, fan, filter, air-cooled compressor for cooling and dehumidification, and gas heat for makeup-air heating. The purpose of the unit is to deliver treated makeup air to allow each of the classrooms to meet the ventilation standard. In situations where subcooling outdoor air is necessary to achieve dehumidification, it is reheated by the unit to achieve a temperature-neutral condition. The entire system in each school is managed by a Trane Tracer Summit building control system. Individual classrooms now have controls to allow local temperature adjustment.

Schedule Requires Tight Coordination

One of the challenges facing both the school district and Trane was to complete the renovation on a strict timeline. At Howard School the schedule was especially challenging because there was only a four-week summer period available to complete most of the work. Additionally, at Howard the auditorium required renovation and addition of a cooling system.

Ellison noted, "Our No. 1 challenge was the schedule." Although preliminary work could begin before classes were dismissed, and final details could be completed after school resumed, most of the work needed to be done while school was out of session. Borton indicated, "By organizing the tasks and using multiple crews simultaneously, the project did not interfere with the resumption of classes on schedule in August."

According to Ellison, school personnel immediately noticed the improved comfort levels in the classroom and administrative areas. "Another frequent comment was on the acoustic improvement by getting rid of those window air conditioners," he stated. "It really improved the learning environment. Lowering the ceilings was a big help, too."

The total project cost was $1,922,344. Improvements are forecast to result in annual maintenance and operational savings of $37,833 and energy savings of $83,251. These savings actually will repay the cost of the work in 13 years. More importantly, however, aging and unreliable systems have been replaced with new equipment that provides higher comfort levels, improved acoustics, and greater dependability. Many areas that previously had not been cooled now are comfortable year-round.

Building modernization work will continue at the Fort Smith School District as other school buildings are coming up for modernization. Ellison hopes eventually to bring all of the school district's schools to contemporary comfort standards, prioritizing projects on the basis of need.

"We continue to like the idea of doing the complete renovation of the school building in one process, contracting out major parts of project management and execution," he said. "We learned in the initial stages that the process works. In this way we can accomplish a lot in a short time."

Publication date: 10/04/2004