Fairbanks school gets experimental ventilation upgrade

Posted: Monday, February 14, 2011

FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is installing a new type of ventilation system at one of the district’s elementary schools.

Sam Harrel / SAM HARREL
Sam Harrel / SAM HARREL

Facilities Assistant Superintendent Dave Ferree hopes the new equipment will pick up smaller particulate matter than the old system, potentially increasing air quality in Woodriver Elementary.

A typical winter morning outside Woodriver includes wood smoke pluming from surrounding wood boilers. Oftentimes, the smoke makes its way into the school’s parking lot, then begins to permeate the building. Sometimes it’s unnoticeable, sometimes it’s just a bad smell and sometimes it’s visible indoors.

“Today, it’s the smell,” Laura Palomino, Woodriver’s attendance secretary, said on Friday morning.

“On a bad air day, I hear about it” from either phone calls or students coughing, principal Jeffrey Mann said.

The building has four air handling units (fans) that circulate air throughout the school and gym. They run constantly when the building is occupied and 24 hours per day when it is colder than 20 below zero outside. Air that becomes somewhat stale from sitting in the classroom is sucked through a fan, mixed with fresh air from outdoors and circulated again. Each fan has a ventilation system.

The old system used passive bag types, which inflated with the airflow, and collected particulates as the air blew through. The bag system was enhanced by pre-filters which are less expensive and less purifying. They catch the bigger stuff before it hits the main filters.

The new system still uses the pre-filters because it is more economically efficient to save the more expensive filters. After air blows through the pre-filters, it enters electro-static V-Bank filters, where the particles get hit with a charge. They are then attracted to the fibrous material of the filters and stick. They are supposed to catch smaller particles, like those in wood smoke, than the bag filters.

For the past couple weeks, the district’s maintenance foreman Scott House and his crew of technicians have been installing the new filters. They plan to be finished up by around Tuesday.

Houser is optimistic about seeing results from the filters. He said they are used in hospitals and casinos around the nation. In casinos, they filter out cigarette smoke.

Ferree is cautiously optimistic. He said “there are no magic wands” when it comes to air quality.

“I don’t want to oversell it or undersell it,” he said. “Before we do it again, we’ll want to make sure it works.”

The process is an expensive one, with the cost of installation, labor, lost routine maintenance time and time for planning. Ferree would like to see positive results before installing the filters in other schools. For Woodriver’s relatively small building, replacing the filters cost about $44,000, not including labor. For bigger schools like West Valley or Lathrop high schools, it would be much more expensive.

Ferree said the district could possibly look for grants in the future for replacing more schools’ ventilation systems.

The district did air quality testing inside the building before beginning the new filter installations, and plans to do more testing once they are fully functional.

“It’d be nice if the air filter works,” Principal Mann said Friday. As he explained the complaints from parents and the possible health issues for children, he said it would be nicer if they didn’t have to worry about it in the first place.

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