Granite Falls Advocate Tribune
  • A big smelly headache, hopefully cured

  • “It’s been extremely frustrating,” sighed Linda Richter.   Richter is a sixth grade teacher at YME.  Her classroom, 108, is located in on the first floor of the west wing of the high school.  The extremely frustrating ‘it’ has been a recurring, intermit...
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  • “It’s been extremely frustrating,” sighed Linda Richter.
    Richter is a sixth grade teacher at YME. Her classroom, 108, is located in on the first floor of the west wing of the high school. The extremely frustrating ‘it’ has been a recurring, intermittent problem with noise and odor in her classroom.
    “We noticed it last fall, back in the corner; we could hear voices and pounding. Since there was a class in the shop, we figured it was noise from the shop.”
    The high school ag shop is located directly below Richter’s classroom.
    When asked to identify, on a scale of one to ten – one being the lowest and 10 being when students were relocated to another room for classes – how disruptive the noise was, she answers, “oh, I’d say a one. You had to be in that corner to hear them, and you couldn’t understand what they were saying, you could hear them. Sometimes when my students were working quietly in the room I would notice them keeping time to the pounding sounds”.
    Keeping time to the pounding sounds, gave way to a real problem in October. “I could smell fuel oil – diesel.” This time the disruptive level was at a 7 or 8. Richter notified High School Principal Karen Norell. Norell had Francis Stabb check the source of the order. “It was coming from the shop,” said Stabb.
    With the source identified, it seemed that the solution would be a simple fix of recalibrating the new air handling system. Stabb also noted a shaft running up from the ag shop that contained pipes to a sink located in the suspect corner of Richter’s room. He filled the shaft with insulation and caulked the sink in the classroom.
    Not so simple. Recalibrating a 21st century air handling system installed in an early 20th century building turned into a series of frustrating fix and eliminate solutions; solutions that did not solve the problem.
    The new air handling system that serves the west wing of the high school is actually three sealed units. One unit controls the hallway on the first floor, Richter’s classroom and Jim William’s classroom, a second unit controls Stacy Hinz’s first floor classroom and the high school offices, the third unit controls the library and Spanish room.
    In addition to filling the shaft with insulation and caulking the sink, Stabb contacted Energy Services Group (ESG), the company that installed the system, and recalibrated the unit in Richter’s room.
    It seemed to be working, but the noises could still be heard. In February there was another odor of small engines in the classroom. The shop teacher confirmed that students were running small engines in the classroom. Administration told the teacher to run all small engines outside the building. The ag shop door was opened and engines were run outside.
    Page 2 of 3 - The next incident was the heavy order of paint. Students were spray painting in the shop. Administration told the shop teacher to have the students spray paint in the explosion proof paint booth in the wood shop.
    “I lost sleep over this,” said Francis Stabb. “I don’t have to work in the classroom, but I felt bad for the kids.” The kids, teachers and para were all experiencing physical discomfort as a result of the orders migrating into Richter’s room. Even though William’s room was on the same air handling system the problem in his room was not as severe as in Richter’s room. Richter indicated that on a scale of 1 to 10, once again the discomfort reached levels of 7-8. Teachers in the other rooms on the west wing indicated that they were aware of the odors but they were not as bad as in Richter’s room. The problems included headaches, eye and throat irritation. “Some kids got headaches, but no one was sent home, not that I know of,” said Richter.
    Then on Friday, April 13th, when the smell of gasoline permeated the room, Richter moved the students. “We took them to the computer lab, the auditorium and Little Theatre, anywhere we could go.”
    Stabb had been notified there was a spill in the ag shop and found about a cup and a half of gasoline spilled on the shop room floor. “It was old gas from a lawn mower,” said Stabb. He immediately cleaned up the gas and covered the spill area with floor dry, “but it had already penetrated the cement floor.”
    The students were kept out of the classroom again on Monday, April 16th. “When we got back on Monday, the odor was still really strong. By noon, with the air handling system back on, the odor was gone and we returned to our room,” said Richter.
    Even though the problem had been ongoing throughout the year, when people from ESG came, they indicated they couldn’t detect any odors and said the systems were sealed so it couldn’t be the air handling system. When Superintendent Al Stoeckman walked through the area he was unable to detect any odors. Richter indicated that it was frustrating being told there was no problem, when clearly there was a problem.
    After the gas spill on April 13th, a meeting with a school board members and school staff was held on Wednesday, April 15 to see what steps could be taken to solve the problem. Testing the shop and lower level of the west wing was scheduled for Friday, April 20, after school. ESG Onsite Project Manager Buzz Comstock, Steve Musser, President of Musser Environmental, an independent environmental firm, and staff from YME were present.
    Comstock explained that tests did not necessarily reflect the way the system runs in ‘normal mode’ but were used to trouble shoot the spaces in question and rule things out. The test began at 3:30 pm and concluded at 6:45 pm. Musser took readings on air quality before, after and during the test. Stabb smoked up the ag shop with an industrial smoke machine from top to bottom.
    Page 3 of 3 - No matter what tests were bring run, Musser observed smoke under the sink located in the corner of Richter’s room, moving in and out (puffing) when the ag shop door was opened and closed. Other observations noted by ESG indicate that it appears all three units and the ag shop general exhaust need to be programmed to run together to maintain negative pressure in the ag shop.
    The focus of the smoke test was the sink in Richter’s room. The original plans that ESG used to install the air 21st century air handling system did not include the 20th century shaft that was being used as a plumbing chase that runs to the sink. ESG also checked for a similar shaft in room 110 and found a shaft that goes to the attic that was open. The shaft in 110 was not shown on the original plans. It was noted that the odors that came through the sink location could easily travel back through the air handling system in the return air and spread through the entire wing.
    After running the test the proposed action plan is to have Stabb coordinate the removal of the pipes in the shaft and the sink in room 108. The air shaft holes will be sealed both in Richter’s classroom and William’s classroom (110). Until then, Stabb has filled all the spaces leading into the sink with caulk.
    ‘It’ has been a very frustrating school year for sixth grade students, teachers, staff, and administrators. “The air handling system has been great, especially on the really warm days”, shared Richter, “I hope the problem is over.”
    One other comment noted in ESG’s report is yet another example of 21st century technology being installed in an early 20th century building: The report states, “since we cannot see above the metal ceiling [in the ag shop], we also cannot 100 percent verify that the ag shop part of the shaft is also open at the ag shop ceiling.

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