Problems plague costly school A/C, while cheaper program makes headway

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A $100 million pledge aimed to cool classrooms statewide. That was just a few years ago, and some of those classrooms are heating up again as the costly systems are breaking down.

The $100 million ended up covering only about one-tenth of public school classrooms in Hawaii, and schools that received the costly systems report broken ones already or that when they do work it’s for a short time. Now, there’s a new plan for cheaper and more reliable a/c, for schools that qualify.

When students at Waialua High and Intermediate School found out they were on the state’s “Heat Abatement Priority List” a few years back they thought that was pretty cool.

“A lot of people talk and say ‘oh my goodness it’s just so hot you know,’” recalls Ailani Grach, now a sophomore. “It’s generally hot and a lot of students would show obvious discomfort.”

In came solar-powered air conditioning contraptions and when the new school year started in the heat of August 2017, the students had high hopes for low temps

“Some just did not work, some did break,” Grach said. “One of the classrooms I have has an A/C but it only works one time a day, so sometimes the teachers doesn’t even decide to turn it on in our class, so it’s really hot, and it’s right after weight training.”

As of the beginning of this school year, 16 units were not working, on systems that cost an average of $40,000 grand per classroom in the $100 million statewide push.

Always Investigating asked Waialua administration, were they surprised about the reliability issues?

“Yes, I was,” said Waialua Vice Principal Neal Okamoto. “I was expecting it not to have any problems. The biggest problem seems to be with power going to the condensing units which cool the room; those tend to go out first. The air conditioning units that we do have that are inside the room work fine.”

Waialua’s experience is not isolated. Other schools on Oahu and the neighbor islands have had trouble.

“We’ve got to find at the end of the day what it’s going to take to fix the broken ones,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association union. “In some cases, to be energy efficient, they actually made sure you couldn’t open the windows, so when the A/Cs break down it’s actually hotter than it was before.”

And it’s not an easy fix due to the complexity of the systems and the multitude of vendors involved in all the separate components. Waialua called an all-hands-on-deck meeting to figure it out

“All the different companies, the D.O.E., bring everybody together and let’s talk about what’s happening,” explained Waialua Principal Christine Alexander. “Out of 16 units out at the beginning of the year, right now we’re down to six, so there’s definitely some action being taken, and we’re very pleased with the process and the way that we’re all working together. We were fortunate that the state chose our school and we appreciate everything they’re doing to make sure it continues to work well.”

The Department of Education spokesperson would not tell me how many A/C-related repair requests are in the system right now statewide, only vaguely answering “repairs at schools are ongoing and are in various stages.”

Even when they’re up and running, schools with the solar A/C have had to get used to limited run time.

“They were designed for probably about a five hour school day, which took a little while for the teachers and staff to get used to,” Okamoto said.

So is there a better way? The D.O.E. hopes so with its “School Directed A/C” push — allowing basic and affordable window units as long as a school verifies its electrical system can handle the load. That’s something many more are able to achieve after a widespread lightbulb change that slashed school energy usage recently. Rosenlee says it’s a gamechanger

“Things can be done much, much cheaper,” Rosenlee said. “You can probably do a classroom for $2,000 where before it cost $100,000. If a wall unit falls apart after 10 years, then you can replace it. It’s easy to look back now and say we should have done this 5 years ago.”

“It definitely is a gamechanger” Alexander agreed, “and giving the flexibility to make those decisions and spend that money to make the schools cool, that’s a great opportunity for some schools. Other schools like ours, we just don’t have the electrical upgrade to be able to handle the window units but we’re hoping we don’t need them.”

Nearly 60 schools have finished the electrical assessment and about 100 schools have assessments scheduled. At least 200 window units had gone in as of the last unit count in August. The D.O.E. tells KHON2 that it plans to take another installed-unit tally at the end of this quarter.

Whether it will outpace the 1,000-classroom push from a few years back — which yielded about 1,300 cooled rooms — remains to be seen, but no one doubts it should be cheaper on the install. As of this fall about 4,800 out of Hawaii’s 11,000 classrooms had no A/C.

“This year has been a very hot year, we’ve broken may records,” Rosenlee said. “Even if we can get 75 percent of classrooms done through this new method, what are we going to do with the other 25 percent of classrooms that are still too old?”

And that’s where the costly solar systems may still have to come in.

KHON2 asked the Waialua administrators, what are some of the most important lessons learned that schools, parents and students need to be aware of, and the D.O.E?

“I think it’s just understanding what the heat abatement process is,” Okamoto said, “and the communication with the people coming up with the design, as well as after they install it, the usage.”

“A lot of people just think it’s putting A/C units in but it really is more than that, it’s finding many ways to cool the campus and the classrooms,” Alexander said. “That could include fans, ceiling fans in some cases, that could include shade by planting trees. Educating the teachers was something else we learned we need to do a better job of, because they just assumed I have an A/C, when I come in the morning I’ll turn it on and turn it off when I leave. There’s really no reason for the A/C to be on at 7:30-8:00 in the morning, it’s still cool enough. A good time is right before recess or right after.”

Schools that pass the electric capacity test can buy A/C window units from their own budget or get them donated. Click here for details about what’s allowed, and click here to see which schools are taking steps to get the cooling process moving via the School Directed A/C process.

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