A set of round dials mounted on a monitoring box in a cramped maintenance room are supposed to measure air pressure through the pneumatic system in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s administration building.
However, one or two were conspicuously twisted around to zero. Borough Maintenance Department Director Scott Griebel tapped on one, noting that it was probably broken, before opening up the box to show the pneumatic controls behind the building’s heating and cooling system. Pneumatic systems are largely outdated in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems these days, like many of the pieces of equipment in the room.
Despite the cool September rain outside, the room is uncomfortably warm, courtesy of the two boilers dominating the space closest to the door. The two pieces of equipment date back to 1971, when the building was constructed. Over the years, they’ve been patched with different pieces of equipment to lengthen their lives, Griebel said. Various pieces that go bad within the system can be replaced over time, he said.
“But the actual boilers, probably not,” he said.
On Oct. 3, Kenai Peninsula voters will consider Proposition 2, which asks if the borough administration can issue up to $5 million in bonds to pay for a replacement HVAC system in the George A. Navarre Borough Administration Building in Soldotna. If approved, the bonds are planned to allow the construction to proceed in phases over about three years, keeping the operations in the building running as much as possible. The building houses most of the borough’s departments as well as several Kenai Peninsula Borough School District offices.
The HVAC system has needed repairs for some time. In the summer, parts of the building are excessively hot, especially on the southern side where the sun hits, while others are too cold, and doors and windows get left open. In the winter, many employees stash space heaters near their desks to make up for the lack of heat in parts of the building, which draw down on electricity and run a risk of fire if one sparks or tips over without the owner noticing.
Fundamentally, the system controlling the air temperature in the building runs back down to the boiler room, which also houses an air compressor. The air is distributed through the building using a series of fans, supplemented by baseboard heat through copper piping. The fans system is also old, and the copper piping can face issues of corrosion. Griebel said the maintenance department keeps an eye on issues as they crop up with the baseboard heating system. However, the corrosion is on the inside of the pipes, which is hard to preemptively address.
“It’s one of those things you can’t fix until something goes wrong,” he said.
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said the problem was apparent even during his first term as mayor in the late 1990s. At the time, he said he planned to address it during his second term, but he did not win a second term, losing the office to Dale Bagley. Since then, the borough has identified the HVAC system repair in its capital project priority list for the state several times. With the decline in state funding in recent years, the likelihood of obtaining state support for capital projects has declined.
Navarre’s administration tried to include the HVAC replacement project in its proposed budget to the assembly, but the assembly amended the budget to remove it, opting instead to issue bonds for the project, if voters approve it.
The project can’t wait much longer, Navarre said. If the boiler fails, the cost both to deal with the emergency and to keep the borough moving with all the employees displaced will be much greater than fixing the system.
“At some point, that boiler is going to completely fail,” Navarre said during a speech to the joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce during a luncheon Aug. 30. “It’s already difficult enough getting parts. And when that happens, I can assure, the cost of disruption and the cost of getting it done at that time is going to be much, much more expensive.”
In the middle of an election cycle in which much of the borough government will change — with the mayor’s seat and three assembly seats contested, only one of which has an incumbent — most of the candidates have said they recognize it needs to get done, although some somewhat begrudgingly. Mayoral candidate Charlie Pierce has said several times he thought the borough should have been planning for the project years ago. Assembly candidates Duane Bannock in District 2 and Norm Blakeley in District 5 agreed with Pierce, saying the replacement needs to be done but should not have been left until it was critical.
“This is something that should have been budgeted for, but we’re up against the wall,” Pierce said during a Sept. 6 mayoral candidate forum during a joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce luncheon. “It’s got to get done.”
Navarre said the borough had extra money in its fund balance several years ago. However, the borough doesn’t have dedicated funds within its general fund, and when there’s excess money, it tends to get used elsewhere. The assembly approved a budget for fiscal year 2018 that depends on the fund balance to make ends meet, which Navarre has expressed concerns about for the long-term fiscal health of the borough. The administration’s projections show that at the current spending rate without a tax increase of some kind will use up the borough’s fund balance within a few years.
“You have two options (to pay for the HVAC replacement),” Navarre said. “You can either borrow money or spend it out of the fund balance, which isn’t possible right now.”
Members of the current assembly have also expressed support for the HVAC system replacement because of concerns about the space heaters’ energy consumption and the efficiency that will be achieved through a new system. If the bonds are approved, the new system will be a variable refrigerant flow system rather than the existing boiler system, Griebel said.
In basic terms, variable refrigerant flow systems use refrigerant as both the heating and cooling methods. The liquid is pumped continuously throughout the building through a pipe system. When a room is cooler than desired, the refrigerant releases some heat, and if it’s too warm, it absorbs some of the heat, moderating the temperature throughout the building.
It also allows some heat to be redirected. Griebel gave the example of the computer server room in the building’s bottom floor, which generates a lot of heat and has to be kept very cool to keep the servers running. Although there’s some increase in energy consumption because the pumps have to be running all the time, the gas usage with the new system is likely to decrease, he said.
Navarre said the administration had not done a cost analysis on energy savings with a new HVAC system. However, an analysis commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Commerce in February 2015 on the efficiency of variable refrigerant flow systems in cold climates showed energy savings of between 10 percent and 82 percent depending on the type of building, its age and type of system installed, according to the analysis.
Griebel added that over the years, the borough administration and maintenance staff has “done due diligence” in extending the life of the boiler system. The maintenance department does regular checks on the borough’s buildings each year, but the borough maintains a lot of facilities, between its direct government buildings and all the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilities. The boilers in the borough building have been repaired many times over the years.
“We’ve just kept them going,” he said. “…You face obsolescence eventually.”