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Perham-Dent school board votes to hire engineer to look at heating system

The Perham-Dent Board of Education recently approved the hiring of an engineer to look into what's causing problems with Prairie Wind Middle School's geothermal heating system.

According to Fred Sailer, building and grounds director, five of 19 main headers (that connect the underground pipe that transfers thermal energy) are currently failing, or have lost pressure. Sailer believed it could have been because the fittings that are failing weren't installed properly or that the pipe was becoming brittle. The system is at about 74 percent efficiency right now, Sailer said, and he believed the school could get through the winter.

A geothermal heat pump system transfers heat from the ground into the space being conditioned during winter months and transfers excess heat from the structure back into the ground during the summer months.

Sailer said that in residential applications with similar problems, lawsuits have been filed, but the Perham School District would be the first institution to do so if it comes to that.

However, Sailer said, until an engineer analyzes the situation, nothing can be done.

"We have not yet determined what the problem is," Sailer said. "And we've refused to dig in there, it could do more damage."

A possible fix, Sailer said, is to add a high-efficiency boiler that would post the temperature of the water coming in from the well field.

"We have noticed that the temperature coming in is cooking down, more that we've seen in the past," he said.

A boiler could cost about $40,000, Sailer said, and he suggested using deferred maintenance money to do that if needed. The district receives about $100,000 per year in deferred maintenance funding that can only be used for capital outlay projects. District officials believe the money could be used to hire the engineer also. The board unanimously voted to hire an engineer.

Until then, Sailer said he will work with area contractors to lay out a plan for services. The district has notified the insurance company and filed a letter regarding a warranty with the manufacturing company. Sailer said there is a 25-year warranty and the district is about 15 years into it.

"I believe we'll get through the winter," he said. "But I don't expect we'll have to leave that building."

Superintendent Tamara Uselman also advocated hiring an engineer.

"This is a very serious issue," she said. "There is a cost in the short run that will be beneficial in the long run."