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School Wood Boiler 

Upgrade in Limbo


By: David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, October 5, 2011

FORT FAIRFIELD—The wood boiler project at Fort Fairfield High school has run into some unforeseen logistics problems and the school board is currently considering options to complete it.

The school district recently received a $500,000 Forestry Service grant to install a wood chip boiler. The grant was intended to help augment the forest industry in Maine, so either wood pellets or chip technology would have to be used.

The original plan was to place a boiler with pit storage behind the shop section of the High School. The boiler proposed would have been large enough to heat both the Middle/High School and Elementary School buildings. However, upon commencement of the project it was discovered ledge was too close to the surface of the ground and there was an abnormally high water table, which prohibited the construction of the building in the proposed area.

The original project came in at just under $1.5 million. With half a million dollars coming from the grant, the thought was the $1 million balance would be derived from local money and be paid off over fourteen to sixteen years in the cost savings of wood chips over fuel oil.

The ledge and water table issues have moved the boiler location across the driveway to the hill behind the school.

“There were other cost factors that did not come in as anticipated. So that brought the price of the project with the below grade boiler to $1.9 to $1.95 million,” said Superintendent, Marc Gendron. “I asked Trane Corporation—the people who designed the original system—to come up with some different engineering options. “

One option presented was two pellet boilers, one at the high school and one at the elementary school. “That means no piping in between schools,” said Gendron. “The pellet option would be $1.5 million. But the cost of pellets is not quite as efficient as wood chips. The good part is the project costs less but the bad part is the gap between BTUs per million on the pellets and the wood chips. The wood chips are a little better value, so if you look really long range it looks to me like the wood chips are better.”

Gendron told the school board the benefit of the pellet option is that it makes the project easier. “We can get it in a lot quicker, we don't have to dig a trench between the two buildings.”

The second option presented was to go with the above grade wood chip operation. “In other words, don't dig the pit. To do that we're going to have to have a bigger building. If we go that route we're going to have to have a referendum to build a building right behind the school greater than 600 square feet.” In the State of Maine if anything built near a school greater than 600 square feet it has to go to referendum. “So if we build an above grade wood chip storage facility right behind the school everything still remains the same. The boiler would be in that building, too, separate from the school, pipe it in, tie into our system here, run the trench to the elementary school, and then heat both buildings.”

A third option is a coal fired boiler - one in each building. “It's very similar to the pellet option. Coal is what's being installed at the town office. Obviously we don't have the depth of knowledge on that because it came up fairly recently. That's an option, though and something we can explore if we're interested.”

Gendron explained that coal burners look like they're going to cost less to install, but the cost per BTU is not as efficient as wood chips. “The coal option has not been engineered and there are questions on stack emissions and coal ash complying with DEP rules. Also, if we take the coal option then we obviously don't have the $500,000 grant because the grant is a forest industry grant.”

The U.S. money, as enshrined in the Federal Reserve Note has lost about 11 percent of its value against oil over the past decade and with continued expansion of the money supply, and the demand for oil increasing in China, oil prices are expected to rise at that rate or greater over the next decade. gone up around 11 percent in the last fifteen or twenty years. “If that keeps growing at that rate, I think one of the options we don't have is do nothing. I think for the long range benefit of the school, if we can pick a project that makes sense, economically and make the investment, then you have a choice.”

Mark Power, from Trane Corp., presented the pros and cons of each proposal to the school board at their September meeting. He downplayed the coal option due to perceived problems with stack pollutants and a potential for ash to be a biohazard (though the town of Fort Fairfield found no such problems with the design and install of their new 1 million BTU boiler at the Community Center complex).

The school board is expected to make a decision on which option to proceed with by their next meeting. If the above ground chip boiler is chosen, then Fort Fairfield inhabitants will be asked to vote to approve the construction of the building to house it in November’s mid-term elections.


There will be a public hearing at the High School on October 12th at 6:00 pm to discuss a referendum question on the November 8 ballot regarding the installation of a biomass boiler at MSAD20.



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