Keeping warm is a dirty job |

Keeping warm is a dirty job

Maintaining coal boilers in South Routt schools reminiscent of former times

Oak Creek — Sometimes, Larry Radford's job reminds him of what it must have been like to work on a locomotive in the early 1800s. — Sometimes, Larry Radford's job reminds him of what it must have been like to work on a locomotive in the early 1800s.

— Sometimes, Larry Radford’s job reminds him of what it must have been like to work on a locomotive in the early 1800s.

His hands are stained black, and shoveling coal ashes out of the boiler sends sweat down his forehead. But Radford’s coal-powered boiler, which he said was built in the early 1950s, is not fueling a locomotive. It’s keeping teachers, students and staff toasty inside the South Routt School District’s buildings.

“I’ve never really experienced a job quite like it,” said Radford, who has worked as the school district’s director of operations since July. “It’s super labor intensive.”

South Routt is one of only two school districts in the state that still use coal to heat its buildings. Colorado has 179 school districts.

But, come next winter, Radford will likely be able to focus more of his time on other facility needs, after state-of-the-art geothermal heating systems are installed at the Oak Creek and Yampa campuses.

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“We want to get rid of the coal,” said South Routt Superintendent Kelly Reed on Friday.

So does the South Routt community.

In July, the school district received a $1.57 million Capital Construction Grant from the Colorado Department of Education to help replace the boilers that heat Soroco High School and Soroco Middle School in Oak Creek and South Routt Elementary School in Yampa.

The grant is contingent upon the district raising an additional $1.57 million in matching funds, which voters approved in the form of a property tax in the Nov. 6 election.

Long hours

No matter how often janitors mop the hallway outside the boiler room, black footprints quickly begin to coat the floor.

A coal truck delivers coal to the Oak Creek campus once or twice a week and dumps it into a hopper that can hold about four truckloads. An auger automatically feeds coal from the hopper into the boiler.

Radford said he currently spends abut two hours in the morning in the boiler room, shoveling out the ash from the campus’s two boilers.

Another hour is needed at noon. And then another, long after dark.

“In the evening, around 9 or 10 p.m., someone has to come down to clean the boilers out again, otherwise they fill up and quit working,” Radford said.

Three to five 55-gallon barrels of coal ash are disposed of daily, depending on how cold it is.

Radford gets help from the two full-time janitors at the school. During the cold months, he said about 30 percent of his work in a given week is spent repairing, maintaining and cleaning the boilers.

“It’s served us well over the decades, but she’s just plum falling apart,” Radford said.

Besides being labor intensive, district officials say the coal boilers create an unhealthy environment and have far outlived their 20- to 25-year life expectancy.

Repairs are difficult to make. It is estimated that 30 percent of the school district’s maintenance costs are related to the upkeep of the coal boiler systems.

At 7 p.m. Dec. 20, during a South Routt Board of Education meeting, the board is expected to review the construction contract to install the new heating systems, Reed said.

Construction inside the schools during the evening hours could begin as soon as January 2008.

The geothermal heating system will use a heat pump to utilize the Earth’s natural, below-ground heat. Propane will likely be needed to supplement the process. Propane would be used as opposed to more efficient natural gas because there are no natural gas lines running to South Routt.

Details and engineering plans are still being worked on.

“We’re 90 percent of where we need to be, but we have that 10 percent to finalize,” Reed said.