It’s seven a.m. and trucks are already rolling out onto Murfreesboro Road, headed to schools with air conditioning problems. The storm the previous night knocked out the A/C at twelve schools, and with classrooms nearly ready to receive teachers, there are several other jobs waiting, too.
Richard Hill, who has been working with the Metro Schools HVAC team for 34 years, drives one of those trucks. He knows a lot about heating and air and has seen a lot of change in his department, his schools, and the district. His father was a plumbing foreman for Nashville Public Schools starting in the 1950s – long before “Metro” even came into the picture.
He’s headed to Julia Green Elementary School, where four A/C problems were reported that very morning. Hill has to be versatile. He’s staring at four classrooms with three different problems and three different types of units.
Hill works as part of a team, but is personally responsible for 11 schools. In all there are 14 techs like him, six more dedicated to changing air filters, two mechanics for window units, three coordinators, and two more employees to run the energy management system. That’s 27 people responsible for heating and cooling more than 13 million square feet of occupied space, changing 50,000 air filters every year, and maintaining an average of 100 pieces of HVAC equipment at every campus.
Job number one at Julia Green is a large outside unit used for a classroom and a hallway. He opens the panel to reveal a jumble of wires, circuit boards, coils, hoses, and tanks. The problem is clear: a busted bracket led to a busted fan blade and eventually a busted fan motor. It can’t be fixed today; parts have to be ordered and pieces taken apart. With such a complicated machine, when one part breaks, others are likely to follow.
The HVAC shop runs as its own well-oiled machine with dozens of moving parts, and work orders are run through a strict priority system. First, above all else, is Harris-Hillman School. Any big problem for the exceptional education students at Harris-Hillman, many of whom are medically fragile, immediately becomes priority number one. Second are elementary schools, because younger children are much more sensitive to temperature changes. Middle and high schools rank third and fourth, respectively. They also look at the size of the issue to determine priority, with widespread problems coming out ahead of single classroom issues.
You’ll notice the offices at Bransford Avenue are not on the priority list.
Urgent calls pop up, too. Sometimes whole schools lose heat or leaks cause standing water. Those hazards are treated as emergencies, and can throw a wrench into addressing other jobs.
Job number two at Julia Green is a leaky A/C unit inside a classroom. A small puddle of water has collected underneath. Hill lies down on the floor to get a good look at the cause. He can’t get to the problem without removing the whole unit from the wall. Another seemingly simple problem with a complicated solution.
With 180 buildings of varied ages, the HVAC units are widely varied, too. Renovations at Julia Green led to newer units being installed alongside older ones of completely different types. That’s typical of schools across the district. But Hill and the other techs have the know-how fix them all. They work on circulating pumps, spray pumps, cooling towers, boilers, chillers, gas packs, heat pumps, VRT units and VRV units. They replace parts and fix units in closets, in classrooms, in ceilings, in basements, on grass, and on rooftops. They know their stuff.
Job number three is a non-starter. Floor waxing is in progress and Richard doesn’t want to disrupt the work or risk messing it up.
He’s used to that, though, and takes care not to upset normal operation of the school, even stopping to pick up bits of leaves he’s tracked in from outside. He often has to work around class schedules when on the job. Teachers may want the heat or air fixed right away, but they also don’t want loud vacuum pumps to run while they’re trying to teach or groups of kindergarteners distracted by ladders reaching up into the ceiling. That’s why Hill likes closet units – he can work all day long and not interrupt instruction. He always takes instruction into account.
Job number four is a closet unit. He suspects there’s a leaky hose, so he feels around and listens carefully for escaping and harmless nitrogen gas. Touch and hearing are simple enough tools for a man with decades of experience.
For the past 18 months, all school maintenance requests have been made through a computerized system called ‘SchoolDude,’ which automates and streamlines the process. When a work request is made, it’s automatically sent to the relevant repair department, prioritized, and marked ‘In Progress.’ Foremen know exactly what’s going on, who’s working on what, and how many orders each school has made – ever. Request records are not erased. That way, as HVAC foreman Mike Porter puts it, “If we have an on-going issue with one particular classroom, I can do a report and see exactly what’s going on.”
That improved communication with schools helps ease the repair process and ease the nerves of teachers, principals, and parents waiting for a repair.
No one takes this job lightly. There are stats posted on the wall of the HVAC offices showing air conditioning to be the #1 building condition to affect student achievement. The men of the HVAC crew work hard and work often – there’s even one man each week designated for 24-hour on-call duty. But they can’t control the weather and they can’t stop the requests from coming in.
“During the year, you can say we average 25-30 work orders a day,” Porter says. “When school gets ready to start, when everybody comes back in, when kids start, we’ll average 75-80 work orders a day.
“I really, truly try to do 24-hour service, but sometimes it’s just not possible. It’s just not feasible all the time.”
When it gets hot, systems work harder than normal, and some may not be big enough to handle extreme heat. That can lead to breakdowns or freeze ups. More break downs means more requests, which can mean slower service.
But no one is forgotten. All Mike Porter, Richard Hill, and the rest of the team ask for is patience while they work their way through dozens of tickets.
“People gotta realize some of this equipment is 35 years old,” Porter says. “Harris-Hillman is a perfect example. The chiller that runs that school is 35 years old. It’s set for replacement this year, finally. That capital money we got – it helps. It really does help. To be able to put that money out there, where it needs to be in schools like Harris-Hillman is a huge help. Huge help.”
There are only so many HVAC repairmen to go around, but they do get around and they never lose focus on why they do what they do. As Porter puts it, “The whole reason why we’re here and why any of us has a job is for the students.”