Boiler problems plague Portland high schools

According to WGME TV, Cheverus High School was closed for the day today because of what Principal John Mullen told the television station was a “furnace problem.”

There’s no notice of the cancellation that I can find on the school website, and I haven’t been able to get hold of Principal Mullen myself for more details on the problem, but today marks the third day since the end of the holiday vacation that one high school or another in the city found itself closed due to heating issues.

Portland High School was closed on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 because of boiler problems there, as well.

According the city sustainability coordinator Ian Houseal, the situation with Portland High can be boiled down to (pun very much intended) bad timing.

Houseal told me today the pilot light in the school’s older oil boiler flamed out the night before classes were to resume after the weeklong break. A new, high efficiency natural gas boiler had been brought in the previous Friday for preliminary testing, a routine step before transitioning full heating responsibility over from the old boiler.

The new system, like many others in large commercial or institutional buildings, uses an electrical lighter, has built-in back-ups to kick in when that lighter fails and — in the worst case scenario — sends out an electronic alert to maintenance personnel if all the lighters are down.

“We were 24, 48 hours away from having a new boiler system installed,” Houseal told me in a brief telephone conversation today. With the old boiler still in charge at the time, he said, “no one found out until the following morning” that the lighter flamed out, a not uncommon occurrence in many boilers with pilot lights.

As a result, the old, somewhat poorly insulated high school building essentially took an extra day to get heated back up. That extra time may not even have been necessary had it not been a particularly cold couple of days, Houseal said. Again, bad timing for the pilot light to go out.

Now, however, the new system is in place. The old one’s not even being kept around as a back-up. If everything goes as planned, Portland High students will have to wait for snowstorms like everybody else when hoping for winter days off.

As for the kids across town at Cheverus, I’ll send an update if or when I hear more.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.