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The Mechanics
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Chicago Public Schools Tue Nov 10 2015

Parents Still Steaming, but About More Than Just Boilers

It's now been 11 days since the carbon monoxide leak which sent over 80 Prussing Elementary School students and staff to the hospital. While officials from Chicago Public Schools have partially answered some questions, and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has informed that he will be visiting the school to field more questions on Nov. 16, many parents remain irate at the CPS response to date. The main point of contention remains the fate of the school boiler system, but it is far from the only issue at hand.

Last week, I focused on the inadequacy of safety protocols for incidents like this. That theme was picked up on by the Reader's Ben Joravsky, who still can't get over how the main school building had no detectors. Had there just been one properly functioning detector, installed in a manner such that it would have alerted school administrators, the worst of the incident never would have occurred.

With that said, the leak did occur. It is critical that all parents citywide should focus on safety protocols at their own schools, but some of the questions about what happened at Prussing, and what is happening in the aftermath, still need to be answered. Not only does the incident itself need to better understood, but so too does the waffling CPS response, and how parents are responding to what they're seeing.

First, two disclaimers are in order. I'm an elected member of the Prussing Local School Council, and getting the boiler system at Prussing replaced, or substantially overhauled, is a top priority for me. Second, it's been over two decades since I had a chemistry class, so I needed a little help in making sure I knew what I was talking about, so here's a shout out to Mike Davis, professor at Truman College. (If I have any of the science here wrong, it's not Mike's fault. I just haven't had a chemistry class in over two decades. They let me take astronomy in college.)

How Does This Happen?

In simple terms, a boiler is a big water tank where the water is heated until converted to steam, most commonly by burning natural gas. The primary component of natural gas is methane. In a hypothetically ideal combustion environment, pure methane would combine with pure oxygen gas, and when reacted upon by flame, the burning of those gasses would result in the release of three byproducts: water vapor, carbon dioxide, and heat. This formula might bring you back:

CH4 + 4O2 -> CO2 + 2H2O

Natural gas is not pure methane, though, and ambient air is not pure oxygen, and there's no such thing as a 100 percent efficient combustion system. In short, there's no such thing as a "perfect" boiler.

The device which failed on Oct. 30 was a gas regulator. Gas regulators control the amount of natural gas that can enter the combustion chamber. If the regulator doesn't work correctly, the methane-to-oxygen ratio will be off. If there is too little methane, the system won't be efficient and won't burn hot enough and the school will be cold. But if there is too much methane, then the methane that does enter does not burn completely. To oversimplify, in such a situation, there are not enough oxygen atoms to go around for all of the carbon atoms, so instead of the carbon atoms bonding with two oxygen atoms to form a highly stable compound, some carbon atoms bond with only one oxygen atom. In other words, instead of just carbon dioxide, you also get some carbon monoxide.

Again, no boiler is "perfect." All such systems can be expected to produce some amount of carbon monoxide. But a system which is working properly will produce a very small amount of carbon monoxide, at a level very safe for people.

Based on the information that the gas regulator failed, it can be reasonably presumed that the failed regulator was allowing too much natural gas into the system. The methane was in turn not being completely combusted, which led to overproduction of carbon monoxide. CPS has not addressed the question of how or why the regulator failed, but it may very well not be knowable. A regulator is a sensitive mechanical device that relies on pressurization levels to function properly. If debris like soot or dirt were to somehow get into the regulator, it could fail. It could also just wear out over time.

The regulator is part of a much larger system, including not only the boiler proper, but also numerous valves and pipes, the radiators throughout the school building, and numerous electric controls which would instruct the boiler when to operate and at what level, not unlike how a home thermostat can send a signal to a furnace to fire up. From all of the available information, it is not known (and may not be knowable) whether the regulator failed on its own, or whether the regulator's failure was likely or necessarily related to other issues with the system. It is also not known whether the regulator suddenly failed, or if that process took time. Given that the detector in the boiler room apparently did not work at all, it is possible that the carbon monoxide leak had been present for a while, and only reached more serious levels because Oct. 30 was up to that point the coldest day of the school year.

There is an additional issue beyond the leak and the lack of detection, and that is the question of how the carbon monoxide managed to enter the school at all. The boiler room is in a separate mechanical building, connected to the main building by a tunnel. At least they know where the tunnel is.


The distance between the mechanical building and the main building is about 60 feet. The mechanical building has a smoke stack, dating to when the boiler system would have been coal-fired. There is also a visible exhaust louver on the side of the mechanical building. For carbon monoxide to have exited the boiler room through the tunnel and into the main building, instead of exhausting through the smoke stack and louver, would mean that no exhaust fan was running in the mechanical building, and the main building had negative pressurization relative to the mechanical building. Even if the boiler system itself were operating properly, the pressurization between the buildings should never be like that.

A History of Failed Repairs

The boiler system has had a history of problems with which CPS was well aware. (Prussing's system actually has two boilers, and as of this time, it is not clear which of the two boilers was involved.) While the cited issues never specifically addressed the regulator or the potential for a carbon monoxide leak, the following timeframe helps establish how parents and Prussing staff might reasonably point to the boiler's history. These notes were originally compiled from publicly available Prussing LSC minutes by Eileen Espinosa, a parent representative:

  • Jan. 8, 2013 - The principal reported that the boiler room had water seepage and was out of compliance and the boiler room heating unit needed to be replaced; and that this information was faxed to CPS Facilities on Jan. 3, 2013.

  • Aug. 29, 2013 - The principal reported that the heater in the boiler room needed to be replaced.

  • Sept. 26, 2013 - The principal reported that the boiler needed repairs and the steam traps had still not been addressed.

  • Jan. 10, 2014 - The principal reported that in submitting a questionnaire response to CPS Facilities, he reported that the boiler room provided a structural concern and needed to be addressed, and that he had rated the school's heating system as poor.

  • Jan. 20, 2015 - The principal reported that the school could only have one of two boilers operational at any given time, as both units had issues and were not reliable. He further reported that CPS Facilities and Capital were aware of the issues and several individuals had been at the school to try and resolve the problems, but that the ultimate problem is that the boilers simply needed to be replaced.

  • Feb. 10, 2015 - The principal reported that the boilers required periodic manual adjustments during the day for them to operate properly, per the facilities manager. The principal further reported that since Prussing did not have a full-time engineer, the roving engineer would stop by periodically to check on the system on days the school engineer was not present.

  • March 10, 2015 - The principal reported that boiler one was still awaiting the installation of a gas pressure pump, and that boiler two had a fan which was acting up and blowing fuses. The engineer had told the principal that boiler two was "on its last leg" and that all of this had been reported to Facilities.

  • April 21, 2015 - The principal provided a list of building issues to the LSC, including the need for new boilers, pneumatic controllers, actuators, and fresh air intake dampers for the main building.

  • Sept. 11, 2015 - Prussing failed a health inspection, in part because of standing water found in the boiler room, as a result of one or both boilers leaking.

  • Oct. 21, 2015 - The principal reported that CPS had corrected the issues with the boilers which had led to the failed health inspection.

It should again be stressed here that across all of the reported problems, none specifically mentioned a gas regulator or the potential for a carbon monoxide leak. Nevertheless, a clear pattern emerges, dating back 33 months, of numerous reported issues with the boiler system, numerous times the LSC had been informed that the boilers actually needed to be replaced, and numerous times it was specifically mentioned that CPS Facilities had been made aware of the situation. One other item of particular note is the April 2015 report that the fresh air intake dampers on the main building needed to be replaced, calling into question whether this was a potential cause of the negative pressurization of the building.

Inexplicably, given the history of the boiler system, this is the response the Prussing LSC received from CPS officials on Nov. 9:

We understand the school community is requesting a new boiler, and we are committed to a long-term solution that prioritizes the student's safety. At this point, it is unclear if a new boiler is necessary or if other elements of the heating system need to be upgraded to ensure the lasting stability of the system; this is part of our investigative process.

On the day of the leak, some teachers, unable to control the level of heat in their rooms, actually had their windows open. In other words, the carbon monoxide leak could have been worse, and sent more kids to the hospital, had the controls for the heating system actually worked properly. To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut: I had to laugh like hell.

One thing that the LSC did not receive in its response was the concurrent information that CPS has suspended the school's engineer. This is the same engineer noted above as having repeatedly informed CPS that the boilers needed to be repaired or replaced. With no other information available about the investigation, and with the way the word got out -- having not even bothered to inform the LSC directly but instead telling the press first -- the immediate reaction from parents has been even more heightened anger. It's as though CPS can't even try to find a scapegoat effectively.

In the narrative for the FY2014 capital budget, CPS includes the following language under a section header called "Guiding Principles":

Health/safety must be maintained. Because the scope of our capital investment is limited, we are focusing directly on investments to protect the health and safety of the students, teachers, and adults in the school community. This means repairing masonry that is cracked and at risk of crumbling, chimneys that are in danger of collapse, roofs that are leaking and causing interior damage, and boilers that are in urgent need of replacement.

In the 2013 Educational Facilities Master Plan, the boiler system at Prussing had not been identified as being "in urgent need of replacement." Instead, the report on Prussing from February 2013 assigned the primary boiler assembly a composite rank of 4, where 4 means "The item/system has reached its expected useful life, but is still fully operational. CPS will maintain until replacement occurs." Clearly, the system has degraded since that report was written, or the report missed some less obvious problems with the system.

The same report also suggests that the sum total expense for replacing the boiler system would be under $700,000. A recent boiler replacement project at a different CPS school was $3,000,000, so it is hard to say with certainty what expense might be incurred at Prussing. But given the totality of the information available, and what has happened at the school, why would any parent of a Prussing student conclude anything else than that the boiler system is "in urgent need of replacement," and would expect CPS to hold to its "Guiding Principle" that "health/safety must be maintained"?

The Greater Problem

It's not exactly a secret that CPS is not in good financial shape. For the sake of argument, though, let's set aside massive chunks of financial issues dogging CPS, things like the SUPES contract and the pension payments and money set aside for new charter schools those communities don't want. In terms of pure facility administration, CPS has to reckon with a large number of aging facilities. Government can often make a positive splash through new construction, but try as people might, nobody has yet envisioned the sexy boiler replacement project. It could be reasonably argued that what CPS could really use right now is a new influx of capital cash into the billions, to repair everything that legitimately ought to be repaired.

Think of recent reports about crumbling bridges and rail lines across America. Think closer to home about the pervasive pothole problem across Chicago. America has a serious problem with a deeply crumbling infrastructure, and while transportation has gotten more attention, the kinds of problems we see in evidence in CPS, as epitomized by the boiler system at Prussing, are really part of a larger fabric. Anecdotally, parents from three other CPS schools have told me that their schools have reported long-term issues with their boilers very similar to those reported by Prussing. Why would anyone want to be in charge of CPS Facilities under such circumstances?

Given the depth of these kinds of problems and the financial difficulties afflicting so many governmental entities, there can be an understandable tendency to step back and say, well, these administrators really do have a lot to juggle, and how can they pay for everything?

And then the rest of reality comes crashing back. The SUPES debacle happened, and not only did CPS pay for "principal training," CPS has also been paying a pretty penny for Barbara Byrd-Bennett's legal fees. CPS released new principal evaluation forms this year, with 50 percent of the weight assigned to something called "Student Growth & Other Measures," which essentially means CPS is moving even more in the direction of high-stakes standardized testing, even though principals are having to spend their time chasing down critical maintenance issues. And, as ever, money keeps being siphoned away from neighborhood schools into more and more charter schools.

It may be a "guiding principle" that health and safety be maintained, but in terms of coherent visible priorities, the evidence suggests that CPS has prioritized privatization and profiteering over not just communities generally but even over student safety. It is no wonder that the desire for an elected school board is so high, and in turn that such desire keeps being rebuked by Mike Madigan, Rahm Emanuel, and Bruce Rauner.

For the parents of students at Prussing, it is not just that the carbon monoxide leak occurred, or even that the whole incident would not have been nearly as bad with proper safety protocols in place. It is also that in the aftermath, 11 days after so many students and staff went to hospitals, not a single member of the Board of Education has visited the school, or even so much as publicly acknowledged what happened. The regrets expressed from CPS Central Office have come across as less sincere than they might have been given to a co-worker whose niece's dog had to get a cone around its neck. "Awww, poor doggie!" "Yeah, that's too bad about those kids."

Maybe this sounds too harsh. But this is an honest reflection of what numerous Prussing parents are feeling today. They think that the core CPS administration simply doesn't give a damn about their kids.

It's going to take a new boiler system -- and a lot more than that -- to prove otherwise.

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Gordon Johnson / November 10, 2015 4:15 PM

The most telling information here may be the reference to the puddle of water and the reference to "negative pressure." For there to be a carbon monoxide leak into the school, there must not only be less than perfect combustion (creating CO) but also a breach in the exhaust system allowing the CO to go somewhere but harmlessly out the chimney. Cause? LIkely a rusted pipe, from condensation, because "negative pressure" reversed the exhaust pressure to go up the chimney. Normally hot air will naturally go up a chimney, unless something pulls it back down.

Gases that don't make it up the chimney, condense, causing condensation, which corrodes and causes leaks. It could be that opening the windows drew created more negative pressure, as the warm air rushed out of the building.

Pam / November 16, 2015 12:53 PM

WGN was reporting today that Byrd Bennett is going to get her pensions from Chicago and elsewhere. The insanity continues.

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