North Adams Housing Agency Plans Heating System Review

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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The Housing Authority is investigating problems with the heating system in some of its units.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Housing Authority is taking steps to determine why three residential units are not properly holding heat.

The authority was ordered on Jan. 29 by the Board of Health to provide corrective measures to ensure the Spring Street units don't drop under the 68-degree daytime minimum mandated by the state.

The city's Code Enforcement Officer James M. O'Brien reported that he had measured daytime temperatures from 60 to 64 degrees when outside temperatures were between minus-4 and 16 degrees.

The letter came six days after the Housing Authority had already engaged Hesnor Engineering Associates of Adams to review heating complaints that have poured in since spending a $3.2 million U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant on insulation, lighting and ventilation upgrades and new heating systems.

The report presented by Hesnor's Brian Kennedy stated the majority of units were "satisfactory" but confirmed that in three units, "interior temperatures generally decreased in direct response to lower exterior temperatures."

Most problems have stemmed, said housing officials, over the thermostat locks that cap temperatures at 72 degrees in accordance with the grant agreement with HUD. Residents had previously had full control over the thermostat and were having difficulty adjusting to the lower temperatures. By using space heaters and closing doors, they were actually preventing the thermostat and radiators from working, thus making the rooms colder.

"There will be a learning curve. ... This is the first winter this new system has been installed," said authority board member Christopher Tremblay, who pointed out "there are 180 units and three are having issues."

There was a separate complaint of frost and water pooling on windowsills in one unit that was found to be caused by blockage of the ventilation systems, which spiked the amount of humidity in the room. Another resident at the meeting said he was having a similar issue.

However, board members acknowledged at their Thursday meeting that there were issues with the heating systems that had to be resolved, particularly for the "fragile elderly."

"During the winter we have been as responsive as humanly possible," said board Chairman James Canavan. "My focus on this all through the winter has been those few frail elderly who need special treatment... They have to be considered.

"None of us want to see a 94-year-old tenant shivering in the dark."

Executive Director Jennifer Hohn said the boilers for the electric hot-water baseboard system had been adjusted, but there was concern that raising the water temperatures was defeating the energy efficiency.

Hesnor's report states the water supply temperatures had been "too low to sufficiently heat the building."

"The supply temperatures were subsequently increased, resulting in the mitigation of heating issues in several areas."

Hesnor recommended the "immediate attention" of the contractors involved in the upgrade, including heat-loss calculations for the affected units and verification of proper functioning of the control valves and flow rates.

"All of the factors that went in to size of the system need to be reviewed and a determination has to be made as to what is invalid or incorrect," said Kennedy, adding that "typically what's done is you find the worse-case units and size from that."

Tremblay questioned if it was the building envelope or the heating system at fault. With only three units at issue, he asked if records could be checked to see if any physical changes had been made that would affect the envelope, such as insulation.

"I think we need to hold the parties responsible ... bring them all back here and prove they did in fact do their job and did in fact do everything that they were supposed to," he said.

Hohn said her office has also been tallying legal fees and repair costs, including for a couple of pipes that had burst from freezing.

In other business, Hohn reported that the authority had received a score of 88 in the most recent Public Housing Assessment System assessment. The housing system had garnered a 79 on the PHAS in the last round that reflected a mid-year change in scoring criteria and used data prior to Hohn and the current board being appointed.

"We're two points below being high performing," said Hohn, who expected to crack 90 in the next year.

The assessments were in part based on occupancy and management, and the authority had 100 percent occupancy and 100 points on its management of Section 8 housing.

There were zero findings in the audit for the third consecutive year and the auditors used their management letter — a spot for critiques and recommendations — "to recognize the significant accomplishments made in the last several years."

Hohn was particularly proud of the efforts in eliminating vacancies: "Nobody can remember a time when we have had every unit occupied."

Tags: audit,   Housing Authority,   HVAC,   

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