Camas police call for new heat

HVAC costs too much to run, officials say

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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CAMAS -- A failing heating and ventilation system at the Camas Police Department is costing thousands of dollars a year in maintenance. Now, the city is looking for money to replace it.

But it won't be cheap.

Swapping out the 16-year-old system, which struggles to properly regulate temperatures at the 15,000-square-foot building, could cost as much as $300,000. And leaving it in? City officials say the two-part heating and ventilation system is already an expensive drain on resources.

On particularly hot or cold days, the two-part system stops working altogether. As winter approaches, one of the units appears permanently broken. There are times when police officers are forced to work in the cold while the city calls in repairs.

The city is done with the hassle.

"We have a tremendous amount of repair bills just to keep the thing functioning," said Eric Levison, the city's public works director.

Finding the money

The city has identified two state programs that could help pay to replace the entire system.

The Department of Enterprise Services could provide technical assistance and access to state money. And a grant from the Washington Department of Commerce could pay for at least 25 percent of the project.

Another $45,000 would come from rebates from Clark Public Utilities and NW Natural Gas. Some money would likely have to come from the city, although it's unknown how much.

Levison said the city says it wants to move quickly on the replacement. Over the years, quick fixes to the heating system have snowballed in price. The cost to keep the system going has shot up 400 percent since 2009, according to a summary of city invoices.

So far in 2012, the city has spent $15,175 on maintaining the police department's heating system, including nearly $2,000 in preventive maintenance. In 2009, the cost was a comparatively modest $3,007.

In preparation for replacing the large-scale system, the city has entered into a contract with Abacus Engineering Corp. to conduct an energy audit, which is set to conclude at the end of the month. The audit will provide a road map for the replacement project, including how to make the new system energy-efficient.

As part of the project, the city expects to replace the heating and ventilation system's air-handling units, as well as the mechanisms on which they sit on the building. They'll have to be custom made, so they can sit on top of the building without causing any structural damage.

Problems with the system are nothing new, Mayor Scott Higgins said. The police department's current system has been a problem since it was installed in 1996.

Over the years, City Council has periodically heard about the problems with the police department's heating system. Instead of replacing the system outright, the city relied on "Band-Aid" approaches, Higgins said.

"It's a big project now," Higgins said of replacing the heating system outright. "It's one we wish we didn't have to do."

Surprise at the price

The size of the project, and its five-figure price tag, caught some in the city off guard. Councilor Tim Hazen said he was concerned by the project's "sticker price" at a Nov. 5 City Council meeting workshop.

He said it seemed twice as expensive as it should be.

Levison said the project has dropped in price over the years. The city's public works department reviewed a similar replacement project several years ago, and the estimated price was about $415,000.

In the long run, Higgins said, the project could also save the city in energy and repair costs.

"Clearly, this wasn't something we were saving up to do," he said. "And yet it's something that needs to be done."


Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.