Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Stephen Molina fires up a blowtorch on the roof of Cashman Middle School.
The hissing sound echoes off of some 100 air-conditioning units atop the central valley school.
Molina takes the blue-flamed tip — now 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit — to a copper pipe soldered to a black, metal cylinder in one of the units. The searing flame frees a broken compressor.
The 27-year-old HVAC technician wipes sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his brown uniform. It’s just after 9:30 a.m., but already the temperature is climbing.
A high of 100 degrees is forecast on this Tuesday. Molina and his co-worker Tadone Phengrasamee, 40, are racing against the rising sun to fix as many broken air-conditioning units as they can in the Clark County School District.
They are among a team of 31 HVAC and chiller technicians in the district — stewards that service hundreds of air-conditioning units at 357 school buildings across the Las Vegas Valley.
Since the start of the school year three weeks ago, the technicians have been working overtime to ensure that Clark County’s 314,000 public school students have a comfortable learning environment.
“We’re always busy,” Molina says as he wrestles the 100-pound compressor out of the unit. “But at the end of the day, it’s the safety of the kids that’s the priority.”
For a growing number of valley schools, air conditioning units have reached the end of their 20-year lifespan.
Already this year, classes at Durango and Valley high schools were canceled for cooling problems. Last year, an air-conditioning failure forced an elementary principal to cram students into another school in an unprecedented effort to not cancel classes.
Those are some of the high-profile incidents. However, smaller cooling outages occur nearly every day across the valley. The public never hears about them because they’re shorter in duration, officials say.
In these cases, schools do everything they can to keep classes going.
Teachers have moved students into other classrooms, libraries and computer labs. At some elementary schools, they dole out Popsicles to children in hot classrooms. Principals have put off repairs in their office air conditioning for months; cooling classrooms is more important.
The problem is only getting worse.
During the recession, the School District slashed its maintenance budget, cutting more than 50 technicians and deferring repairs to stave off classroom reductions.
“We’ve taken a big hit in terms of maintenance,” said Gregg Peterson, a district maintenance supervisor. “When you cut your workforce and you still have the same number of schools, it’s hard. Right now, we’re just putting out the fires.”
The School Board is now considering another capital program to raise money for school renovations and improvements, including air conditioning repairs. Board members know it’s a tough sell, considering their last proposal — a property-tax increase to pay for school repair — failed miserably with voters in 2012.
No one understands the need for capital funds better than Misti Taton. The petroleum engineer-turned-principal said during her five years at Cashman, the school’s had three electrical fires, two floods from water main breaks and countless air-conditioning breakdowns.
“There has to be an investment in our facilities, Taton said. “Band-Aids, duct tape and spit don’t cut it anymore. We could have the greatest teachers and all the TLC in the world, but without AC and flushing toilets, we’re in trouble.”
Repairing an air conditioner is no easy task.
The units are complicated — a marvel of modern technology. But one broken piston can shut down an entire cooling system, Peterson said.
Cooling system components, and the equipment to repair them, are heavy. HVAC technicians regularly carry hundreds of pounds of equipment — compressors, vacuum pumps and torches — up and down ladders. For larger equipment, cranes are required.
HVAC technicians must know their machines inside and out to troubleshoot problems quickly. That’s difficult for the dozens of different models throughout the district.
Newer schools have a streamlined, electronic air-conditioning system with a centralized chiller that pumps cooled air throughout the building. These systems have fewer, but larger, components that are easier to maintain. However, one component failing could take out an entire school, like Durango High.
On the other hand, older schools typically have outdated pneumatic systems with individual home air-conditioning units. Such systems have many more components. They’re more difficult to maintain, but one component failure won’t take down an entire school.
It’s the latter case at Cashman Middle School, built in 1966. The school has about 100 small, home air-conditioning units on its roof, each pumping cooled air to a different part of the building.
“This school in particular, the way it’s set up, there’s a lot more work involved,” Peterson said. “It’s a lot of work just to change out one compressor. Now multiply that by hundreds of machines.”
Because Cashman is an older school with older equipment, it’s sometimes also difficult to find replacement parts. Some of the units’ manufacturers have gone out of business, which makes parts harder to find and more expensive, too.
Maintaining hundreds of air conditioning units is often a Sisyphean task.
“We just try to do our best to get the job done as fast as we can and do it as efficiently as we can so we can save the district and taxpayers money,” Peterson said. “I’ve got kids myself, so I understand how administrators feel when they don’t have air. We want to make sure they have the proper environment for kids and staff. That’s our main goal.”