Wood heats new 30-room red-brick school

Except for a mysterious-looking silo that juts up from the roof and gleams in the sun, in most ways the new, red-brick high school in Park Falls looks like almost any other in the nation.

But there is one feature of the school that sets it apart from nearly every other -- a central heating system fueled by wood.

When the 540 students returned from their winter vacation in January, they not only entered a new building, they stepped into the future.

The plush $5 million building, with its indoor swimming pool and 30 oversized classrooms, is heated entirely with wood stored in the silo.

We're told that it is the first school in the nation designed to be heated by a modern wood-burning system. But it won't be for long.

Park Falls Schools Superintendent Harold Frokjer said his telephone has been ringing off the hook withi informatin requests from all over the country. Even the US Army Corps of Engineers wants to know how it's done. And last month, the nearby Hayward school district passed a $7 million bond issue to put up a similar building.

A school in Grand Marais, Minn., has a wood-burning heating system, but it was installed several decades after the school was built. And it isn't housed within the building itself, but is located adjacent to it.

The economics of the concept speak for themselves.

"At the time we were first talking about building a new school -- two years ago -- we figured it would cost about $31,000 [annually] to heat it with oil," said Mr. Frokjer. "Maybe it would cost closer to $80,000 a year now."

Engineers estimate that by burning wood residue purchased from a local sawmill and delivered for $5 a ton, it will cost $7,000 annually to heat the sprawling 144,000-square-foot structure -- and the adjoining 46,000-square-foot elementary school built in 1974, and originally designed to be heated by a conventional fuel oil system.

The idea for the wood-burning system arose in a casual conversation.

"The former president of the school board, John Slack, and his friend Ed Rickert who owns a sawmill, came up with the idea over breakfast one morning," Mr. Frokjer said.

"Ed just mentioned that he was hauling all of this scrap wood to a swamp for disposal, and I kind of wondered out loud if it couldn't be used to heat the school we were planning," said Mr. Slack.

When the idea was proposed to the school board, members unanimously supported it. When the total package was put together, the 1,800 voters in the 463 -square-mile district passed the referendum by a margin of 2 to 1.

The reason for the enthusiasm probably has more to do with the town's straight-laced work ethic rather than any flirtation with liberal ideals about ecology, Mr. Frokjer theorized.

"You have to remember, this is a conservative community, and the thought of using wood waste helped sell the bond issue," he said.

Park Falls, population 3,000, is basically a mill town. About 560 workers earn a living at the Flambeau Paper Company, the community's largest employer.

When the school board started shopping for a boiler that could be fired with wood wastes, it discovered there were none on the market at the time and it looked as if a proto-type would have to be commissioned.

"The problem, of course, was that we had to have a furnace with an automatic feeding system," Mr. Frokjer explained. Also, quietness of operation was rated as an equally important feature.

For quietness, the wood-heating system was designed to make hot water, which is carried a short distance by pipes to a network of radiating fins. There, it is converted to hot air and then travels around the building through ducts.

"Just because we went to wood doesn't give us the privilege to waste anything ," Superintendent Frokjer explained.

Consequently, many additional energy-saving features were added to the building.

Each exterior door is buffered by a vestibule to keep out cold air.

In classrooms there generally is only one small window, not much larger than what might be found in a bedroom. Artificial ligthning is provided by special energy-saving fluorescent fixtures.

The entire building contains a one-inch layer of plastic molded foam that is embedded between a layer of brick and concrete blocks.

Despite all the dollars spent to build the school and the care taken in preserving energy, Mr. Frokjer sees the new structure as only a small part of the education process.

"The whole ball game is in your staff," he said. "You can have a nice building and a poor staff, and you have no school. We have a first-rate staff."

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