Ashes To Ashes

April 01, 2000 6 min read
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Consider this winter scene: a city school in January, battered metal cans filled with ash lined up along the curb. In the basement of the four-story building, there’s a dimly lighted room whose gray walls once were white. It contains a big pile of coal—tons of it—and a man with a shovel. It’s his job to feed thousands of pounds of coal each day into the massive cast-iron boilers that deliver steam heat throughout the school. Normally, he comes in at 6 a.m. to stir the glowing embers—carefully banked the night before—and stoke the fires to get heat up before the children arrive. But if it’s an especially cold day, he may start at 3 in the morning. A deep metal bucket hangs from a steel track suspended from the ceiling, and the man uses it to haul the black, dusty lumps from the storage room, 550 pounds at a time.

Stoker Aurelio Castro poses in front of an antiquated coal-boiler at IS 119 before its demolition. New York City wants all its schools heated with gas and oil by 2001.

A paragraph from a history book chapter on schools in the 1800s? Actually, it was until recently a typical day for 43-year-old Aurelio Castro, the stoker, or fireman, as they are called, at Intermediate School 119 in the Queens borough of New York City. Relics of the Industrial Age, coal-fired boilers—and workers to feed them—still provide the primary source of heat in about 130 New York schools. However, the boilers are going the way of milk bottles on the back porch and classroom desks made of wood, as the New York City School Construction Authority is on a mission to replace all coal-fired boilers in schools with gas- and oil-fired heating systems over the next four years.

Recently, Construction Authority workers tore out a wall of IS 119’s basement, broke the 72-year-old boilers into pieces, and hauled them away. Aurelio Castro may have to join a gym, since all he’ll be doing to keep the building heated from now on is throw a few switches each morning. “I tell the firemen they’re going to have potbellies,” says Anthony Grosso, a project manager for the Construction Authority.

Though coal remains a major energy source for generating electricity worldwide, the use of coal-fired boilers as a source of heat or power died out in this country decades ago. The U.S. Navy converted the last of its ships to oil in the early 1930s, and the Union Pacific Railroad retired its coal- burning locomotives in the 1950s. Now there are only schools in a few scattered districts such as New York and Detroit that rely on coal-fired boilers.

The coal boilers are costly, a source of pollution, and can produce fumes that are dangerous to students. “Coal gas can be harmful,” says Grosso, “and the soot coming out of the chimney is not exactly welcome in the neighborhood.” But often, the heating systems aren’t the only things in these schools that need to be fixed or renovated. As in many northeastern cities, New York’s schools are old, and they are showing their age.

Schools that heat their buildings with coal dump soot from the boilers into ashcans like these. Neighbors aren’t wild about the way it looks, and fumes from burning coal can pose a health hazard for students.

“I can show you a school that was used as a hospital in the Civil War,” Grosso says. More than half the system’s 1,100 schools were built before 1949—IS 119 dates to 1928. They need wiring for the Internet and ramps for disabled students. The roofs often leak, and many are severely overcrowded. As a result, despite widespread agreement for years that the coal boilers have to go, the process of replacing them has often dragged amid a scarcity of funding and competing priorities. Right now, though, it is a high priority, says Grosso, who is the man charged with meeting the Construction Authority’s goal of replacing all coal-fired boilers by 2001. The agency switched over about 40 schools last year and is working on 40 more projects this fiscal year.

Grosso is a mechanical engineer who spent 28 years in the private sector before joining the agency in 1992. In his current job, he has to be part engineer, part diplomat, and part politician. Back in January, his cell phone and beeper rang constantly with calls from school construction sites or schools that, for one reason or another, didn’t have heat. “I’ve been doing this for years,” he says, “and the first cold day, it’s always the same.”

Each job poses its own challenges, some of which don’t crop up until work has begun: hidden structural defects, ductwork loaded with soot, and asbestos-laden insulation. Removing the cancer-causing substance is a major concern. “Usually, that’s a large portion of the cost, typically about $100,000,” Grosso says.

And there are other problems posed by the fact that the construction site is a school. The buildings can’t be shut down or evacuated for days at a time. They need heat from a temporary boiler while the old system is removed and the new system installed. And there can be no noisy or dangerous work during school hours—"nothing that will disrupt the school’s activities,” says Grosso, who grew up in the Bronx and is himself a product of the New York City public schools.

Jobs like this require a main contractor, Grosso says, as well as countless subcontractors for the demolition, plumbing, electricity, and concrete work, plus installation of the temporary boilers. In addition, a vast array of government agencies gets involved in permit-granting and inspection: the building department, environmental control inspectors, the fire department, the school board, local utility companies, and, if the job involves blocking off streets, even the traffic police. “There’s an accumulation of paperwork like you’ve never seen,” Grosso says. The whole process usually costs about $1.5 million to $2 million per school and takes about six months.

School maintenance crews are greeting the heating-system conversions with mixed emotions. Before IS 119 switched to gas and oil, Roman Mirecki, the school’s custodian, worried about the reliability of the new system. One thing about the coal boilers and Aurelio Castro, he notes, is that they were dependable: As long as Castro was on the job, Mirecki says, the school had heat. Castro, a compact, soft-spoken man who kept the fires burning at IS 119 for eight years, says shoveling coal never really tired him, even though he’d move tons of coal and ash every day. Nevertheless, he’s glad this was the last winter he had to spend tending the hungry fires.

Fireman Peter Navetta, a colleague at Primary School 139, another 1920s- era school in Queens that converted to gas and oil about a year ago, isn’t so sure about the change. Navetta acknowledges that he has more time for his other work. “I had to come down here every 10 or 15 minutes” to stoke the boilers, he recalls. “Now, I come down to check two or three times a day.” Still, the 26-year-old has some nostalgia for the days when he worked with a shovel in his hands. “I miss it,” he says. “It was definitely a good workout.”

The most noticeable difference between the basement of a school with coal boilers and a school with a gas- and oil-fired system is the noise. At PS 139, the gas fires—visible through a tiny window beneath the boiler—make a roaring sound like a blowtorch. It’s significantly louder than the coal boilers.

The other difference is the room’s orderly appearance, and Grosso is clearly proud of the finished product. On a recent visit, he pointed out the various safety equipment designed to avoid an explosion or gas leaks, and in the room that houses the oil tank, the special paint on the floor that is designed to contain the oil if the tank should rupture. Gas pipes are painted yellow, the oil pipes are orange, and the new boilers are bright blue. The walls have a new coat of white paint, and the concrete floor looks as if it was just mopped. “We try to paint the room and leave the job looking nice,” Grosso says.

—Steven Drummond


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