Clean Air


Florida realizes benefits of advanced air-conditioning training, maintenance with roof-top systems Florida’s central Atlantic Coast is known for its sandy white beaches and, not far from sunbather’s paradise of Cocoa Beach, the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. With humidity in the Sunshine State often times in the neighborhood of 120 percent, it’s enough to make a mosquito wilt.

Along the Banana River and even inland past Lake Poinsett, Brevard County has it somewhat better. But that, as they say, is all relative. Late January temperatures that linger in the mid-70s, such as at this writing, are the reason flocks of snowbirds fly south for the winter, and why many choose to stay. But by June the thermostat flirts with 90 degrees, and worse, the humidity begins to climb as the rainy season rolls in.

Prior to 2000, no state specs existed for school bus air conditioning. For the most part, districts were on their own.

“They did have some A/C for exceptional education,” recalls Chuck Stevenson, the assistant transportation director of vehicle maintenance at Brevard County Schools. “Some parents saw children getting on A/C buses and not others. They started asking the question, ‘Why? Everywhere we go there’s A/C, yet not in school buses?’”

Like some of the hotter, stickier locales across the country, Brevard County residents shuffle from air conditioned buildings to air conditioned cars to the comfortable confines of home. So, in 2000, the Brevard school board committed to purchasing air condition options for all new bus purchases.

“To them it didn’t make any sense,” Stevenson adds. “It was a very easy sell for us to go with a plan to get air conditioning.”

While the local humidity isn’t “too bad,” as Stevenson says, with the East trade breezes blowing off the Atlantic and normal overnight lows of 78 in the summer, the days can still get downright sticky.

“There’s not much time for buses to cool down,” says Mike Connors, Brevard’s transportation director. “It’s not too bad in morning, but in the afternoon they sit in the bay without air conditioning. With the windows open those buses stay very, very warm. Then you load up with hot, sweaty kids.”

For the 2002-2003 school year, Florida began piloting rooftop air conditioning units — different from roof-top condensers with integrated evaporators that are popular in hot, dry and dusty climates — per state school bus specifications to help districts and the kids they serve find additional relief. In-cab and ground units don’t work as well in Florida or some other states because the sweltering heat and humidity radiates from the ground up. Elsewhere, like in New York, the heat mostly comes from the road in the form of vehicle exhaust and debris. By 2006 state specs existed for the new rooftop systems or for traditional in-cab units.

“That’s one reason we offered up the option for roof-mounted condensers,” said Bill Schroyer, the director of fleet management for the Florida Department of Education’s School Transportation Management. “Ground units don’t have a chance to do that great of job because of the 120 percent humidity most of the year.”

But most of all, the roof-top units don’t require as much daily maintenance because the air is cooler and cleaner above the bus. Absent is the additional road grime and debris that can put a school bus air conditioning system on the fritz.

Still, there is a need for additional technician training to understand how the units operate. In Florida specifically, there are situations where districts buy equipment and get some technicians certified, or they can turn to manufacturers or distributors, if they are nearby. It becomes a question of outsourcing or performing the maintenance in-house.

A few distributors, like Rivers Bus & RV Sales in Jacksonville, are certified to do air conditioning installs.

“In conjunction with the bid requirement, the state of Florida requires so many hours of training be provided,” said Mike McCollough, who leads the bus air conditioning install group at Rivers Bus. “Typically (training for our customers) is done through that program. Carrier has done some additional training sessions held at school districts. We have invited our customers to come up and take a look at their units both in production and post production so they can see them and we can take care of questions.”

With 67 counties, the state training requirement is fulfilled at several locations around the state and offered several times a year. And the air conditioning manufacturers, like American Cooling Technology and Carrier, offer additional customer training opportunities at a cost to school districts outside of the state bid requirements.

“I’ve personally found them very beneficial,” Schroyer added. “A three-day intensive A/C class starts with refrigeration 101 and goes all the way up to transit compressors on big buses. We’re very impressed with it.”

Brevard County’s Stevenson has taken full advantage, certifying all 39 technicians to work on the district’s 274 Type Cs with air conditioning, nearly half of the entire fleet of 570 buses. And the district recently ordered another 44 new buses with A/C.

Preventative maintenance is vital, especially for the air condition systems and the state-enforced 30-day inspection requirement. At least once a month, Brevard technicians inspect each air conditioning system inside and outside the bus, including all connections, condenser fans and units, thermometers, electrical switches, evaporators and intake filters. The technicians also note any discrepancies they find that require further attention.

“You need equipment and training for air conditioning,” Stevenson says. “With a sizeable fleet like I’ve got, I’m going to need more people and time to invest in repairs.”

Reprinted from the March 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.