Tamaqua and West Penn Elementay Schools could join Tamaqua Area High School in switching to a geothermal heating system.

The Tamaqua Area School District Board of Education approved several moves at its monthly meeting Tuesday evening that could put those schools on track to convert geothermal as part of phase two of the district's energy savings program.

Geothermal heating systems use the earth's heat to warm and cool. The district switched the high school to geothermal as part of the first phase of the plan through PPL Energy Services.

Shayne Homan of McClure Company, a subsidiary of PPL Energy Services, presented the second phase of the proposal to the board during the meeting, which was moved to Tamaqua Elementary School.

If the district would move forward with the complete phase two project, which includes converting both elementary schools as well as renovating the high school locker rooms, the total cost could reach close to $5.4 million, according to Homan.

What makes the project feasible for Tamaqua Area is that the district is already reaping the benefits of savings from phase one.

Since converting to geothermal, the high school reduced its energy use by more than half, from 92,000 BTUs per square foot to 45,000. The utility operating expenditure dropped from $2.23 per square foot to $1.12.

The addition of cooling energy to the high school, which was built in 1968 and did not have air conditioning for most of the building for most of its existence, ended up decreasing overall energy use by 50 percent.

"It is performing better than many green-certified buildings," said Homan, who added that the district-wide light retrofitting program and the high school geothermal conversion combined to save two million kilowatt hours and 8,000 gallons of oil. "We exceeded anticipated construction savings by $50,000," he added.

Homan said Tamaqua Elementary is a good candidate for geothermal heating, even better than the high school since it already has a four-pipe system in place rather than two pipes. BTU-wise, the building's thermal conductivity exceeds that of the high school.

In anticipation of phase two, the district previously approved test borings for the northeast side of the school, which were performed on Nov. 1. The well field would be located in the rear parking lot near the kitchen service entrance.

"We would have the school completely oil-free, except for one emergency burner," said Homan.

The scope of phase two includes the elementary school HVAC and hot water systems; converting the high school natatorium to geothermal; the high school locker renovations; middle school temperature control upgrades; plumbing upgrades; the installation of film on the high school windows; a district-wide program to seal doors, windows, curbs and roof to wall edges; and a behavioral energy program, tailored to K-12, on how to conserve energy.

The Tamaqua Elementary geothermal work would total around $2.2 million, while the locker renovations would come in around $548,000. The total for those phase two options, without including West Penn Elementary, would be about $3.8 million, Homan said.

West Penn Elementary still needs test borings to be performed, but Homan's rough estimate for including West Penn brought the overall total to $5,398,121.

Board Vice President Dr. Thomas Rottet asked why Rush Elementary School in Hometown couldn't be considered for the geothermal conversion.

"We just bought a new chiller for there, and you'd be walking away from that," said Arthur Oakes, Jr., the district's facilities manager, who added that Rush is about 50 percent the size of West Penn.

Homan presented a number of funding options for the project, including seeking grant funding for up to $500,000 and a low interest loan program of one percent for 10 years that could cover $360,000 of the costs for the schools.

Overall, he said the district would be looking to finance $4.9 million, including West Penn's work, and he recommended a 15 year financing program at four percent interest.

"You could come up with $196,000 for year one of phase two, or structure the lease payment down," Homan suggested.

The goal is to have the energy savings accumulate over time in order to offset construction costs and make the project budget neutral.

To pave the way for phase two, the board moved to approve test borings for West Penn, at a cost not to exceed $10,000.

The district will also apply for an Alternative and Clean Energy Grant for the project, with the possibility of an award of up to $500,000.

The board also moved to accept the proposal of Crabtree, Rohrbauch and Associates to provide architectural design for the locker room project, totaling $19,500. That includes $9,500 for the boys and girls locker rooms, showers and toilets; $3,500 for adjacent space for offices, storage and stairs; and $6,500 for handicapped accessibility and upgrades to remaining toilets.

Homan said the notice to proceed could be awarded in February, financing finalized in March, depending on the results of the grant application. The construction goal would be to have the systems completed for September, 2011.