Douglas Sawyer, the head custodian at Westbrook Middle School, checks the complicated geothermal pump and boiler system. Chance Viles / American Journal

The failing geothermal heat pump system at Westbrook Middle School needs to go, members of the City Council and School Committee said last week.

Officials called for the school department to look into replacing the entire heating system and to check whether some of the past repair expenses can be recouped under warranties.

“The system has failed us and our taxpayers,” Councilor Gary Rairdon said at a Feb. 9 joint meeting of the council and school board.

The geothermal system, installed for about $8 million in 2010, has failed repeatedly at great expense to the school department, with the pumps’ lifespan being less than half of what it should be. The issue came to a head last month when a boiler and then a back-up boiler, overworked because of the failed pumps, both stopped working, forcing the school to close to students for two days.

Potential replacement systems will be discussed by the School Committee, although no timeline is set.

School Committee member Noreen Poitras asked that the depth of the 10 wells for the geothermal pumps be checked, saying she’s been worried about them for nine years. She said she also saw a recent posting on social media from a former school employee that said the wells weren’t 1,500 feet deep, as specified, and were designed and made wrong.


I’ve been here years and I’ve been squawking to look at this. I want to see that these actually go to 1,500 feet,” Poitras said. “It was on social media recently from someone who worked here, it went down only 500 feet. I have concerns.”

Facilities Director Brandon Krupski said a past analysis on some of the wells showed they were 1,500 feet deep, though they are likely less deep now because of sediment.

The geothermal pumps were supposed to be the main source of heat, but the boilers do the lion’s share of work,  Krupski said. The pumps are supposed to last 10 years or more but on average make it only three years before failing.

Each time one fails, it costs about $16,000 to replace it. On top of that, each pump has two compressors that cost about $12,000 to fix when they break. Pumps can also break down in ways that don’t cost money to repair but do cost time, he said.

The main boiler has been replaced as of late January to the tune of $70,000.

Krupski said only four of the 10 wells are working right now, and they working on replacing the failed back-up boiler.


He would likely pursue a more traditional and reliable heating system, such as adding additional boilers and an air chiller, he said. Superintendent Peter Lancia said previously that the cost of a new system would be in the millions.

At the meeting, Mayor Mike Foley said the city will support a new heating system for the school.

“We are at a crossroads where the only thing we can do is move forward and try and resolve the situation,” Foley said. “The city is able and ready to try and come up with a solution to try and fund replacements.”

Foley said “over the years we’ve taken a patchwork approach to see what we can do to limp the system along,” and that while the revamp would be expensive, it is important to move in the right direction.

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