Costly HVAC problem at Lovett Library, and others

by Tom Beck
Posted 8/30/23

After spending $6.7 million renovating Mt. Airy’s Lovett Library, officials have discovered a humidity issue that has forced periodic closures.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Costly HVAC problem at Lovett Library, and others


After spending $6.7 million and 18 months renovating Mt. Airy’s Lovett Library from 2016 to 2018, officials have discovered a humidity issue inside the building that has forced it to close periodically despite having an almost brand-new HVAC system.

Because the library’s HVAC system, which is only about six years old, was not outfitted with a dehumidification sequence during the time of installation, the Free Library of Philadelphia will now be forced to spend $21,000 to modify the system.

The modification, which will take approximately five days to complete, is slated to happen at some point in the middle of September, the Free Library confirmed to the Local.

Mt. Airy residents who attended a community meeting about the matter on Wednesday last week were frustrated to hear the news.

“It boggles my mind,” said Mt. Airy resident Liese Sadler, “that nobody thought that humidification would be a necessary component of an HVAC system for such a complex building.”

Lovett Library, which was first constructed in 1887, didn’t incorporate a dehumidification sequence into its new HVAC system during the renovation period because the building had never experienced humidity issues until last year, said Free Library of Philadelphia Vice President of Property Management Jim Pecora at Wednesday evening’s community meeting. The system was designed by an Indianapolis-based engineering consultant called Burris Engineering, the Free Library confirmed.

The local could not determine as of presstime yesterday whether or not that company had recommended a dehumidification system. But Pecora ultimately said he was responsible for keeping the libraries open.

“But not just to keep them open,” he said. “My primary objective is to make sure that they're sustainable.”

When the HVAC system was designed more than eight years ago, the Free Library of Philadelphia did not require a dehumidification sequence, spokesperson Trenton Smiley told the Local. However, Smiley added, more recent climate and other issues have resulted in new design standards.

Neither Pecora nor Smiley could say why humidity issues were all of a sudden becoming a problem, or what was causing them.

“I don't know what it is,” Pecora said. “You could say it's climate change or whatever, but I'd say since late 2020, 2021, we started to see this.”

There is some scientific evidence that points to climate change causing increased humidity, especially in densely populated areas, since warm air can hold more water vapor.

The humidity issues appear to be part of a trend.

“We have seen this slowly become an issue in some locations starting approximately around the time of the pandemic,” said Smiley. 

Three other libraries – The Falls of Schuylkill Library in East Falls, Fumo Library in South Philadelphia and Andorra Library, have all had the same issue with humidity, and all have needed HVAC modification.  

Two others - Northeast Regional Library in Rhawnhurst and McPherson Library in Kensington – are currently experiencing the same humidity problems Lovett is and are also slated to get the same modification at some point in the near future. Rhawnhurst and McPherson’s HVAC systems, however, are not new. In those libraries, the HVAC systems date back to 1997, and it’s not yet known how much the modifications will cost at those locations. 

As a result of these issues, Pecora said, all future HVAC systems implemented into Philadelphia libraries will incorporate dehumidification sequences.

Pecora said at the meeting that libraries can sometimes have flukey humidity issues that appear but go away quickly, and modifications to the HVAC system are not necessary. He initially hoped that this was the case with Lovett. 

However, Pecora continued, the problem became more consistent this summer, and it became clear that an expensive modification to the building’s HVAC system would be necessary.

“We didn't consider it a major problem last year,” Pecora said. “This year, it was here and it's sustaining, and it's real.”

Chronic Underfunding

Despite a $10.4 million increase in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s fiscal budget this year, its maintenance team still struggles to find money to repair its 54 neighborhood libraries.

“We're going to blow through that in one year,” Pecora said of the $10.4 million.

According to Percora, $2 million of that funding is going towards repairing the roofs of five separate libraries in the system. The Richmond Library, which is not part of those five, will require an additional $2 million to repair its roof alone due to the expensive Spanish tiles that adorn it. That’s nearly 40% of the funding increase right there.

“For all the years I've been in property management, we were only getting $1 million to $1.5 million per year for one million square feet [of libraries in the city],” said Pecora. “Industry standard says you need about $5 million to $7 million a year in capital alone just to keep [up with repairs]. We haven't been getting that for decades.”