Century-old steam machinery still heating B.C.'s oldest high school — for now

1 / 4

Century-old steam machinery still heating B.C.'s oldest high school — for now

Century-old steam machinery still heating B.C.'s oldest high school — for now

The future of the province's oldest high school is uncertain and whether Victoria High is torn down or upgraded, it will likely mean the end to the century-old steam radiators and boilers.

Zain Jaison, the power engineer and custodian at Vic High, is one of the last school steam engineers. He cares for the nearly extinct machinery that heats the building.  

The school was opened in 1876 and moved to its current location mere months before the First World War broke out.

"Back in those days, there were a number of people that worked in these rooms at all times," Jaison told Gregor Craigie, the host of CBC's On The Island.

"There would be a chief engineer and an assistant engineer, most likely, in addition to stokers who would gather the coal from the coal bin at the back, break it up and shovel it into the boilers all day long."

The boiler room, which runs at a toasty 40 C, has two large boilers with the original pressure gauges that run at full power on natural gas during the colder months.

'Beauty of steam'

This type of steam heating system is extremely rare nowadays, Jaison said, and usually only found in heavy industry.  

"Modern schools are equipped with small gas boilers that run automatically by computer and they deliver hot water instead of steam," he explained. "The beauty of steam is that it drives itself through the building and it can move an enormous amount of energy very quickly."

Hot air is then blown through radiators in the classroom, similar to a normal home furnace, and up through the original old fashion brass radiators in common areas like the stairwells and halls.

"The machinery was very well made and much of it is in service," Jaison said.

Upgrades coming

The machinery may not be in service for much longer, though.

The Greater Victoria School District is weighing three options for seismic upgrades to Vic High. Tearing down the school and building a new facility is the cheapest option. 

The other options are to upgrade building systems or retain the exterior and rebuild the interior. 

The school district is still in the process of public consultations before coming to a decision.

"I could very well be the last steam engineer in this school," said Jaison.  

With files from On The Island and Gregor Craigie.