Fiber-Free Duct Solution Saves Time for Contractors

Fiber-Free Duct Solution Saves Time for Contractors

Sometimes, finding the perfect solution to a problem can feel like winning the lottery. If you're the owner of a busy sheet metal shop, and find a solution that not only cuts your labor in half on a large project but also helps you avoid spending $60,000 in machinery upgrades, it really is like winning the lottery.

Kevin Ryan, owner of Sheet Metal Werks, Arlington Heights, IL is pleased with the solution his company found for Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare in Elmhurst, IL. SMW was awarded the sheet metal contract for the new 866,000-sq.ft., state-of-the-art replacement hospital adjacent to the original Elmhurst Memorial Center for Health. The project involved fabricating and insulating several hundred square feet of sheet metal duct serving 259 patient rooms and treatment areas. The original project was designed using fiberglass insulation that was to be hand-wrapped in a polyester film and then sandwiched between dual wall sheet metal duct. It was a labor-intensive approach to providing thermal efficiency, particulate control, and acoustic attenuation. Ryan and shop superintendant, John Crne, had another thought.

"When we saw the volume of this project, we thought AP Coilflex would be advantageous for the customer," Ryan says.

Acoustics had been a concern on the project, which was why fiberglass had been specified first. Hospital applications typically prohibit the use of fibrous type insulations unless they’re wrapped in a polyester film and enclosed in dual wall duct. The problem with this type of approach is that it’s extremely time consuming. First, a standard length of ductwork comes off of the coil line without the insulation. Next, all of the fiberglass ductliner must be cut by hand and packaged wrapped on both sides, making sure that all of it is fully encapsulated, so that once the duct work is installed there’s no risk of fibers entering the air stream. Workers then hand glue the wrapped ductliner to the sheet metal and secure it with stickpins, because using weld pins would melt the polyester film. Finally, a perforated inner sheet metal wall is installed and the dual wall duct is fully assembled.

By using AP Coilflex elastomeric foam insulation, SMW eliminated the need for any plastic wrap, along with all hand assembly required to apply it. Because of the extreme flexibility of AP Coilflex, SMW was able to apply the product directly to the sheet metal on the automated coil line, virtually eliminating all of the hand labor.

"The advantage of using AP Coilflex is that we can avoid this extra process of wrapping the insulation because we eliminate the fiberglass," Crne said. "This, in turn, allows the ductwork to be manufactured with minimal handling and labor. The Coilfex material can be cut, glued, and pinned to the ductwork before it comes off the coil line. This leaves only one step, which is to install the perforated inner liner and assemble the ductwork."

A Better Way
Armacell introduced AP Coilflex in 2010 to help facilitate automated installation of duct liners. The product is engineered for application through a sheet metal shop’s automated coil line using water-based adhesives in accordance with SMACNA guidelines or using Armaflex 520 adhesive. Coilflex is highly conformable, and bends easily into the corners of duct during the fabrication process. Manufacturer sources describe it as a perfect solution for healthcare applications where IAQ is of utmost concern, because it's fiber-free, made without the use of CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) or HFCs (Hydrochlorofluorocarbons), and contains Microban® antimicrobial protection.

In some cases, some modification to the coiling equipment may be necessary to get a clean cut through the AP/Coilflex. SMW modified its equipment in-house to achieve the extra pressure necessary to get a clean cut. The cost of the in-house modification was insignificant compared the labor that was saved by using Coilflex instead of hand wrapping and assembling the fiberglass liner. It was also a lot less than the $60,000 that one machine shop had told them would be required to adapt the machine.

"SMW reduced the material handling and labor costs by at least half compared to the polyester-wrapped fiber glass approach," Crne said. Plus, they met the same specifications. It's a solution that SMW expects to use in the future, particularly on large volume jobs."

"Sometimes its real difficult for people to get out of a rut in the way they do things," Ryan says. "But this is a better product. Everything about this project was positive, positive, positive. We couldn't have asked for a smoother job."

Sheet Metal Werks: Service, Quality, People

Using APCoilflex is just one way Kevin Ryan is adapting to what he describes as “fierce” competition in sheet metal fabrication. The other is by taking service and quality to unmatchable levels.

"I've always told my contractor customers that my lead time is, 'when you want it,'"says Ryan, who started offering sheet metal fabricating for HVAC contractors in 1987. "It's about service, service, service, and quality, quality, quality. It's a pretty simple formula. To me, quality means you put the best, most competitive product you can out on the street, and meet or exceed customers' expectations."

Before starting Sheet Metal Werks, Ryan had been working in his father's business, as a fabricator and ductwork field installer.

An HVAC contractor walked in late on a summer evening and asked Ryan if he'd be interested in fabricating some ductwork and fittings for him. Ryan took the job, and soon realized he could build a business in fabricating. "That contractor remains a customer to this day," Ryan says.

The business has grown to approximately $10 million in annual sales. Ryan has 30 employees, four trucks, and two 50-ft. trailers. He started Sheet Metal Werks to provide fabricating solely for residential HVAC contractors. As the business grew, it gradually moved to include more commercial and health care projects.

"Expansion was extremely easy," Ryan says. "Our client base grew as we met our customers' deadlines, which helped them provide better service to their customers. Sheet metal layout seemed to come naturally to me, and as the technology changed, we changed as a company."

Sheet Metal Werks' commitment to using state-of-the-art equipment is driven by constant improvements in efficiency. "With union wages being what they are today I'm always looking for a more efficient way to get the job off my floor, and to the customer's job site in the most efficient way possible," Ryan explains.

SMW's shop produces 5- and 6-ft. rectangular duct and fittings with maximum precision. "We also stock a large inventory of 10-ft. spiral pipe and fittings, and can produce cut-to-length spiral pipe and custom fittings."

Sheet Metal Werks' union-trained estimators and craftspeople can fine-tune designs to improve customers' budgets by creating stress-free, "no surprises" installations.

Value of Field Talent
Ryan's best sales generator in a highly referral-based business is the journeyman in the field — the on-site person he relies on to sell the company to prospective customers. "He sells us to his project manager by telling him about our superior quality and turnaround time versus our competitors. We also have a happy field staff that keeps field hours reasonable, for a more profitable job," Ryan says.

To reduce overtime hours at a time when work is less available, Ryan instituted a new shop production plan. "We know exactly, every day, the hours that are available to be booked. If a customer needs something quickly, and we're over-booked, we work with that customer and job closely, to keep their costs down and to a minimum," Ryan explains.

"After what we went through in 2010, I've learned to be proactive instead of reactive. These are extraordinary times that we're in right now in the construction business. With the right changes, remaining as 'skinny' as possible, and keeping the fat and gristle to a bare bones minimum, any company should be able to work through all of these tough times. It's all about being efficient right now and doing more with less, and still keeping up with the standards that our customers have become accustomed to," Ryan says.

As the industry waits for a bona-fide building rebound, Ryan says healthcare is extremely hot, and overall, the market has started to gain some momentum.

"Our customers are fighting extremely hard to grasp the work that's out there. Margins are extremely tight and competition is fierce," he says. "I feel that we could be as far as two to three years away until we see real signs of a surge. But with the changes we've made at Sheet Metal Werks, I feel we're as efficient as any sheet metal shop in the country." — Terry McIver

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