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Benefiting from the expertise of ductwork specialists
Published:  13 December, 2006
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PAUL ROXBURGH detects signs of a new appreciation of the role played by the ductwork specialist.

A wind of change is beginning to blow through some of the not-so-hallowed groves of the building-services industry.

Appropriately enough, that wind is blowing down the millions of kilometres of ductwork that are installed annually to bring a controlled internal environment to Britain's buildings.

In short the ductwork contractor wants a better deal — and circumstances are combining to make sure he gets it.

And about time, many would say. Until now the ductwork specialist has too often been considered a mere ‘tin basher’ —- probably the first major supplier on site and very possibly the last to be paid. With the product and service undervalued, lowest possible price has too often been the only factor in the choice of supplier — even on major projects where mistakes are both costly and embarrassing!

Some contractors have thought the possibility of minimum cost worth the probability of a red face.

Key member

Now, however, the ductwork specialist is fast being accepted as a key member of the professional team.

To understand why, let us first take a look at market demand.

The Government is determined to cut carbon emissions. The target seems to move, but the latest Building Regulations require new buildings to have a carbon footprint about 25% less than those designed to the 2002 regulations. The building-services industry is responsible for about 40% of all UK carbon emissions, so it makes good sense to ask it to put its house in order.

As result a kind of ‘green’ myth has been created in which air conditioning will be abandoned and our great commercial and public buildings will depend on natural ventilation.

This in a country where a recent survey revealed that no fewer than 78% of office workers already complain that hotter than usual temperatures make it difficult to get work done. Believe it or not, 65% of the male workers surveyed said that they were expected to wear a shirt, jacket and tie all year round!

The great British public will not easily accept the prospect of working in hot stuffy buildings, or cold draughty ones. Remember the weather is likely to be hotter or colder — according to which global-warming theory you prefer.

Some form of environmental conditioning will still be essential for virtually all commercial and public sector buildings.

The only practical answer would appear to be to use existing technology — more efficiently.

Greater demand

As a result, the need for good-quality metal ductwork will be greater than ever, as the demand for more efficient sealing of buildings becomes more urgent. If a building fails a leakage test, the ductwork will be the first place to look.

Indeed if buildings are to be sealed more tightly than ever, the need for mechanical ventilation will increase. We may even see a return to the large-scale central-station VAV systems of the 1970s rather than hundreds of piped fan-coil units. After all it is easier to modulate fan speed than it is to vary the performance of a pump.

If you need low-leakage ductwork, galvanised metal is the only practical material for most applications. Even a ‘green’ building site can be a rough, tough place, and building products have to be robust to stand a chance of even beginning a useful service life.

Ductwork is particularly vulnerable. It has to be lightweight, it is big (up to a metre or more across), and there is a lot of it. The chances of a few accidental knocks during installation are very high. Only galvanised metal is tough enough to take the knocks and still perform efficiently.

Today ductwork, like all building-services components, has to be supplied on a fast track programme, which, in turn, demands that the ductwork specialist make heavy investment in CAD/CAM production systems and skilled staff.

Membership of MENSA is not required to realise that this investment has to be translated into a fair price for the job. It must surely be self-evident that a supplier who puts in a tender 25% or more lower than four others who vary by no more than 1 or 2% may not be quoting an economic price. The chances of achieving the required levels of leak tightness and fast-track installation become lower with every percentage point that is cut from a fair price.

Pre-installation

This is a risk that M&E contractors can no longer afford to run. The stakes are too high.

Many are now insisting on using the services of ADCAS members. In doing so they know they can rely on the engineered products and trained personnel that will carry the project over the finishing line with flying colours. The need for peace of mind is finally working in our favour!

More clients are also coming to realise that the ductwork contractor should be appointed as early as possible in the life of the project to ensure adequate lead times. It should be remembered that ductwork contractors are involved in more pre-installation drawing work than other disciplines. Sitting on an order for as long as possible in the hope it will drive down prices was never a sensible option — and is now positively foolhardy.

All this is not to say that the work of ADCAS is done. Far from it, the need for training is as urgent as it ever was. I am proud to say that ADCAS is the only organisation to provide specialist training at every level within the ductwork industry — from apprentices to those already on the rungs of the management ladder.

ADCAS has recently joined the Federation of Environmental Associations (FETA). Membership of FETA and the ability to share experience with like-minded trade associations will give us a more direct route to Government ministers and other top-level decision makers throughout Europe. These are the people we need to reach if wrongs such as the retention system are ever to be put right.

With FETA’s aid, ADCAS will also press for the much-needed European Standard for ductwork to replace the guidance given in DW/144.

Paul Roxburgh is president of ADCAS (the Association of Ductwork Contractors & Allied Services).