Institute puts manufacturers' products to the test

CHANTILLY, Va. - Let's say someone approaches you with a new product, or you've seen it in a magazine. It's the latest thing. The manufacturer says it will make life easier for every contractor.

Workers will be safer and less tired. Productivity will soar, and along with it, profitability. Your teeth will be cleaner. Your gums will astound (and upset) your dentist. In just days, you'll have a better head of hair than you had at age 17, and you are guaranteed to never be audited by the Internal Revenue Service.

If the product could do just a quarter of what the manufacturer says it will, you'd pay twice their price. In fact, the reason you resist is it sounds a little bit too good.

But still, you are curious. Your question: "Is your product line OK with SMACNA standards?"

Gripple Inc. of Batavia, Ill., which makes the Hangfast duct-hanger systems, brought its products to the United States from its home base in England. Gripple's hangers are supplied as a kit - a length of steel-wire rope (with a choice of three end fixings), and the self-locking Gripple fastener for height adjustment and securing the load. A setting key is also supplied for use if one needs to unlock and adjust the hanger.

OK'd by whom?

While dentist anxiety and IRS immunity are not standard company claims, Mark Edmonds, the company's Batavia-based general manager, found himself dealing with that "OK by SMACNA?" issue.

"We kept getting the same questions," said Edmonds. "We were asked, in just about every meeting - ‘Does it meet SMACNA standards?' and ‘What does SMACNA say about it?'

"It didn't take us too long to figure out that we needed to provide the market with some answers."

Company officials found the answer through the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association's Testing & Research Institute. Former SMACNA President Ron Rodgers serves as the institute's chairman. He calls the existence of the institute and its services available to sheet-metal shops and suppliers "probably the best-kept secret in the HVAC and sheet-metal industries."

For manufacturers with products new to the market, institute verification is a shortcut to acceptance, since many contractors and engineers recognize SMACNA standards.

"We had an initial one-hour meeting in 2001 at SMACNA TRI headquarters in Chantilly, Va.," Edmonds recalled. "We explained how the product was developed, how it worked, how we envisioned it should be used as a hanger in the HVAC industry."

A ‘sensible' approach

"They could see that our approach made sense. In principle, the approach is the same as outlined in the SMACNA (duct construction standards) handbook. The methods are the same. But there are differences in terms of the upper- and lower-attachments; and Gripple incorporates wire rope as opposed to strap or threaded rod."

Institute staff explained that under its process, independent verification was needed. Gripple had already had the product judged in an independent International Conference of Building Officials-recognized test.

While it provided some of what the institute needed to grant verification, Gripple's product line needed to get through a further hurdle.

A SMACNA TRI staff member went with Edmonds to an ICBO testing lab to watch the testing process and verify the test. How would the product hold up under tests for slippage and strength?

But the staff member's interest went beyond the pass-fail outcome. The institute was present to see how the product was put to the test.

It took SMACNA officials a few weeks after the test to provide Gripple with its verification. Edmonds said it was worth the effort, cost and the short wait.

"It was probably the single most effective piece of marketing we've ever done," he said. "Our company has six people in outside sales and, between us, we are making dozens of presentations on our products each week. That adds up to hundreds each month.

Performance verified

"In each presentation, we cover the product and its technical features. We talk about load ratings and safety factors. And in that same breath, we are able to talk about the fact that our products are verified by SMACNA's Testing & Research Institute.

"The most typical reaction we get is, ‘Ah, good; that's what I was going to ask you!' " That reaction, he said, is not limited to SMACNA members, but includes distributors, engineers, inspectors and other contractors.

Having seen the value of the institute's verification, Gripple is having other products tested and verified.

Ron Rodgers, the institute's chairman, said the TRI is working the way he and other SMACNA contractors would like.

"It's a two-way street, and we've made it easier for the traffic to flow," he said. "Manufacturers always have a hard time getting new products or ideas accepted by the market. They make claims.

"On the other side of the street, we contractors want to use the product if it really is an improvement on what's available or what we have been using. But if you've not previously used that product, you, as a contractor, will have a hard time verifying what you are hearing.

"I know that those in the specifying community are skeptical of new products as well. Gripple's problem is a good example. They were having difficulty getting what was really a new product accepted in the marketplace. Manufacturers love having a credible entity to prove that their product will do what they say it will do."

(For more information on SMACNA's Testing & Research Institute, write 4201 Lafayette Center Drive, Chantilly, VA 20151-1209 or see on the Internet.)