As part of his HVAC instructor training class, Bob Feathers shows a cartoon with different types of “ducks,” including “flat,” “branch,” “flexible” and “spiral.” The humorous attempt to use webbed feet and feathers while explaining duct and fittings demonstrates that when it comes to sheet metal work, many instructors need much more than a refresher course.

Cru Garrett, HVAC student at R.G. Drage Career and Technical Center in Massillon, Ohio, uses a sheet metal hammer on a project in the lab. Unlike the HVAC programs at many vocational schools, duct fabrication skills are a major part of the center’s training.

As part of his HVAC instructor training class, Bob Feathers shows a cartoon with different types of “ducks,” including “flat,” “branch,” “flexible” and “spiral.”

The humorous attempt to use webbed feet and feathers while explaining duct and fittings demonstrates that when it comes to sheet metal work, many instructors need much more than a refresher course.

Too many vocational teachers lack basic knowledge of sheet metal fabrication, Feathers said. The result is program graduates who don’t know to manually make an elbow or hold a pair of tin snips.

The depth of the problem was evident March 28 when Feathers presented a program during an ARI instructor workshop called “Introducing the Sheet Metal Trade To Your Program.”

The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute holds the yearly workshop in Lansdowne, Va., to update HVAC instructors on the latest educational trends.

Feathers is the immediate past president of the Council of Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Educators, as well as the educational committee chairman for the Air-Conditioning Contractors of America’s Ohio chapter. About 30 instructors were expected to attend his one-day session on the importance of teaching students basic sheet metal skills. But to Feathers’ surprise, 62 instructors filled the room for the presentation.
“The word is getting out that airflow is critical,” said Feathers, adding ductwork and proper fabrication also play a large role in ensuring systems work properly.

R.G. Drage student Chad Chisholm marks off pieces of sheet metal for a class project.

Getting started

Feathers said that some HVAC programs focus more on getting students prepared for careers as service technicians. But Feathers said that many coming out of such courses would not start their careers as service technicians.

“So many students get hired by the contractors in our area,” said Feathers. “And most hire new technicians for installation. Ductwork is a large part of the installation team.”

While some instructors may be ignorant to teaching the basics of sheet metal, Feathers said that most want to teach how to fabricate and cut metal. The problem is they may lack resources, such as space for fabrication equipment, or instructors may not have the budget to purchase machinery and tools.

Feathers said that if instructors do not have money for teaching sheet metal, they should at least cover the basics and purchase hand tools. He recommends that instructors buy tools such as snips, hand tongs, notchers and sheet metal hammers.

If the students do nothing else, he added, at least they will have been introduced to the necessary tools. He also said that instructors could purchase sheet metal “starter” kits from manufacturers. The kits include many of the basic sheet metal cutting tools and are available for a minimal cost.

If instructors have the resources to go further, Feathers recommended students learn to measure round, square and rectangular duct. They should also learn how seams go together. He suggested that students learn how to assemble square duct as part of a class project. Students can cut the duct, put it together and assemble end collars. Feathers said that this is an easy project and can be done even if the instructor has limited sheet metal experience.

The next step would be introducing students to a duct-sizing calculator, which would teach students how to estimate basic systems without using the ACCA’s Manual D, which deals with duct design.

One step ahead

If some instructors are hesitant to teach sheet metal, Kevin Couch isn’t one of them. Couch, HVAC instructor at R.G. Drage Career and Technical Center in Massillon, Ohio, said that sheet metal is a large component of his course.

The HVAC program at R.G. Drage is a two-year program for high school students. The program is in its 10th year, and Couch said sheet metal has always been included in the curriculum.

He said that when students get to the sheet metal portion of the program, one of their first projects is to cut sheet metal.

“Most kids have never cut metal before,” Couch said.

Students are provided with a 12-inch by 12-inch piece of 6-gauge sheet metal. The students are then asked to find the center of the metal, draw an 8-inch circle, and cut it out using either a pair of left- or right-angled snips. Couch said this is an attempt to get students to cut a perfect outside circle.

After that, Couch introduces his students to different pieces of equipment, such as brakes, shears and Pittsburgh machines. Students learn how to run the metal through the machines - and do it safely.

Later, students learn to connect ductwork using transitions. They also begin working with furnaces by building a plenum to a certain height to connect existing units to ductwork. In the first semester, students tear down the ductwork, start again, and install plenums with new furnaces with evaporator coils.

In their senior year, R.G. Drage students work on new equipment with 24-gauge sheet metal and do the ducting on their own.
“Every high school kid should attempt to make one plenum and set up an evaporator coil,” said Couch. He said he believes this is the minimum experience HVAC students should have before entering the field.

An unidentified student at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., works on an HVAC system in the lab. The college’s curriculum covers several aspects of sheet metal, including commercial and architectural work.

College level

It’s not just high school-level HVAC programs that sometimes neglect to cover sheet metal basics. James Eller, professor of HVAC at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, said many college HVAC programs are leaving out fundamental skills.

He said this is especially true at private colleges.

“Not many proprietary schools are doing it at all,” Eller said. He said he believes one reason is because the schools don’t think such work is “flashy.”

But Eller said students should know what they are going to encounter when they start their first HVAC job.
Eller is one of four full-time HVAC faculty members at Sinclair College. The college offers a one-year certification program and a two-year HVACR associate degree. He is also an instructor for the local union and for the Associated Builders and Contractors.

“We’re preparing people for entry-level skills,” said Eller.

That’s why all students, whether they are seeking a one-year certificate or an associate degree, will have to take some kind of sheet metal training at Sinclair.

As part of the program, students tour a sheet metal shop. They also get an introduction to basic layout skills and fittings.

Eller acknowledged that not all of the students enjoy the course work.

“You always have a few (students) who do it and say, ‘Now I know what I don’t want to do,’ ” he said.
But they also come away with a new respect for sheet metal applications, he added. Many students say it “is a lot more complicated and challenging than (they) thought it would be.”

And although it can be challenging, Eller wants his students to realize that sheet metal is an important and vital part of working in the HVACR industry. He said many people have a “great misconception” when it comes to sheet metal parts.

Too many people see sheet metal fittings sold at big-box stores like Home Depot and think that’s all they need, he said. But there will always be ductwork that needs to be fabricated on the job and students will benefit from knowing how to make their own parts.

He tells his students that this kind of knowledge is more beneficial and will save them time when out in the real world. They can either fabricate their own fittings or send an order to a sheet metal shop and “wait three days for it,” he said.

Gerry Ward works on a sheet metal project in his HVAC class at R.G. Drage Career and Technical Center.

The role of contractors

Eller credits the success of his program to having “good, strong advisory committees” that include local contractors. These contractors come into his classroom at least three or four times a year to make sure that Eller is teaching his students what they need to know when they graduate.

For example, they make sure his textbooks are up to date and they let Eller know if a part of his curriculum is now obsolete.

“That’s what guides us,” said Eller. “These are not just my ideas. We build our curriculum around what it is that our graduates should know.”

Eller has not only relied on his advisory board to help him make curriculum choices, they have also helped with on-the-job education. Recently, the ACCA of Greater Dayton (Ohio) held its annual Heat the Town project. Students drove with technicians to provide free HVAC services for elderly residents and low-income families.

He said the project “put a fire in my students.”

Andy Erbach, HVAC instructor at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., also thinks an advisory committee is a necessity.

“We have an advisory committee that is unbelievable,” said Erbach. “They give me feedback on what we need to do.”

Erbach has been teaching at Elgin for the last five years, and he says that the program has grown “radically” in that time.

Students in their first semester at Elgin Community College learn basic sheet metal and cost estimating. In the second semester, they learn about commercial and architectural sheet metal, as well as system load calculations and duct design, testing and balancing, and welding.

Erbach said that every HVACR program needs to be teaching sheet metal. If instructors don’t feel they know it well enough to teach it, local contractors and the HVAC industry should help.

If it is a budget issue and an instructor can’t obtain the tools or parts, Erbach said that they should turn to local industry for donations.

“Industry has been very generous” to our program, he said.

He also adds that most sheet metal machinery will last a lifetime if it is properly maintained, so many sheet metal tools can be a one-time purchase.
If instructors don’t know exactly what they need to be teaching, Erbach said contractors could help again.

“Talk to local contractors,” he said. “Ask what (students) need to know.”

Erbach said that at the very least, students will need to understand airflow and ventilation, and all of it starts with sheet metal fabrication.

He said that HVAC programs need to address sheet metal.

“You can’t separate heating and air conditioning from sheet metal,” said Erbach. “It would be like breathing without air.”

A copy of Bob Feather’s presentation, “Introducing the Sheet Metal Trade To Your Program,” is available on the Council of Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Educators’ Web site,

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail