Sitting in an office, or in their own homes, many people don’t notice their building’s ductwork unless there is something wrong with it — it’s too noisy or the air in the room is too cold or too hot. The fabrication of ductwork is much like designing and constructing a roller coaster or a water slide — the air has to flow smoothly and efficiently for a building’s occupants to be comfortable, healthy and safe.

The act of designing, fabricating and installing ductwork has many layers, and the education to instill that knowledge is steeped in experience and technology. Like many skills, it begins in a classroom, where students learn to physically create, construct and install the ductwork.

The training center at Sheet Metal Workers union Local 88 in Las Vegas is one school taking the education of ductwork fabrication to another level.

First- and second-year apprentices at the training center learn how to design, fabricate, install and balance duct the old fashioned way — by doing every bit of it themselves. Apprentices start with nothing and end up with a fully functioning system in their own training center. Not only are their grades at stake, their comfort — once the temperatures reach 100°F -— is as well.

Learning it all

For years, Jeff Proffitt, instructor and assistant training director, has used the center and real-world experience to teach duct fabrication, from math learned in the classroom to the installation of duct in the training center’s shop. From start to finish, every apprentice learns it all.

In his first year, Dick Eighmy, 28, now a second-year apprentice, took the knowledge imparted in class to the jobsite — right down to his math homework.

“Knowing how to apply the math saves so much time,” he said. “You can take the numbers, do the math and get everything you need from there.”

First-year apprentices begin with 80 hours of classroom time, learning math, drafting and layout, beginning system design and air calculations, as well as the use of S-and-drive fittings. They are in charge of designing, creating and balancing rectangular ductwork as well as calculating the cubic feet per minute.

“Most of your standard units start with rectangular duct, and it will change to round,” Proffitt said.

Second-year apprentices, like Eighmy, move up to the more difficult round ductwork and learn how to read plans and specifications, advanced duct sizing and more advanced calculations of cfm and British thermal units. They also learn to use transverse duct connection fittings as well as how to calculate for the amount of heat given off by humans, lights and computer equipment in the building, for instance, as well as how much heat or air is lost from opening and closing doors.

“The layout is more difficult,” Proffitt said. “The fabrication is more difficult. It takes more finesse to do round duct than rectangular. But it’s also more efficient. For instance, the computer-aided design lab needs more air because of all the computers, so they have to calculate that as well.”

Fire-life safety

Second-year students also are introduced to their first class in heating, ventilation and air conditioning fire-life safety, which is an important component in the success of the ductwork. Safety specifications keep smoke and fire from traveling through the air ducts, keeping a building’s occupants protected and reducing the risk of death during an emergency.

“This is all prepping them for the real world, a jobsite,” Proffitt said.

Proffitt has been teaching ductwork fabrication and installation this way for six years, since the training program transferred to day classes for the first- and second-year students. Because it takes the apprentices from the very beginning all the way through the testing, adjusting and balancing of the system in their own training center, it gives them a sense of ownership, he said. Around the shop, apprentices have signed their names on their ductwork — a sign of “art”  completed.

While the hands-on experience is good, on the job, apprentices only are hired to do one thing: design, fabricate or install. In class, they get to do it all.

“In school you’re learning the full aspect,” said Eighmy, who works for Hansen Mechanical in Las Vegas. “You learn why things are done the way they’re done. Through this education, you’re able to spot things that are missing or wrong in the field. It makes you able to spot these things when you get on the jobsite.”

Benefitting from the recession

Proffitt’s teaching style began as an exception and evolved to the norm. When the Great Recession hit southern Nevada, the region’s formerly booming construction industry crashed, leaving many sheet metal apprentices and journeymen out of work. Apprentices rely on the on-the-job training as part of their education, and because there was no work, their education suffered. During that time, Proffitt used the situation to the students’ advantage and brought the experience typically learned on the job back to the training center.

“Those who had the experience worked as foremen to supervise those without the experience on a jobsite,” Proffitt said.

The supervisors imparted wisdom from their experiences and also learned valuable leadership skills while the other apprentices were immersed in as close to a real-work environment as possible. On this makeshift “jobsite,” apprentices used the latest fabrication software, lift equipment, power tools and mechanical fasteners they would hopefully one day use on real worksites. The apprentices also learned the demeanor and professionalism expected on a construction site as well.

In the end, it gives the students a tangible project and pride in their work.

“In Vegas, air conditioning is a lifeline,” Eighmy said. “It’s nice to know what you’re doing makes people’s lives better, even if they don’t know you’re doing it.”

Many students feel good about the work they do, Proffitt added.

 “They all learn together,” he said. “It gives them a good perspective.”

This article and its images were supplied by the International Training Institute. For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email