In Elgin, Illinois, communications equipment company Motorola Solutions was planning an update to a 300,000-square-foot building that would be used for corporate training and manufacturing. While the building was relatively new, Motorola invested $18 million in upgrades to bring the facility’s components to “state-of-the-art” status — one of which was its HVAC system.

The original HVAC ductwork was fabricated with galvanized sheet metal and wrapped with insulation, but when Arlington Heights, Illinois-based sheet metal fabrication contractor Sheet Metal Werks was hired to make and supply the new ductwork, Sheet Metal Werks President Kevin Ryan suggested a product that steps away from industry tradition: pre-insulated phenolic ductwork.

Phenolic ductwork uses closed-cell insulation — meaning there are no fibers whatsoever — so air flows directly over the sealed aluminum foil surface, thus eliminating loose fibers entering the air and, in turn, greatly improving indoor air quality, supporters say.

“The engineer wanted the ductwork to have a thermal performance rating of at least R-6,” Ryan said. “We specified Kingspan KoolDuct, a complete HVAC ducting system that offers superior performance for industrial, commercial and even residential applications.”

KoolDuct, which has been used in Europe, the Middle East and Australia for more than 20 years, has been slower to impact the U.S. HVAC market as Kingspan has focused on building a strong foundation here and gaining acceptance from standards-writing organizations. But with more sheet metal fabricators, installers and mechanical contractors offering the product, Ryan explained it’s only going to get harder for the industry to ignore as regulations tighten and customer demand for energy efficiency grows. 

The new duct in town

Kingspan’s pre-insulated phenolic duct was first manufactured in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom and reached the U.S. HVAC market in 2001 after receiving its UL 181 listing, which tested the product’s resistance to flame, mold growth and erosion, among other properties.

In 2015, the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association released its first edition of its phenolic duct construction standard, which provides contractors, code officials and design engineers with basic phenolic duct fabrication and installation standards and methods.

The standard highlights phenolic duct properties, such as high thermal performance, moisture resistance, fire performance and structural strength, and has been a “go-to source for leaders in the technical applications of ductwork,” said Gavin Hunter, commercial sales manager at Kingspan’s U.S. headquarters in Atlanta. KoolDuct is the first phenolic duct to get SMACNA compliance, Hunter added.

“(KoolDuct) is lightweight, which makes it easy to install, less weight on the structure of the building,” he said. “It comes in longer lengths than your traditional metal … ductwork.”

For Ryan and the Motorola project, the pre-insulated phenolic ductwork’s lightweight properties were one of the reasons that helped to convince the engineer, who had built a grid system over the facility that would hold everything from the electric and cable cradles to the lighting and duct system, that KoolDuct was the best option for the job. 

“When he saw that we were going to take basically 100 tons off the (structural) load — not only of his building, but off the load of his grid system — that’s when he hopped on board,” Ryan said. “(We used) 50,000 pounds in KoolDuct. It would’ve been 250,000 pounds in sheet metal, so we took 200,000 pounds off the structural load of a building. I think there are engineers out there who would kind of love that.”

KoolDuct’s energy efficiency and virtually leak-free properties were also big selling points, Ryan added. The pre-insulated phenolic duct’s standard thicknesses for the North American market are R-6 for internal use and R-8 for external use to meet current International Code Council requirements, with R-12 panels available for engineers seeking a better thermal performance on their buildings. Use of phenolic duct may also offer general contractors a varying amount of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building points, depending on assessment by each building’s architect or engineer.

“And it just doesn’t leak,” Ryan said. “(At the Motorola job), we had ductwork 65 inches by 48 inches. We were tested at 4-inch pressure, and the manometer read 0.005, so basically we weren’t leaking.”

The product speaks for itself

You might be wondering why the president of a sheet metal company — a hard fact to ignore since “sheet” and “metal” are the first two words in the name — has decided to fabricate a non-sheet metal product. But for Sheet Metal Werks’ Kevin Ryan, who for 30 years considered himself a “sheet metal guy,” the reasoning behind his decision to become Chicagoland’s exclusive KoolDuct and Thermaduct (see sidebar) fabricator is in the product itself. 

In the one-and-a-half years that Sheet Metal Werks has been fabricating KoolDuct, the company has installed the ductwork in senior living homes, schools, churches, commercial and industrial buildings, health care facilities and rooftop ductwork.

“It’s 100 percent guaranteed never, ever to support mold, fungus or mildew,” Ryan said. “So right away, there you go, now you’re talking about IAQ (indoor air quality) for not only your faculty, your students in your schools, your patients in your health care facilities, your seniors in your senior living centers, (but also) you’re talking about a fiber-free environment with the highest R (insulation) values.”

While Ryan acknowledged that it felt a little unorthodox to tell the Sheet Metal Workers union he wanted to start making “foam ductwork,” once he showed them the product and the advantages it would bring to the union, they were on board. Being pre-insulated and weighing up to 72 percent less than galvanized sheet metal duct, KoolDuct removes the need to wrap the ductwork and allows one worker to do much more in a shorter amount of time with lower labor and material costs. The Motorola project, for example, which was started in December 2015 and finished in February 2016, was completed five weeks early, Ryan said.

“Some guys like Kevin really get it and appreciate it and take it on board,” Hunter said. “Kevin’s business at the moment is still sheet metal and KoolDuct, so he’s not going to replace one with the other, but he’s got a product offering where he can offer one product (and also) substitute the other. He can have the best of both worlds.” 

A growing, changing market

In the last quarter of 2016, Sheet Metal Werks sold roughly $400,000 worth of phenolic duct. 

“I only do $11 million a year, so that’s a pretty big number. It’s growing,” Ryan said. “It’s kind of like a snowball. We’re pushing a snowball downhill and we’re catching people coming down the hill with us, and that snowball is continuing to grow.”

While the company is still mostly fabricating sheet metal — Ryan said the ratio of their work is about 80 percent sheet metal duct and 20 percent phenolic duct — if the trend toward energy efficiency continues to grow, so will the demand for phenolic duct in suitable applications.

“What I told my guys … at one of our safety meetings after I signed the deal with Kingspan is look, here’s my prediction: In under three years, we’re going to be moving more phenolic duct through this shop than we will sheet metal,” Ryan said.

But both Gavin and Ryan recognize that there will always be a need for sheet metal — pre-insulated duct cannot be used in kitchen or grease hood exhaust applications, for example. In a roughly 150-year-old industry that has been slower to evolve in terms of how it uses sheet metal, if use of phenolic duct continues to grow, it’s not an “us versus them” or “sheet metal versus phenolic” situation, but rather an upgrade to HVAC systems in general, Ryan said.

“When you see our passion (for KoolDuct), you get it. You understand it,” Ryan said. “It’s just evolution. It’s progression. Whatever it is you want to call it. It’s the next phase of ductwork.”

Taking it outside

Perrysburg, Ohio-based manufacturer Thermaduct has been utilizing Kingspan KoolDuct to develop its pre-engineered, pre-insulated outdoor ducting since 2007.

To manufacture Thermaduct, KoolDuct is factory-laminated with a heavy 1,000-micron, ultraviolet light-stable, titanium-infused vinyl laminate barrier to the external surfaces of the duct panel. The duct design is virtually seamless, with as many as three corners thermally bent, and the final corner then either chemically or thermally welded at the seam without any need for tape, adhesives or screws.

“Sheet metal still by itself is a great conduit, but it lacks any R value, any insulating value,” said Fran Lanciaux, owner of Thermaduct. “The new energy code (2015 International Energy Conservation Code) is requiring a minimum of R-12 outdoor. If you install sheet metal, now you have to insulate it with probably at least 3 inches of dense fiberglass and clad it.”

In comparison, a Thermaduct panel is only 1 ¾-inches thick and has an R value of 12. The ductwork’s distinct white color also complies with the U.S. Department of Energy’s cool roofs initiative, which focuses on reducing building energy use in private and government buildings, and has since spread to cities like New York and Phoenix.

Thermaduct officials said at peak temperatures a white roof is 20 degrees cooler than a roof with a reflective aluminum coating and up to 50 degrees cooler than a dark roof.

“Energy codes are going to push (the use of phenolic duct) and obviously the advantages of having a non-fibrous insulation is growing,” Lanciaux said. “You see it in the building construction industry, where foams are being applied at a much higher percentage. I think our industry — the HVAC industry — is going to see that as well.”

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