After SNIPS Magazine sat down with testing and balancing expert Jack Webster earlier in the year, we decided to talk to him again in our first installment of Tin Knocker Tales, a new podcast series. A member of the Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau (TABB), Webster’s been a construction safety consultant for the past six years. He also works on a committee with ITI Smart Solutions.
Let's start with the beginning: Your career in the sheet metal industry started with an apprenticeship in the ‘70s. Could you tell me about that experience? As I understand it, the apprenticeship led to an over a 50-year career with fabrication and ductwork, which eventually landed you in the area that's defined your career mostly: And that's testing and balancing. So could you give me a little more background on that?
Photo courtesy of the National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC)
I was just out on my apprenticeship, and teaching apprentices. And I was approached by at that time, our training coordinator, who asked me if I would be interested in teaching, or actually attending a class to learn how to teach testing and balancing. And with that, I said, ‘Sure, I'd be happy to do that.’ Because I had taken a class early on from our own local Training Center. However, this would be more on a national level. The trip was supposed to take me to Chicago where they have a testing and balancing facility. And then I would study there for approximately a month. And then I would come back to my own local and be able to start teaching testing and balancing. However, the class got canceled. And I still had the task because we had a class that was set up through the summer months. And they wanted me to put together a 60-hour program to teach other sheet metal workers some of the finer points of testing and balancing. So at that time, the material that we had actually was some literature that I had pulled from a lab in Chicago, that lab is still in existence. It's operated by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Association in Chicago. And the other material was printed by our national training fund at that time, before the name change to ITI, it was the National Training Fund. So NTF. And so I put together that class, that class was offered on Saturdays, we would teach approximately six hours per day. And it was scheduled to run for 10 weeks. And the class went over very well, I had probably 30 members from around the state of Ohio. And I taught from the beginning testing and balancing, which is heavily into math. So we had to learn what fan laws and pump laws and infinity laws, brake horsepower formulas, anything you can think of that that leads you to understand how air flows through a system, and how to manage that airflow is what the class offered. And thinking back on that, that was my introduction, more or less, into testing and balancing. And it was something that I felt like, was another tool that I could keep in my toolbox. Should opportunities arise, I would have that background and that experience. So that really is what started my career. And what led me on to other things within the industry.
Sounds like a trial by fire almost.
Originally, it was. It absolutely was. And I think that's something that you can approach in a couple of different ways. You can accept that and look at it as opportunity, or you can get discouraged by it. So I had approached it as an opportunity for the ability to help other people and also help myself. So that more or less got me involved with the testing and balancing program, which led me to a career as the director of certification when I retire for TABB.
You were inducted in the TABB Hall of Fame in 2004. And as I understand that, that was before you really ever got a degree. So could you give me a little more background on that process?
When I became a journeyman sheetmetal worker, I enrolled in every class that was offered in our in our facility, in our training program and in our local union. A lot of it was just drafting and sketching, welding classes, blueprint reading and drafting, balancing work, service work. Anything that was ever offered in our facility, I took the class. To me it was, again, something that would help establish more knowledge for myself, and knowledge as I was teaching apprentices, more knowledge that I could pass on. So while I was training apprentices, I was also taking classes myself. That actually led originally to a vocational degree from Ohio State University. And that degree allowed me to be able to teach vocational education throughout the industry. And at that point in time, we did have a lot of training centers that are actually a lot of high schools that offered vocational training. So that offered me the ability to go in and train, however, as things also happened, some of those programs started to diminish, because there wasn't a call for it. So I really never got established to go back and take college classes until I was about a year and a half from retirement. And at that time, our international association had an agreement set up with a national labor colleague, The National Labor college had classes that they offered, which led us to a bachelor's degree in labor education – labor, education and labor studies, I should say. And because of my past experience, and the years that I've been in the industry, I really only needed 60 hours to graduate. So with that, I took the 60 hours required through the National Labor College and did get my bachelor's degree. In like I said: labor education, labor studies. But it happened after I really retired. So I was retired from the industry, but yet still involved with the industry.
Photos courtesy of the National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC)
Just a brief follow up. Why would you say demand for balancing skills sort of increased as you came closer to retirement? Is that accurate?
Yeah. Balancing is a specialized part of the sheet metal industry. It takes certain people with a certain aptitude to want to do it to begin with. Originally, they were called prima donnas, because they didn't go out and get their hands dirty. However, that's not true. Balancing sheet metal workers get above the ceiling, they look for things that are making the system go right or wrong. So dampers are shut, fire dampers have been, for whatever reason, the blades collapse in the system. So there are many different things you get involved with above the ceiling. So it just takes a different person with a different aptitude and a thirst for trying to resolve a problem or have an understanding of: First of all, how the system operates. And then if it's not operating, why isn't it and how can we make it work? So I think it's something in my mind that, again, it's another tool you can put in your toolbox if you have these skills. So I think that's another thing that really is going to, as far as the future goes, balancing has become more complex, simply because the systems have become more complex. So the with air quality that's required right now in most facilities, they put a an absolute target on making sure that the system is performing as it should. And I think as cities and counties and state facilities and government facilities get more involved with it, the first thing that comes to mind is, is the system operating as it should? Has it been maintained? Is it a clean system? So I think those are things that increase the ability for test and balance people to go in and make a building work right. And that's something that back in the old days, if they got airflow, that was all they were concerned about. It was just if they add airflow. Now it's a certain amount of airflow, you have systems designed for so many CFMs and then the velocity that comes out of the ductwork is designed so that you get the maximum amount in a certain designated area. So the other thing I think that’s important is how it’s maintained. That means from the outside air as it comes into a building, how is that maintained, are the dampers changed? I'm going to say when they should be, not just when they get dirty, when they should be changed. So you should have a damper schedule. And another thing that makes it important is that outside air louvers are a primary area for any kind of air that comes into a building. If it's not cleaned as it comes through the facility. That becomes the proper breeding grounds for particulate matter. That leads to further on down the ductwork. Normally, when the air comes in and goes through a cooling coil or a heating coil, it becomes the right temperature to breed mold if there’s standing water, which would carry on down through the system. Or it's also an area where if there are birds around they outdoor openings, the outdoor louvers and the dampers are working the way they should, but bird droppings are very toxic. And it's been known that bird droppings get into a system, which causes a lot of a lot of discomfort to people. And it can lead to further things where people talk about sick building syndrome and building related illnesses and things of that nature. So all of that can take place in a duct system if it's not properly maintained and properly cleaned with the right amount of air. For the most part: investigated periodically to make sure that it does stay that way. Another thing that we've learned over the years about balancing is that if you've got a clean building, if you rent space in your building, if your building is known as an environmentally safe facility, then the rent that you charge your clients, you can get a premium. That’s if it is an, environmentally safe facility, and is recognized so by organizations that put labels on like LEED, and things of that nature.
So HVAC systems have gotten more efficient. And obviously, there's particulate matter standards and it just becomes more front-of-mind to maintain your systems as they age. So make sense that balancing is more in demand.
Yes, absolutely. And one question you asked: Do I still teach? I still teach, but not testing and balancing. I teach OSHA classes for construction. So I teach OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 for my safety career that I'm working with right now. And the reason that I stopped teaching in our industry, was probably 10 years ago, the trustees, and the administrator of our program, asked me if I would mind not teaching anymore, if I would serve on the committee that helped develop our certification tests. And I told him, if that's where they needed me, then that's what I would do. So that is the committee that I serve on today, is the committee to help develop our certification tests.
Okay, so that occupies a lot of your time, and then also teaching the OSHA standards. It seems like you have a really busy retirement.
I've made mention a lot of times to people that ask me why I still work. And I say the same thing, ‘every time if you find the job that you really like you never work a day in your life.’ People kind of look at me and raise their eyebrows a little bit about that. But I thoroughly enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work. And there's just something, maybe it's in my psyche. I don't know what it is, but it's just something I've enjoyed throughout my entire career. I think part of that is attitude. Attitude is certainly something that can make or break a person if you go if you go and think positive thoughts rather than negative thoughts then that certainly gives you a better outlook on everything in life. Not only just work, work ethic, but things that you do in life.
Do you have any parting advice for new entrants in the industry? Anyone from working on new homes? Or maybe they're working on older University buildings that have been around for more than 100 years? Certainly there's a lot of challenges to face and a lot different scenarios you could find yourself in.
Yes, there certainly are. Some of the older historical buildings, I think is a good example to go in and oftentimes they'll need humidification. It could be a museum or it could be a library, where they want to make sure that humidity is at a certain temperature to maintain all of their historical records. I think those are systems that are installed in those facilities that are extremely important to part of our historical background for the country. We'd like to make sure that some of these things stay intact forever. And in order to do that the systems have to be functional, and they have to operate at a certain humidity level. So I think that's something that is very intriguing to try to get involved with situations like that. The systems that they install today, even in some of the newer buildings today, they're really sophisticated. You can actually go out, or sitting at home from your comforts of your own house and your own computer screen, you can go in and functionally operate these systems by changing set points and changing things in the system. So I think, as that as that actually happens, and the systems stay in the complex that they are right now, this field is wide open. And I think that it's one part of what a sheet metal worker might get involved with, I think it's a very important part because the air quality that we have in our facilities and maintain in our buildings is certainly important. And younger generation as they come up, it's important that the systems are maintained so that you have the adequate amount of outdoor air coming in, so you have a really good mix of air. Back in the old days, the school systems used to shut the outside dampers off. But what they didn't realize: they were shutting off the fresh air. So that's why children got sleepy in the afternoons, especially younger kids. They would get sleepy in the afternoon because they're not bringing in any outside fresh air. So they shut the dampers off to save energy. So I think as the new systems come into being, you're going to find that more important than ever. They’re passing laws so that you have outside air coming into the facility, it has to be a certain percentage in order to make it more compatible with the environment of the people and the occupants inside. So I think the field’s wide open.
Right and I'm sure viruses are part of that, too.
Absolutely. That's where it starts. They shut out outside air dampers, that's where it starts.
Is there anything else you'd like to cover? Anything else you'd like to pass on to the next generation?
Just, I think for myself, I've been blessed that I got into this field. And if there's anything I can do, I'll continue to try to help out as long as I think I can contribute and offer maybe wisdom to people. Or something along those lines, but I feel like that I certainly have had a career that I don't know that I'd ever want to go back and start over again, because I probably would mess it up. So I'm just so thankful that I've had a lot of help, and worked around a lot of great people throughout my entire career.