HVAC Contractor/Fabricator Provides "Turnkey Comfort Systems"

By: Brad Kuvin

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Radiant heating, advanced heat pumps, absorption chillers, variable-frequency drives and compressors, and electronic expansion valves represent just a portion of the new technologies being implemented in today’s energy-efficient buildings. Designing, fabricating and installing all of the sheetmetal components to support these new technologies—ductwork distribution systems, flues and vents, etc…has taken on a whole new dimension, as fabricators and contractors face tighter deadlines, smaller budgets and growing requirements for safety and sustainability.

Prestaged coils of steel and aluminum await an opportunity to be fed into Duct Fabricators’ automated duct line.
In response, the HVAC industry has, along with other building-construction trades, seen a recent surge in the application of what’s called the Building Information Modeling (BIM) system, developed several years ago as a means to create and manage building data during its lifecycle. BIM 3D modeling software tracks every element that goes into a building, including all HVAC system components, and integrates design, fabrication and installation with detail never-before seen in the industry. The software addresses geometry, spatial relationships, light analysis and more.

Recently the BIM process of construction has caught fire, and we caught up with a Northeast Ohio HVAC fabricator/contractor to learn more.

The Changing Process of Construction

MetalForming visited Duct Fabricators, Inc., in Cleveland, OH, as the firm was knee-deep in fabricating ductwork for a new renewable-energy facility under construction at the nearby Southerly Wastewater Treatment Center. This relatively large job entails fabrication and installation of 3500 ft. of aluminum ductwork, consuming 45,000 lb. of aluminum. Duct Fabricators completed its BIM involvement during the summer of 2010, began fabricating in April of this year and expects to complete installation mid-2012.

Shop foreman Gerry Scopilliti puts the finishing touches on a section of aluminum ductwork fabricated in the firm’s automated production line.
“BIM really took off for us in 2006-2007,” says John Sickle Jr., company president and second-generation part owner of the company that also operates two sister companies offering comparable capabilities and services—Ohio Fabricators (Akron, OH), and Breining Mechanical Systems (Massillon, OH). “BIM is designed to create teamwork between us (fabricator/installer) and the architects and engineers on a project. That collaboration eliminates errors in the field and the additional costs and delays that come with fabricated components that don’t fit right off the truck.”

In short, BIM allows duct fabricators (and other suppliers) to model shop and fabrication drawings including connection designs and details, to effectively build a building virtually prior to building it physically. BIM software users can create estimates and manage contracts, oversee material purchasing and track production. Visualization of the building’s design during fabrication and erection eliminates mistakes in the field—mistakes that can be costly both in terms of time and money. In addition, BIM modeling enables shops such as Duct Fabricators to prefabricate nearly all of the sheetmetal and ductwork needed for a job, reducing waste and improving scheduling and delivery.

“We strive to perform as much upfront planning and fabrication as possible,” says Sickle, “looking, for example, at all of the inlet and outlet sizes of the HVAC equipment we’re installing so we can ensure we fabricate ducts and connections that match up in the field. A detailer takes the drawings from the architect and engineer and overlays them to our sheetmetal shop drawings to plan how we’re to fabricate the ductwork.

“I also can offer as a service to the customer the ability to then store prefabricated ductwork and other sheetmetal subassemblies at my facility, stored offsite and then delivered to the job site as needed,” continues Sickle. “That’s exactly what we’re doing for Southerly and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. This relieves a lot of pressure on the site managers and on our shop foreman.”

Shop vs. Site Work

Sickle’s 50,000-sq.-ft. fabrication shop employs five people, while another 10 employees work in the field installing all of the sheetmetal that the shop fabricates, as well as purchased HVAC equipment. Duct Fabricators worked on most of Cleveland’s landmark buildings, including Quicken Loans Arena, the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

In addition to its automated duct line, Duct Fabricators operates an array of fabricating equipment, including the plasma-cutting and rollforming machines shown here.
In 2008, for example, the firm was entrusted to upgrade the air-handling systems operating within the Cleveland Museum of Art. Renovating the facility’s pair of 1916-vintage buildings, as well as constructing wings to connect the buildings, required Duct Fabricators to install and integrate several air-handling units, 16 smoke-evacuation systems and ductwork of galvanized and stainless steel 24 to 10 gauge, with specialized isolation and sound-dampening requirements. In an e-newsletter article published by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), Sickle stated that, “working within the confines of the existing structure was a primary challenge.” The article also noted that ductwork was “strategically placed between 90-yr.-old columns, and smoke evacuation systems were carefully lodged directly below 1916-vintage skylights.”

Overall, 55 percent of its total workload occurs in the shop, the rest in the field. Anywhere from three to six projects occupy the shop floor at any one time, the average project taking 6 to 8 months to complete, even though some projects can take 2 to 3 years to conclude.

When the high-rise commercial construction market dried up in Cleveland 10 to 15 years ago, as it did in so many traditionally rust-belt cities, Sickle and his team repositioned the company to focus on other more lucrative markets—hospitals and sewage-treatment plants, most notably.

“Hospitals are a completely different animal,” Sickle notes. “Laying out ductwork in hospitals requires us to maneuver amongst and around medical-gas lines, tube systems, telecommunications cable and such. The ductwork, therefore, takes a lot more twists and turns and requires more fittings and connections than does the ducting that goes into a high-rise commercial building, where the runs tend to be straight with simple branches connected to move air in and out of offices.”

Automated Line

While the Duct Fabricators fabrication shop includes a CNC plasma-arc-cutting machine, rollforming line, shear and press brake, the overwhelming majority of the sheetmetal processed here runs through an automated duct line. The line, an Iowa Precision Industries’ Fabriduct model, produces wrap-around and L-shaped duct sections in 5-ft. lengths. It holds as many as six coils of material—cold-rolled carbon steel, stainless steel and aluminum, in varying gauges prestaged and ready to roll.

From his control panel, an operator initiates the automated setup that begins with the steel running through a leveler. Then stiffening beads can be added if needed, and tie-rod holes and notches added to facilitate assembly. A shear cuts sections to length before snap-lock or Pittsburgh seams are formed to facilitate assembly. Before the duct sections then are wrapped into a one-piece duct or formed into an L shape, the operator can program the Fabriduct to apply a sound-attenuation liner to the inside of the duct.

Aside from its automated duct line, Duct Fabricators has looked to parlay its other fabrication capabilities into custom sheetmetal fabrication. “In the last couple of years,” Sickle notes, “we’ve consumed time on our press brake and plasma cutting machine to fabricate metal stairs, and we’re also busy press-brake forming plate for our neighbors, Cleveland Tank and Supply, a manufacturer of fuel systems.

“Lately,” adds Sickle, “we’ve been taking on a lot of stainless-steel fabrication, and we’re even fabricating ductwork for some of our competitors in the contracting business.” MF


See also: Iowa Precision Industries, Inc.

Related Enterprise Zones: Coil Handling, Fabrication

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