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Common Ducting Challenges & Solutions

Effective dust collection systems are critical for maintaining safe, compliant, and efficient industrial operations. However, the ducting that connects various equipment and components is often overlooked or treated as an afterthought.

Inadequate ducting design and installation can lead to material accumulations, airflow restrictions, safety hazards, and suboptimal process performance – even with top-of-the-line dust collectors and other machinery.

In this Dust Safety Science podcast episode: Common Ducting Challenges & Solutions, Dr. Chris Cloney and Evan Thomson, an applications engineer at Nordfab Ducting, explore common ducting challenges and solutions, and the frequent hurdles facilities face when it comes to proper ducting installation.

This article covers key insights from that podcast conversation, delving into some of the most prevalent ducting installation issues encountered and potential strategies to overcome them proactively.

For more insights on ducting design best practices, listen to the full podcast episode.

Inventory of Nordfab Ducting pipe in a stockroom.

Common Ducting Challenges

Space Constraints and Obstructions

Manufacturing facilities are often crowded environments with numerous existing structures, equipment, piping runs, electrical conduits, and other obstructions. Installing ductwork in these congested spaces presents a significant challenge. Ductwork must weave around various barriers, adding complexity to the installation process.

As the applications engineer noted, there is an "inherent level of... just navigating in facilities" that makes ductwork installations inherently cumbersome. Installers frequently find themselves "working up in the air" amidst obstacles, exacerbating the difficulty.

Inaccurate measurements or deviations between plans and actual site conditions can completely disrupt intended duct routes. Some common issues include:
• Measurements not matching what was stated in the plans
• Unforeseen obstructions in the planned duct paths
• Dimensions of the facility differing from design documentation

In such cases, as the expert stated, the situation becomes "Okay, well, we need it to be more adaptable." Rigid ductwork offers little flexibility, leading to costly rework, delays, and potential safety risks when last-minute adjustments are required.

Thoroughly accounting for potential interferences and obstructions is critical during the design phase. Failure to do so can significantly increase project complexity and costs. Gathering accurate as-built information and closely coordinating with on-site teams is essential to avoid roller-obstructions.

Safety Risks

Installing ductwork, especially larger diameter sections, is an inherently hazardous task that poses safety challenges for workers. As Evan mentioned, there are "a lot of different regulations surrounding different hanging methods, different load capacities of the ductwork" that must be carefully followed.

Working from heights is one of the primary risks in ductwork installation projects. Ducting often needs to be routed elevated off the floor, requiring personnel to work on ladders, lifts, or catwalks. This increases the potential for falls and injuries. Protection measures like guardrails, safety harnesses, and tied-off systems are critical.

Additionally, ductwork components can be extremely heavy and unwieldy to maneuver, especially larger diameter sections. This creates ergonomic hazards such as:
• Strains and musculoskeletal injuries from lifting/maneuvering heavy materials
• Crush hazards if components slip or fall
• Struck-by hazards during rigging and installation

Overhead work also introduces risks of tools, equipment, or ductwork sections falling on workers below if not properly secured. To mitigate risks, comprehensive safety planning is essential, including:
• Calculating rated load capacities of supports/hangers
• Using approved secured hanging/lift methods per regulations
• Implementing a fall protection plan
• Providing proper personal protective equipment (PPE)
• Training workers on safe ductwork installation practices

Failure to address these hazards can lead to serious incidents. As the Nordfab Applications engineer summarized, "there's a lot of, specifically, safety challenges with large sizes of ductwork."

Budget and Timeline Pressures

In many industrial projects, ducting is often deprioritized compared to the procurement of the main process equipment and dust collectors themselves. As Evan stated, "Ductwork often is brought in as the very last step in the process."

By the time ducting needs to be addressed, budgets and timelines are commonly strained from allocating resources to the other systems. This can create significant challenges, as Evan Thomson explained: "You figure out the front-end and back-end, and you're sitting there with a brand new piece of equipment, and you say, 'Oh no, now I need to connect it. What do I do?' Someone's already spent their budget on their dust collector and new machinery.

And so now I just need to get it connected...I've got someone to come in to install everything next week. What do I do?"

This last-minute urgency and limited funding for proper ducting can lead to:
• Rushed installations by underqualified teams
• Cutting corners on materials, supports, and fittings
• Ducting being an afterthought rather than an integrated design

Evan highlighted instances where teams had to scramble: "There's a lot of 'Please help me get there' kind of situations."

Improper ducting sequencing and scheduling can also create bottlenecks that ripple and impact other concurrent installations. Last-minute duct additions or modifications further exacerbate budget and schedule strains.

To avoid these challenges, facilitating early ducting design involvement and budgeting is critical before funds are depleted on other equipment purchases.

Inflexible Duct Connections

Traditional ducting methods like bolted or welded connections result in extremely rigid and inflexible duct joints once assembled and installed. As Evan noted, these involve "working with probably 10-foot pieces of duct, and everything is going to either be a bolt together or a weld together connection."

The inflexibility of these traditional connections creates significant challenges:
• They offer little to no adjustability if any misalignments or deviations from plans occur during installation
• If unforeseen obstructions are encountered onsite, it becomes extremely difficult to modify the duct runs
• Any needed offsets or directional changes are hard to accommodate with pre-assembled rigid sections

Evan contrasted this with their company's adjustable duct system "with a clamp, and it's got a level of what we call a sleeve. So it allows you to go ahead and quickly put up and adjust ductwork without having to to get all those connections figured out ahead of time."

Lack of adjustability with traditional rigid connections leads to two major issues:
1. If any dimensions or obstructions differ from the plans, the entire duct run may need to be re-fabricated at great cost and delay
2. There is no easy way to make adjustments to an installed duct line if future modifications are needed, severely limiting flexibility

Evan highlighted the advantage of adjustable systems: "You have a lot of adjustment after the fact, which is really a big benefit."

Overall, the inability to adapt rigid ductwork to meet real-world conditions creates inefficiencies, rework, and lack of future flexibility that should be avoided.

Compliance and Regulatory Concerns

Ducting installations don't occur in a vacuum - they must comply with various fire, safety, and building codes and regulations. These requirements can vary significantly depending on the materials being conveyed through the ductwork.

For example, systems handling combustible dusts have strict guidelines around:
• Duct construction materials and thicknesses
• Types of joints, clamps, and gasket materials permitted
• Hanger and support spacings based on duct diameter
• Grounding and bonding requirements
• Outlet locations and clear air paths

Ducting for hazardous or explosive environments must meet even more stringent standards outlined in codes like NFPA 654 and 664. Proper duct construction utilizing conductive materials, hazardous location accessories, and specialized explosion venting or chemical tracing is mandatory.

In certain industries like food processing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, or chemical handling, the ducting may also require:
• Certifications verifying material traceability and compositions
• Specified surface finishes and prevention of product traps
• Validating cleanability and accepted cleaning/sanitization methods

Overlooking these compliance aspects can lead to failed inspections, stoppages, fines, and even voided insurance policies in worst cases. Engaging compliance experts early is critical to "bake in" all regulatory requirements from the ducting design phase.

Potential Solutions

Early Ducting Design Involvement

Bringing ducting design experts into a project from the earliest conception stages is crucial to avoiding many of the challenges previously discussed. As Evan stated, ducting is often "thought of as the afterthought" when instead it should be an integrated part of the overall system design.

Engaging ducting designers from the initial planning and facility layout phases allows them to:
• Conduct site audits and gather comprehensive measurement data
• Identify potential obstructions, access limitations or existing conditions that need to be worked around
• Determine all applicable codes, standards and regulations that must be designed for
• Collaborate with other project stakeholders to coordinate duct routing with equipment, utilities, etc.

By having ducting experts involved upfront, the design can proactively:
• Allocate spatial requirements and integrate duct routes into initial plant layouts
• Design ductwork in a compliant manner per relevant codes from the start
• Streamline the layout across all equipment connections for optimized airflow
• Provide early and accurate budgetary duct pricing estimates

As Evan mentioned, "not doing it as an afterthought, but planning ahead of time is really the key thing in getting it laid out before you get started."

This early integrated approach helps avoid costs and delays from having to redesign ductwork late in the process. It also prevents installing equipment first, only to then realize ducting cannot properly accommodate it.

Modular and Adjustable Ducting Systems

Evan highlighted the advantages of their company's "adjustable ductwork or quick-fit ductwork" system compared to traditional rigid ducting. This utilizes duct sections with clamps and sleeves that allow for easy adjustments:

"We actually have a clamp together style. So one of the things that affords us in particular is the ability to have easy adjustment. In traditional ductwork, you're going to be working with probably 10-foot pieces of duct, and everything is going to either be a bolt together or a weld together connection. And with ours, it's got a clamp, and it's got a level of what we call a sleeve. So it allows you to go ahead and quickly put up and adjust ductwork without having to get all those connections figured out ahead of time."

The benefits of this modular, adjustable system include:
• Minimizing permanent welded or bolted connections until the final installed position is confirmed
• The ability to easily reposition duct sections on-site to accommodate any deviations from plans
• Quicker rough-in installation by temporarily clamping sections, leaving them adjustable
• Simplified prefabrication - pre-assembled modular sections can accelerate final connections

Evan summarized the key advantage: "The installation goes a lot quicker. So that's one of the things that we see as a big advantage is you have a smaller installation crew, you have a much faster installation, and you have a lot of adjustment after the fact, which is really a big benefit."

Safe Installation Planning and Practices

While the transcript didn't go into extensive detail here, Evan did emphasize some of the inherent safety challenges:

"There's just the inherent level of working with ductwork in general, that it's cumbersome. You're working up in the air. There's a lot of, specifically, safety challenges with large sizes of ductwork..."

To mitigate risks, comprehensive safety planning is essential, including:
• Developing installation-specific safety protocols and procedures
• Ensuring duct installation contractors provide:
• Adequate training on safe practices
• Proper personal protective equipment (PPE)
• Fall protection systems and equipment for working at heights
• Rated lifting equipment for maneuvering heavy duct sections
• Implementing strict oversight, inspections, and quality assurance processes during installations
• Contractor management, clear communication of site safety rules, and enforcement

As Evan noted, "there's a lot of different regulations surrounding different hanging methods, different load capacities of the duct work" that must be carefully followed as part of these safety practices.

Ongoing Maintenance Considerations

While not extensively covered in the transcript, some key considerations for ongoing ductwork maintenance and future flexibility include:
• Designing ductwork with adequate access doors, clean-outs, and provisions for inspection
• Specifying appropriate abrasion-resistant materials and proper duct gauges for the conveyed materials
• Allowing for proper spacing for duct Clean Air Clean tool clearances
• Planning for efficient methods and spatial provisions to modify or extend ducting as facility needs change
• Designing ductwork with ease of access for duct clean-outs and change-outs in mind

Evan touched on this aspect briefly: "So that's the other thing that happens is duckwork often is brought in as the very last step in the process."

Properly accounting for ongoing maintenance and future flexibility from the initial design phase can prevent facility downtime, expensive rework, and safety issues over the long run.

Ducting is an integral part of any dust collection system, yet its importance is frequently underestimated. Addressing ducting challenges proactively can prevent costly rework, unplanned downtime, productivity losses and potential safety incidents.

Collaborating with experienced ducting professionals and utilizing flexible, modular solutions can significantly streamline installations and accommodate unforeseen site conditions.

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