When the Steamfitters United Association (UA) Local No. 602 Mechanical Trades School needed equipment to use in its apprenticeship program, a major industrial and mechanical equipment distributor fulfilled the entire wish list through manufacturer donations. The equipment, including a Marley® NC cooling tower, donated by SPX Cooling Technologies, enables the school to present students with a real-world environment. Instructors use the complete new cooling system to teach students how to troubleshoot and fix problems with HVAC systems.


Steamfitters UA Local No. 602 Mechanical Trades School recently expanded and renovated its training facilities. The union, which represents journeymen, apprentices, and helpers working in the heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, and process piping industries, sought equipment donations to outfit the school and help with its apprenticeship training mission. The school, with training centers in Landover, Maryland, and Springfield, Virginia, offers a five-year apprenticeship and trains a diverse group of more than 700 students aged 19-70.

Apprentices are assigned to a union contractor and job site and generally work 40 hours per week. Classes range from soldering and brazing, health and safety, and drawing and blueprint reading to basic and advanced refrigeration and electricity.

James Balderson, assistant training director, explained that the nonprofit school has a very small equipment budget, so he has to think creatively to beef up the equipment available for HVAC training. Balderson is the coordinator for the school’s HVAC department and trains air conditioning, refrigeration, and boiler technicians.

“Being able to expose our students to real equipment gives us a greater advantage compared to teaching out of a book,” Balderson added. “Classroom time is necessary, but we must reinforce it with hands-on training.” 

Balderson noted that he and other instructors regularly ask vendors if they know anyone discarding equipment.

“If they are going to replace equipment and it’s still usable, we’ll arrange to come get it,” he said. “Hands-on knowledge is the most important part of the steamfitter’s trade, so the ability to have access to real equipment to solve real-time problems is essential in the industry.”

He developed a long equipment wish list. At the top of that list was a cooling tower and a small boiler. Word got out about the school’s request, and Balderson was approached by Ryan Kern at Cummins-Wagner, an employee-owned industrial and mechanical equipment distributor headquartered in Annapolis Junction, Maryland.

Balderson knew Kern from his years working in the trade. Kern made the rounds to a variety of manufacturers to solicit equipment donations. Cummins-Wagner also supplied products from its inventory to include Bell & Gossett™ pumps and a Lochinvar FTXL™ boiler.   

In a “Christmas in July” fashion, Kern was able to supply the school with all the items on its wish list.

SPX agreed to donate a factory-assembled single-cell crossflow Marley NC® 8401 cooling tower. Originally constructed as a demonstration cooling tower for trade shows, the tower is typical of what students would see in the field every day, making it an excellent fit for the school.

“When I was in the field, the Marley brand cooling towers were well known, so I was happy when I heard we had an opportunity to get one for our program,” Balderson said.

According to Kern, both Cummins-Wagner and SPX support the union and the trades and were on board with helping them meet their training needs through donations.

“We are committed to the students’ education and are excited to get the equipment into the hands of the next generation of pipefitters and HVAC technicians,” Kern said.


The cooling tower is key to the students’ hands-on training. When it was delivered, the apprentices helped install the tower, and now it is being used to cool one of the new classrooms.

The instructors also use the tower in conjunction with other pieces of HVAC equipment in the classroom. The availability of real operating equipment allows instructors to intentionally put “faults” in the system as it runs, so they can train students to troubleshoot.

When the system shuts down — for example, a pump that has stopped pumping water or a fan no longer pulling air through the heat exchanger — the apprentice is tasked with troubleshooting the equipment to first identify the problem and then fix it.

“We could buy trainer units, but having the real thing is so much better,” said Balderson. “A working cooling system where I can place faults that HVAC technicians have to fix is the best way to train. They can process firsthand how important it is to properly maintain equipment and components, and how water treatment is critical to a product’s life cycle.”

Balderson added that without these kinds of equipment donations, the company could not provide the education it does.   

Publication date: 10/30/2017

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