Ductwork isn’t usually something that gets all the attention in a finished industrial, commercial or residential space. As long as it’s working properly, a building’s occupants could probably care less about the aesthetics behind the system keeping them cool or warm.

 But in exposed ductwork projects, manufacturers like Cincinnati-based Eastern Sheet Metal are making it harder for people to ignore those large metal objects suspended from ceilings.

Pat Brooks, general manager at Eastern Sheet Metal, said many sheet metal shops are already aware of the aesthetic value of ductwork, as many restaurants and businesses choose exposed ductwork to enhance the design and vibe of a space. Spiral duct, for example, has an “aesthetically pleasing helical seam,” Brooks explained, that can be seen in large-volume space applications like retail outlets and transportation hubs as well as more intimate settings such as lofts and bistros.

Most often, spiral or flat-oval duct is exposed as opposed to rectangular duct, which has a tendency to leak, resulting in “whistling” or air-generated noise such as rumbling when the duct expands and contracts, Brooks added.

“Even if it’s hidden above a ceiling, most people want to see a good-looking duct system as it is installed,” Brooks said. “That gives contractors a more confident feeling that the duct system was installed correctly and will not leak.” 

Painting is a process

At Eastern Sheet Metal, one of its most common inquiries is whether galvanized steel can be painted, Brooks said. The answer is yes, and although Eastern doesn’t paint the ductwork, it does recommend an experienced contractor to paint the HVAC system after it’s been installed. The company has even developed a recommendation sheet for the do’s and don’ts of painting spiral duct.

“It’s suggested to use a galvannealed product, which is paintable with standard cleaning,” Brooks said. “G-90 (coated galvanized steel) can also be painted as long as the contractor knows how to clean and prime it. Cleaning is the key either way.”

Brooks stressed that the ductwork rarely arrives at a job site ready to paint. Upon receipt, the company recommends removing all dirt, grease and manufacturing lubricant with a nonhydrocarbon cleaner such as Simple Green.

Portsmouth, Virginia-based ductwork manufacturer Linx Industries has also added colorful options to its HVAC products. The company now offers a self-sealing HVAC duct system that has an internal gasketed self-sealing connection, so when customers install the product they have a sealed joint, with no need for duct sealer, duct tape or caulk.

“They get consistency in the sealing and, frankly, if you were going to paint the ductwork, you don’t have two different surfaces that you’re painting, meaning you’re not painting on top of the galvanizing for the ductwork and then painting on top of the hardened sealant at the joints,” said Dave Shaeffer, president of Linx Industries.

Linx, formerly known as Lindab USA, was purchased by DMI Cos. in August 2015.

Painting on top of two different surfaces (e.g., metal versus sealant) could cause the paint to adhere to each surface differently, Shaeffer said, and if the ductwork isn’t sealed properly, then there’s going to be dust streaks and black marks near the connections.

Color-matching consistency

To avoid these problems altogether, Linx Industries uses its ProCoat coated HVAC system, where a primer coat of zinc-rich epoxy is “baked on” to the outer shell of the ductwork, followed by a polyester top coat that protects the base coat and adds a glossy finish. 

The product is available for round and flat-oval ductwork up to 60 inches in diameter and comes in standard colors — black, red, blue, white, green and orange — and custom colors that are matched using the RAL color-matching system.

“At (the 2017 AHR Expo), we brought some samples and left them out. Folks were attracted by the color like, what is this? It’s ductwork,” said Heather Winebrenner, marketing manager at Linx Industries. “The color definitely attracted them to the booth … and they were able to test the resiliency.”

To test the product’s scratch resistance, Shaeffer said during presentations he often invites people to take a car key and try to scratch the surface.

“And you can’t,” he said. “You can’t scratch the coating off.”

For companies looking to maintain their brand identity, these colorful HVAC systems offer an added opportunity for owners to enhance their headquarters by matching their corporate identities.

“I think that for designers and owners, if they’re going to spend the money to build a building or add on to a building, they want it to look good. They want it to speak to their corporate image,” Shaeffer said. “A product like ProCoat does that for them or gives them the opportunity to incorporate it as a design element.”

In Detroit, SET Duct Manufacturing’s ColorDuct system also uses the powder-coating process that’s baked on to the outer shell of the ductwork. The company offers 16 colors, plus metallic options like copper and custom colors that can be RAL color-matched.

Ron Finch, SET Duct’s sales engineer, said the ColorDuct product also offers up to a 30 percent savings to the overall project since the ductwork can be coated before installation.

“When you hang ductwork and paint it, the finish is never that good,” Finch said. “With our product, the finish is bright, durable, and we warranty it for 20 years against scratches and scuffing.”

Beyond sheet metal

Galvanized sheet metal duct isn’t the only segment that’s marketing the visual appeal of exposed HVAC systems, however. 

Andy Olson, director of marketing at Peosta, Iowa-based DuctSox Corp., a manufacturer of textile air dispersion products, said fabric ductwork offers many visual advantages over metal.

“With your metal, if you’re going to do something (visually appealing), you’re going to have to paint it,” Olson said. “Whereas with fabric ductwork, you can order it in a variety of standard or potentially custom colors or designs.”

While metal can rust and collect dirt, the custom-built fabric HVAC systems can be laundered to remove any accumulated dirt for a clean appearance, he said. The company offers several options such as Microbe-X, an antimicrobial-treated fabric designed for food-processing applications; Stat-X, an anti-static permeable polyester-based fabric; Sedona-Xm, which is available in black, silver, white, green, blue, red or tan; and Verona, an all-purpose fabric system for applications like restaurants, schools and arenas.

“What we’re just getting ready to introduce … is the ability to do (most) of our fabrics with a truly custom color,” Olson said.

The company has also been experimenting with patterns through a custom dye and pattern process. DuctSox recently designed and quoted a job for an aquarium, which consisted of a blue fabric ductwork system with images of fish running along the length. They also designed a black ductwork system with images of flames for a fire department.

“So again, it kind of gives it that visual appeal for something that would otherwise just be hanging there,” Olson said. “It’s given us some neat things to be able to go to architects and building designers with to say, ‘Hey, you need ductwork anyway. Why not do something to make it be part of the aesthetics and visual (appeal) of your space?’”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email devriesj@bnpmedia.com.