ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Duane Meadows admits he and members of his crew don’t always receive a warm welcome when they show up around Arnold Air Force Base.
“We’re probably the most hated craft, but we’re the most loved at the same time depending on what we’ve got to do,” he said.
But Meadows is understanding when met with a cold reception. As the lead HVAC technician at Arnold, he realizes the stakes are high as his work and that of his fellow HVAC technicians impacts the comfort of everyone on base. And while making everyone happy may be an impossible feat, the technicians concur they enjoy the challenge.
“You get an opportunity to learn every day,” Meadows said. “If you’re not learning something, there’s something wrong. You see things every day that help you grow your knowledge.”
The 11-man HVAC crew is among the numerous craft groups at Arnold Air Force Base and one of several based out of Building 1478, otherwise known as the Base Civil Engineering Building.
The HVAC technicians are responsible for maintaining the air conditioning and heating units and ventilation systems found across the sprawling acreage of Arnold, including the Gossick Leadership Center, Arnold Lakeside Center, Wingo Inn, and buildings at the Arnold AFB Golf Course.
“It’s not all that uncommon to get called to a building you’ve never heard of before,” Meadows said. “I’ve been here 6.5 years, and I find units every day that I didn’t know existed out here. It’s like hunting Easter eggs sometimes.”
According to Facilities Maintenance Superintendent John Richardson, the HVAC team works to maintain more than 3,000 assets at Arnold, and those are just the ones on the books.
“With exhaust fans and everything, it’s actually closer to 4,000 assets we must maintain,” he said.
Due to the number of assets they must maintain and their vast coverage area, Meadows said each day presents new challenges for the HVAC technicians.
“You may be working on a water pump one minute, an ice maker then next minute, refrigerator, air conditioner, chiller, boiler. You’ve got to be versed in all of this,” he said.
Richardson added the group is always on the go, regardless of the time of year.
“That’s the great thing about the Civil Engineering Building – we get stuff done,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot of hurry up and wait stuff out here in the testing world, which is research and development. We understand that. These guys here, they’ve got to go. We’ve got 11 trucks in that parking lot out there, and we’re on the go all the time.”
Much of the work completed by the HVAC crew is preventative maintenance, or PM. The HVAC PM program was initiated about five years ago in an effort to address small issues with both old and new units around Arnold before they become much larger problems. The HVAC crew now completes an average of 220 PM projects each month.
“We do have a very extensive PM program, and I think that’s very detailed,” Richardson said. “A lot of work has been prevented. We don’t have as many trouble calls as we used to because of the program.”
“We have a lot of old equipment out here. If it wasn’t for our PMs, this equipment would not be running today,” HVAC Technician Michael Gray added.
As the mercury has begun to drop in recent weeks, the HVAC technicians have focused their efforts on the winterization of the base. Recently, members of the crew spent a weekend visiting each building at Arnold to seal up any leaks that may bring cold air in and to ensure that items exposed to the elements, such as external piping and air units, are prepared to endure the approaching winter season.
Along with making sure the thermostat remains just right in the offices around Arnold, the HVAC technicians also support testing at the base. Richardson said test cells temperatures must often be precise, frequently requiring that a specific temperature be maintained with little to no leeway.
Grays says some tests would be shut down if his group didn’t show up when needed.
An integral part of what the HVAC technicians do is humidity control.
“We’re required to maintain 10 percent outside air on anything we do or anything coming in,” Richardson said. “Well, when it’s raining outside, guess what’s getting drawn in. So we’ve got to figure out a way to heat or cool the air, dry it out or put a little more humidity in it, so it’s always an ongoing thing.”
Members of the HVAC crew must be knowledgeable in tasks performed by other craftsmen around Arnold. To finish jobs, the HVAC technicians must often complete soldering, brazing, pipefitting and electrical work. They are also familiar with work typically performed by instrument technicians and boilermakers.
“We actually are versed in every craft,” Meadows said.
The group is also responsible for removing Freon and oils and checking wiring for asbestos on refrigeration units before the units are excessed and salvaged. Such units include refrigerators, window units and larger cooling units.
When the heat is on to finish repairs to an air unit or ventilation system, the HVAC crew will send one of its technicians out under what its members call the “fast track” program. Through this, a technician will respond to a report to see if a quick fix is possible. In the event it is not, the job is “shopped out,” meaning a full work request is entered, leading multiple technicians to respond to provide a more detailed repair.
“I would say our fast track is probably the fastest respondent on base,” said HVAC Technician Dennis White.
But Richardson said the crew is up to the task, meeting these challenges through a combination of troubleshooting and ingenuity.
“One of our biggest hurdles every day is having the right equipment for a quick fix,” Richardson said. “These guys are very ingenuitive with what they do every single day. People have no idea what these guys come up with to get stuff up and going, whether it’s a bypass or knowing the system well enough to do what they’ve got to do to get it up and running until the right part gets here. That’s huge with these guys. They think on their feet all the time. That’s really, really big in our world.”
The HVAC crew was recently recognized for such efforts. Richardson said members of the team recognized that the replacement of valve parts to complete repairs in the Administration and Engineering Building could be completed in-house. This resulted in a cost savings of approximately $50,000.
“It was just innovation from these guys talking and understanding and knowing how it works, saying, ‘We don’t have to buy this new part. We can take this part and have my machinist back here in BCE make some new neoprene seats,’ and we replaced the seats,” Richardson said. “It was very minimal. We’re talking a couple of hours of labor versus two days’ worth – one hour to make the ring and an hour to change it out.”
Richardson said despite the resourcefulness of the HVAC crew, the team requires training to grow their knowledge and keep up with evolving industry demands.
“We’re going to a very technical field now,” Richardson said. “We’re transitioning from contactors and relays to programmable logic controllers now. That’s something we’re going to have to change with.”
Members of the HVAC crew said they enjoy working to provide those at Arnold with as comfortable a working environment as possible.
“I like going to make somebody smile, even though they may hate me at the beginning,” White said. “That’s one of the biggest reasons I got into the HVAC industry is to help people, and I love the technology that it’s going to.”
“There’s a real sense of satisfaction in doing our jobs, a sense of accomplishment making those people smile at the end of the day,” Gray added.