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The Duct Tape Paradox

When it comes to your home air conditioning and heating units, it may be tempting to take to the internet to cut costs or find ways to maintain air systems on your own. Though there is a wealth of information to be found on the internet, when it comes to your air conditioning, there is one quick fix that you’ll find the internet recommending that you definitely do not want to use.

Given the name, it’s easy to see why such confusion exists. Duct tape, one of the more useful and practical tools in everyone’s toolbox, can be used for a slew of projects, but it should never be used to repair a leaking duct.

As we previously discussed, duct tape had come back from World War II as the returning soldiers’ go-to for just about every home repair. In the battlefield, duct tape had proved an invaluable resource, and it proved just as useful at home. Its popularity only grew when Johnson and Johnson began manufacturing the formerly green tape in shiny gray to match the duct work it was often being used to repair.

Ironically, it is exactly what makes duct tape so useful for just about everything else is the same thing which makes it such a bad choice for repairing duct work. Duct tape is comprised of three components, each adding an element to what duct tape makes duct tape so versatile: it is strong, waterproof, and able to stick to anything. Cotton mesh fabric is what makes duct tape super strong and also easily to tear. Polyethylene is a plastic coating used to coat one side of the fabric, and it is what gives the tape its waterproof coating and extends the overall flexibility of the tape. Third, duct tape is given a unique compound of adhesive materials, including rubber and a thicker glaze of adhesive which makes duct tape tackier than standard tape.

In the late 90s, the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs conducted experiments to see which duct sealants would provide the best methods for reducing points energy loss throughout duct systems. For their experiments, they compared duct tape, UL181B tape, foil tape, butyl tape, mastic, and aerosol sealants, then subjected the materials to “baking tests” and “aging tests.”

When it came to the results, the scientists were not too surprised to find that duct tape was an underperformer to say the least. When exposed to forced air systems, duct tape is unable to hold up to either test because its layers became separated during heating and cooling. The exposure was so bad, in fact, that the duct tape could not make it past a week in the aging test. During the baking test, it failed miserably too. As it turns out, prolonged exposure to forced heat literally baked the rubber adhesive compounds in the tape, causing it to harden and, most of the time, simply fall off of duct work repairs.

As it stands, mastic sealants are most commonly recommended for duct and air conditioning repairs, as they are allowed to slowly harden and fully seal the holes and gaps in duct work. No matter your repair, it is always a good idea to consult a professional about air conditioning, heating, and maintenance, especially if you believe that your systems are not operating to their maximum potential. Just be sure to skip the duct tape next time. 

How Duct Tape Became the All-American Solution

Though the aptly named Duct Tape has a long history of being used to repair ducts, it is far from the ideal solution. Before we discuss the duct-tape-for-duct-work in part two, The Duct Tape Paradox, we’re going to look at how American invention of duct tape came to be commonly used for duct application, as well as a myriad of other practical daily uses.

In 1942, when American soldiers were still fighting in Europe during World War II, they were in need of a more resilient way to open their sealed ammunition cases. The sealing tape used on the ammunition boxes was paper-based, thin, sealed with wax, and often incredibly difficult to open. Under fire, the tape was even more frustrating and caused panic, putting the soldiers’ lives at risk. They wanted something that would work and tear like surgical tape, but it had to be strong, reliable, and water-resistant, and so they wrote home to their families and requested it.

Vesta Stoudt, a mother of two sons serving in the Navy, worked at Green River Ordnance Plant packing cartridges for the Army and Navy. Fearing for the safety of the soldiers, her sons among them, Vesta heeded the call to action and designed a cloth-based waterproof tape that performed remarkably well and addressed all of the needs of the soldiers. She took her new tape to her supervisors, and though they told her that her idea was good, they did nothing to actually manufacture the tape. Frustrated, Vesta pushed higher up the chain, also to no avail.

When no one at the company would implement her idea, Vesta wrote to President Roosevelt directly:

I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same.  It worked fine, I showed it to different government inspectors they said it was all right, but I could never get them to change tape.  I have two sons out there some where, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet.  You have sons in the service also.  We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved. Had the box been taped with a strong cloth tape that can be opened in a split second.  I didn’t know who to write to Mr. President, so have written you hoping for your boys, my boys, and every man that uses the rifle grenade, that this package of rifle cartridges may be taped with the correct tape.

President Roosevelt, himself looking to best serve his son during wartime, forwarded Vesta’s letter to the War Production Board. Finally, someone was taking Vesta’s idea for the ammunitions tape seriously. The War Production Board contacted the Green River Ordnance Plant and let Vesta know that they were taking her product to production soon. They also asked Vesta to send them any other brilliant ideas that she had in the future.

Johnson & Johnson, a major manufacturer with a background in making cloth-based surgical tapes, was tasked with the production of the tape. They named it “Duck Tape” because it was waterproof like a duck, and they decided to make it from cotton duck cloth, a linen canvas material that was strong, sturdy, and could be easily torn.

The “Duck Tape” would soon be sent off to the war overseas where the soldiers dubbed it “100 Mile an Hour Tape,” renowned for its application for just about any repair. The soldiers could not be happier to receive it, and they found that it was useful in countless ways, from repairing weapons to fixing broken military vehicle windows.

Duct tape had made its mark on the soldiers, who brought their passion for the tape back home with them. As the soldiers bought homes when they returned, they turned once again to their trusty duct tape to repair those homes. When a manufacturer began selling it as a connector between heating and air conditioning ducts, the tape became standard use in home building. The tape, formerly green, was now being sold in silver to match the duct work. Before long, “Duck Tape” was changed to duct tape, and the tape would be synonymous with duct work and repair.

Don’t pull out your trusty duct tape and run to your air conditioning unit just yet, though. In part two, we’ll discuss why duct tape is highly unsuitable for those kinds of repairs.

HVAC Services Tucson | Breezeways Air Conditioning & Heating