HVAC Airmen beat the heat
KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- It's another summer day at Kunsan AB, where the heat and humidity outdoors can be felt everywhere. The average temperature falls between 78 to 86 degrees during the summer months, with the daily relative humidity lingering in the 80th percentile. During this time, base facilities offer relief in the form of air conditioning and cooling not only for personnel and employees, but also the Air Force assets that keep the Wolf Pack mission rolling.
The job of keeping the base cool rests with the technicians of the 8th Civil Engineer Squadron Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration shop, commonly abbreviated as HVAC. The Airmen are kept busy daily throughout the summer months, with each work order response playing out in a similar fashion.
A work truck, or bread van as several shop members call it, makes its way to a building on the base. The team is led to an equipment room where water can be seen dripping down the walls and pooling on the floor. Each step through the room is accompanied with a splash and ripples across the floor as the team searches for the source. A trip to the tucked away mechanical room reveals the root of the problem - condensation from an air handler.
As warm air reacts with cool pipes carrying cold water, excessive condensation occurs. That condensation in turn builds up causing the air handler to leak, or 'sweat' as the teams put it, faster than the drain can handle. The water builds up and seeps through cracks and creates the leaks and puddles seen in the room below.
At this point, the team puts their knowledge to use and demonstrates their on-the-fly problem solving. The chiller is temporarily turned off, the water temperature is raised, and the excess water in the drain is removed in succession. All the while, the technicians carry out the repairs with a sense of humor and lightheartedness. A positive attitude keeps the time moving along as the crews report from one job to the next.
"Just trying to stay in a good mood," said Staff Sgt. Mario Brown, 8th CES HVAC craftsmen. "You're supposed to do the job, but we also have fun doing it. Especially during twelves. When you're working twelves you have to keep the morale up."
Once the task is complete, the team loads up and moves on to the next assigned work order.
On another occasion, a team responds to a no air conditioning call for a room containing computer servers. After checking the air handler and finding it's off, the team turns it on and checks for any needed preventative maintenance. In several minutes time, they replace the filters and belts and move on to the outdoor condensing unit. It is here where another issue is discovered.
Despite the heat outdoors, the lines are freezing and frost can be seen running across their surface. Pressure checks are conducted leading to the determination the compressor is low on refrigerant and needs to be charged, a problem that can be fixed when the team returns with more refrigerant. This step-by-step approach is typical for the HVAC work crews, aiding in their ability to resolve issues.
"There's usually an order of operations for everything," said Airman 1st Class Malik Gomes, 8th CES HVAC journeyman. "Depending on what the call is, you have certain steps to follow so you can find the problem faster and easier. It just depends on what exactly the problem is."
In the case of the freezing lines, a solution was found in minutes. Unfortunately, that's not the case with every work order. In one instance, the team's response extends to hours as the issue is readily apparent, but not the cause.
"The issue we're facing right now is only one circuit is being told to run and we're trying to figure out why," said Staff Sgt. Chaddrick Webb, 8th CES HVAC craftsman. "Right now I think it's the circuit board not telling the second circuit to run, which is why the water temperature is not coming down as low as it should."
It is a process of trial and error as the HVAC Airmen continue to troubleshoot. As they check the wiring and voltage of the circuits, the afternoon sun bears down and heat radiates from the units. As warm as it feels inside the affected building, the heat outside is that much greater, making it difficult not to sweat as the team works towards an eventual solution.
For some orders, a fix to the problem is not readily available. In the case of another server room the team visits, a working air-conditioning unit is in place; however, it doesn't deliver sufficient cooling for the room, highlighting limits of the infrastructure here. In some cases, the ultimate solution is a larger-scale fix.
"We've just got to see what we can do to get it running," said Webb. "We've got to research something bigger. Depending on what style system we get, we may need a wall knocked out or a hole cut into the wall."
While other shops close up for the day, the mission of HVAC continues into the night where the focus shifts to maintenance. The crew makes the rounds checking cooling systems, changing filters on fans, greasing equipment and making sure electrical connections are good, all while remaining on standby if an immediate response is needed elsewhere.
"Recurring maintenance definitely keeps the work orders down for the day shift," said Staff Sgt. Myron Gordon, 8 CES HVAC journeymen. "Recurring maintenance is our number one priority (during the night). When we go around and see something is down, we go ahead and fix it. That could have been something that day shift had to do tomorrow."
In one instance, the team stops their maintenance to respond to an air-conditioning unit that stopped completely. After a bit of troubleshooting and cleaning the equipment, the fans kick back on to the relief of those inside. This process continues into the night as the sun retires and the crew resorts to flashlights to carry on their work. Their work during the night keeps mission essential facilities and equipment in order, allowing the Wolf Pack to continue on the next day, right where it left off.
Just like the wing mission, the HVAC mission continues year round, however, the summer can be a trying time for the shop. During these hotter months, there is a way for the base populace to help HVAC help the Wolf Pack.
"The most an occupant can do, if they have a thermostat they can control, is try not to set it down too low," said Webb. "That makes our equipment work harder and work longer. In these types of environments, and considering it's hard to get parts, it may come back to bite you."
Rest assured, in the event HVAC units do break down and the Wolf Pack feels the heat, HVAC Airmen will be out there to play it cool and resolve the problem.
"It's a lot of hard work," added Gomes. "We're out and about all day, whether it's hot or cold, getting dirty. It's a rough job at times, but I'm happy I do it."