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How Duct Tape Sealed My Place in History

By Max Sherman

Yes, I really am a scientist, and yes, I really am doing science.

“Daddy is famous,” declared my five-year-old. “Famous,” is something Sabrina can relate to, unlike “scientist,” which is what Daddy really is. While my daughter might have had some vague understanding of the purpose of my scientific work — “saving electricity” — she now thinks that Daddy's job is to have his name in the paper and on the radio.

I owe this to what appears to be one of the foundations of American society: duct tape. Yes, I am talking about that gray sticky roll of stuff you probably have in your house, car, boat, truck, or garage. You may have heard about me in September, or at least about my work, because I was credited with finding out that duct tape is really not very good for sealing ducts. The story of my findings spread globally, breaking through all the other news barriers, appearing in more places than I care to count. It was a duct tape feeding frenzy.

Yes, I really am a scientist, and yes, I really am “doing science.“ I study energy efficiency in buildings. This task has involved testing the effectiveness of duct sealants. Anyone who has dealt with old ducts in an attic will not be surprised to hear about failing duct tape. Although I have always used duct tape, it was not part of my boyhood ambition to make a career out of it. While getting my PhD in physics from Berkeley, such dreams involved winning a Nobel Prize or discovering a new element, a new planet, a new particle or new energy sources, rather than finding flaws with duct tape.

I decided early in my career to work on the scientific aspects of energy and environmental issues. My colleagues and I have been working on the important, but hardly Einsteinian, problems of why so much energy is wasted in the heating and cooling ducts of houses. Over the past two years, we have used the resources of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to build an apparatus capable of doing accelerated testing of different kinds of duct sealants. We exposed the sealants to rapid changes in heat, cold and pressure in ranges typical of extremes found in houses. While most of the sealants passed our test, duct tape failed, often in just a few days.

The sound bite I provided for this, which was grabbed by the media, was that "it failed reliably, and often catastrophically." I admit to selecting those words for their impact. "Catastrophically" is technically quite accurate, but sounds like something more dramatic than tape falling off quickly.

Because our findings were so clearcut, we wanted to publish them promptly for the benefit of sponsors, so we chose the journal Home Energy (July/August 1998 issue), rather than the more hidebound scientific publications we usually pick. ["Can Duct Tape Take the Heat?" can be found online at http://homeenergy.org/archive/hem.dis.anl.gov/eehem/98/980710.html.] Almost as soon as our published results became available on the Web in July, my life took on a different character. It started quietly, with a call from Better Homes and Gardens, which was preparing a duct tape piece mentioning my research for its September issue.

Perversely, a July 27 story in USA Today indirectly triggered the frenzy that followed. USA Today gave credit for this research to the Lawrence Livermore Lab rather than the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. To the labs, this is like confusing a Republican from North Carolina with a Democrat from Massachusetts. [The Berkeley Lab is the older and more diverse, while Livermore Lab does the classified nuclear weapons work.] The Berkeley Lab public relations office sprang into action, taking a press release it had been preparing in a more leisurely fashion and expediting it — so that such a mistake would not happen again.

That's when the phones started ringing. I was a little taken aback when I got a call from a reporter who "covers duct tape for the Wall Street Journal." It occurred to me that this was a rather specialized position, until he informed me that he did other things as well. In the next week came the Sacramento Bee and San Jose Mercury News. I formed an appreciation for what good science editors and writers do at metropolitan papers. Most of the other coverage was derived from these two stories. Carrie Peyton of the Bee came to our lab to interview us and see the apparatus and the results. Glennda Chui of the Mercury News came down to the conference where I was presenting the results.

The few days which followed are still a blur. I was interviewed (by phone) by MSNBC, NPR, CBS, the Associated Press and several others that I can't remember. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "As It Happens" radio program did a story with my Canadian co-author, Iain Walker, followed by a listener call-in on duct tape the following day.

Soon I was doing several interviews daily, answering questions like: “How did it get its name?” (I don't know.) “What can you use it for?” (Anything but ducts.) “Do you use duct tape?” (All the time, just not on ducts.) It gives one a bit of a swelled head to have two producers from NPR fighting over which show you should be on, or to put the Associated Press on hold while you talk to CBS.

Early one morning while I was at the conference, my wife Jan got a phone call asking for me. When the caller then asked for Iain Walker, who would not normally be at my home at that hour, she was a bit concerned. But when the called asked if she knew anything about duct tape, she realized what was going on. What Jan did not realize was that as soon as she said she knew a little of the results, she was on Alaskan radio — live. The Anchorage newspaper reported that a pillar of Alaskan culture was under attack; it appears that Alaskans take their duct tape quite seriously.

There is a sort of duct tape cult, which I became aware of when we started this research. Web sites and books abound, glorifying the many uses of duct tape. Few mention ducts at all. The cults appear harmless, but my wife is concerned over my notoriety. So she has forbidden me from opening any packages sealed with duct tape, meeting with duct tape manufacturers unchaperoned, or having anything to do with the state of Montana.

My friends and relatives have since called in from all over the country. There was a bit of, “You got a PhD in physics so you could what? Study duct tape?” Or, “Real scientists don't do duct tape.” Or, “You wasted your 15 minutes of fame on duct tape?”

There is a serious side to this story. Millions of homes have their duct systems sealed with duct tape. Our results indicate that there could be a large number of premature failures, especially in the Sun Belt. Such failures would not usually be obvious. Rather, it would look as if the air conditioning (or heating) was simply not doing the job as well as it used to. The homeowner would call the repair guy, who would sell them a larger unit, and all would be fine again.

Fine, except for the fact that the homeowner was paying far too much money for energy and equipment, and that big chunks of carbon were being added to our atmosphere needlessly. This enormous potential savings is why the utility rate payer (through the California Institute for Energy Efficiency) and the American taxpayer (through the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency) are paying us to do duct research.

As a professional, the one line I should probably be the most proud of is the one in the soon-to-be-adopted energy code of the state of California that discourages the use of duct tape on ducts by builders. Using other sealants (of which there are plenty) is a win-win situation, saving the homeowner money and helping the environment. But as one-liners go, seeing yourself quoted in Time magazine is hard to beat.

Soon all of this duct tapery will be forgotten by the press. I will get back to my less exciting but still important research. Sabrina has already grown tired of hearing about duct tape and has ordered us to stop talking about it at dinner. She has declared, and rightly so, that her first week in kindergarten ought to be the subject of conversation.

I am, however, still a “duct tape hero” in the eyes of my seven- year-old, Alex. He read that duct tape is like the Force because it binds us and holds us together. Naturally, then, Daddy must be a Jedi knight. Thank you, duct tape.

Max Sherman, an APS member, is a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His Home Page is http://www-epb.lbl.gov/MHSherman. Further duct tape information is available from http://ducts.lbl.gov/ducttape

Reprinted, with permission, from The Washington Post, Sunday, September 13, 1998, page C01.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin