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DO NOT Try This at Home…or the Office

January 4, 2024
DO NOT Try This at Home...or the Office

We have all seen movies where our hero has to escape some sort of life-threatening scenario by crawling through a pipe, like the recent movie aptly named Crawl. In Crawl, the protagonist must risk everything to swim through a large drainage pipe where alligators are known to hang out. Crawling through a pipe was used effectively and most unforgettably in The Shawshank Redemption for various reasons, we can all agree. But what about crawling through ventilation ducts found in homes and offices? Why does our hero often end up here, of all places?

Because ventilation systems appear as a hidden mysterious pathway when taking the boring route just won’t do.

Once every few years, this trope is used in action movies like Die Hard, where John McClane uses a pocket lighter to illuminate his way through a high-rise office tower to escape Hans and the other evil German terrorists. I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it, but now Bruce Willis is forever linked to the idea that anyone can escape trouble quietly by maneuvering through air ducts. It happens in many famous movies like Alien and its sequel Aliens. And in Mission Impossible, Tom Cruise hacks a CIA computer while dangling from cables above in the ventilation, which somehow holds two grown men.

TV shows do not like to be left out of the action either. Professor Chang chases a monkey through one in Community. Stranger Things season 3 sees a small hero emerge as she is the only one able to fit through the vent opening at the top of the wall, because “You can’t spell America without Erica.” So let’s ask some of the questions we’re all wondering about.

  1. Are vents as clean as they appear in movies?

    No, not even close. The standard uninsulated vents are passageways designed for moving air, and regardless of the filtration system, there will always be dust or dirt. Hollywood makes it appear as if all vents are as clean as a scientific cleanroom, where technicians wear full-body protective suits to build microchips in a laboratory. If you suffer from asthma and find yourself in a vent, you’d be in a lot of trouble.

  2. Could a human fit inside a vent?

    Vents seen in movies are custom-built and lit for filming purposes, enlarged by set designers to fit adult characters. Normal ventilation found in homes and offices might be able to fit a small child, but are never designed to hold the weight of a human. Again, they are made to direct air, which weighs a lot less than people.

  3. Okay, but if I WERE small enough, could I crawl around in one?

    Commercial-sized vents are sometimes lined with insulation and held in place by 3″ rivet spikes pointing straight up. It would be like crawling on a bed of nails. Screws and nails poke out of most jointed corners as well. I’d advise against.

  4. Is crawling through a vent as quiet as they portray?

    They are made from thin sheet metal and are not intended to hold much weight. Beyond their actual purpose of carrying air, they have a coating that helps make them fire-resistant and noncombustible for safety. Stainless steel ductwork includes chromium and other alloys that make it resistant to corrosion. Some are additionally galvanized by a hot-dipping process which coats them with zinc. The thin material makes them light enough to hang overhead, and easy to cut or shape. They are basically metal tubes, which are very loud echo chambers. So they are not quiet by any stretch of the imagination.

In the world of entertainment, vents are made to escape danger, infiltrate the enemy, overhear the bad guys’ intentions, or as a path to find treasure of some kind, to name a few. The claustrophobic nature of the space lets filmmakers wring every ounce of drama and terror out of the audience. They are used to drive the plot forward, to get a hero out of a tight squeeze by putting him in one.

Unless you’re being chased through the mall by zombies like in Dawn of the Dead, I would avoid the temptation of crawling through any ventilation systems, no matter how brave you are. They are only fun in the movies.