A Different Perspective: Continuing Education in the Power Industry

Gary Bases

October 1, 2006

In an era of reorganization, mergers, and globalization, the power industry—along with the insulation and lagging industry—requires a well-educated workforce to remain profitable and competitive.

In addition, a commitment to fundamental insulation research is necessary to provide future innovative solutions and technological developments for the insulation producer being used in power plants. Achieving these two goals requires not only a coordinated commitment to education and research programs from the sectors of insulation engineering, science, and technology, but also effective networking of these academic and industrial concerns for a qualified workforce.

Working in the power industry is not the same as it was twenty years ago. Outages are smaller, and the workforce has aged. Power plant and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) staffs no longer have the expertise to monitor the proper installation of insulation and lagging. Also, the workforce used to install insulation and lagging on very large projects, such as new air-pollution equipment and new boiler installation, but has little or no experience working at power plants.

Given both the limited experience and the fact that the number one reason insulation systems fail is improper installation and/or design of the insulation and lagging system, the need for continuing education is clear. Systems are failing because designers and installers fail to understand the fundamental differences and problems that occur when using low-temperature insulation and lagging systems on high-temperature applications. A continuing education course should address this issue as well as others pertaining to boiler expansion, lagging aesthetics, water shedding, and the proper application of insulation on boiler walls, flues, and ducts with external stiffeners.

Working at a power plant requires a special understanding of all the different types of boilers, their unique operation requirements, the high multidirectional expansion that can occur, and the parameters for installing the materials while the boiler is in operation.

But how many people working in the power industry really know or understand the basics of thermal calculations—or even what constitutes a proper install for a lagging and insulation system?

Most people are unaware of the six keys to understanding heat flow or thermal calculations: wind velocity, ambient air temperature, surface temperature, K-value, emissivity factor, and the operating temperature of the system being insulated. Most do not know that proper calculation of insulation thickness and material types saves money at the initial installation, allowing them to pay only for what they need. On the long-term investment, then, minimizing the amount of heat loss that radiates from the outer casings or lagging surfaces saves energy and money. The power plant will use less fuel to reach and maintain a boiler’s operating conditions.

The proper design and installation procedures for insulation and lagging are essential for thermal and energy efficiency, which is critical to lowering the amount of energy or fuel (oil, gas, coal, refuse) required to make electric power. President George W. Bush once noted, “Energy is a problem that requires action—not politics, not excuses, but action.” Clearly, that action should be applied to industries that have a direct impact on the amount of fuel used in the power-generating industry.

It is important to educate the power-generating industry workforce, including the labor and the plant personnel. All should have a working knowledge of every aspect of insulation and lagging, from design to installation. Learning about all aspects of insulation, lagging, and boiler design should be a mandatory requirement for those working in the power industry.

Those in the power-generating industry (plant managers, engineers, and operators; purchasing staff; maintenance personnel; professional and service engineers; and installing contractors) need a continuing education program that sets a standard for proper insulation and lagging applications. This program should provide the information needed to improve boiler and plant reliability, increase energy savings, prolong the life expectancy of insulation and lagging systems, and raise awareness of the importance of proper design and installation of insulation and lagging systems. Most importantly, these much-needed programs should show how improperly designed and installed systems cost the power-generating industry millions of dollars. It has already been forecasted that the power industry will spend over $40 million in the next five years reworking existing insulation and lagging due to faulty installation and/or design.

The more educated the workforce, the more efficient the boiler and the less money spent on reworking. There is no greater need or time for a better-educated workforce than now because the power-generating industry is investing heavily in upgrading its steam-generating boilers and building new boilers. The industry also is adding expensive air-pollution equipment such as precipitators, bag houses, scrubbers, and selective catalytic reducers to comply with the Clear Skies Act, established to cut sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 73 percent, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 67 percent, and mercury (Hg) emissions by 69 percent by 2018. Insulation and lagging systems are a big part of this effort.

Wisconsin Power Service Corporation recently awarded a $190 million contract for a 500-megawatt boiler and air-pollution system that will include about $10 million of insulation and lagging (material and labor). Black Hills Power and Light recently awarded a $100 million contract for a new 80-mw boiler, air-pollution equipment, and about $3 million worth of insulation and lagging (material and labor). This represents almost 7 percent of the total construction cost of these projects. An improperly designed and/or installed insulation and lagging system could adversely affect on the boiler operation and air-pollution equipment.

A Little Knowledge Pays

Knowledge is everything! Knowing more about thermal calculations, boiler operations, and proper material installation and design can help ensure delivery of a thermally efficient system that is cost-effective to install. As J. F. Malloy, author of Thermal Insulation and one of the most creative minds in the field of insulation, wrote, “Thermal insulation installed to save energy also saves money at the rate that is essential for efficient plant operation.”

The lack of education and experience in the power industry potentially costs that industry millions of dollars. Lower fuel costs coincide with lower equipment and maintenance costs. Energy savings can be achieved by properly designing and installing insulation and lagging, which begins with a better-educated workforce. The longer the insulation and lagging stays in place and meets its thermal requirements, the longer the boiler can remain in normal operation. Lack of experience in the workforce, lack of accepted industry standards, and lack of training for installing insulation and lagging on hot systems is all part of why the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) offers continuing education institute short courses on lagging and insulation. All plant managers, engineers, operators, maintenance personnel, professional and service engineers, installing contractors, and labor craftsmen should take these courses.