Ask the Expert

Ronald L. King

November 1, 2007

This recurring Insulation Outlook column features Ronald L. “Ron” King, a past president of the National Insulation Association (NIA), the World Insulation and Acoustic Organization (WIACO), and the Southwest Insulation Contractors Association (SWICA). King is a 40-plus-year veteran of the commercial and industrial insulation industry and is currently a consultant and adviser to NIA on a variety of outreach and educational initiatives. Contact him at 757-229-7443 or

Q: With the cost of a barrel of oil and many other energy sources at record-high levels, why isn’t insulation at the top of the list of energy conservation initiatives?

A: Mechanical insulation is a relatively simple energy conservation initiative that can provide an annual return on investment (ROI) of more than 100 percent (and, in some cases, more than 200 percent). However, the technology is still underutilized and under-valued. Why? There are two primary reasons: knowledge and competing initiatives.

The ultimate decision makers (facility managers, chief financial officers, budget directors, etc.) do not appreciate the ROI opportunities with upgrading and maintaining insulation. They take the initial installation for granted and assume it is being maintained within allocated budget dollars. Operational and maintenance personnel understand the opportunity, but the decision makers are continually cutting or deferring maintenance dollars and do not consider insulation an energy conservation initiative.

Combine the lack of knowledge with the hundreds of other energy conservation initiatives for which the industry is competing for capital and maintenance dollars, and you can visualize the problem.

The mechanical insulation industry is competing with lighting, steam traps, controls, motors, solar power, and many types of equipment, not to mention various engineering initiatives. Competition within the industry is minor in comparison to external competition, yet the industry is spending relatively few marketing dollars to combat those forces. Therefore, insulation is not obtaining its fair share of capital and maintenance dollars in the energy conservation field.

There is not a single answer to this question. But education, education, and more education is the best place to start.

Q: It has been reported that a substantial percentage of installed mechanical insulation is missing or damaged. Given the consequences of such damage, why is insulation maintenance not a priority?

A: It has been estimated that 10 to 30 percent of all mechanical insulation is missing or damaged. This is a realistic estimate for most U.S. facilities. The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Save Energy Now (SEN) program has also confirmed that the problem of missing or damaged insulation is more widespread than many would like to acknowledge.

Most facilities have annual maintenance budgets that cover a host of activities, including insulation. As discussed in the previous answer, insulation must compete for those dollars. Many look at it this way: The plant is producing a quality product at a profit, so the insulation must be performing as expected. They do not look at insulation as a means to reduce costs by conserving energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving productivity, improving employee safety, reducing potential corrosion under insulation, reducing condensation, and reducing the potential of mold development. They also fail to acknowledge how maintenance dollars can provide a substantial ROI. Insulation is taken for granted and not considered a priority. Again, knowledge and competing initiatives are at the core of this issue.

Q: What is the best resource for an engineer, architect, or facility manager to use to obtain information on mechanical insulation?

A: There are many excellent resource documents available from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Masterspec, Midwest Insulation Contractors Association (MICA), Process Industry Practices (PIP), and the National Insulation Association (NIA). All of these documents make one general assumption—the reader has general knowledge of insulation materials and systems. However, this assumption is not always correct.

NIA has several great training programs that can provide knowledge and information about how to use the various industry resources.

Product manufacturers are also a great resource. Their story is normally biased to their products and/or systems; though stretched thin, they are a good resource. Insulation contractors, distributors, and fabricators are also an excellent resource, but are also
stretched thin because providing education and developing specifications are really not their roles.

Academia, engineering, and architectural courses are minimally addressing mechanical insulation in their curricula, at best. The bottom line is that the knowledge base of mechanical insulation at the engineering, architectural, and facility owner level has eroded, and those users are turning to multiple sources for information. Unfortunately, due to lack of knowledge they sometimes obtain insufficient information to make the correct decision.

In January 2008, the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) is launching a Web-based vertical portal entitled the Mechanical Insulation Design Guide (MIDG). This will be a giant step forward in providing a single resource for the novice or the informed individual on the various mechanical insulation products and systems; insulation system design considerations; installation; and design data. It will also provide links to the various resources previously mentioned.

Readers are encouraged to submit their own insulation questions to industry experts by e-mailing Questions can be on any insulation topic. Future topics will include building design trends, boilers, insulation maintenance, acoustics, bril, and refractory.

Disclaimer: Unless specifically noted in the beginning of the article, the content, calculations, and opinions expressed by the author, as in any article in Insulation Outlook, are those of the author, are based upon the limited information provided to the author in the question asked, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Insulation Association (NIA). The appearance of an article, advertisements, and/or product or service information in Insulation Outlook does not constitute an endorsement of such products or services by NIA.