Insulation: The Forgotten Energy Technology

Ronald L. King

Ron King is a Past President of NIA, the World Insulation and Acoustic Congress, and the Southwest Insulation Contractors Association. He was awarded the NIA’s President’s Award in 1986 and again in 2001. He is a 50-year veteran of the commercial and industrial insulation industry, during which time he held executive management positions at an accessory manufacturer and specialty insulation contractor. In 2004, he retired as the Chairman, CEO, and President of a large national insulation distributor/fabricator. He currently serves as a consultant to NIA on a variety of educational, outreach, and governmental initiatives, including coordinating many association alliance-partnership activities, serving as Chairman and Past Chairman, respectively, of the National Institute of Building Sciences’ National Mechanical Insulation Committee and Consultative Council, and as NIA’s liaison to the Federation of European Insulation Societies (FESI), which represents the European mechanical insulation market. He can be reached at RonKingRLK@aol.com.

February 1, 2007

Insulation is the Rodney Dangerfield of the construction industry—it receives very little respect and is taken for granted. Insulation is a powerful resource when designed, applied, and maintained properly; yet the technology often is forgotten, put on the bottom of the list, and ignored. The knowledge base of mechanical insulation systems at the engineering, architectural, and facility-owner levels over the last 15 to 20 years has, in most cases, eroded. The root cause can be summarized as a by-product of the corporate world’s drive for profits, right sizing, multitasking, etc. But the fact remains that insulation is not a field that is attracting specialization in the engineering, architectural, or maintenance arenas. This reduced knowledge base has led to improper use or under-utilization of mechanical insulation in many applications.

The benefits of insulation often seem invisible (although long lasting), but the technology is not some mysterious myth. It may be misunderstood and under-appreciated due to lack of knowledge. Calculating operational benefits and return on investment (ROI) can be relatively simple. However, an insulation system does not have moving parts, bells and whistles, computer chips, or fancy gauges; and it is certainly not sexy. Perhaps that is why it is not considered exciting to discuss, even through it is a time-tested and proven technology that often can provide an annual ROI of more than 100 percent. Maybe this valuable technology is often overlooked, undervalued, and even forgotten because it is so simple and its use is not necessarily revolutionary. Has there been a more important time to think about insulation differently, though?

Results of a recent survey conducted by the National Insulation Association (NIA) of 160-plus industrial plants, manufacturers, and engineering and architectural firms included the following:

  • Most of those surveyed had no idea of the payback period or rate of return with the use of insulation.
  • Most were unaware of a method to quantify costs versus savings.
  • Numerous areas of insulation were in serious need of repair.
  • Most of those surveyed did not understand that insulation had any “real” environmental “tie-ins.”
  • Some did not think it “necessary.” (They felt their plants work fine.)
  • Most did not relate corrosion under insulation (CUI) to the state of the insulation system.
  • Most acknowledged that their specifications were outdated.
  • Most did not have a dedicated job function at their facility to address insulation specifications, and they could not identify an “insulation champion” at their company.
  • Most did not think of insulation as a “system” or think it requires any special design review or technical consideration.

That survey confirmed the Rodney Dangerfield characterization of insulation and the need for industry educational and awareness initiatives such as “Insulation: The Forgotten Energy Technology.” In today’s fast-paced and cost-sensitive work environment, continuing education can be a challenge. A half-day workshop that allows for discussion and exchange of information among industry peers remains one of the most effective means of education, and that is exactly what NIA and AltranSolutions, Inc., have in mind for 2007.

AltranSolutions, Inc., understands the importance of providing knowledge and practical solutions, and it is working with NIA to sponsor a series of workshops for its clients. The company is a comprehensive engineering consulting firm, headquartered in Cranbury, New Jersey, that leverages innovative technologies and industry knowledge to help companies enhance their business and effectively manage their assets. Its goal is to seek out answers to customers’ critical engineering challenges and provide a framework that encourages innovative thinking, promotes operational efficiencies, and delivers results to the clients’ bottom lines.

With more than $2 billion in yearly revenue, The Altran Group (parent company of AltranSolutions, Inc.) employs over 16,000 people, with offices throughout the United States and Canada, and in 17 other countries. Its interdisciplinary teams of professionals work closely with utilities, power generation and delivery companies, and petrochemical and other industrial firms in a variety of areas. Sponsoring continuing education workshops pertaining to the many benefits of mechanical insulation is consistent with its goal and commitment to helping customers understand the simplest or most complex technical and engineering challenges in the industry.

Here is an overview of a few of the workshop discussion topics.

The Power of Insulation

This workshop is focused on mechanical insulation systems—those used for piping, equipment, vessels, ducts, boilers, and other mechanical equipment and piping applications.

When asked about the benefits of mechanical insulation, most people immediately think of process control and energy conservation. While those benefits are at the top of the list, there are other important benefits, too. This workshop examines all of the benefits—the power of insulation.

Energy Conservation

Energy is one of the most costly components in managing a utility or operating a manufacturing facility. Reducing energy consumption always reduces cost. Although it may not be No. 1 on the list, reducing energy consumption is certainly among the top ten corporate initiatives, along with improving safety, providing quality, increasing shareholder value, and protecting the environment. Insulation can be one of the easiest, fastest, and least expensive technologies to reduce energy costs, but it is still often the last option considered.

Companies should ask themselves if their insulation system thicknesses were designed for the cost of energy in 1977 or 2007. The ROI with an insulation initiative usually far exceeds expectations. Many times the return occurs in less than 1 year. Insulation can provide a faster return than many fancier, more visible energy-efficiency investments. In today’s competitive and shareholder-driven world, insulation can make a difference in the bottom line. Insulation is not normally a boardroom discussion, but perhaps it should be.

It is interesting to review the process for determining the insulation design criteria for new construction or expansion projects versus the maintenance process and how priorities are established. In new construction, the primary driver in determining the insulation system is the process. Very seldom are the insulation system or insulation thicknesses examined from an energy-conservation perspective. Once the plant is operating and the energy consumed becomes reality, compliance or acceptance of the results rule the day. Actual results are rarely compared to the original expectations.

What is lost by not maintaining an insulation system properly and in a timely manner? It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of all installed mechanical insulation is either damaged or missing. A recent heat-loss analysis completed on the “typical” insulated piping systems in an oil refinery illustrated the difference between the worst-case scenario (uninsulated piping), what could be obtained with all piping being insulated, and the case of reality (where 21 percent of the pipe insulation was damaged or missing). Since this analysis was completed, it has been compared to other industry segments and found to be a representative illustration. With 21 percent of the pipe insulation missing or damaged, only 52 percent of the potential heat-loss savings (in Btus per hour) was obtained. This is a big number—even if one discounts it by 50 percent. It begs the question: Why does this condition exist when it could be corrected to provide a significant return on the capital employed or maintenance dollars spent at the refinery?

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Industrial Technologies Save Energy Now program offers several other examples. Save Energy Now is part of a national campaign by the DOE to help manufacturing facilities reduce energy and operating costs, and operate more efficiently and profitably. Independent specialists are trained to use sophisticated software assessment tools and are required to pass a rigorous qualifying exam. Once qualified, they visit plants and work to identify immediate and long-term opportunities for improving energy efficiency and bottom-line results. Mechanical insulation is one of the many areas of opportunity examined.

A minimum of 200 plant assessments were planned for 2006. Participants ranged from power-generation facilities to paper mills, chemical plants, refineries, and food-processing plants. Savings were identified as “near term” (less than a 1-year payback period), “medium term” (less than a 3-year payback period), and “long term” (more than a 3-year payback period). As of September 28, 2006, 125 assessments were completed and 53 reports released to the public. The following mechanical insulation statistics were derived from those reports:

  • Fifty-one percent of the reports specifically mentioned insulation.
  • Sixty-three percent of the insulation opportunities referred to “missing, damaged, or uninsulated areas,” while 37 percent referred to insulation upgrade or improvement opportunities.
  • Of the insulation references, 81.5 percent were classified as near-term opportunities, 14.8 percent were classified as medium-term opportunities, and 3.7 percent were classified as long-term opportunities.
  • Most savings from insulation were identified in dollars, some approaching $1 million per year.
  • Some participants provided information to calculate an ROI of less than 4 months.

Energy conservation with the use of properly designed, installed, and maintained mechanical insulation is simply an opportunity that should not be overlooked. It is an investment that may have few rivals from a return perspective.

Process Control

This is the area where mechanical insulation is normally “engineered” into the process. Whether liquid, air, or gas, a product is designed to leave Point A at one temperature or pressure and arrive at Point B at another, or it needs to be stored at a given temperature. Fluctuating temperatures can cause significant problems in manufacturing quality and productivity. More often than some would like to admit, the insulation system or thermal value used is determined by what worked—or did not work—in the past. This is what the industry refers to as “dusting off the old specification.” In reality, while many insulation systems are installed, they are rarely engineered.

One of the problems in many industries is that after the insulation system is designed, selected, and installed, it is not maintained in a timely or proper manner. It would seem likely, then, that process temperatures and pressures are not maintained as designed. It may take more energy to maintain them, and throughput or other costs may be negatively affected.

Process control, quality, and product throughput are major considerations. Properly designing, installing, and maintaining the mechanical insulation system should be an integral part of both the initial design and the operational maintenance management plan at any facility. Companies should ask themselves if their insulation system is meeting expectations. If not, why not? A good rule is to always “inspect what you expect.”

Condensation Control and Mold Prevention

Moisture in an enemy. If an insulation system is not properly designed to maintain the surface temperature above the dew point, condensation likely will develop. Condensation is a real-world problem that can lead to other problems—such as work hazards due to moisture on the floor or the development of mold—if not corrected.

Mold is an issue in today’s work environment. Insulation cannot stop mold from developing, but it certainly can help eliminate moisture due to condensation, which must be present for mold to develop. When it comes to condensation and mold, prevention is less costly than a cure. If an insulation system is not designed to prevent condensation under realistic adverse conditions (not under the best or normal conditions), is not installed correctly, or is not maintained properly, condensation can occur. It is critical to address the problem aggressively. Prevention and timely, effective correction of the problem will be less costly in the long run than putting it off for another day.

Moisture Intrusion and CUI

Again, moisture is an enemy. Moisture intrusion in an insulation system can lead to a host of problems, so timely maintenance of a mechanical insulation system is extremely important. Companies can choose to spend money now in a managed approach or potentially spend a lot more money later in a reactionary, unbudgeted mode.

How does moisture penetrate an insulation system? Primary moisture sources are rainwater, water from a washdown, water from the roof, water from other equipment, water from piping leaks, and even water from condensation within the insulation system—especially on dual operating systems. The most likely areas of intrusion are at insulation system penetration points like gauges and attachments. If the integrity of the insulation system is not established at installation and maintained properly, and moisture sources are present, then moisture likely will penetrate the system. The rates of moisture migration and/or wicking within the insulation system will vary depending on the system, the temperature of the operating system, and other conditions.

Moisture intrusion can negatively affect all aspects of the insulation system thermal values, which can have a direct impact on process control, energy cost, condensation control, safety, and the potential for mold development. It also increases the potential for CUI.

CUI is not new, and in many circles the problem is well understood, yet it costs industry millions of dollars annually.

If insulation does not directly cause corrosion, could maintaining the integrity of the insulation system minimize CUI and be less expensive over time? To answer this question, life-cycle cost analysis must be employed. Removing an insulation system, replacing piping or equipment, and installing a new insulation system is an expensive process. An aggressive maintenance program, combined with regular inspections, may be less costly over time.

Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

With the reduction of energy consumption derived from the use of mechanical insulation, the number of pounds of greenhouse gas emissions currently being released into the atmosphere can be reduced. Every little bit helps, and protecting the environment is a major focus today.

This benefit is not being considered in many applications, likely because most people do not relate the reduction of energy consumption to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. How does one calculate this benefit into the ROI or decision-making process? The answer varies depending on the facility, carbon credits (if applicable), regulatory requirements, etc. The public relations benefit cannot be ignored, however—and it is the right thing to do.

Personnel Protection—Safety

Mechanical insulation is not often discussed at safety meetings, but protecting workers from contact with hot or cold surfaces and from excessive noise in the workplace should be key parts of any safety program. Still, insulation is seldom, if ever, on the agenda for safety meetings. Far beyond the impact on a company’s bottom line is the direct impact on its employees’ well-being. Viewed in this context, is there a more important topic or a better reason to think about insulation differently?

Workplace Environment Improvements

Insulation is a major component in improving facility-occupant comfort and thus increasing productivity. Many studies confirm that occupant productivity increases when air quality, temperature, and sound management are managed within an acceptable range on a consistent basis.

Insulation is called upon for its thermal and noise-absorption properties, but the results are seldom considered when determining a company’s ROI.

Sustainable Design Technology

The use of sustainable design technology increases every year. Insulation and its role in sustainable design is a subject within itself. Today, mechanical insulation’s role is normally included in discussions related to heating, air-conditioning, or other equipment. In some cases, the size of the equipment required is reduced with the use of increased insulation values. Capital investment is reduced, and the return increases—a winning combination.

Many companies are pursing sustainable design certifications for their facilities. Certification is an effective way to measure success; but isn’t thinking “green” and employing that philosophy just as important—if not more important—than certification? Thinking, promoting, and selling green can be an advantage in any organization—with customers and within the community. Companies should look for green opportunities within their organizations.

Summary

The opportunities available with a better understanding of the power of insulation are varied and numerous. Sometimes what sounds too good to be true actually is not. That is the case with the potential of mechanical insulation.

Many engineering, architectural, and facility owners have lost their insulation specialist—the position has been eliminated or redirected to other tasks—but a properly designed, installed, and maintained insulation system is more important today than it has ever been. Increased knowledge of mechanical insulation can provide an unrivaled ROI opportunity in the new construction and maintenance arenas. It also helps reduce U.S. dependency on foreign energy sources, protect the environment, and improve the economy—not a bad formula.

Companies should consider an insulation awareness workshop for their employees, trade and professional organizations, and local business communities. It is an effective way to provide continuing education, exchange information with peers, and explore proven ways to help the company reduce its costs with tremendous ROI. Exploring the many benefits of mechanical insulation will shed light on opportunities that may not have been considered before. An insulation awareness workshop can provide resources to help determine the correct insulation system and insulation properties for a particular service condition. It also will show how to calculate expected ROI from insulation system improvements.

Many companies are major users of mechanical insulation without using the technology to its full potential. Insulation is a powerful resource. Begin thinking differently about mechanical insulation and the value it can provide to take advantage of that power. Mechanical insulation may not seem exciting to discuss, but considering its many benefits, it is only natural to ask: Why have we not thought of this before?