Mechanical Insulation in the Spotlight

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

March 1, 2011

The potential of mechanical insulation to reduce energy intensity is immense, yet it remains a largely untapped resource. This is partly due to the lack of sufficient data to support its energy efficiency potential, combined with a deficient understanding of what mechanical insulation is and how it could be utilized. But now a national campaign is underway to help policy makers and decision makers in industrial and commercial sectors make a supportable case for increased use and maintenance of mechanical insulation.

The Mechanical Insulation Education and Awareness Campaign (MIC) is designed to increase awareness of the energy efficiency, emission reduction, economic stimulus, and other benefits of mechanical insulation in the industrial and commercial markets. MIC was created to meet two key objectives:

  • Educate industry on and promote the benefits of mechanical insulation by providing practical data and case studies outlining potential energy savings and other benefits provided by mechanical insulation installation; and
  • Launch an aggressive public education and awareness campaign to combat climate change and improve energy efficiency.

As a part of efforts by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Industrial Technologies Program (ITP) to improve energy efficiency in U.S. industrial and commercial sectors, Project Performance Corporation (PPC) and the National Insulation Association (NIA), in conjunction with its alliance with the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers (International), are working together to design, implement, and execute MIC.

The campaign’s initial phase involves three primary tasks:

  1. Data Development and Research
    • Industrial Segment
    • Commercial Segment
    • Hospitals and Schools
    • Office Buildings (Montana Pilot Program)
  2. Education and Awareness
    • Improve and Develop Mechanical Insulation Design Guide (MIDG) Online Tools
    • Develop a Series of “E-Learning” Modules
    • Develop Core Communication Materials
    • Offer Awareness/Guest Lectures and Presentations
  3. Marketing and Advertising

MIC officially began in June 2010. While still in its initial phase, its accomplishments have exceeded expectations and are forming the foundation for many exciting future initiatives. Following is a brief summary of those accomplishments and ongoing work.

Developing the Data

As a first step, the potential energy savings and other benefits of mechanical insulation must be defined by building sector. MIC is compiling, summarizing, and developing a market opportunity assessment based on existing data as well as gathering additional data. The result will be specific data on energy efficiency/conservation and emission reduction opportunities for mechanical insulation in the commercial and industrial market segments.

Industrial Data
In April 2009, NIA worked with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the DOE’s ITP to assess possible gains in large and medium industrial facilities. The team relied on data from DOE’s Save Energy Now (SEN) program, which conducts energy audits of industrial facilities, to determine the energy and environmental benefits from mechanical insulation and other initiatives in large and medium plants. Working with the DOE’s ITP, ORNL, and the PPC, NIA examined a database of assessments through May 2010, which included an 83-percent increase in assessments over the original 2009 data. The study confirmed the energy and emission reduction, annual rate of return, and job creation opportunities with increased use and maintenance of mechanical insulation.

The SEN assessments primarily focused on process heating and steam systems, and did not include potential efficiency gains achievable in small industrial plants, the power/utility sector, or the commercial sector (hospitals, schools, government buildings, etc.). Nor did the estimates consider energy efficiency improvements from increased use of mechanical insulation in new industrial or commercial facilities. Using the SEN assessment data, NIA performed a statistical extrapolation from the existing data for the missing segments and estimated the potential maintenance opportunity in small industrial plants and the power/utility sector to derive the total potential for the industrial maintenance market.

The bottom line: Greater use of mechanical insulation in the industrial maintenance market could yield annually $3.7 billion in energy savings, with a 106-percent return (11.3 month payback), 37.9 MMT/yr emission reductions, and 40,000 green jobs.

Commercial Data: Government Facilities

NIA and alliance representatives met with State of Montana representatives to explore how to quantify energy efficiency opportunities in Montana government facilities. The result was the Montana Mechanical Insulation Energy Appraisal Pilot Program, designed to determine the energy, cost, and emission reduction opportunities available through the repair, replacement, and/or maintenance of mechanical insulation systems in Montana’s state facilities.

In September 2010, a mechanical insulation energy appraisal was conducted on a variety of Montana facilities in and around Helena. The assessment addressed mechanical rooms in 25 facilities (56 mechanical rooms) pre-selected by State of Montana personnel based on the potential for energy savings.

The bottom line: Approximately 3,500 items were identified. Estimates indicate energy savings would be approximately 6,000 dekatherms (6 billion Btus) per year. The resulting overall payback period was 4.1 years, with an annualized rate of return of 24 percent. CO2 emission reductions are estimated at 300 metric tonnes per year.

The projected savings represent roughly 8 percent of the total natural gas consumption of the facilities analyzed. On a square foot of gross building area basis, the energy savings averaged 4.6 kBtu/sf/yr, and cost savings averaged $0.043/sf.

While the savings from any single item is small, the aggregated total savings from thousands of small items is significant. Little things matter. The appraisal results confirm the value of addressing missing, damaged, or uninsulated areas. The payback period and internal rate of return are based on actual mechanical room operating conditions: 80°F ambient temperature, service temperature, and hours of operation (in many cases less than 6 months per year).

Commercial Data: Hospitals and Schools

Approximately 5 million commercial buildings (80 billion sf) consume approximately 18 percent of all primary energy used in the United States. Energy usage in commercial buildings varies by size and building activity. Recognizing the wide range in building size and function, the initial study focused on two common building types: hospitals and schools.

NIA insulation contractor members were asked to provide insulation specifications and quantity take-offs for recent hospital and school projects. Using this data, the energy savings due to mechanical insulation were estimated. The projects were selected to represent all seven DOE climate zones.

While the goal was to obtain as much actual energy information as possible, a number of assumptions were required. The DOE Commercial Building Benchmark Models1 served as a guide. These publicly available models provided estimates of the total site energy use intensities for hospitals and schools in all climate zones. The system selection and equipment efficiencies from the DOE Benchmark Models were assumed for the buildings in this study (if actual data was not available).

The study is in the final stages of analysis, with estimates of the energy savings attributable to mechanical insulation in the projects being analyzed relative to a baseline case of no insulation. Results are expected to be published in spring 2011.

The bottom line: Preliminary estimates indicate that, on average, the energy savings generated by the use of mechanical insulation average 20 percent in schools and 78 percent in hospitals.

Providing Online Calculators

The Mechanical Insulation Design Guide (MIDG), developed by NIA and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), is a comprehensive source of information on the selection, design, and performance of mechanical insulation in buildings and industrial facilities. One component of MIC is to expand and improve functionality of simple calculators housed on MIDG.

The calculators, developed to provide assistance for common calculations used in the design and analysis of mechanical insulation systems, were launched in January 2010. They are free, and users have the option to print the results. The following calculators are accessible through the MIDG website or the DOE ITP Software Tools webpage:

  • Energy Loss, Emission Reduction, Surface Temperature, and Annual Return for Equipment
  • Energy Loss, Emission Reduction, Surface Temperature, and Annual Return for Piping
  • Financial Returns/Considerations
  • Time for Freezing of a Fluid in an Insulated Pipe
  • Temperature Drop for a Fluid in an Insulated Pipe
  • Simple Heat Flow Through an Insulation
  • Controlling Surface Temperature with Insulation

The Energy Loss, Emission Reduction, Surface Temperature, and Annual Return for Equipment and Piping calculators estimate heat flow through a vertical, flat, steel surface (typical sides of equipment) or horizontal piping. Calculated results are given over a range of insulation types and thicknesses, and include surface temperature, heat flow, annual cost of fuel, payback period, annualized rate of return, and annual CO2 emissions.

The Financial Returns/Considerations calculator was developed to provide a convenient way to estimate the financial returns related to investments in mechanical insulation: Simple Payback in Years, Internal Rate of Return (IRR or ROI), Net Present Value (NPV), and Annual and Cumulative Cash Flow. It can be used for an overall mechanical insulation project or for a small mechanical insulation investment such as insulating a valve or replacing a section of insulation.

The Time for Freezing of a Fluid in an Insulated Pipe calculator estimates the time for a long, fluid-filled pipe (no flow) to reach the freezing temperature. It is important to recognize that insulation retards heat flow; it does not stop it completely. Well-insulated pipes, however, may greatly extend the time to freezing.

The Temperature Drop for a Fluid in an Insulated Pipe calculator estimates the temperature drop (or rise) of a fluid flowing in a duct or pipe. An example is the use of insulation to minimize temperature change (either temperature drop or rise) of a process fluid from one location to another (e.g., a hot fluid flowing down a pipe or duct).

The Simple Heat Flow Through an Insulation calculator estimates the heat flow through insulation for flat or cylindrical systems given the temperatures on each side and the effective conductivity of the insulation material.

The Controlling Surface Temperature with Insulation calculator estimates the thickness of insulation required to obtain a specified surface temperature given the boundary temperatures, the conductivity of the insulation material, and the surface coefficient.

Offering E-Learning Modules

Currently in development is a series of e-learning modules tailored to help decision makers, end users, and others in the industrial and commercial sectors learn about the benefits of mechanical insulation and how it can add to their energy efficiency efforts. The series will include:

  • Educational Series Introduction and Defining Mechanical Insulation
  • Mechanical Insulation Science and Technology
  • Benefits of Thinking About Mechanical Insulation Differently—Why Insulate?
  • Mechanical Insulation Design Objectives and Considerations
  • Mechanical Insulation Materials and Systems
  • Mechanical Insulation Installation and Maintenance
  • 3E Plus® Insulation Thickness Software and NIBS MIDG Online Calculator Demonstrations.

The first modules are expected to be ready in the second quarter of 2011, with all seven modules released by the end of the year. They will be housed at a DOE website with links from NIA, its alliance partners, NIBS, and others. Like the calculators, they will be free and constantly available.

Stay Tuned

NIA is working to improve energy efficiency and educate all industry participants on the many benefits of mechanical insulation. The recognition due mechanical insulation is long overdue, primarily because of the lack of understanding about mechanical insulation and its value. The initial phase of MIC is just the first step in supplying that understanding. Can you imagine what a phase two would look like?

1. U.S. Department of Energy, 2009 Buildings Energy Data Book.