Mechanical Insulation Life Cycle Assessment

Ronald L. King

January 1, 2010

Mechanical insulation and insulation in general are among the few industrially manufactured products that save more energy over their life span than is required for their manufacturing. The National Insulation Association (NIA) has estimated that mechanical insulation systems save more than 140 and up to 500 times more energy over their life spans (20 years for the purposes of this discussion) than it takes to produce them. This is based on performance comparison of surfaces with and without insulation. Mechanical insulation also saves a minimum of 150 (and up to 750) times more CO2 emissions than it takes to produce the insulation product. The data proves that mechanical insulation is a sustainable, green initiative that provides an unparalleled ecobalance.

Mechanical insulation systems are used for piping, equipment, vessels, ducts, boilers, and similar mechanical apparatus in commercial building and industrial applications. They perform thermal, acoustical, and personnel safety functions for piping and equipment in both hot and cold applications; heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) applications; and refrigeration and other low-temperature piping and equipment applications.

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is used to systematically investigate the environmental impact of goods. The complete life cycle of a product is tracked “from cradle to grave.” All aspects of the product’s life are considered, including raw material production, energy usage, manufacturing, transporting, use, and disposal. Such ecobalances provide information on greenhouse gas emissions and the use of energy and raw materials, increasingly important in today’s environment.

While some manufacturers and associations have developed or are in the process of developing LCAs for their products, there is no universal guide to develop an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). There is a growing demand for clarity and comprehensive information about the sustainability benefits of all products. In response, NIA prepared this analysis for mechanical insulation products.

Mechanical insulation is used across a broad spectrum of service temperatures from cryogenic to refractory applications, with the predominant usage between -40°F and 400°F. All insulation materials are used in a wide range of applications, including various ambient and pipe/equipment operating temperatures.

An average use profile for each product line is not yet available, and determining that information will require an extensive survey and research examining energy sources and cost, product logistics, and myriad other factors. For this analysis, NIA used data from companies and associations to estimate the LCA value range for the mechanical insulation industry, given the wide range of service applications, calculation methodologies, energy sources, logistic options, etc.

Construction and operation of commercial buildings and industrial facilities are among the most energy- and raw material-intensive industries. To meet the growing need for energy and protect the environment for future generations, increased energy efficiency/conservation should be considered a primary source for reducing energy use and emissions. Mechanical insulation is one of the most valuable keys to achieving those goals. It is relatively simple, cost effective, maintainable, and “shovel ready,” creating and preserving jobs now on a local basis across a wide array of industries. It is time to get excited about mechanical insulation.

Appreciation is extended to the companies and associations that contributed to the estimates expressed in this article. The estimates were developed from the best information available at the time. Neither the National Insulation Association nor the contributors to these estimates guarantee the accuracy of the good faith estimate ranges contained herein.