Bringing Mechanical Insulation Out of the Shadows

Alec J. Rexroat

April 1, 2009

The single most energy-efficient, cost-effective, and eco-friendly segment of the construction and maintenance of any facility is mechanical insulation. There, I said it. Does the market get it? Does the construction industry understand it? Do the politicians understand it? Do the highly educated engineers, architects, general contractors, mechanical contractors, and developers of green building programs such as LEEDS® get it?

The NIA has embarked on one of the most energetic undertakings of its history in the Mechanical Insulation Marketing Initiative (MIMI). If mechanical insulation does everything identified in the first sentence—and believe me it does—why should we have to create such an extensive program to market insulation? Why don’t the owners, engineers, architects, maintenance managers, general contractors, mechanical contractors, and all the other people involved in reducing the cost of building operations and quality building construction, as well as those people responsible for our environment, embrace mechanical insulation?

This country has been giving lip service to the “energy problem” for decades. Everyone is talking about saving our precious natural resources, becoming less dependent on foreign oil, and cleaning up the environment. I’ve got news for you: mechanical insulation will do, and has been doing, all of the above for decades. It is time to bring mechanical insulation out of the shadows.

Why is mechanical insulation overlooked so often? One of the problems is that it is considered a third-tier trade. In the industrial market sector, mechanical insulation is recognized for the incredible value it brings to the process. Design engineers recognize the value of mechanical insulation for energy conservation and process control. However, insulation contractors in the commercial sector don’t work directly for the owners in most cases. They don’t even work directly for the architect or the general contractor. They work for the mechanical contractor, three tiers down from the owner. The mechanical contractor is left to determine who will perform this absolutely necessary function.

The end result is that the owner, architect, and general contractor seldom know exactly what they are paying for. The general contractors will say that they don’t want to have one more contract to watch over and leave the insulation to the mechanical contractor. Will the general contractor not have a project manager on the job if the insulation goes through the mechanical? Will the general contractor not have to pay attention to the insulation quality if the insulation goes through the mechanical? Will the general contractor’s costs actually be reduced by this practice? I think not.

I think we do it this way because we have always done it this way. It may have been fine 30 years ago, when oil sold for less than $10 per barrel. It is not fine today. The importance of properly installed insulation, consistent with a quality specification designed with energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions in mind, has grown. We can no longer afford to leave the important decisions about mechanical insulation to the mechanical contractor almost as an afterthought. Contractor shopping, arbitrary specification changes, and lowering the cost regardless of the installation quality are the prices we are paying for this practice. When the owner becomes involved in the mechanical insulation, light begins to shine on the value we bring to the process. The owner must insist that he know the insulation contractor and that the specification be strictly adhered to.

The practice of keeping insulation as a third-tier trade has created the impression that mechanical insulation is not important. Imagine, the one thing that goes into a building that starts paying for itself as soon as the system is activated, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and is completely sustainable is third tier. For the sake of this nation and its economy, we must change the perception of mechanical insulation as a third tier trade. Insulation has been relegated to this position for so long that people don’t understand what it can do. The value added by proper insulation specifications and thicknesses and quality installation must be recognized now. Most above-ambient mechanical insulation systems will pay for themselves in months, not years. But who knew?

Insulation contractors abhor the term “value engineering” because it usually means reduce or eliminate the mechanical insulation. They are asked to do only what is absolutely necessary to get by; pull out the insulation on every service not completely essential to the operation of the building; and change the specification to install the cheapest material possible for the service, if the service will continue to receive insulation at all. This is still done today, even in this environment of energy conservation and greenhouse gas reductions.

The owner seldom understands what the term “value engineering” can mean: escalated costs to operate and maintain the building, condensation problems, or even mold. I advise owners and end users of buildings to run for the hills if told your building was “value engineered.” Some things should not be reduced or eliminated. “Value engineered” mechanical insulation should be increased, not decreased or eliminated. Watch out for specifications based on energy costs from decades ago—the thicknesses should be increased and the services requiring insulation should be expanded.

This country cannot afford to continue in ignorance of the value of mechanical insulation. We hear politicians pontificate about the importance of energy reduction and greenhouse gas reductions. The International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers and NIA are working to educate government entities about the value of mechanical insulation. Insulation is not as glamorous as windmills, bio-fuels, solar energy, or battery-powered cars. But insulation will save hundreds of millions of barrels of oil when properly installed. The savings begin as soon as the switch is turned on.

Mechanical insulation has been underutilized by all sectors of the economy for decades. The cost to the American people is exorbitant. We can and must do better. Insulation should be on the front burner for all politicians who care about the future of this country.

The suggestion that we change how contracts are awarded is bold, to say the least. We have been doing business the same way for so long. Many insulation contractors, including myself, have spent their careers developing relationships with mechanical contractors. Would we have to start over? Would we have to develop relationships with owners and general contractors instead of mechanical contractors? If so, what would the benefits be?

There are benefits to changing insulation from a third-tier trade. For one, we would be closer to the checkbook. We could actually miss hearing the words “we didn’t get paid yet” and receive our money in 30 days instead of 60, 90, or 120 days. We could be closer to the owner, so perhaps we could discuss how insulation is vitally important to the process and running of the building. We could explain how important a quality insulation specification is to the operation of the building and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions during the life cycle of the building. The most positive result would be for mechanical insulation to become more important to the process, operation, and maintenance of buildings. Over the four decades I have been involved in the insulation industry, I can say that the best run projects are those where I have been closest to the owner.

Direct bids and contracts with general contractors and owners will help bring mechanical insulation out of the shadows. It would help ensure proper insulation thicknesses with proper materials. It would give the owners control over one of the most important energy conservation aspects of building construction and maintenance. It would reduce the devastating effects of “value engineering” as it relates to mechanical insulation. It would put the insulation contractor closer to the checkbook. It is time to bring mechanical insulation out of the shadows and into the sunlight.