Call to Action for Design and Facility Owner Communities—The Need for Improved Mechanical Insulation Specifications
Mechanical insulation is not a major topic in many engineering curriculums, and it’s not exactly a sexy or hot topic of discussion in the design or facility owner communities, yet designing and creating specifications for insulation systems can be complicated and can have serious and costly outcomes if not properly addressed. The practices of “cutting and pasting” or using legacy specifications are alive and well, and they can only increase the magnitude of the problem.
The Challenges and Consequences of Poor Specifications
Incomplete, outdated, conflicting, ambiguous, or irrelevant mechanical insulation specifications are bad for everyone—from the design firm to the contractors building the projects, and to the facility owners and operators of the completed project. A poor mechanical insulation specification just keeps creating challenges from the beginning to the end.
A poor specification not only impacts initial project cost, but it can also negatively impact schedules, be the nucleus for project disputes, impact the insulation system’s performance for the purpose for which it was intended, contribute to increased operating cost, and create potential risk down the road and the need for additional capital funds.
A mechanical insulation contractor often must look at insulation specifications from both the perspective of what is and what is not said (or is incorrectly said) to develop their bid basis and list of items to be addressed either during the bid/award process or sequentially during project execution.
That practice results in, among other things:
- Increased estimating time, due to the degree of research and potential proposal clarifications that may be required;
- The challenge of proposals not being compared on an apples-to-apples basis, due to competitors potentially viewing the opportunities or challenges of a specification differently; and
- Post-award, spending hours that were probably not accounted for in the proposal—for example, managing the submittal and approval of change orders, conflict resolution, schedule impacts, and potential disagreements among stakeholders.
Many contractors can attest that their most profitable contracts come from projects where the specification was complete and concise, the drawings were complete, and the scope of work released in a timely fashion. They know what to do, what materials to use, when to do the work, and now their major focus is on productivity at all levels.
Poor mechanical insulation specifications are not intentionally created, and in many instances the developer does not realize the potential negative impact the specification may have on the project and/or the life of the facility.
Sometimes a small amount of knowledge can lead to overconfidence and reaching conclusions based on what you do know without taking into account the things that you do not know. A little bit of knowledge is not necessarily a dangerous thing, but more is definitely better. The key is realizing that your level of knowledge can lead to mistakes and possible consequences.
Because you may think you know more than you do, you may be looked upon by people who have less knowledge as a subject matter expert (SME). One of the best attributes of a SME is knowing when to seek input from others.
Creating Good Specifications
So, what is the solution to the problem? There is no one silver bullet, but it all revolves around education and effective communication at all levels of the decision chain.
Mechanical insulation specifications should:
- Communicate the insulation design objective and considerations.
If the party reviewing the specification does not have an understanding as to the purpose of the insulation system (the design objective) and other conditions (other considerations), such as potential environment or worker exposure, etc., it is much more difficult to interpret the intent and to comment or offer suggestions.
- Be clear, concise, up to date, and accurate.
If the specification is outdated—for example, listing materials that have not been available for years—or includes conflicting and ambiguous information, the user is left with no choice but to request clarification and/or accept interpretation risk.One effective means to get feedback is to solicit comments from several trusted sources beforereleasing the specifications and ask that they not hold back with providing comments. Consider asking a few insulation contractors to meet with you in a joint session to point out inconsistences and other areas that they take issue with or that create the need for proposal clarifications and bidding or execution burdens.
- Provide specifics and details.
The mechanical insulation industry has numerous standards upon which to rely related to material, like ASTM, but the industry is lacking in application details or standards. Providing as much specificity as possible related to application methods or procedures is very helpful in providing clarity, especially when you consider there are potentially multiple approaches and regional differences.One significant factor that is often overlooked or misunderstood is that mechanical insulation is a system that can include an array of components. Simply focusing on the primary insulation can be problematic.
- Review references to determine if conflicts may have been created and, if so, address which one governs.
Understandably, for multiple reasons, specification developers often include comments like “in accordance with manufacturers specifications” or “in accordance with installation guides.” That type of simple reference basically incorporates those documents into the specification. What if those references introduce conflicting information, include other reference documents, create additional scope of work, etc.? Which document governs?Should those references not be reviewed before listing and the developer address any conflicts or other potential differences? Sometimes a simple reference, although meant with the best intentions, can be problematic.
- Establish review and inspection processes to monitor progress to ensure expected results. Several factors need to be considered with this discussion.
- There is general consensus that the mechanical insulation knowledge base
within the engineering and facility owner communities is slowly dwindling. It is
common for individuals in these groups to have only basic knowledge, with limited actual experience.
- Individuals within engineering and design firms are spending less time monitoring
project site practices in the field. In many cases, they never hear about the insulation after the design stage unless a problem is identified, and then it may be too late.
- Insulation systems are getting more complex, with more options and alternatives than ever before. The complexity of insulation systems, combined with the dwindling knowledge, drives the need for inspection.
- The shortage of experienced, qualified workers continues to be problematic. When coupled with the demand for increased productivity, the shortage could be a recipe for significant problems.
- Construction schedules continue to be compressed. It seems as though owners are pushing to save cost by compressing schedules and pushing critical details downstream. This is a key reason why projects are—being started, requests for insulation quotations received, and contracts awarded—with incomplete drawings and insulation is requested to be installed between weld joints.
- It has been estimated that insulation contractors are faced with reworking, on average, 20% of their work due to damage created by others, especially craft contractors on the site. This is a reality that, in most cases, is not addressed in specifications.
- Improper installation can lead to other problems, like corrosion under insulation and safety-related matters etc., many of which may not be detected for months or years.
These considerations alone, and there are others, are more than sufficient reasons for the design and facility owner communities to include the mechanical insulation inspection process in project specifications and maintenance operations. Does inspection cost money? Yes, initially—but does it really, in the long run? Why is inspection so prevalent in other industry sectors? There must have been a need. The need is long overdue for mechanical insulation.
What Can Be Done?
The solution is to turn a poor specification into a good specification sooner than later and maintain it. Nothing lasts forever. Each project is different. Insulation systems are continually being improved: New products are introduced in the market, while some products become obsolete. Codes and standards change regularly.
What are the remedies to eliminate the creation of a poor specification? That answer will vary depending upon whom you ask, but there are a few core areas that are probably on all lists—especially for the design/engineering firm and facility owners.
- Understand why insulation is needed and focus on the applicable design objectives and considerations.
- Examine the project specification and truly dissect it to uncover potential inconsistences and incomplete, outdated, or incorrect information. Do not hesitate to ask industry for help.
- Examine guide, master, project, and facility owners’ specifications and standards, and do not hold back on comments or suggestions.
- Provide continuing mechanical insulation product and system educational opportunities for all members of your company.
- Push industry to provide standards and educational programs and opportunities.
- Inspect what you expect. Support the inspection of mechanical insulation systems, which will not only point out areas within a specification that require clarification in an unbiased and constructive manner, but also serve as an educational tool for all involved. That will ultimately raise the bar for all industry segments.
- Continually update core specifications and/or company standards to incorporate lessons learned and new products or application methods.
Clear, concise, up-to-date, complete, and accurate mechanical insulation specifications are essential to achieve project and facility owner goals. They help one obtain accurate and comparable proposals, achieve schedule targets, stay within budget guidelines, achieve the desired outcome for which the mechanical insulation system was designed, and support facility owners in obtaining their operational goals.
It is more important now than even for the mechanical insulation industry and the design and facility owners’ communities to realize the need and work together to improve mechanical insulation specifications.