Don’t Touch that Light Bulb! See How Insulation Can Be a More Efficient Way to Hit Sustainability Targets
While countries, states, and companies are switching into high gear these days chasing carbon-emission reduction goals, insulation companies have been quietly achieving measurable sustainability objectives for their customers for decades. Hearing people who have been in the industry for years talk about how the market and messaging have evolved to address emission-reduction requirements, one gets a sense that mechanical insulation has held a critical key to green building and sustainability all along and has been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. As a well-established, time-tested technology, unlike some other sustainability strategies, mechanical insulation requires no ramp-up time to build the expertise to develop applications, and the infrastructure is already in place. Its return on investment (ROI) and payback are realized in terms of a few years (or even months, depending on the project), making its use an easy financial call; and along with saving energy and money, it offers additional benefits ranging from enhancing worker safety to extending the service life of the systems and equipment it protects. These benefits have always made mechanical insulation products and applications a key element in protecting one’s assets. Now, though, with the clock ticking toward 2050—the date set in the United Nation’s Global Roadmap for the world to achieve net-zero emissions—the mechanical insulation industry is poised as never before to step forward as a leader, providing solutions to meet sustainability goals.
The Market: A World of Possibilities for Carbon-Emissions Reduction
Overall awareness of how much buildings and facilities contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is growing. The Global Alliance for Building and Construction 2021 report states “Overall, buildings accounted for 36 per cent of global energy demand and 37 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020,”1 which may be why improving energy efficiency and creating and implementing building energy codes are the second-leading strategy cited by 192 of the nearly 200 nations who have signed onto the Paris Agreement and submitted Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) detailing their plans to lower emissions and address climate impacts. (Renewable energy generation was the NDC top-cited strategy.) Fortune Business Insights predicted in 2021 that as the global market for green technology and sustainability products and applications grows from its value of $13.76 billion that year to a predicted $51.09 billion by 2029—a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) above 20%—the green building industry segment would lead that growth, with North America dominating market share.2 The market for green building materials is also exploding: An Allied Market Research report valued it at $237.3 billion, projected to exceed $511 billion by 2030—putting that CAGR above 8% per year for 10 years.3
In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported in its “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2020” that power generation, the commercial sector, and industry were responsible for 25%, 7%, and 24% of total GHG emissions, respectively.4 Combine those statistics with increasing commitments to sustainability on the political front—from state legislation like New York’s Local Law 97 (see David J. Cox’s article “An Earthquake—Let’s Hear it for Mechanical Insulation,” on page 18) to the Biden administration’s June authorization of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) use of the Defense Production Act to accelerate U.S. production of five key energy technologies, one of which is insulation—and the opportunities for the mechanical insulation industry to have a positive impact on both the health of the planet and nation’s economy, as well as the economic well-being of those in the industry, are enormous.
In addition, doing good is increasingly good for business. As I reported in this magazine in March of this year, “… shareholders are pushing the companies they invest in to reduce their carbon footprint, and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) ratings can affect everything from a business’ public image to its credit. According to the World Economic Forum, ‘Analysis by UN PRI of the world’s 1,000 most valuable companies found that climate-related policy could wipe 43% off the value of the highest-polluting companies and add 33% value to the best performers.’5 Let that estimate sink in and consider the ripple effects, from the financial cost to shareholders and investors through the impacts on suppliers, partners, insurers, end users, and the global economy.”6 Clearly, the incentives for addressing emissions and other aspects of sustainability are high, and they encompass virtually all elements of doing business today.
Messaging for Today’s Environment
The arguments for addressing emissions are clear. Communicating how mechanical insulation fits into the solution is now largely a matter of messaging.
For decades, the value of insulation was discussed primarily in terms of the money saved from reduced energy use and performance improvements, as insulated processes run more efficiently. People focused on the return on investment (ROI) facility owners could realize, along with additional advantages such as improved worker safety. While these factors are still important, the mechanical insulation industry now finds another of its benefits being prioritized by governments and businesses that see the value of its products and applications in terms of sustainability. NIA has been at the forefront of that messaging, working with allied organizations to promote the commercial and industrial insulation industry to energy managers, plant operators, building owners, specifiers, end users, architects, facility managers, government agencies—in short, everyone in the energy solution decision chain.
The power of messaging is not lost on Frank Kovacs, President/CEO of NIA member Shannon Global Energy Solutions (whose tagline is “Engineering Reusable Solutions for a Sustainable Planet”). One of the first things you may notice about the company is that, despite the fact that it is in the business of engineering and manufacturing products like blanket insulation, insulation jackets, and covers for customers located worldwide, its name does not include the word “insulation.” “There is an energy element to just about everything we produce,” Kovacs says, adding that “energy solutions is the element that is often missing in the mechanical insulation industry.”
Kovacs notes that energy conservation has been part of the insulation industry “since the beginning of time.” In the 1980s, he remembers seeing the slogan “Energy conservation through insulation” at trade shows. Even back then, companies performed energy surveys and calculated money saved, ROI, net present value, energy saved, and lifecycle costs. Today, however, there is growing awareness that that message is tied to a much bigger picture, as savings at the facility level feed into the larger need to curb emission of CO2 and other GHGs on a global scale. NIA Immediate Past President David J. Cox has compared mechanical insulation to an unassuming colleague who quietly delivers day in and day out, with no fanfare, while a Shannon blog posted in January of this year refers to it as “an under-the-radar approach to sustainability.”7 These characterizations may be true today, but one can see the tide turning—along with the updated messaging.
If you visit NIA member websites, for example, you will see the green value of mechanical insulation taking center stage. From home pages that provide statistics on how much the company’s products and applications have saved customers, in terms of emissions and energy—tons of CO2, therms, BTU—alongside financial savings, to press releases and blog entries on the topic, to full sustainability reports, commercial and industrial insulation companies are making it easier for facility and building owners, designers, engineers, and others to see why their products and applications should be an easy first-choice element in a sustainability program.
Translating Abstract Concepts into Understandable Benefits
Commercial building and industrial facility owners facing new codes, legislation, and reporting requirements concerning emissions may not immediately think of insulation as the first place to turn in sustainability planning, as other technologies seem to dominate the press (LED light bulbs, anyone?). To help them see why they should, more and more insulation companies are presenting the data on the value of their products and solutions in terms that resonate on a carbon-reduction level. For example, the “Sustainability” page of Shannon’s website states (emphasis added), “Each year, a typical facility loses $30,000 in energy and emits 200 tons of CO2 because gate valves, heat exchanges, steam traps and more are poorly insulated or uninsulated. Two hundred tons of CO2 is the equivalent of emissions from 40 cars driven for a year.”8
For most people, “200 tons of CO2” is just a number. But when you translate it into a quantifiable equivalent amount of something they can relate to—like emissions from x number of cars driven over the course of an entire year—it becomes more compelling. Looking at it another way, saving 200 tons of CO2 is equivalent to the amount of carbon sequestered by switching nearly 7,600 incandescent lights to LEDs, or growing more than 3,300 tree seedlings for 10 years. When you consider the costs and effort associated with implementing those approaches, compared to the consistent, long-term performance of a well-designed, properly installed and maintained mechanical insulation system—which also provides all the other benefits listed at the opening of this article—the “unassuming” solution seems worthy of greater fanfare.
These are not the random computations of an enthusiastic author. The DOE offers a free, easy-to-use tool on its website for performing such calculations . DOE’s online Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies calculator (see https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator) allows users to enter energy and emissions data, and the tool generates equivalent GHG emissions from options ranging from gas-powered cars driven for a year to barrels of oil consumed, pounds of coal burned— even propane cylinders used in barbecues! The calculator also shows the equivalence in GHG emissions avoided by actions like swapping out light bulbs, running wind turbines, and more. Finally, it shows how the savings equate to carbon sequestered through strategies like planting and growing trees. (A graphic depiction of the results from a scenario run by Dave Cox appears on page 19).
Calculations for emissions from other industries are compelling as well. Shannon reports, “A typical food-processing plant or paper mill releases about 1,700 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year due to uninsulated components.”9 Running that scenario through the DOE GHG Equivalencies Calculator yields staggering results. To use the same benchmarks as in the earlier example, 1,700 tons of CO2 is equivalent to the GHG emissions from 366 gas-powered passenger vehicles driven over the course of a year or replacing 64,432 lights from incandescent to LED. The amount of carbon sequestered would be equivalent to more than 28,000 tree seedlings grown over 10 years.
Translating the benefits of insulating systems into not just dollars but everyday sustainability measurements helps customers see how their design decisions affect not only their individual businesses, but also the greater goal of global emission reduction.
Making the Possibilities Real at the Individual Facility Level
For existing facilities, perhaps the best way to identify areas for improvement and potential resulting energy, dollar, and emissions savings is to conduct an energy appraisal. Many NIA members perform energy appraisals to quantify the potential benefits of using their custom-designed insulation solutions. (https://tinyurl.com/38ndpkwf) An Insulation Energy Appraiser will review entire systems, from source to use, and document key performance indicators (KPIs) that affect energy use and savings. Candidate areas for improvement include components left bare because they are difficult to insulate by virtue of their shape or location (like flanges); places where insulation had been installed originally but was removed for system maintenance/repair and then never replaced; older systems with insulation that worked well when first installed but is now damaged, in disrepair, or just not up to today’s standards; or systems that were never insulated in the first place. Shannon’s Kovacs notes of his company, “We insulate the uninsulated—neglected surfaces, devices, and components.”
The first step in the process is an initial field survey, which involves gathering descriptions, measurements, and KPIs such as operating and ambient temperature, and environmental conditions like wind, for every system component. Thermal and/or infrared imaging may be used to graphically capture areas of heat loss. Once all the field data is compiled, the company receives a report that documents actual measured and estimated projected data and savings.
Shannon performs its own version of an appraisal, and Kovacs observes “The beauty of this is that the customer doesn’t know what is possible. They don’t see it from the outside. When you show a customer the real values of the savings potential, they are shocked. The reactions range from pleasant surprise to disbelief.” NIA Certified Insulation Energy Appraisers report having similar experiences with their customers when they deliver their final appraisal report.
Although the results concerning potential savings may shock or surprise customers, they can have confidence in the validity of the findings because the products and applications in the tool used to calculate results have been validated by accepted industry-standardization bodies. Knowing the methodology and data are based on industry standards such as ASTM material and test standards gives the report weight throughout the energy savings community, and the same is true for subsequently produced measurement and verification (M&V) reports, which document improvements achieved following use of the insulation system.
M&V reports can be helpful if customers seek to benefit from utility rebate programs. Rebates are generally available throughout the United States, with eligibility tied to use of energy-saving products like insulation or LED lighting. They can take the form of direct cash back or rate reductions, depending on the utility. A report showing BTUs/therms saved can help customers build on the ROI they already realize from insulation saving them money in energy bills and more efficient processes. Imagine how much $.25 to $3.00/therm saved could add up for a manufacturing plant going from uninsulated pipes and components to one fully insulated? And the higher the process temperatures, the greater the savings.
According to Kovacs, “our industry is really selling performance, not insulation.” He shared the story of customers whose systems’ process efficiency were so greatly improved that they were able to shut down boilers that were simply unnecessary. Add to that substantial carbon-emissions reduction, and it takes performance to a whole new level.
Mechanical Insulation May Be the Ultimate Green Technology
Mechanical insulation is an inherently green technology, among the few manufactured products that save more energy than it takes to produce. When properly specified, installed, and maintained, it can be expected to reliably perform for decades—from 15 to 50 years, depending on type and application. A 2009 article in Insulation Outlook by Christopher P. Crall declared “Insulation: Greener than Trees!”10 Crall compared the reduction in CO2 emissions from insulating processes at a chemical facility (see original article at https://insulation.org/io/articles/insulation-greener-than-trees for specifics on system components, process temperature and other KPIs, etc.) to the number of trees one would need to plant to achieve the same results. If the world outside the mechanical insulation industry was not yet ready to appreciate the weight of his message in 2009, it certainly resonates today.
Frank Kovacs notes that sustainability goes deeper than reducing emissions. Mechanical insulation has the ability to improve quality of life, health, and safety by protecting workers from dangerously hot or cold surfaces; help maintain consistent and comfortable temperatures throughout buildings; and shield building occupants, as well as people who live and work near noisy facilities, from high noise levels.
Protecting the environment, preserving and enhancing human health and safety, saving money—with results that are quantifiable—mechanical insulation should be part of everyone’s sustainability plan.
1. United Nations Environment Programme (2021). “2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction: Towards a Zero-emission, Efficient and Resilient Buildings and Construction Sector.” Nairobi. Accessed at
2. Fortune Business Insights, “Green Technology and Sustainability Market Size, Share & COVID-19 Impact Analysis, By Component (Solutions, Services), By Industry (Air and Water Pollution Monitoring, Carbon Footprint Management, Crop Monitoring, Fire Detection, Forest Monitoring, Green Building, Soil Condition/Moisture Monitoring, Sustainable Mining and Eploratio, Water Management, Weather Monitoring and Forecasting, and Others), ad Regional Forecast, 2022–2029,” accessed at https://www.fortunebusinessinsights.com/green-technology-and-sustainability-market-102221.
3. Allied Market Research, “Green Building Materials Market by Product Type (Exterior Products, Interior Products, Building Systems, Solar Products, and Others) and Application (Residential Buildings and Non-Residential Buildings): Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2021–2030,” accessed at https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/green-buildings-materials-market.
4. EPA (2022), “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2020,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA 430-R-22-003; accessed at
5. “Climate Action Platform—How the World Economic Forum Is Driving Climate Action,” World Economic Forum, July 2021, page 2, accessed at https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Climate_Action_Platform.pdf.
6. Ann Hennigan, “State of the Industry: A Carbon Message Everyone Should Copy,” Insulation Outlook, March 1, 2022, accessed at https://insulation.org/io/articles/state-of-the-industry-a-carbon-message-everyone-should-copy/.
7. “An Under-the-Radar Approach to Sustainability,” January 7, 2022, Shanon Global Energy Solutions’ Shannon Blog, accessed at https://shannonglobalenergy.com/an-under-the-radar-approach-to-sustainability/.
8. Shannon Global Energy Solutions, accessed at https://shannonglobalenergy.com/sustainability/.
9. Shannon Global Energy Solutions, accessed https://shannonglobalenergy.com/jacket-insulation-saves-millions-of-tons-of-c02-annually-congress-spends-billions-to-capture-less/.
10. Christopher P. Crall, “Insulation: Greener than Trees!”, Insulation Outlook, January 1, 2009, accessed at https://insulation.org/io/articles/insulation-greener-than-trees/