Engineer Finds Insulation Work Enjoyable

Maria T. O’Brien

November 1, 2004

Senior Engineer Dan Samek of ALSTOM Power Inc. in Windsor, Conn., enjoys getting out of the office and out to construction project job sites, where he is involved with the design, specification and implementation of insulation systems for coal- and oil-fired power plants.

"Being out in the field and away from my desk keeps me sane," said Samek, whose responsibilities also include design and specs for power plant casing (gas-tight sealing of the boiler and backpass), structural analysis of duct systems in a power plant, and material estimates for these systems.

"On a daily basis, I ensure that the subcontractor in the field who is erecting the system follows the company insulation standards and specifications. I aid our project teams in choosing insulation installers who are technically competent and answer the subcontractor’s questions regarding the insulation system itself. I also generate any new insulation drawings for changes to our standard practices," said Samek.

When planning or designing a new system, Samek focuses on thermal efficiency as dictated by the customer’s requirements and ALSTOM’s standards, and personnel protection.

"The design and specification of an insulation system are paramount to the structural integrity of a ‘hot’ power plant and thermal efficiency. Insulation reduces thermal gradients experienced by steel components such as ductwork, stiffeners, the steel superstructure of the powerhouse and attachments. This increases structural life and reduces possible failures due to thermal cycling or thermal stresses," explained Samek.

Insulation is also paramount for the safety of power plant personnel and the thermal efficiency of the power plant. Improper insulation results in decreased heat transfer to the working fluid and also increases the power plant’s rate of fuel consumption.

Increased fuel consumption raises the operational cost and may also result in a lack of performance by the boiler, said Samek, who stays current with his knowledge of new insulation products and procedures and industry standards by networking with insulation vendors and insulation system installers.

Samek considers new high-temperature spray-on systems and new ceramic insulation materials with superior conductivity to be the most notable industry improvements in recent years.

As far as bettering the industry, Samek has several ideas. "Commercially, federal intervention to end the asbestos liability lawsuits," would be an improvement. In the technical field, Samek would like to see the development of better high-temperature, low-cost insulation materials.

"Better materials engineering is driving many of the advances in all aspects of the power industry. This trend will most likely accelerate in the future," he said.

"Domestically and in Europe, any system that reduces labor costs on installation of an insulation system will benefit the commercial viability of any power plant project. Future developments with panelized insulation systems can greatly aid in reducing labor costs for large systems that can be enclosed."

Samek often faces challenges while developing insulation systems, such as lack of space in a power plant, which sometimes restricts the type of insulation system that can be used. When this is the case, changes in materials or the designed system itself often need to be made.

"Analysis may show that the insulation system required may not fit in a given space available. Flexibility in the design can help mitigate this effect, but the biggest challenges will always be the ‘design versus construction’ issues that are often encountered on any heavy engineering project," said Samek.

In one of his more eye-opening experiences with insulation, Samek witnessed the structural failure of a flue gas duct-stiffener system that resulted from lack of proper insulation.

"The customer had thought it unimportant to properly insulate a high-temperature duct system due to concerns regarding getting the power plant back on the grid," noted Samek. As a result, the welds along the duct stiffener failed and, because of the formation of thermal gradients through the stiffener angles, the stiffeners ripped off from the duct plate. This is an expensive mistake to fix because it can lead to other structural problems. More time and resources were needed to correct the problems than would have been needed to properly re-insulate the system in the first place.