The Internet and Insulation: Using Sensors and Technology to Monitor Insulation Performance
The Internet has grown from its early dial-up days with limited content and applications to being present in nearly every aspect of life—from computers to smartphones, cars, televisions, and beyond. It seems almost any information is available with one mouse click or tap of the screen. Advances in technology have been tremendously beneficial in the realm of building management, where automated systems allow property managers to monitor their buildings 24-7. Such systems got their start in mechanical rooms, beginning with the boiler, when safety issues led to the development of the earliest engineering standards (by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers [ASME]). Through the past century, with continuous safety and efficiency advances, we have moved beyond components to system-wide improvements enabled at first by mechanical and pneumatic monitoring and control, then solid state, and finally digital—where we can watch everything work in harmony on a computer screen.
Although pipe insulation is one of the most important components of a mechanical system, it has lagged behind in terms of technological advancement. Only recently have high fuel costs and growing concerns about our finite energy resources cast it in the spotlight. Along with the energy benefits, there is a dawning realization that insulation is an essential part of the system because of its direct correlation to safety, longevity, capacity, and environmental comfort.
Combining Pipe Insulation with Sensor Technology
Recently, a new component has been paired with an insulation jacket to create an intelligent system that reports internal, surface, and ambient temperatures. High-temperature probes are connected to a small, battery- powered transmitter that “wakes up”every 30 minutes (or as programmed), takes readings, and transmits the information to a central gateway—which, in turn, sends data to a portal on the Internet. This pairing was developed for energy- savings verification, but the data it provides has become valuable as a window into system and component health. The combined insulation jacket and sensor system is available, but the sensors can be paired with other insulation as well.
Energy Savings Verification
Mechanical insulation contractors and engineers can predict insulation savings using 3E Plus® software (provided by the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association, which is available via a link from the National Insulation Association website: www.insulation.org/techs/3 eplus.cfm). The 3E Plus software makes it easy for anyone to estimate savings based on ambient temperature, insulation properties, and pipe/process properties and temperature. The estimation requires assumptions to be made about what is average for a period. This is a good way to begin evaluating any effort, but the results could be much more valuable if real-time information was available.
The insulation jacket with sensors can provide post-insulation savings verification and monitor insulation performance over time. Existing insulation can be paired with this system by installing the sensors at pre-determined locations. These locations vary and are driven by the pipe temperatures, pipe size, and size of work area. Every half hour (or as programmed), the sensors take the temperature readings under the insulation, touch temperature, and ambient temperature, and the information is sent to the web, where it can be read by the user. The measurements are then run through the same ASTM-recommended formulas used by 3E Plus to determine energy savings at that specific point in time.
Freeze Protection Notifications
Insulation frequently does not get the necessary required maintenance. Issues that could have been remediated often become much more significant if they are left to worsen. This is a particular problem when freezing is a risk, and the only way to know if a pipe is frozen is through visual inspection or after freezing has led to other issues. Although many systems are first fitted with a heat or steam trace to help keep the pipes warm, that may not be sufficient to prevent freezing. The sensors can be strategically placed over critical pipes, and alerts will be sent to maintenance when the pipe under the insulation reaches a certain temperature. It is comparable to a low checking account notification alert. The sensor can email maintenance personnel when a pipe falls to 40°F and needs attention.
Steam Trap Monitoring
Steam trap stations have historically not been insulated due to the necessity of inspection and maintenance, which can be made difficult by the installation of insulation. To mitigate this issue, easy-to-install/remove insulation jackets are now being specified to save energy. These jackets can be fitted with a sensor to enable the facility operator not only to understand how much the insulation is saving, but also to be notified when the temperatures of the steam trap start to fluctuate abnormally. Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted every year by steam traps not working correctly. Sensors can detect failures as they occur (if not before) and send real-time alerts to building owners and facility managers via the Internet.
How It Works
The insulation jacket with sensors relies on several key components: insulation, batteries, wireless radio, gateway, and client portal. Insulation is used to capture savings and non- invasively obtain a process temperature. The sensors are battery powered and designed to last more than 3 years on a single pair of standard AA batteries, even though they transmit wireless signals many times per day.
The wireless signals are transmitted to a gateway that interprets them, retrieves the data within, and retransmits the information over the Internet to the reporting portal. The gateway also runs some calculations on the data, backs it up, and relays portal commands or software updates back to the sensors, if necessary.
The portal runs on a database containing the entire history of sensor data. It compares current readings to historic values, looking for deviations from the norm and specific patterns that indicate failures. Issues requiring immediate attention will trigger an alert (email or text message), while less critical items will be noted on the client website area of the portal.
The client portal can be accessed from any device with a browser and Internet connection. Users can check how things are functioning or graph historic data by highlighting specific components that they would like to analyze in more detail. An alternative, image-based view shows actual photographs of each insulated component being monitored and overlays the most recently obtained values. The portal provides information when users request it, but users also can get regular updates by way of the report emailed at the beginning of each month. It contains a summary of component health, savings for the past month, and total savings for each insulated asset since installation. Beyond keeping interested parties up- to-date, the true savings presented in the report can be used to show the return on investment for past projects and provide a convincing case for future proposals.
These advances in insulation- monitoring technology can provide more data verifying the benefits of insulation and can potentially prevent insulation from becoming damaged and causing damage to the system. Insulation materials or jackets with sensors are just one example of how the mechanical insulation industry can leverage the technology to benefit its members and customers.
Philip Johns, CEO, Embedded Energy Technology, holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA with concentrations in Marketing and Managing Innovation & Product Development from Carnegie Mellon University. He previously worked for RedZone Robotics and the Fiat Group (with roles in Case New Holland, Alfa Romeo, and Fiat Auto). He can be reached at pjo email@example.com.
Brian Bannon, CEO, ThermaXX Jackets started his career in construction, insulation and demolition. While performing undergraduate studies at the University of Connecticut, Brian and family formed an environmental clean- up company in New England. His vision, dedication, and drive helped take this company from a garage startup in 1986 to a 20 million dollar a year company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Martin, President, I- Star Energy Solutions, is a contractor specializing in energy savings, pipe insulation, and building envelope. He can be reached at email@example.com.