The Science of Insulation

Chris Linville

January 1, 2003

INSULATE (in’ sa-lat’):

To prevent the passage of heat, electricity, or sound into or out of an area. Accomplished by surrounding area with a non-conducting material.

The above definition describes how insulation works in a nutshell. Most people in the industry know it like the back of their hand. Whether you’ve been in or around the insulation industry for one year or for 20, it should be fairly simple.

If you’re a plant engineer or facility manager and you want to find out about K or C factors, and R or U values, chances are that an industry professional can give you the scoop. What if you’re wondering about heat transfer, conduction, convection, radiation, emissivity, ambient temperature, relative humidity, dewpoint, water vapor pressure and condensation? Again, a professional can tell you all about those things, suggest the proper insulation type and assist you in finding ways to help your facility run better, while saving you energy and money.

However, even in an industry full of talented people, it doesn’t hurt to got back to basics once in a while. Maintaining a strong background in the science of insulation can ensure that customers continue to receive the best in insulation solutions.

Training programs such as the National Insulation Association’s (NIA) National Insulation Training Program (NITP) provide an opportunity for both industry professionals and end-users to strengthen their insulation knowledge. The NITP teaches a segment about "Basic Insulation Science." It covers the basic definition of insulation, and how the various factors previously mentioned determine the type and quantity of insulation that is used in a particular setting, along with how these conclusions were reached.

"Often people understand that insulation is needed but don’t know why," says Mike Lettich principal consultant with MJL Consulting and a future NITP instructor. "This results in a [sometimes] fuzzy understanding of the benefits of a proper insulation system. The ‘Basic Insulation Science’ module does just that; it provides a basic understanding of how insulation works, helping people to start to better understand its benefits."

Why the Need for Basics?

Most of us know how to drive a car, but do we really understand how it works? Well, the same questions could be asked about insulation. People think they have a general knowledge of how it works, but how much do they really know? Why the need to know, anyway? Gary Whittaker has an answer to that question. A long time industry veteran and NITP instructor, he says the reason it’s important is that "in order to understand any technology, and to use it properly, you have to understand the science behind it."

Whittaker, a professional engineer and founder of Whittaker Materials Engineering Associates, LLC, continues by saying, "With insulation, there’s a variety of different types that are used in a number of ways. To understand the proper and appropriate way to use it, it’s important to understand the fundamental science and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each insulation type."

It’s a concept that Allen Beck, with 20 years in the industry, won’t dispute. Beck, who works in technical sales for Pacor, Inc., says, "Insulation science is the basic premise for all the products and how they work, whether you’re installing it or manufacturing it or you’re fabricating it. It’s important to know the reasons and why this product is used the way it is."

Learning about insulation science, he says, "Gave me a scientific explanation to the mystery of why and how insulation works. The three basic means of heat transfer [conduction, convection and radiation] were discussed, as well as the interrelationships of R, K, C and U factors. We we’re taught how to use these factors in determining insulation efficiency and appropriate thickness. It actually gives somebody a leg up as far as giving them an idea before they get started about where they need to go, and what type of insulation works best for a particular purpose. It also keeps us informed as far as the accuracy of the program, especially with the 3E Plus® program, where they can tie a lot of these factors into account that weren’t before, such as ambient temperatures or air movement."

Jeff Byers, national specifications manager for Owens Corning, is another industry veteran, with 17 years experience. So he believes he knows a thing or two about insulation. However, even he agreed that’s it not a bad idea to brush up on the fundamentals.

"Without a basic understanding of the science of how insulation and insulation systems work, it’s difficult to determine the actual needs out in the field, and how different applications have different needs," Byers says.

Byers also said that if you learned most of what you know about insulation years ago, it’s important to realize that the industry has evolved. And what might have been commonly accepted ideas at a certain time might not apply today.

"There’s been quite a bit of change in the insulation business with the products that are used," Byers says. "And the quality of the products have changed. The performances have improved. For a business that people don’t think of as one that changes much, there’s been a lot of changes in the products that are used and are available."

At the other end of the experience spectrum is Barry Allen of BWI Distribution. Allen has less than two years in the industry, and admits he had no prior knowledge about industrial insulation prior to assuming his current job.

"I think it [insulation science] is extremely important, especially as kind of a new guy," he says. "It takes insulation from being a commodity type situation to more of a value add if you know more about it and the science behind it. You can present more to a customer. Learning about the science helps because it allowed me to understand a little bit more about applications, a little bit more about why someone would use one product versus another, and what the returns would be for using different thicknesses of insulation."

Jake Carrigan, northeast specification manager for Certain Teed Corp., has a bit more experience than Allen-three years-though his previous encounters with insulation primarily dealt with the standard fiberglass material that’s installed in homes. (He had a landscaping business prior to joining Certain Teed.)

He adds, "In my particular dealings and selling of insulation, it’s not something that I typically have to talk to my customer base about, but I think it helped me develop my understanding of how it works. I have definitely used it some since, mostly talking with engineers. I guess I knew some of it at one point but really didn’t think about it until the refresher."

Filling in the Gaps

Whittaker says that knowledge of insulation basics is perhaps not as extensive today for several reasons. A primary factor is that many companies are cutting staff and forcing people to take on added responsibilities. As a result, getting educated in insulation science isn’t as high in the pecking order.

"In a lot of cases there’s nobody to mentor new people who have come along, and they have to learn it on their own," Whittaker says. "And when you’ve got a lot of other things to do, you don’t do that [learn]. In a chemical plant, for instance, there used to be one guy who did nothing but insulation. That doesn’t happen anymore. You’ve got guys who are specifying insulation who have a lot of other things to do, they don’t have a whole lot of background in the technology, and they’re just looking at manufacturers literature, and they have no way of knowing whether that manufacturers literature [is current or not]."

Carrigan says that those comments do have some merit.

"When I started at CertainTeed, our technical manager did a course that reviewed the basics of insulation," he says. "But to be quite honest, if you don’t use it over and over, it’s not something where you remember everything about it."

Whittaker says even the best salespeople in the industry could use a refresher.

"There’s a lack of understanding on the part of users about the pros and cons of individual materials that could be a disadvantage to them in trying to decide [what type of insulation to use]." He says that those in the industry can be of even better value to end-users by maintaining a strong knowledge of basic insulation.

"If they [have] a better understanding of the technology of the science behind their product," they can do a better job, he says.

Beck also thinks it’s important to learn about a variety of different insulation products to gain a better overall understanding of their different properties and capabilities.

"I think it’s more than beneficial [to learn about insulation science]. I think for anybody in sales or marketing or other aspects, it’s important."

Whittaker says he tries to stress that learning insulation science that doesn’t require Einstein-like intelligence. He says that people should realize that "It’s not ‘black magic,’ it’s not something that’s so complicated that you have to be a degreed engineer to understand," he says. "There are some basic fundamental principles that you experience every day that goes into the design and application of insulation. This isn’t such a foreign thing. This isn’t rocket science. This is some pretty basic stuff here and it’s not that hard to understand."

Gaining Confidence

Obviously, getting a feel for insulation science doesn’t automatically qualify you as an expert, but just having a general grasp can be a confidence booster, especially with clients.

"A lot of the customers that I deal with don’t really know much about insulation," Carrigan says. "You sell it and they make money, but other than that, they don’t really care to know a whole lot. But, when they do have specific technical questions, and I can answer them right away, with no hesitation, I think it adds to my credibility. Hopefully they feel a little more comfortable and know they can come to me in the future with other technical questions.

He continues, "It’s great when I can give them an answer right away. And they’re happy, because in my business that’s what often gets you the sale. As long as I can try to educate them, maybe they’ll think twice the next time about insulation. It may not mean anything right away, but if I can just get a couple people to just think about it, hopefully that will help."

Even an "old-timer" such as Byers says that he’s started to approach his work from a new perspective, which he thinks is also adding benefits for his customers.

"It’s helped me by making me look at the whole system, as opposed to just worrying about the insulation part and making sure those are updated," he says "It’s actually made me look at the whole spec in a new light. I’m asking, ‘Is the way they have this system set up going to support the life of this system?’ Is there something that can be included to insure that the system [stays intact]? That’s helped me widen the scope of the way I look at these specifications, and the way I review jobs when I’m doing, say, an insulation energy appraisal, and I’m recommending insulation to help energy loss. I’m actually looking at, ‘Okay, more than just the insulation, we need to look at perhaps addressing the corrosion on this area of the pipe,’ and look at the whole system."

Changing Perceptions

Allen says he has gained an understanding of the value of saving energy, along with an understanding of how to use the tools that help energy. He thinks that if others do the same, the industry can help transform insulation from being what many consider a commodity product to a necessary part of a facility’s energy program and a tremendous value for end-users. He says that if you do your job with that mindset, everyone will benefit.

"If you’re walking around a plant with a plant manager and you see bare pipe, how many people can tell that guy that [he’s] losing this much energy [and quantify it] by not insulating that pipe," Allen says. "Anybody that’s working in a plant that wants to be a hero to their boss, is going to want to go back and say, ‘Hey, it’s going to cost this amount of dollars to insulate, but this is the return we’re going to get.’"

According to Sam Schell, another NITP instructor, understanding the science helps reinforce the point that insulation isn’t a "one-size fits all" material.

"There’s never just one way to put an insulation system together," says Schell, president of SESCO, Inc., a consulting engineering company he founded. "One of the really cool things that I find about insulation is that there isn’t always [one] right answer. There’s always several right answers. Some of them are a little bit better than others. Some are not quite as good for one [application] but better for another. There’s a huge amount of flexibility. And that’s good for customers and good for selling more insulation. It’s a win-win situation."

Whittaker adds, "The bottom line is that insulation just works. It’s a pretty simple product, It’s kind of an install it and forget it kind of item, but it’s a very important product for a lot of reasons."

Finally, Michele Jones, NIA’s executive vice president, says, "Insulation works the very moment it’s installed. It is one of the few technologies where you don’t have to throw a switch to make it work, and it will continue to work like new if properly maintained for the life of the process."