The Value of Maintaining Insulation

July 1, 2008

Insulation is a critical part of any industrial operation, protecting workers from extreme temperatures, controlling condensation, making processes more efficient, and improving energy efficiency and life-cycle costs. But when damaged or removed, insulation systems cannot perform effectively. Properly maintaining an insulation system is vital to a plant’s efficient and low cost operations.

According to a presentation by Dr. Urbi van der Velden, Director of the Netherlands Centre for Technical Insulation, damaged or missing insulation has a huge impact on productivity and the environment. Approximately 150,000 barrels of oil are lost daily due to insufficient insulation. Estimates are that 5 to 10 percent of refinery systems are badly insulated or not insulated at all in the European Union; for the United States, estimates are 20 to 25 percent. One refinery with a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day was examined and found to be losing 4,500 barrels a day due to insufficient insulation—a loss of roughly $200 million per year. Stopping the refinery’s losses with proper insulation would cost approximately $25 million, with a payback time of two months. This would save 500,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions.

Typically, routine insulation maintenance involves removal and replacement of insulated items when facility personnel perform maintenance work. However, insulation removed by plant personnel or by other contractors’ personnel is usually not replaced unless specifically noticed and reported by the employees of the in-plant or third-party insulation contractor. You might be surprised how often work orders are generated for the sole purpose of insulating or re-insulating items that should be insulated—not as often as you would think. During capital expansion or upgrade projects is normally the only time work orders are generated just to apply insulation to newly installed systems (whether piping or equipment).

Turnarounds (scheduled shutdowns) and Shutdowns (un-scheduled shutdowns) usually involve the removal and replacement of insulation for the same reason—the servicing of in-place insulation systems. The issue of insulation removal by other than insulation contractor workers becomes even more common (and detrimental) because workers are in a hurry and may not properly remove the insulation.

Insulation repair or replacement is nearly always one of the most cost-effective maintenance opportunities for a plant. Insulation’s typical Return on Investment (ROI) is less than 6 months, and tools exist to easily calculate ROI for a specific job. One way to calculate ROI is through an insulation energy appraisal, which calculates the dollar savings of preventing Btu losses as well as greenhouse gas emissions. An appraisal is based on data supplied by a plant/energy manager and gathered during a facility walk-through. This data is input to a program that calculates the energy used and the savings on any operating period or annual basis. Useful tools are also available at the Department of Energy’s website at

“Insulation energy appraisals or insulation condition surveys are a great tool for identifying insulation needs to our customers. Although many plant energy (or utility) managers are becoming more aware of the importance of insulation, especially with the rapidly rising cost of energy, insulation contractors need to continue their efforts to work with these individuals regarding the potential savings that properly insulated systems offer,” says Larry Nelles of Zampell, Houston, Texas.

Insulation maintenance is all too often ignored. It has been estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of all mechanical insulation that has been installed is now missing or damaged. Ignoring problems with an insulation system can lead to excessive energy loss, corrosion under insulation, mold development, increased cost of operations, and reduced process efficiency or productivity. In extreme cases, these problems could lead to loss of capacity or an emergency shutdown.

In today’s energy environment, it is more important than ever to keep operations as efficient as possible. Insulation systems play a critical role and need to be properly maintained.