What Engineers Need to Know and Where Support Can Be Found

NIA offers free online tools that are a gift to engineers to help improve system design.

Thomas MacKinnon

Thomas MacKinnon is the Demand Generation Manager at Armacell LLC (www.armacell.us), leading a team of technical experts around the country dedicated to assisting engineers and specifiers with solving their insulation product, application, and specification needs. He is a member of the NIA Technical Information Committee, reviewing and addressing technical issues facing the insulation industry, and the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee 163, chairing a working group of international experts focused on the development of insulation standards and guides. He can be reached at thomas.j.mackinnon@armacell.com.

December 1, 2020

Design engineers need to maintain significant knowledge of many different parts of the systems they design in order to successfully meet the required criteria, within the specified budget. With all the different elements to keep in mind, insulation may not be at the top of the list when designing training programs for engineers. However, insulation can offer significant benefits to the systems and equipment, to the personnel who work on or near those systems, and to the sustainable initiatives of the client company. This article reviews these benefits, what to keep in mind when specifying insulation, and where to look for such information and training for both those new to mechanical insulation as well as those trying to improve their understanding of mechanical insulation.

Benefits of Insulation

System and Equipment Protection

The use of insulation throughout the different elements of a system is crucial to ensure that it will work as efficiently as possible. Insulation helps maintain the temperature of the system—from point A to point B—with as little fluctuation as possible, keeping hot systems hot and cold systems cold. This reduction in temperature variability allows the system to operate close to the designed conditions and greatly extends the life of the equipment. For below-ambient systems, the use of insulation stems the threat of condensation formation and its effects on equipment (detailed in articles in last month’s issue). Using the right amount of insulation to maintain the surface temperature above the dew point of the space prevents the degradation of the system due to water issues, such as resulting corrosion, and prevents the destruction of the surrounding building elements from the formation of water. As the system maintains a consistent level of performance, maintenance and operation of the system is predictable and easily controlled, leading to less downtime due to accidents or emergency maintenance.

Personnel/Occupant Protection

Insulation not only protects systems and associated equipment but also the people who maintain and interact in the spaces around these systems. High- and cryogenic-temperature systems commonly reach surface temperatures that can cause serious burns or injury, depending on the surface temperature and amount of time the person is in contact with the surface. The need to protect workers from these burns is addressed by the formulation of standards and guides for designers to reference in order to limit contact. ASTM C1055, Standard Guide for Heated System Surface Conditions that Produce Contact Burn Injuries, was developed to “standardize the determination of acceptable surface operating conditions for heated systems”1 and serves as a reference to determine relative risk of burn injuries with rising surface temperatures. OSHA also maintains two general standards, 1910.2612 and 1910.2623, that include sections addressing the need to prevent contact with high-temperature steam and hot-water piping by using insulation or guarding. These standards and guides, and many others, point to the need for insulation to maintain the surface at a safe temperature and protect those working on or around the equipment.

Maintaining the correct surface temperature through the use of insulation also helps to prevent condensation and the resulting issues that can affect equipment, as noted, but prevention of condensation is also critical to prevent instances that can lead to personnel health issues or injury. The formation of water due to system surface condensation on walkways, ladders, or other access points can lead to slips, falls, and other workplace hazards. Mold or mildew on building elements, due to the formation of water from condensing systems, also can greatly reduce the indoor air quality of the space and lead to adverse health effects for the occupants.

In addition, the use of equipment and transport of air or liquids through these systems can cause a significant amount of noise and greatly affect the people who work or live in or around the space. High levels of noise can lower the value of a designed space; cause increased stress, irritability, and other physiological and psychological effects for the occupants; and can be a major hazard for workers in these environments. Standards and legislation commonly set limits on the amount of noise generated on industrial sites, and penalties can be severe if the limits are breached for the effect on the surrounding area. Proper insulation use with the equipment greatly lowers the amount of noise generated and ensures that noise propagation out of the duct or pipe systems is kept to a minimum.

Finally, while not all systems will be in areas with a high exposure potential, the risk of fire propagation is another key consideration for all mechanical system design. These systems can run throughout buildings, carry potentially explosive materials, or be located in areas that are difficult to access; so the mitigation of fire and smoke is essential to prevent injury to the occupants and to surrounding areas. Insulation is one of the first elements of the system to be exposed and will be the first line of defense in helping to withstand the effects of fire and smoke, controlling its damage and the speed at which it can spread along the entire system. In a fire event, insulation can protect the equipment and, more importantly, extend the amount of time for people to escape the affected area.

Environmental Protection

With the growth of and focus on sustainable designs, the ability to lower energy use is top of mind in every system design. Insulation is the only system improvement that provides energy savings as soon as it is installed, without requiring energy to operate. Because insulation improvements prevent a system from unnecessarily losing energy, allowing it to operate at designed efficiency levels, use of insulation equates to less energy being used in operation. Not only does this mean the system uses less energy, but also that less energy would need to be produced to run the system, and less pollution would be created in the energy-generation process. In a 2017 report, NIA estimated that proper maintenance of the systems in an industrial or manufacturing plant could save up to $3.7 billion in energy costs and 37.9 million metric tons of carbon emissions; and energy savings from mechanical insulation in hospitals average 78% of the total site energy usage.4 The proper use and maintenance of insulation can easily shave significant amounts of energy costs off a site’s ledger and is crucial for sustainable design and operation.

Important Points to Consider as a Design Engineer

To fully realize the numerous benefits insulation can provide, design engineers must consider the following points when choosing and designing their insulation systems.

Insulation Standards

Design engineers must be aware of the many different standards that regulate insulation performance and use when deciding on the insulation appropriate for their systems. Each insulation material is regulated by a specific ASTM product standard that maintains the performance characteristics for each Grade and Type, and designates the proper test procedure to determine these characteristics. Material properties addressed in these standards include maximum and minimum use temperature, maximum apparent thermal conductivity at various mean temperatures, water vapor permeability, and linear change at maximum temperature, amongst others, and must be met in order to be considered as a viable product of that material type.

Insulation systems are also subject to the standards around the space and equipment that the insulation will be installed on, including those related to specific fire and smoke properties, resistance to mold and mildew, water vapor permeability, absence of certain chemicals, green building or sustainability requirements, and other general design standards.

Insulation Material Advantages/Disadvantages

There are numerous different insulation material types, and each has innate advantages or disadvantages when compared to the others, depending on the requirements of the application. Knowing the differences between the material types allows the design engineer to choose the best insulation for the application while balancing the performance and budgetary requirements of the owner. Failure to consider all of the needs and benefits can lead to the engineer choosing an insulation product that leads to future complications when it does not meet the performance requirements, or overspending on a product that does not provide a corresponding amount of benefit over the next-best material.

When making these decisions, the engineer also must take into consideration the accessories and necessary protection associated with the insulation system. These accessories and their proper use are critical to the performance and protection of the insulation material, and their selection can lead to failure if not chosen with care.

Insulation Is Not “Specify It and Forget It”

Insulation only works as well as it was installed, and any problem with the installation of the insulation system will only manifest itself over time. It is critical for the insulation system to be inspected as it is being installed. To fill this need in the industry, there are NIA Certified Insulation Inspectors to make sure all insulation installations are done in accordance with the specifications. After the designed system is operational, proper maintenance to discover and fix potential problems must be continued. In the 2017 report, NIA estimated that between 10% and 30% of all originally installed insulation was missing or damaged.5 Selecting the right product in the specification for long-term performance is complemented by replacing and maintaining the insulation to ensure the benefits of the insulation system are achieved and the protection of the equipment, people, and environment is maintained.

What Engineering Companies Can Do to Maintain Proper Insulation Training

The NIA, and its partners, offers numerous training documents, presentations, and programs that inform all industry professionals involved with insulation on the benefits, different material types and standards, and inspection programs available for their work.

Initial Training for Engineers New to Insulation

1. Mechanical Insulation Design Guide (MIDG) and e-Learning Modules—These online tools are free gifts to assist in system design. The modules include five introductory training classes and quizzes on a range of topics including the science behind mechanical insulation, its benefits, types of products, and design considerations to assist those new to the mechanical insulation field. The program offers 2.0 PDH credits and is a great way for new engineers to learn about mechanical insulation at their own pace. The MIDG website walks you through a series of questions and assists with design calculations to create a proper insulation system. You can even determine the project ROI. Both are found at www.Insulation.org.

2. Mechanical Insulation Samples—NIA offers the “NIA Insulation Sampler,” featuring 20 generic mechanical insulation product types and accessories, allowing engineers to become familiar with the common mechanical insulation types they will come across in their work and understand the differences between them in a tangible way.

3. Specification Resources—For ease of understanding the standards and specification requirements that pertain to mechanical insulation, the NIA maintains several resources.

  • The “Insulation Materials Specification Chart” outlines the different ASTM materials specifications and the properties each of the various materials must meet.
  • The “Guide to Insulation Product Specifications” is a comprehensive list of all current ASTM, federal, and military specifications relevant to the mechanical insulation industry that should be considered for use in the engineer’s design.
  • The “Insulation Science Glossary” contains a list of basic and advanced insulation industry terms and definitions, updated quarterly by the NIA.

4. Job-Site Inspection—Seeing the application of mechanical insulation firsthand takes all of the theoretical training listed above and puts its importance in context with the rest of the systems. Whether going for a quality inspection during or after installation, or to investigate the final installation, engineers new to mechanical insulation will benefit greatly by seeing it for themselves or joining a NIA Certified Insulation Inspector.

Continuous or Advanced Training for Engineers

1. Insulation Manufacturer Presentations—Numerous mechanical insulation manufacturers hold both in-person and virtual presentations to update the audience about specific technical issues or changes pertaining to insulation. Attendance at these presentations usually comes with PDH or other professional credit and will ensure that engineers stay at the forefront of insulation technology and applications.

2. NIA Training Programs—NIA offers advanced training and certification for those looking to increase their knowledge and ability to construct and enforce effective specifications.

  • The NIA Thermal Insulation Inspector Certification™ educates participants on proper inspection techniques and how to verify that the materials and installation have been performed to the specifications. The 2-part course starts with a comprehensive look at the mechanical insulation industry’s markets, products, accessories, and need for proper inspection in the NIA Introduction to Mechanical Insulation. The second part dives into the roles and responsibilities of the inspector in the NIA Thermal Insulation Inspector Certification course.
  • The NIA Understanding Specifications for Insulation Course overviews the development process and interpretation of specifications by reviewing the different elements of the specification and the consequences of poorly written specifications.

3. Local Technical Reps—Manufacturers have groups of technical representatives, located across the country, ready to help with all of your product, application, and specification questions to ensure that you are fully up to date with any code or standards changes. To find your local representative, visit the manufacturer’s website or contact the firm’s technical department.

4. MICA Standards Manual—The Midwest Insulation Contractors Association (MICA) publishes the National Commercial & Industrial Insulation Standards manual outlining the proper installation process for different insulation materials. A helpful resource for engineers, contractors, and all industry professionals, it allows all members to speak the same language when it comes to insulation specification and installation, and greatly reduces the chance of miscommunication or unintended consequences.

General Resources

NIA offers several additional resources to assist mechanical engineers in their insulation efforts. Go to www.Insulation.org to find additional articles and blogs, further design guides—such as the Mechanical Insulation Design Guide (MIDG)—insulation application calculators, and much more.


There are many benefits to the proper use of insulation material—for the systems and equipment the engineer designs, for the people who work with or occupy the space, and for the environment at large. But these benefits can only be fully realized by the engineer’s proper understanding of each material’s properties and regulating standards, as well as the need for proper follow-up and maintenance. The NIA understands this and works with its partners to provide numerous training opportunities for both new engineers and those looking to grow their knowledge base so that they can be confident in their insulation choice. The benefits of such training extend to the other members of the project chain, such as the contractors and installers, ensuring that there is consistency from the design process through the bid and final installation. With all of the resources offered by NIA, engineers can grow confident in their design choices, knowing that their systems will be able to reap all the benefits of mechanical insulation.

1. ASTM C1055–20 Standard Guide for Heated System Surface Conditions that Produce Contact Burn Injuries, recovered from www.astm.org/cgi-bin/resolver.cgi?C1055-20
2. OSHA 1910.261 Pulp, paper, and paperboard mills, last amended 18 Nov 2016, recovered from www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.261
3. OSHA 1910.262 Textiles, last amended 18 Nov 2016, recovered from www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.262
4. “The Power of Insulation,” National Insulation Association, recovered from https://insulation.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/12/PowerofInsulation_2017.pdf
5. Ibid