What You Need to Know to Have an Insulation System that Performs for Decades

Nick Eaton

Nick Eaton is the General Manager of Insulation Services and Solutions (www.insulationsands.com). With more than 15 years of industry experience in the commercial construction and insulation fields, Mr. Eaton has managed several difficult and labor-intensive projects for high-profile clients providing turnkey insulation and sheet metal lagging services. He can be reached at NEaton@insulationsands.com.

November 1, 2015

When making a large investment on a commercial insulation system, facility managers should be aware of the causes and negative effects of damaged insulation, as well has how to prevent damage through correct installation and maintenance techniques. With the many different types of mechanical insulation available and varying environments, including indoor and outdoor systems, determining the cause of damage can be a complex process that requires an intimate knowledge of the factors involved in the system. If mechanical insulation is not properly installed and maintained, the facility runs the risk of being exposed to a variety of issues that could have been avoided with a knowledgeable and thorough mechanical insulation contractor.

One of the important things a mechanical insulation contractor does is analyze the environment where the insulation will be installed and recommend the correct type of insulation and accompanying vapor retarder, jacketing, tape, mastic, etc., that will hold up against any harsh or potentially damaging conditions. Oftentimes, the process of choosing insulation is in the purview of the facility owner or an engineer/specifier hired by the facility owner. The insulation contractor may or may not be making the decision on which insulation to install, but can provide input on the materials chosen and the system considerations. Making time for this process before installation can prevent future damage, saving a facility from inconvenient and costly repair and replacement fees down the road.

Types of Damage

There are several types of damage that can occur in commercial insulation systems depending on the location and conditions of the facility. Insulation can be damaged by both water vapor and liquid-water absorption, leading to issues such as mold and mildew. Any insulation that becomes wet should be allowed to fully dry or be replaced to prevent these issues. Proper system design can help avoid this situation. Heat is also another major cause of damaged insulation, specifically in environments where high-temperature gases or liquids are emitted or transported through pipes in close proximity to insulation that is not rated for high-temperature conditions. In outdoor situations, some insulation can be damaged simply from prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Beyond environmental causes, insulation systems can also become damaged as a result of the occupants of the facility. One of the most common causes of damage to mechanical insulation is from maintenance personnel walking on top of insulated pipes or tearing into mechanical insulation to repair or maintain a concealed piece of equipment. Improper design considerations or installation techniques, which do sometimes occur, will only increase the risk of this type of damage. Finally, if it sustains mechanical damage, insulation may wear out after years of use and be rendered effectively obsolete and require replacement.

Contributing Factors

Beyond the root causes of damaged insulation, there are other contributing factors that should be considered based on the type and application of insulation being used. The 4 common types of insulation for commercial applications include fiber glass, elastomeric, polyisocyanurate, and cellular glass. Each type is suitable for unique applications, and each carries nuances that experienced mechanical insulation contractors and specifiers should be aware of when specifying and installing.

For example, some non-rigid insulation materials can be damaged if walked on or not handled with care during installation. Fibrous pipe insulation will also be damaged if exposed to the elements and not protected by an aluminum or PVC jacket. Manufacturers also recommend that these products are not exposed to water. This can limit this type of insulation’s compatibility with wash-down areas.

All insulation materials have manufacturers’ recommended operating temperature ranges. For example, certain types of flexible, closed cell elastomeric foam (FEF) insulation are recommended for operating temperatures from -297°F to +220°F. If installed in an environment with temperatures exceeding 220°F, FEF will become hard and brittle and begin deteriorating. This same effect will also take place due to prolonged exposure to sunlight combined with high outdoor temperatures. As a result, most manufacturers recommend protective coatings or coverings to protect against outdoor exposure.

Based on the properties and recommended conditions for each type of insulation, a knowledgeable mechanical insulation contractor should be able to recommend the correct solution for any environment in order to increase the longevity and effectiveness of the insulation system.

Signs of Damaged Insulation

When a piece of insulation becomes damaged, there are often telltale visual signs detectable by a trained mechanical insulation contractor. First, damaged insulation will often exhibit flaws or breaks in the vapor or weather barrier. Once that happens, water damage may be evident from the altered appearance of the insulation or jackets. Sometimes a system’s signs are ignored and fall into disrepair with loose insulation hanging down or completely falling off of pipes.

When there are no visible signs of damaged insulation, a problem may still be detectable by comparing energy bills, temperatures, or other aspects of a facility that an insulation system is supposed to regulate. Alternatively, you may be able to use a thermal camera to detect damage. If the insulation is not performing as it is designed, an attentive facility manager should be suspicious of damage to the insulation system. Generally, insulation is so effective that you should be able to tell a difference in your system’s operations if the insulation is damaged.

Stages of Damage

Damage to mechanical insulation can occur during various stages of the installation and usage timeline. First, the insulation can be damaged if not stored, shipped, or handled correctly, or if proper installation techniques are not used. Frequently, damage is done to insulation during the construction process when other trades walk on or inadvertently scrape against the insulation. This can be avoided if trade schedules are managed, or other trades are taught to avoid damaging the insulation. In this situation, the insulation needs to be replaced immediately to prevent a future costly and frustrating expense for the building owner.

Poor design, material selection, or system maintenance can lead some insulation systems to get damaged over time by direct exposure to system cycling or vibration, heat, water, or natural forces such as hail and sunlight. Often it is the external finish that gets damaged first and allows the insulation to be exposed to these elements. The extent of this damage will depend on the severity of the exposure. At this point, a maintenance or repair technician would need to re-evaluate the insulation and determine whether the best step is a repair or complete replacement.

Over long periods of time, small abuse and damage to the insulation system, which may appear minor individually, can add up and the efficacy of the overall insulation system can be compromised. This is an opportunity for building owners to upgrade the performance of their insulation with newer, improved materials.

Negative Effects of Damaged Insulation

A damaged insulation system can cause a variety of negative repercussions in terms of personnel, cost, and efficiency. If a layer of insulation that is intended to protect bystanders from a heated pipe or duct becomes damaged, the barrier between employees and that heat source is reduced. This could lead to potential burns or other injuries if not addressed immediately.

In terms of energy conservation, insulation is extremely valuable for lowering heating and cooling costs by keeping heat where it belongs, whether that is inside or outside of the pipe or duct. When insulation is damaged it no longer optimally serves this function, resulting in less efficient building/plant operations with much higher energy costs.

Finally, damaged insulation will negatively affect processes that require precise temperature control to function properly. Damage can occur from a variety of conditions, ranging from physical damage to corrosion under insulation (CUI), which can lead to catastrophic system failure. Without the insulation to ensure correct operating conditions, process control becomes much harder to achieve.

How to Minimize and Prevent Damaged Insulation

There are several very important steps for engineers and facility/plant managers to take in order to minimize and prevent damaged insulation. First, hire a qualified mechanical insulation contractor—such as a NIA member—that will adhere strictly to manufacturers’ recommendations (qualified insulation contractors can be found at www.insulation.org/membership). An improper installation can easily result in damaged insulation that needs to be replaced immediately. Installers should put up signs to indicate fragile insulation so that it is not walked on or scraped by building occupants or other trades. Additionally, insulation should be fitted with a proper vapor retarder and/or protective jacketing to help maintain and protect the insulation from any environmental factors that may cause damage. Installers should provide a protection on all insulated piping exposed to weather to shield the insulation from water damage.

With all installations, contractors should be careful to provide the correct type of insulation for the design environment by paying close attention to the specifications of each system. A common misstep regarding insulation specification is using the wrong material for the application, such as using an insulation on piping operating outside the insulation’s recommended temperature range or using a permeable insulation without a vapor retarder on piping operating at below-ambient temperatures. All conditions to which the insulation will be exposed should be closely compared with the application limits provided by the insulation manufacturer. Additionally, all indoor insulation should be installed once the building envelope is closed and dry to prevent any weather damage while the building is still under construction. If this is not possible, newly installed insulation should be sealed against water and water-vapor intrusion at the end of each work day.

After installation, facility/plant managers have the responsibility of scheduling regular inspections of insulation systems to detect any damage early on to reduce the costs of an otherwise preventable large-scale repair. Damaged insulation should be replaced immediately to prevent any further damage and to avoid the negative effects it can cause.

If a mechanical insulation system is properly installed, sustains little damage, and is properly inspected and maintained, it can last 20 years or more. This valuable asset to a building’s infrastructure is often neglected, leading to avoidable damage and sometimes harmful conditions as well as increased energy costs. These negative effects are easily avoidable when using correct installation and maintenance techniques.


This article was published in the November 2015 issue of Insulation Outlook magazine. Copyright © 2015 National Insulation Association. All rights reserved. Contact publisher@insulation.org to reprint or reproduce this content.