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The Best Kept Secret in Energy Efficiency?

Key Points
  • Mechanical insulation covers pipes, ducts and other HVAC and refrigeration system components.
  • Benefits of mechanical insulation include energy savings, condensation control and noise reduction.
  • Ensure that insulation meets code requirements, and you have the right material for the job.

You don't hear much about mechanical insulation, but it's one of the best energy efficiency bargains available. Over a 20-year period, a mechanical insulation system saves up to 500 times the energy it takes to manufacture it, according to the National Insulation Association. Not only does mechanical insulation reduce your operating costs, but it can also help achieve more lofty goals, such as energy independence and improving the environment.

Mechanical insulationThe benefits

Mechanical insulation, sometimes known as the 'forgotten technology', is thermal insulation on pipes, valves and all kinds of mechanical equipment, including HVAC systems, boilers, ductwork and refrigeration. For facilities of all types, mechanical insulation can:

  • Save energy
  • Control condensation
  • Reduce noise
  • Improve safety by controlling surface temperatures
  • Lower emissions
  • Increase equipment life

Best applications

Where can mechanical insulation most effectively save energy and money in your facility? Here are some examples: Ductwork. Insulation helps keep conditioned air at the right temperature as it passes through ducts. It can also reduce HVAC fan and motor noise. ASHRAE Standard 90.1, the energy code for commercial buildings, calls for duct insulation levels as high as R-8. Chilled water pipes. Insulating cold water piping in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems helps reduce the amount of heat the chilled water absorbs from the surrounding air. It also guards against condensation. The type and amount of insulation depends on the temperature of the water running through the pipes. Hot water distribution lines. For facilities using boilers for space heating, insulation on distribution lines reduces heat loss in unconditioned spaces and improves overall system efficiency by delivering more heat where it's needed.

Ensuring performance

To get the most out of mechanical insulation, you must install it correctly. To get it right, do these things:

  • Check the codes. Make sure that mechanical insulation installations meet or exceed local energy code regulations.
  • Choose the right materials. Get the right insulation for the job. Insulation manufacturers typically label their products to ensure they're used correctly. The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) has developed a number of important standards for testing the performance of insulation materials.
  • Look for moisture. Insulation should be installed on dry surfaces free of condensation. Moisture may damage insulation, grow mold or reduce the insulation's performance.
  • Close the gaps. Small gaps between insulation sections can compromise materials and increase operating expenses. Gaps on cold water pipes could allow condensation to form, while gaps on hot water pipes increase heat loss.
  • Put up vapor barriers. Improperly installed vapor barriers can increase costs significantly; failures usually occur at irregular and joined surfaces. Ensure that mastic is used for vapor barrier material.

For more information about designing, specifying and installing a mechanical insulation system, see the Mechanical Insulation Design Guide developed by the National Institute of Building Sciences. Also check out 3E Plus, free software from the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA). It calculates the energy savings, environmental impact and economics of adding different kinds and thicknesses of insulation.

Success story: pipe insulation saves energy and improves process efficiency 

At a plywood manufacturing plant, steam lines to the dryer weren't insulated, resulting in significant heat losses. After an evaluation using 3E Plus, the company insulated 1,500 feet of steam lines with two-inch thick fiber glass pipe insulation. The insulation allowed the plant to reduce steam use by 6,000 pounds per hour, significantly lowering fuel costs while improving process efficiency. The upgrade also enhanced personnel protection. The surface temperature of the steam lines was reduced from 400°F to 85°F. Image source: iStock   

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