Insulation deficiencies can harm plants, people

Proper attention provides better energy management, reduced operational failure

By Nick Eaton, ISS Insulation Services & Solutions January 26, 2017

For optimum operation, industrial facilities such as power plants require mechanical insulation on pipes, ducts, tanks and equipment. Mechanical insulation in a power plant controls temperature variation to help limit heat gain or loss on surfaces operating at temperatures above or below ambient temperature. An experienced contractor typically manages installation of mechanical insulation in industrial environments.

Selecting the type of mechanical insulation to install begins with asking basic questions and understanding the scope of work. Mechanical insulation is divided into three different categories based on the level of heat it can withstand. Mechanical insulation contractors need to know the operating temperature range of the plant’s system before installing insulation. Knowing if a system is outdoors, indoors or both determines the type of protection needed to prevent damage from weather, a corrosive atmosphere, water or chemical exposure and other challenging conditions.

Improper insulation

Mechanical insulation systems require different layers of thickness depending on the temperature of the environment. With the correct insulation installed, the plant becomes more energy efficient, which in turn reduces operating costs. If a mechanical insulation contractor lacks thorough knowledge about a manufacturer’s product installation standards, the risk of system damage or lack of efficiency increases. Improper insulation can lead to excessive heat transfer and that loss of heat affects the conservation of energy and ultimately the cost to operate the plant.

Damaged insulation

Damage can occur to mechanical insulation systems in several ways. Unfortunately, using the wrong insulation or installing insulation incorrectly are common reasons for damage. Environmental factors, such as weather, will damage the insulation if it isn’t adequately protected. Piping and equipment that operate at lower-than-ambient temperatures run the risk of condensation or freezing on the insulation surface. If the thickness of the insulation is less than required, the insulation can become wet and cause corrosion.

In addition to environmental causes, careless maintenance personnel can damage mechanical insulation systems by walking on insulated pipes or tearing mechanical insulation to repair or maintain equipment.

Mechanical insulation does wear out after years of use and can be rendered effectively obsolete. If an installation contractor finds mechanical insulation that is old or installed improperly, it is important that the insulation be completely removed and replaced. Care should be taken during removal of the existing insulation to minimize damage to the mechanical system.

Temporary protection may be required for adjacent insulation to prevent damage to it while repairs are underway. Aged mechanical insulation should not be repurposed. Using old, deteriorated insulation will negatively impact the energy efficiency of the plant.

Pipe/duct deterioration

Pipes and ducts commonly deteriorate through rust and corrosion that is frequently caused by condensation. Improper insulation lacks efficient condensation control, allowing water vapor to reach the surface of the pipes and ducts. The best way to prevent condensation in colder environments is with the right insulation installed properly.

Heat is a leading cause of deterioration of pipes and ducts. If the pipe insulation is not rated for high-temperature environments it can melt and fall off the pipes, exposing them to the elements. If the insulation falls off or is missing, the pipes or ducts become a burn injury hazard for plant personnel.


If the mechanical insulation isn’t installed properly or is damaged, the risk of injury is greater for personnel through exposure to extremely hot equipment, sharp edges and fly ash. Fly ash is a by-product of burning coal and is dangerous if inhaled. Plant managers should hire a professional crew to properly clean-up and remove any fly ash before a mechanical insulation contractor installs new insulation.

Personal protection equipment (PPE) should always been worn when installing or removing insulation in an industrial facility. PPE includes a hard hat, steel-toe boots, safety goggles with side shields, resistant gloves, long sleeves and respirators. PPE guards personnel from injuries, including burns from hot equipment, cuts from exposed sharp edges and inhalation of fly ash. Proximity is a safety issue at every industrial plant or facility, but there are other alternatives that can increase accessibility. Scaffolding hoists, lifts and swinging stages work in high-risk environments such as industrial plants. Providing appropriate means to access mechanical insulation systems increases productivity of and decreases the risk of injury to installation workers.


Shutting down a plant generally result in exponentially higher costs for repairs and loss of hours of operation. Plant managers should have a strict schedule for maintenance while the plant is shut down. Contractors need to provide an efficient plan for maintenance to ensure that the plant becomes fully operational on time.

Mechanical insulation contractors may require additional workers to meet plant manager’s plant shutdown schedule. Therefore, understanding the full scope of work for the project will enable the contractor to decide what workforce is necessary. In addition, further damage may be identified during the systems assessment, increasing the amount of required maintenance. In order to complete the project on schedule, the contractor may need to employ more workers or workers may be required to work overtime. The contractor must factor all of the elements and variables into the repair and maintenance plans.


HVAC and mechanical insulation systems require periodic inspection and maintenance. Whole system checks, including insulation appraisal, should be performed every six months. The plant manager is responsible for the inspection and maintenance of the system. Failure to perform inspections in the recommended timeframe carries risks that are likely to cause more problems down the road.

Visual checklists are available for plant managers to use during routine maintenance checks.

Checklists are a simple guide to visually inspect the condition of mechanical insulation systems and shouldn’t be relied upon solely. Internal inspectors will want to look for missing, lose or sagging insulation and the common problems that are caused by leaking pipes or damaged equipment.

A mechanical insulation survey is helpful in addition to the visual inspection. Surveys are more in-depth and involve documentation of each type of insulation and a list of damaged or missing insulation.

After damaged or missing insulation is identified by a plant manager an action plan should be implemented to assess the degree of damage and what repairs or replacements need to be conducted to prevent further damage and risk of injury. A professional mechanical insulation contractor has the skills and experience necessary to assess the system as recommended.


It is an industry-standard that HVAC and mechanical insulation installers provide a one-year warranty on the installation of the products where warranties for the products vary by manufacturer. If the insulation is installed improperly the installer bears responsibility for fixing the problem if it occurs within the warranty timeframe.

If a mechanical insulation system is properly installed, sustains little damage and is properly inspected and maintained, it can last 20 years or more. Mechanical insulation is a valuable asset in maintaining energy efficiency and reducing operating costs and is worth the investment in proper installation and maintenance.

The most important tasks for a mechanical insulation contractor are to effectively analyze the environment where the insulation will be installed and to specify the correct type of insulation that will hold up against any harsh or potentially damaging conditions. Making time for this process before installation can prevent future damage, saving a plant from inconvenient and costly repairs and replacement parts down the road.

It is imperative that mechanical insulation contractors and plant managers know about the insulation being installed, follow recommended maintenance schedules and be aware of any causes of damage. Not only is it vital to use the correct mechanical insulation for the project, but having a professional industrial mechanical insulation contractor that knows the proper, efficient techniques for installing and replacing insulation is key for successful plant operations.

-Nick Eaton is the sales engineer of ISS Insulation Services & Solutions, which is a member of the National Insulation Association. His email is