Winter is coming, and while you are preparing to bundle up and shield yourself from the cold, it is important to know that your equipment should be ‘bundled up’ as well. We are talking, of course, about insulation. There are three main reasons to insulate a steam or hot water system. The first reason is personnel safety; steam and hot water lines can get extremely hot, so to avoid the chance of employees, contractors, and visitors getting burned by accidentally coming into contact with a hot surface, insulation can offer a layer of protection. Generally the rule of thumb is any hot equipment, pipes or valves that are up to 6 feet from the ground should be insulated. Even if you have an area marked as being off limits or with a barrier around it, people might still get inside and potentially injure themselves, so it is best not to risk lost time incidents, insurance claims, lawsuits, and other undesirable results by leaving that to chance.
The second reason is good payback. Bare metal will allow heat to transfer to the surrounding area, which creates inefficiency and can make the space excessively warm. You are paying for fuel and power to generate heat and make steam or hot water, so you want to make sure that you get your money’s worth and that the fluid reaches its destination at the proper temperature to operate your processes or heat something as required. Since it is ultimately costing you in fuel, you can think of this heat loss as a fuel leak in your vehicle—if you were to fill up your fuel tank, and you know that a full tank of gas should take you about 250 miles, you are probably going to be pretty upset when you can’t make it anywhere near that far due to a leak in your fuel line; ultimately, you will have to refill the tank more frequently, costing you money. Insulate your system—fix the leak—and save yourself some money.
But just how much money can you save? Most boilers come insulated from the factory, but many deaerators and feedwater systems are ordered bare; insulating these tanks usually results in a 6-8 month payback, depending on the size of the unit, type of insulation, etc. As for steam lines, using the table below, you can take the number of feet of exposed pipe in your facility, cross-reference that with the line size and pressure that you have, and determine how many millions of Btus you are losing each year. Take the total MMBtus that you are losing, multiply that by the price per MMBtu of steam at your facility, and then multiply by the efficiency percentage of the insulation you are considering. The resulting product will be the dollars per year that you can save by insulating your steam lines.
The third major reason why water and steam lines should be insulated is a common and obvious one: protection from freeze damage. As we enter the winter months, freezing temperatures become a problem for any water-bearing systems. You may think, “My pipes are always full of steam or hot water, they keep themselves from freezing!”, but if you experience an unexpected outage and your equipment goes down, they could very well freeze and bust, leaving you with unexpected repair costs and increased downtime. Keeping lines insulated buys you more time to get back online, and heat tracing the lines can offer increased assurance that you will not have this issue. In the end, it is almost always an excellent decision to insulate your system. The safety, freeze protection, and efficiency/payback benefits from such an upgrade make it a worthwhile investment. Whether you buy traditional fiberglass insulation, newer foam insulation, or even custom-made jackets that can be easily removed and replaced around valves, pipes, etc., there are a number of options that can meet your budgetary needs and still offer a great solution. If you have a complex facility or simply do not have the time to run the analysis yourself, WARE offers steam survey services to help identify inefficiencies and give you an idea of the savings you could achieve by taking advantage of these kinds of improvements. WARE also has an in-house insulation specialist who can provide an estimate and then perform an insulation upgrade for you. As the weather turns colder, be sure that you and your equipment both stay safe and bundle up.