Part I - Another Tool in Your Toolbox
It’s natural to try to insulate ourselves from losses. But in this case, I’m talking about real insulation. The thermal kind. The kind that, according to that pink guy in the ads many of us grew up with, “keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer”.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that…
It seems intuitively obvious that insulation doesn’t provide any heating or cooling functions and yet, I still hear people say, “We thought we had a temperature problem so we insulated our system, but it didn’t really help much.”
And from this they went on to draw the conclusion that they really didn’t have a temperature problem after all!
Since we’re in the middle of a cold snap here in the Midwest – with ice all over everything and temperatures in the single digits – it’s probably a good time to have a serious discussion about insulation…
The Multiple Functions of Insulation
Technically, the main function of insulation, is to reduce thermal gains/losses. But it can have many other functions as well. Often, insulation is a protective coating. Take pipe insulation, for example. It can protect the pipe it is wrapped around from being damaged by impact. At the same time, it can protect the pipe from rusting by preventing condensation from forming on the surface. And, in the case of very hot or very cold pipes, it can protect us from coming in contact with, and being injured by, these extreme temperature surfaces.
Insulation can also be decorative. It can be given a textured surface for aesthetic purposes. It can be covered in a hard outer shell to facilitate cleaning (this is common in the food processing, dairy, and pharmaceutical industries). Or, continuing our pipe example, it can be color-coded to indicate that the pipe inside is carrying water, or steam, or liquid nitrogen, or any other material for that matter. This is common in “visual factory” settings and there are even standards for pipe color to assist maintenance crews, fire fighters, etc.
Who knew something as simple as insulation had so many functions?
Insulation Slows Thermal Loss – It Doesn’t Stop It!
The key, and often misunderstood, fact about insulation is that it slows the change of temperature of whatever it is protecting, but it doesn’t stop it. The example everyone is most familiar with, of course, is your home – especially here in the bleak Midwestern winter. You can have a crew come in and blow insulation into the walls, the attic, and every crack and crevice, and yet your furnace still runs – regularly. It may not run as often (there’s the energy savings they promised you), but it still runs. This is heat loss, and it is happening through the insulation. It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s physics. If you have a temperature differential between two regions, energy will flow from the warmer region to the cooler region.
Heating or cooling – it doesn’t matter. Our house example works the same with the air conditioner in the summer (yes, it gets hot in the Midwest, too!) Yet another great example is your picnic cooler. You fill it with a bag of ice and your favorite beverages, and during the course of the day, both the beverages and the ice disappear! The beverages are converted to “empties”, and the ice is converted to water. Yes, the initial melting may be caused by chilling the beverages, but once that is accomplished, the melting should stop – except that the lid keeps getting opened and there are losses through the insulated walls of the cooler that keep the process going – until all the ice is gone (hopefully, after all the beverages are depleted!)
Another Tool in Your Toolbox
It seems that we have been taught to expect too much from the insulation systems we implement. In all actuality, insulation is just another tool in our thermal toolbox. And while it is a very important tool, like any other tool, it must be used properly to get the desired result. The problem is, as the most simple of the tools we have, insulation is the “duct tape” of the thermal world! It is both easy and cheap, and, like duct tape, it has also become the most mis-applied tool in our arsenal.
We opened this post with a situation in which insulation was used to “prove” that the dispensing issues were not temperature-related. But it is far more likely that common mistakes in the application process prevented the insulation from doing its job and so, masked the real issue.
In our next segment in this series we’ll examine some of the finer points of insulating that will help you identify these mistakes and get more out of this valuable tool!