Common Insulation Problems in Commercial Buildings

Written by: Commercial Real Estate Inspectors, LLC

Hidden Factors Often Require the Selection of Different Insulation Types

Commercial buildings pose insulation concerns different from those in industrial or residential buildings. Schools, hospitals, hotels, offices, government buildings, retail establishments and similar buildings have various mechanical applications that require insulation, including the buildings themselves, hot and cold water, HVAC lines, low-pressure steam and condensate, etc. Each application has specific requirements that must pass inspection.

Commercial Real Estate Inspectors, LLC, provides thorough inspections of newly installed insulation in commercial buildings. With more than 60 years of combined experience, our inspection staff will ensure that the insulation installed in any commercial application meets all state standards. Contact our experts today by calling (760) 253-8930 to schedule your inspection.

Most Significant Issues on Commercial Insulation Jobs

Contractors face three significant issues when installing insulation including:

  • Having the building enclosed by a roof and walls before insulation begins
  • Ensuring sufficient clearance exists between pipes and walls for the insulation specified
  • Working around the schedules of other contractors

These factors are beyond the control of commercial insulation contractors, yet they can significantly affect the quality of the insulation job, especially if they must rush installation to meet timelines.

Design Parameters

When selecting insulation, contractors must initially consider performance requirements specified by local and state building codes. This requirement is essential for applications like chilled water, where surface condensation and condensation with the insulation area caused by inadequate seals pose a particular concern. Usually, two or three insulation materials will meet the design criteria. However, problems can arise when selecting the most cost-effective material. The least expensive acceptable materials generally install easily or require little maintenance. However, the difference between the lowest cost insulation and insulation that has the lowest cost over the lifetime of a building are often different, so these requirements should be included in the specifications.

How Insulation Must Differ for Specific Applications

The application type, i.e., hot versus cold, below or above ambient temperatures, etc., has specific installation requirements. Consider the following.

Hot Systems

Hot applications often use fiberglass insulation with all-service jacketing for low-pressure steam and condensate. All-service jacketing is easy to install and cost-effective. The same applies to hot water, but sometimes engineers specify closed-cell foam when they don’t want to mix materials on hot- and cold-water installations.

Below-Ambient Systems

Cold or child water usually requires closed-cell insulation with low water vapor permeability. The latter characteristic is essential for unconditioned areas to control condensation and thermal performance. Typically specified insulation includes various foams, including elastomeric, phenolic, polystyrene and polyisocyanurate, along with cellular glass. Conditioned spaces such as unoccupied offices or areas with low humidity often use fiberglass with ASJ.

Special Considerations for Below-Ambient Installations

Insulation in below-ambient settings has unique performance problems that may factor into selection. These are:

  • Pipes behind closed walls are more susceptible to mold, leading to more expensive insulation
  • Vapor barrier damage can occur in pipe chases requiring a robust jacket
  • Temperature regulation that is not uniform throughout a building may require thicker insulation
  • Potential vapor intrusion within the insulation and on equipment surfaces and metal pipes may require complete sealing

Below-ambient systems also have unique installation issues that can cause problems, such as the following:

  • Insulation installed prior to the building’s enclosure, resulting in intermittent moisture or high-humidity conditions not factored into material selection
  • Flexible insulation materials needed for areas around walls, air conditioning lines, chilled water run-outs, etc.
  • Compressed installation schedule requiring pre-applied adhesives, pre-fabricated fittings or pre-applied jacketing, which increases the risk of seam and joint failure
  • Some buried insulation may require a load-bearing capacity in addition to water-tightness
  • Applications having extremely high humidity may need low water vapor transmission insulation and an additional continuously sealed jacket
  • Cold storage applications with ammonia should receive extra care.

What is Most Important in Insulation Systems?

With regard to inspections, performance parameters are the most factor in selecting and installing the proper insulation in commercial buildings. However, other factors like material cost, durability over time, etc., need consideration. One insulation system will likely not work across an entire commercial building. Insulation contractors should always remain aware of new products and processes to provide the best materials for any installation.

Choosing the Proper Insulation and Installation can Become Tricky

Installing the proper insulation in drier climates can become challenging, especially in below-ambient situations. Inspections to ensure that your commercial new building or addition has the best possible installation are crucial to a successful interior environment. Contact the inspection experts at Commercial Real Estate Inspectors, LLC by calling (760) 253-8930 to schedule your inspection appointment.

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