The Unsung Hero of Green Building

By Brian Glynn, Local 17

If you were to ask the average homeowner to name five ways in which they could make their house more energy efficient, the word “insulation” would undoubtedly come up. Living in the temperature roller coaster we call Chicago, most of us have directly witnessed the difference insulation makes in a home.

As such, residential insulation is a cornerstone of the federal government’s campaign to increase energy efficiency in homes across the country. In the recently passed stimulus package, tax credits are now available for homeowners who make energy-related improvements. Insulation stands at the top of the list of recommended upgrades.

Surprisingly, if you posed the same question to the owner, designer or general contractor of a commercial development, it’s quite likely that insulation would be an afterthought. In fact, mechanical insulation around heating and cooling systems is often the first sacrifice made in the name of “value engineering.”

For some reason, a fundamental disconnect remains between the importance of insulation in a home and a building. Chicago union insulators and contractors are working to unravel this mindset and stress that it is next to impossible to commercially build green without a well-planned mechanical insulation system. In any large or small commercial structure, the performance of heating and cooling systems are a vital indicator of a building’s overall efficiency. When working appropriately, these systems can maximize effectiveness and minimize waste.

However, if they underperform, they can serve as the culprit for energy loss, greenhouse gas emissions and wasted money. The Heat & Frost Insulators of Local 17 view themselves as the X-factor between success and failure, and are quick to point out that mechanical insulation is a fundamental–if often overlooked–aspect of green building.

Ensuring that mechanical systems have sufficient and properly installed insulation dramatically reduces a building’s overall energy consumption. For example, insulating a single six-inch steam valve with two inches of insulation can save 49 million BTUs of heat loss and 7,600 lbs. of CO2 emissions. The proper insulation of this one valve translates into $600 in total energy saving in just one year.

A basic enhancement with far-reaching benefits, mechanical insulation is one of the most cost-effective building improvements and is one of the only items in a building that starts to pay for itself the moment it is installed. On the other hand, insufficient and poorly installed insulation is, by far, the leading cause of lost energy in commercial construction. This lost energy must be made up for by increased output from power plants, which can effectively unravel all the benefits of an otherwise green building.

The National Insulation Association, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy, has developed a software program that easily assesses the amount of insulation a facility requires to maximize efficiency. In just a few days, an appraiser can evaluate the energy and money a facility can save through mechanical insulation upgrades.

In partnership with appraisers from the Illinois Regional Insulation Contractors Association, Local 17 professionals take the time to understand a building’s energy priorities, personally inspect heating and cooling systems and offer various options based on a facility’s needs. Given the fact that buildings consume 70 percent of the nation’s electricity, while producing nearly 40 percent of total CO2 emissions, this simple process has the potential to be a game changer in green building practices.

In addition to pressing their case within the construction industry, the Heat and Frost Insulators are also stressing the importance of their trade to local and national political leaders. In the midst of an effort to jump-start the economy through capital improvements that employ green building techniques, the union and its contractors are calling on the government to not lose sight of mechanical insulation’s role.

As the search for “shovel ready” projects continues, commercial building should be a prime target. The union points out that hundreds of schools, hospitals, and government buildings can start to save energy and reduce emissions immediately with insulation upgrades. The process is as simple as conducting an insulation energy appraisal, weighing the appropriate options and then getting to work. In a matter of months, these buildings could serve as prime examples of the country’s new commitment to energy efficiency.

Although mechanical insulation may not be the first thing you think about when is comes to commercial green building, you cannot underestimate its importance. It saves energy, it cuts greenhouse gas emissions, it improves indoor air quality and it decreases noise pollution. Most importantly, it does all of these things immediately. The Heat and Frost Insulators of Local 17 pride themselves on their contribution to the green revolution. For over 100 years, their mission has centered on saving energy, and it appears that mission is more relevant then ever. As such, Local 17 will continue to challenge the industry mindset that mechanical insulation is an afterthought.

For over 100 years, the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators/ Local 17 have worked on the front line in building a safer, healthier, greener and more energy-efficient world. In partnership with the Illinois Regional Insulation Contractors Association, Local 17 professionals are saving energy, saving money and saving lives. Whether it’s installing energy-saving mechanical insulation or providing expert firestopping, Local 17 can meet your needs. For more information, visit


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