HVAC-R insulation helps beat winter challenges

Tom Merton of Armacell explores how healthcare facilities can save energy through the installation of energy-efficient HVAC thermal insulation

It is vital that hospital HVAC-R systems operate efficiently and are properly insulated

The winter of 2021/2 is shaping up to be an historically-challenging one for the NHS, as fuel prices reach record levels and bed occupancy achieves standard peak seasonal extent by early November.

In this article, Tom Merton, technical specialist at flexible equipment insulation material and engineered foam manufacturer, Armacell, looks at two of the main challenges facing healthcare facilities managers this winter and examines the ways in which the careful selection of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC-R) insulation can help alleviate them.

As the cost of fuel escalates, achieving energy efficiency is one of the main challenges facing facilities managers this winter.

And it is more important than ever that HVAC-R systems are properly insulated to enable them to operate cost effectively.

Energy efficiency is also vital to help healthcare organisations limit their carbon emissions, with the World Bank Group estimating that healthcare facilities generate 5% of global CO2 emissions annually.

Simple and effective

Insulation of HVAC-R systems is one of the simplest and most-effective means of saving energy in buildings.

The average European hospital consumes 100kWh of electrical energy per square metre, per year; and air conditioning and ventilation systems alone account for up to 40% of this consumption.

Energy efficiency is vital to help healthcare organisations limit their carbon emissions, with the World Bank Group estimating that healthcare facilities generate 5% of global CO2 emissions annually

But we estimate that, with the right thermal insulation, operators can save up to 32% of a building’s total heating costs.

But not all forms of HVAC-R insulation are equal when it comes to providing a reliably-low level of thermal conductivity.

In recent company research conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Stuttgart, it was found that over a period of 10 years, the thermal conductivity of a closed-cell flexible elastomeric foam (FEF) insulation rose by only around 15%; over the same period, that of open-cell mineral wool rose by 77%, and polyurethane (PUR) by 150%.

And, as a result of the poor performance of mineral wool, in particular; its use on refrigeration pipes is restricted in some European countries including Germany and Belgium.

Closed-cell insulation comprises millions of tightly packed, closed air-filled cells.

Each cell is bonded to those around it, creating an impenetrable barrier for air and moisture.

By precluding the percolation of moisture, while maintaining its thermal performance; the material also mitigates against the corrosion of the insulated equipment.

The best HVAC-R insulation products can also help to protect inhabitants in the event of a fire. For example, Armacell’s ArmaFlex Ultima achieves the highest rating of B/BL-s1, d0, generating only a fraction of the level of smoke created by standard elastomeric products

An ideal breeding ground for germs

A safe and comfortable environment is essential for patient recovery and wellbeing, but World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show that 35% of patients develop at least one infection during their stay in hospital.

Poor indoor air quality is the cause of many of these infections, with excess moisture providing an ideal breeding ground for microbial growth.

The average European hospital consumes 100kWh of electrical energy per square metre, per year; and air conditioning and ventilation systems alone account for up to 40% of this consumption

By the first week of November 2021, the chief executive of NHS Providers reported bed occupancy of around 95% in English hospitals, driven largely by a surge in COVID-19 admissions.

And, as the winter advances, this level is expected to continue to rise to a peak in early 2022, as the colder weather drives up respiratory infections, exacerbates heart problems, and causes an increase in accidents.

As hospital wards reach full capacity, the risk of patients acquiring new infections grows.

Within this context, healthcare facilities managers can help to protect patients on their busy wards from acquiring a secondary illness by ensuring that every aspect of their operation is hygienic, including their HVAC-R systems.

This they can achieve by selecting HVAC-R insulation that incorporates built-in antimicrobial protection to guard against the development of the bacteria, mould, and mildew that promote the spread of germs.

And, once winter is behind us, HVAC-R insulation can continue to help managers deal with year-round healthcare challenges.

In hospital and nursing facilities where many patients have restricted mobility, the threat to life in the event of fire is especially high.

But managers can help to protect buildings inhabitants by selecting HVAC-R insulation with the highest fire safety rating of B/BL-s1, d0, which generates only a fraction of the level of smoke created by standard elastomeric products, allowing inhabitants longer to evacuate.

Modern acoustic insulation enables facilities managers to minimise the amount of sound emanating from HVAC-R systems and water pipes, and pipe supports prevent the transmission of noise created within the HVAC-R systems

Fireproof thermal insulation for HVAC-R systems can be integrated with combined thermal insulation and fire protection barriers to seal off pipe penetrations in fire-resistant walls, ceilings, and floors, to help prevent fire spreading from one room to another.

Quiet and stress free

A quiet, stress-free environment is vital for the healing process and reliable acoustic insulation is necessary to ensure the comfort of inhabitants.

In hospitals, the sound of HVAC-R systems, along with rain and wastewater combines with that of people talking, phones ringing, and equipment operating to generate noise in excess of WHO guidelines of 35 dB(A) during the day and 30 dB(A) at night.

Modern acoustic insulation enables facilities managers to minimise the amount of sound emanating from HVAC-R systems and water pipes, and pipe supports prevent the transmission of noise created within the HVAC-R systems into the building by decoupling them from its structure.

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