Industrial insulation is not an area where plant safety managers typically expect a disaster to occur. However, industrial insulation that is not resistant to absorption of flammable fluids can lead to fires on a plant floor.

Choosing the wrong insulation materials for pipes and vessels containing or transferring flammable liquids can be a recipe for big trouble. Solvent-soaked insulation on pipes or vessels in chemical processing plants or refineries is extremely dangerous, setting the stage for a fire or explosion. It is a potential catastrophe going unnoticed until too late.

Steve Oslica of insulation-manufacturer Pittsburgh Corning, headquartered in Pittsburgh, notes that dangerous scenarios are a clear and present danger to human life and loss of productivity at too many facilities.

 "These catastrophic fires and explosions can occur during the course of any business day because nobody even knows there is a problem until it's too late," Oslica says. "Often fibrous insulation becomes soaked with flammable liquids from a leaky valve or pipe fitting. All of this goes unnoticed since insulation jacketing on the pipe or vessel keeps it from view."

Oslica has a personal tale. He once got a call from a plant engineer who accidentally discovered a smoldering line in a processing plant, but didn’t know the cause. Oslica went to the plant where he found the smoldering pipe covered with a fibrous insulation soaked with hot oil.

“The temperature was between 500 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit teetering on the edge of bursting into flames,” he says. “Immediately, the situation was abated and kept from escalating to disaster.” Oslica says the insulation on the problem hot lines was replaced with Corning’s Foamglas insulation to prevent the situation from recurring.

Foamglas is ideal where fire or explosion can occur because it is made entirely from glass and is 100 percent closed-cell, so it will not absorb liquids. In addition, and again because of its glass composition, it simply will not burn, Oslica says.