Pyrogel Protects Steam Network: Recovering Capacity and Avoiding the Need for Additional Steam Generation

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Steam power is the lifeblood of many campuses, industrial facilities, and municipalities. Without a robust steam distribution network, these organizations cannot run smoothly.

This was the case for Duke University, which has an intricate network of more than 13 miles of underground steam pipe and over 100 vaults. Unfortunately, its vaults were susceptible to severe problems whenever it rained: fugitive steam escaping, boiling water within the vault, damage to the concrete vault structure, and higher operating costs due to decrease in steam quality.

Beyond the challenges of daily operation, the university was in the process of constructing a state-of-the-art medical center and would have to expand its steam network to support this new infrastructure. Creating additional capacity with a boiler would have been a standard means to increase capacity for their medical center.

However, the university’s mechanical engineer suggested optimizing the existing system with Pyrogel XTE to recuperate enough capacity that further expansion wasn’t even needed. By insulating only a few vaults, the university was able to avoid spending $4 million on a new boiler. Pyrogel XTE was then specified for the reinsulating remaining vaults during routine inspections.

Pyrogel insulation in Duke University Steam Vault

When traditional thermal insulation gets wet, it compromises its ability to perform. Pyrogel protects assets even when submerged in vaults or trenches.

Wet insulation increases the possibility of corrosion and poses a danger to both infrastructure and personnel. After experiencing flooding each time it rained, Duke University’s mechanical engineer knew there had to be a better way than doing what had always been done. He had previous experience with Pyrogel and called Aspen Aerogels to perform a test next to mineral wool and cellular glass. It was evident that Pyrogel was the superior solution, and was selected to insulate the vault.

During a routine inspection, the maintenance team discovered a vault insulated with Pyrogel XTE had flooded due to recent rain. To their surprise, the water was cool enough to pump out immediately. Once they entered the vault, they were amazed that Pyrogel aerogel insulation was not only still on the pipe, but performing as well as it did the day it was installed.

If any other insulation was used for this job, the team would have had to pump hot water onto the sidewalks, which would endanger students and others waiting at a nearby bus stop. They would have also had to replace the damaged insulation, costing the team both time and money.

Pyrogel’s positive impact was immediately felt across campus.

Before and after photos of manhole covers on campus

They say that the grass is always greener on the other side, but this sentiment is true with Pyrogel. When walking around campus, you could immediately spot a vault where the insulation was failing due to the manhole cover surrounded by dead grass. Manhole covers above steam vaults equipped with Pyrogel XTE were surrounded by green grass.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence found of Pyrogel XTE’s superior insulation solution was in the system’s efficiency. Steam capacity rose immediately after installation, and Duke was able to calculate the reduction of heat loss costs.

Pyrogel XTE reduced the cost in heat loss per vault from $4,750 to just $359. Not only was the cost-savings high enough to enable the university to recuperate their investment in under a year, but previous plans to add an additional boiler to the system could be scrapped.

Instead of spending $4 million on another boiler for the system, Pyrogel XTE enabled Duke’s steam network to power their new medical center using the existing system and a superior insulation solution.

Pyrogel insulated steam vault at Duke University

Aspen Aerogels had been selected for the project stemming from a need to protect from moisture and insulate in tight quarters. Pyrogel XTE was able to deliver on both counts.

Today, Duke University can use cost-savings from the steam network insulation and increased efficiency to power their medical center. Duke’s experience with Pyrogel XTE was so positive it is now their specified insulation for their direct-buried piping systems.

Featured in Insulation Outlook: Duke University’s Steam Systems Get New Insulation