Pipe Insulation

Making your own pipe insulation out of polystyrene can save both hot water and money.

| May/June 1981

  • 069 pipe insulation 1 soldering bench
    This bench, specially designed to turn polystyrene sheets into pipe insulation, serves two purposes: It holds the soldering gun in place (with a wedge to allow for easy removal), and its channel guides the polystyrene past the gun's hot tip. Note the rubber band around the gun's trigger.
  • 069 pipe insulation 3 T-molding
    To obtain a tee molding, make a straight cut, then hand-form the leg.
  • 069 pipe insulation 4 groover
    The the gun's heating element sticks up through this hole to form the working part of the groover.
  • 069 pipe insulation 2 90 deg bend
    We shaped this piece of insulation for a 90° elbow completely by hand.

  • 069 pipe insulation 1 soldering bench
  • 069 pipe insulation 3 T-molding
  • 069 pipe insulation 4 groover
  • 069 pipe insulation 2 90 deg bend

Not too many years ago there was only one reason why anyone would go to the trouble—and expense—of insulating his or her home's water pipes: to keep them from freezing. But, as the cost of thermal energy has ballooned, there's been a real increase in public interest in conservation measures. One of the "newly discovered" ways to save a little energy and money is to install pipe insulation.

On first thought, the benefit of insulating hot water lines (aside from the fact that doing so can prevent an unfortunate chill-induced rupture) would seem to be simply in keeping the BTU—which have been produced at considerable expense by your water heater—inside the pipes. There are, however, a couple of other pluses that should be considered. First, if the water in the pipes stays hot, there will be less lag time between turning on the tap and the arrival of hot liquid; both heat and water are saved in the process. And there's another advantage to keeping the warmth inside the lines: :During the torrid summer months, hot pipes can add to the misery by pouring additional warmth into an already uncomfortable home.

Thank the Sun

Pipe insulation (not to be confused with the electric conduit heaters often used to prevent freeze-up) has actually gotten its biggest boost from the pioneers of the solar hot water movement. No device that depends upon the sun for its heat can afford to give up warmth through its delivery lines. (After all, when you're relying on a collector, you can't compensate for poor insulation by merely turning up the thermostat.)

Unhappily, though, effective insulation that will fit snugly around a pipe hasn't been easy to make or inexpensive: Prefabricated tubing protectors now run between 30¢ and $2.60 per foot. And, with costs that high, insulating the waterlines might not be the first item on an energy saver's checklist.

On the other hand, if folks could prepare their own pipe "sleeves" from relatively inexpensive material, the prospect might look a lot more enticing. In fact, when the search for an economical insulator for solar collector outlets led MOTHER EARTH NEWS' research staffers to the discovery of the method of making tubing wrappers presented here, they were a little surprised to find that the material can be produced so inexpensively. At a scant 11¢ per foot (based on a local price of $10.60 for a 4' X 8' sheet of 1" polystyrene insulation), our do-it-yourself technique produces pipe wrapping at just about a third the price of its least expensive ready-made competition.

The Tool

The heart of our easy insulation-maker consists of a 160-watt soldering gun fitted with a special tip. We took the hard spring steel core from a broken choke cable, trimmed off a four-inch length, bent the wire into a semicircle with a 3/4" diameter (a size appropriate for 1/2" copper tubing), and then replaced the solderer's standard tip with this special-duty unit.

1/19/2008 8:47:20 AM

Good idea Jeff And a whole lot easier to install. But I have a good one too. I use those styrofoam noodles that people use in the swimming pools. They come in different colors,and the hole in the middle is just about the right size. Or you could use outdoor pipe insulation. Of course good old duct tape is good for securing.

11/7/2007 9:32:10 PM

Greetings, I Have a hot water radiator heating system. Pipes in the basement are 2". I have an easier and cheaper way to insulate the pipes. I had rolls of R-13 fiberglass insulation left over from some other projects. The width of the roll is great to wrap the pipe lengthwise. To secure the insulation I used duct tape wrapping in a spiral fashion all the way around the pipe. Total cost less then $15 , the R-13 costs about 10 and a couple bucks for a roll or two for the tape. With the extra insulation I even wrapped the furnace with extra layers of fiberglass, watchfull not to cover any sensitive or excessivly hot areas on the furnace. I used steel wire to fasten the insulation, do not use anything combustable near a furnace. Jeff

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