Insulation workers install and replace the materials used to insulate buildings and their mechanical systems to help control and maintain the temperatures in buildings. These workers are often referred to as insulators.
Insulation workers typically do the following:
- Remove old insulation and dispose of it properly
- Read blueprints and specifications to determine job requirements
- Determine the amount and type of insulation needed
- Measure and cut insulation to fit into walls and around pipes
- Fasten insulation in place with staples, tape, or screws
- Use compressors to spray insulation into some spaces
- Install plastic barriers to protect insulation from moisture
- Follow safety guidelines
Properly insulated buildings save energy by keeping heat in during the winter and out in the summer. Insulated vats, vessels, boilers, steam pipes, and hot water pipes also prevent the wasteful loss of heat or cold and prevent burns. Insulation also helps reduce noise that passes through walls and ceilings.
When renovating old buildings, insulators often must remove the old insulation. In the past, asbestos—now known to cause cancer—was used extensively to insulate walls, ceilings, pipes, and industrial equipment. Because of this danger, hazardous materials removal workers or specially trained insulators are required to remove asbestos before workers can begin installation.
Insulation workers use common hand tools, such as knives and scissors. They also may use a variety of power tools including power saws to cut insulating materials, welders to secure clamps, and staple guns to fasten insulation to walls. Some insulators use compressors to spray insulation.
Workers sometimes wrap a cover of aluminum, sheet metal, or vapor barrier (plastic sheeting) over the insulation. Doing so protects the insulation by keeping moisture out.
The following are examples of types of insulation workers:
Floor, ceiling, and wall insulators install insulation in attics, floors, and behind walls in homes and other buildings. Most of these workers unroll, cut, fit, and staple batts of fiberglass insulation between wall studs and ceiling joists. Some workers, however, spray foam insulation with a compressor hose into the space being filled.
Mechanical insulators apply insulation to pipes or ductwork in businesses, factories, and many other types of buildings. When insulating a steam pipe, for example, the temperature, thickness, and diameter of the pipe are all factors that determine the type of insulation to be used.
Insulators held about 52,100 jobs in 2012. Employment was about split between mechanical insulators and floor, ceiling, and wall insulators.
Most floor, ceiling, and wall insulators were employed in the drywall and insulation contractors industry. The industries that employed the most mechanical insulators in 2012 were as follows:
|Other building equipment contractors||38%|
|Drywall and insulation contractors||22|
|Plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contractors||15|
Insulation workers generally work indoors in residential and industrial settings. They spend most of their workday standing, bending, or kneeling in confined spaces.
Most insulators work full time. Those who insulate gas and oil pipelines may have to stop work due to rain or very cold weather.
Injuries and Illnesses
Although insulation installation is not inherently dangerous, falls from ladders and cuts from knives are common hazards. In addition, small particles from insulation materials, especially when sprayed, can irritate the eyes, skin, and lungs. To protect themselves, insulators must keep the work area well ventilated. They must also wear personal protective equipment (PPE) which includes suits, masks, and respirators which protects against hazardous fumes or materials.
Mechanical insulators may get burns from the pipes they insulate.
Most floor, ceiling, and wall insulation workers learn their trade on the job. Most mechanical insulators complete an apprenticeship program.
There are no specific education requirements for floor, ceiling, and wall insulation workers. Mechanical insulation workers should have a high school diploma. High school courses in English, math, woodworking, mechanical drawing, algebra, and general science are considered helpful for all insulation workers.
Most mechanical insulation workers learn their trade through a 4-year apprenticeship. Some apprenticeships may last up to 5 years, depending on the program. For each year of the program, apprentices must have at least 1,700 to 2,000 hours of paid on-the-job training and a minimum of 144 hours of related technical instruction. The technical portion includes learning about installation techniques as well as basic mathematics, how to read and draw blueprints, general construction techniques, safety practices, and first aid.
Unions and individual businesses offer apprenticeship programs. Although most workers enter apprenticeships directly, some start out as helpers first. The basic qualifications to enter an apprenticeship program are as follows:
- Being 18 years old
- Physically able to do the work
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Insulation workers who remove and handle asbestos must be trained through a program accredited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Insulation contractor organizations offer voluntary certification to help workers prove their skills and knowledge of residential and industrial insulation.
The National Insulation Association also offers a certification for mechanical insulators in conducting energy appraisals to determine if and how insulation can benefit industrial customers.
Dexterity. Insulation workers must be able to work in confined spaces while maintaining coordination and control of tools and materials. Also, insulators often must reach above their heads to fit and fasten insulation into place.
Mechanical skills. Insulation workers use a variety of hand and power tools to install insulation. Those who apply foam insulation, for example, must be able to operate a compressor and sprayer to spread the foam onto walls or across attics.
Physical stamina. Because insulators spend most of the day standing, stretching, and bending, workers should be able to stay physically active without getting tired.
The median annual wage for floor, ceiling, and wall insulation workers was $32,360 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,990, and the top 10 percent earned more than $59,440.
The median annual wage for mechanical insulation workers was $39,170 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,630, and the top 10 percent earned more than $75,390.
The starting pay for apprentices is usually near 50 percent of what fully trained insulators make. As they learn to do more, they receive pay increases.
Most insulators work full time. Those who insulate gas and oil pipelines may have to stop work due to rain or extremely cold weather.
Overall employment of insulation workers is projected to grow 38 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Growth rates, however, will vary by occupational specialty.
Employment of floor, ceiling, and wall insulators is projected to grow 26 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 6,100 new jobs over the 10-year period. Increases in home building will spur employment growth over the coming decade. In addition, insulation will continue to be added into existing buildings to save energy.
Employment of mechanical insulation workers is projected to grow 47 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for mechanical insulators will be spurred by the need to make existing buildings more energy efficient. In the past, mechanical insulation has been reduced or cut from building plans as a cost-saving method, but energy analyses show that improved insulation provides a greater return on investment. The anticipated construction of new power plants, which are big users of insulated pipes and equipment, should also result in greater employment demand.
Floor, ceiling, and wall insulators are expected to face strong competition for jobs as they often compete with other construction trade workers and there are fewer entry requirements. Job openings will, nonetheless, continue to arise because the irritating nature of many insulation materials, combined with the often difficult working conditions, causes many residential insulation workers to leave the occupation each year.
Mechanical insulation workers who have completed training should have the best job opportunities. Overall opportunities for mechanical insulators should be very good as new construction opportunities continue to grow, as the increased focus on maintenance and retrofitting continues, and as government and private business strive for more energy efficiency.
Insulation workers in the construction industry may experience periods of unemployment because of the short duration of many construction projects and the cyclical nature of construction activity. Workers employed to do industrial plant maintenance generally have more stable employment because maintenance and repair must be done regularly.
For details about apprenticeships or other opportunities for insulation workers, contact the offices of the state employment service, the state apprenticeship agency, local insulation contractors or firms that employ insulators, or local union-management apprenticeship committees. Apprenticeship information is available from the U.S. Department of Labor's toll free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627, or Employment and Training Administration.
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