By Pete Altieri
As we enter heating season in Central Illinois, many people will find that they need to replace an old furnace or boiler. Most heating systems installed prior to 1980 have asbestos insulation of some sort. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used in virtually every type of thermal system insulation throughout the 20th century. This fibrous material was commonly added to building products to make them stronger, resist high temperatures, and to bind things together. We now know that breathing asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer and other health concerns. However, asbestos material in good condition will usually not release asbestos fibers. The danger occurs when the fibers are released and inhaled into the lungs.
Oftentimes asbestos must be removed before work is done on your furnace or boiler, and most HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) contractors or plumbers will not touch it due to liability as well as OSHA regulatory issues. In other cases, the asbestos insulation may be in bad shape and should be encapsulated to prevent emission into the air. In Illinois, there are strict rules when it comes to asbestos. Before any work is done to an HVAC system, it should be handled by trained professionals to avoid a disturbance of the asbestos fibers. If an emergency replacement of a furnace is necessary, this can pose a problem.
The only way to know for sure if material is asbestos is to have it bulk sampled and analyzed in a qualified laboratory. In a private residence, the homeowner can take the sample (usually about the size of a quarter) and send it to a laboratory themselves. In a commercial building, this must be done by a licensed asbestos inspector. Some homeowners do not want to sample it on their own, and may consult with an asbestos inspector to do it for them. Most consultants would charge a fee per sample plus an hourly rate for their time. In any event, the only way to know if the material contains asbestos is to have it sampled and analyzed.
Once you know you’re dealing with asbestos, the next step would be to contact an asbestos abatement contractor to look at the job and provide you an estimate to perform the work. Keep in mind that in most cases, the ducts would be wrapped in plastic and removed with the insulation if it’s a furnace-heated home. This is usually easier and less expensive option than to scrape the insulation off the ducts. So if the ductwork is to be removed, be sure you have the cost of replacement in mind.
If the home is heated with a boiler and pipes instead of ducts, then the insulation can be taken off the pipes with a glovebag. A glovebag is a special plastic bag (6 mil thick) with heavy-duty rubber gloves — so all the removal is done wet and inside the bag. This is an industry-standard method for removing pipe insulation.
If the actual furnace or boiler is insulated and is to be replaced, this can be a more involved process since those are large pieces of equipment that may need more than the previously noted methods of removal. Your asbestos abatement contractor can discuss those options with you upon looking at the job. In a commercial building there could be other insulated things such as hot water storage tanks, etc.
If the insulation does not need to be removed, but is damaged and you only need encapsulation done, that is usually a less costly option. Keep in mind that the material would still remain but the damaged spots would be painted with a bridging encapsulant (or thick paint) that is made for that purpose and can withstand the temperature of your heating system. You should never use regular duct tape or other materials to cover your asbestos insulation, since it is likely not designed for that use and could cause a fire.
Pete Altieri is a licensed asbestos inspector, as well as an OSHA outreach instructor and member of the American Society of Safety Engineers. He is celebrating his 20th year with the local Bloomington firm Ideal Environmental Engineering. Call them locally at 309-828-4259 for any of your asbestos needs.