West Coast Insulation: The Heat is Off

By Ross Anderson
Much of the world watched with amazement last year as the
Carnival cruise ship Triumph drifted helplessly in the Caribbean Sea,
crippled by an engine room fire that shut down its electrical power as well as
its engines.
Thousands of frustrated passengers who had paid for a luxury
cruise settled instead for makeshift tents on the deck, cheese sandwiches and
nonfunctioning toilets. The booming cruise industry struggled with a financial
and public relations nightmare as the drama unfolded.
Back in Seattle, Mike Heckinger tracked the news, shook his
head and thought to himself: I hate to say I told you so, but…
As founder and principal of Seattle-based West Coast
Insulation, Heckinger is in the business of preventing such catastrophes on
vessels ranging from salmon gillnetters and crabbers to tugboats and cruise
ships. His Seattle shop, a former fish processing plant sandwiched between
Emerson Street and the Ship Canal, employs some 20 people who specialize in
various aspects of marine insulation.
Even as the Triumph drifted helplessly, Heckinger and a small
crew were manufacturing custom-made insulation pads for the two-story-high
engines of a similar cruise ship, one of 13 ships they worked on last year.
Their mission: To avoid another “Triumph .”
Shipboard fires can be traced to a number of causes,
Heckinger says. But most are engine room fires caused by inadequate engine
exhaust insulation.
Insulating a marine engine is not nuclear physics, he says.
But, in a way, nuclear engineering is what got him into the business. Fresh out
of a college with a degree in engineering, he found himself working on a crew
assigned to insulation in the construction of a nuclear power plant in Eastern
Washington – a plant that continues to generate power today.
The same company started doing insulation work on ships and
boats, and Heckinger found that work more to his liking. So, in 1977, he took a
leap and started his own marine insulation company, operating out of his garage
in Federal Way.
“I saw an un-served opportunity,” he recalls. “The commercial
fishing fleet was booming with the king crab fishery and Bristol Bay salmon.
New boats were being built, and each needed engine insulation, which involves a
lot of custom fitting.”
The problem for fishermen and other mariners is mostly
exhaust heat, he says. Dry stack exhausts can build up heat as high as 900
degrees. With fuel and hydraulic lines running over or around engines, even a
minor leak – a failed hose clamp or a kinked line – can unexpectedly spray
vaporized fuel onto a superheated manifold and ignite, shutting down power and
stranding the crew.
That is almost certainly what happened with the Triumph and at least half a dozen other cruise ships
in the past decade. And it is equally common with fishing boats and other
smaller commercial vessels, Heckinger says.
Proper insulation prevents most such fires. The trick is to
make sure there are no exposed surfaces hotter than 220 degrees centigrade, or
428 Fahrenheit – safely below the combustion point for diesel fuel. But marine
engines don’t lend themselves to one-size-fits-all insulation; engines come in
various shapes and sizes, and each installation is different.
“So it’s all custom work,” Heckinger says. “The pads have to
be easily removable and re-useable. The customer needs to be able to remove it,
work on the engine, and replace it easily without calling us back.”
To do that, each pad is individually cut, equipped with
stainless hooks or eyelets and stainless wire, which keeps the insulation in
West Coast’s strategy is to measure the engine, fabricate the
pads at their Seattle plant, then deliver the product to the vessel, where they
install it.
Gradually, he grew the business, employed two of his three
sons, and eventually moved the business into Seattle, a few blocks from the
fishing fleet at Fishermen’s Terminal. Son Christopher Heckinger now manages
the insulation side of the business. The company’s most recent project is the F/V Cerulean, a 58-foot
“super-seiner”, for owner Neil Andersen.
“My strategy has always been customer service,” the elder
Heckinger says. “The big companies do marine insulation, but we kept our
operation small. I was always there when I said I would be, and my customers
knew that. It’s all about treating customers well, and treating employees well,
responding to their needs.”
His first big break was the phenomenal growth of the crab
fleet, followed by the North Pacific factory trawlers. But another came when
West Coast was awarded a contract to insulate engines aboard 90 new Coast Guard
response boats built by Kvichak Marine in nearby Kent, Washington.
“We were insulating for heat and noise,” he says. “Each of
those response boats needed 500 separate pieces. So we needed to find a way to
cut pads much more quickly and efficiently.”
Heckinger looked at a number of technologies, and eventually
decided to buy a computerized water jet machine made by Flow, in Kent,
It was a costly piece of equipment; in addition to the
purchase, the company needed to spend money training crew to operate it. But it
worked. Cutting the material by hand had required 12 man-days per boat with 40
percent material waste. The high-tech waterjet reduced those costs to less than
three man-days with just 15 percent waste.
Then, two years ago, West Coast signed a contract with a
prominent cruise ship company to beef up the exhaust insulation for their
entire fleet – 65 enormous engines aboard 13 ships. The work took Heckinger and
his crews literally around the world – from New Zealand to Singapore to Buenos
Aires and the Mediterranean.
As with other contracts, the cruise ship insulation is made
in West Coast’s Seattle shop, then shipped by the cruise company to distant
ports, where Heckinger and others catch up with the ships and install the
Cruise ships don’t stop anywhere for long, so most of the
installation takes place while underway from port to port. Engine room
temperatures reach 120 degrees, so West Coast crews are limited to one engine
per day on ships with up to six engines. The rest of the day is spent cruising.
Rough duty, Heckinger smiles.
The waterjet was crucial to that project as well. Cutting
insulation by hand for just one engine would take at least a day. The waterjet
can do the same work for eight engines in a matter of minutes.
Another challenge has been to identify precisely how much
insulation is needed where, and that called for more technology. West Coast now
offers a state-of-the-art thermal imaging service that instantly records
surface temperatures and translates them into digital images. Two of his staff
are now trained and certified to use the device, which can zero in on
overheated surfaces and detect moisture leakage – not just in engine rooms, but
also in homes, industrial plants, internet server farms and more.
Experimenting with the device in a small industrial shop,
Heckinger got an instant lesson in its value. An employee scanned the camera
around the walls and zeroed in on the electrical panel.
“There was a hot spot in the breaker box that showed 300
degrees of heat,” Heckinger says. “It was an improper installation from less
than a year ago. And it was a flash fire or injury waiting to happen.”

Another fire prevented – all in a day’s work.