Quadruple Quality

At Sycamore, Ill.-based ThermalShell Technologies, Inc., a producer of composite precast/steel insulated modular panels, working smart is the modus operandi

CP Staff

At Sycamore, Ill.-based ThermalShell Technologies, Inc., a producer of composite precast/steel insulated modular panels, Îworking smartÌ is the modus operandi Û especially on behalf of its customers. According to ThermalShell President John Biesiadecki, the company’s patent-pending, wall-panel design incorporates the compressive strength of concrete, the tensile strength of steel, and the insulating properties of polyurethane foam to create a product four times lighter than conventional precast panels with four times the R-value. Thus, he emphasizes, the construction and life-cycle benefits of ThermalShell panels yield better results for builders and project owners with less effort and lower cost. Also saving time, money, and labor are prefinished interior and exterior surfaces.

Providing R-30 insulation at 22.5 lb. per sq. ft. (compared to 80 lb. per sq. ft. for conventional precast) is a three-component wall-panel system. A 2-in., high-density concrete layer comprises the ThermalShell wall exterior. Its 5,500-psi compressive strength is achieved by using refractory calcium aluminite cement, rather than portland, as well as a maximum 0.4 water-cementitious materials ratio for the concrete mix. Six percent air entrainment, ASTM C1116 multifilament nylon fibers, and additional nitrates to protect reinforcement from corrosion further enhance long-term performance. A proprietary set-accelerating admixture allows stripping of wall panels within two hours. You can walk on the concrete after 10 minutes, notes Biesiadecki. Our output is four times that of a precast plant of comparable size.

A prefinished, interior surface is provided by 26-gauge, 100,000-psi tensile strength, corrugated steel panels whose paint finish is covered by a 30-year warranty. For special applications like food processing environments, including coolers and freezers, that require the R-value of ThermalShell panels, corrugated stainless steel Û thicker than 26 gauge and FDA approved Û can be used for the interior surface. A high-rib design replaces studs for attaching fixtures or, if preferred, drywall facing. Glossy paint finishes are available in 12 standard colors.

Affixing the concrete to the steel is closed-cell, polyurethane foam insulation. A density of 2_ lb. per cu. ft. drastically curtails heat loss (7.5 R per inch insulation value) and moisture absorption (maximum 0.03 lb. per sq. ft.), thereby eliminating mildew problems, according to Biesiadecki. Insulation comprising the panel’s middle layer, he observes, is the key to energy savings; and, because steel replaces a second concrete layer, more polyurethane foam can be used to produce an 8-in.-thick panel. The R-values thus obtained would require a panel of unwieldy thickness, Biesiadecki adds, if two layers of concrete enclosed the polyurethane.

To accommodate the dimensions of steel plate (available in 36-in. increments), the 8-in.-thick panels are produced six feet wide in lengths up to 48 ft. While the precast layer sets, a press bearing steel plates is lowered into position approximately four to six inches above the concrete surface prior to injection of liquid polyurethane. The EPA-approved foam, formed of two components stored in separate tanks, is injected under low pressure. As the ingredients are combined, they expand rapidly to fill every void, thus producing a high-density, closed-cell insulation. The foam’s adhesive properties coupled with the force of injection and expansion permanently bind the concrete to the steel plates.

The finished concrete panels are sufficiently lightweight to permit shipping six units on a single flatbed. With today’s fuel prices, says Biesiadecki, that becomes a critical factor. At the job site, furthermore, panels up to 26 feet high are placed for attachment to structural steel framing by means of a forklift, rather than a crane, as the weight of each component falls well under 10,000 lb. Biesiadecki affirms, Leasing a low-boy at $200 per day, as compared to $1,200 per day for a crane, constitutes a huge savings.

Although the panels’ lightweight design enables ThermalShell to ship and remain competitive within a 1,000-mile radius, not every market is accessible. Without a fire-rating label, shipping to nearby Chicago, for example, is currently not an option. Yet, the cost of obtaining an Underwriter Laboratories fire rating can be prohibitive; and, as Biesiadecki asserts, if all panel components are fireproof, the final product is no less so. The polyurethane insulation is [UL and ASTM] fire rated; concrete doesn’t burn, and neither does steel, he states. Do the math. Nevertheless, Biesiadecki acknowledges that the additional business afforded by fire-rating or plant certification may more than compensate the investment required. It’s the age-old dilemma of the chicken or the egg, he muses.

After only three years in operation, ThermalShell is gearing up for a quantum leap in growth. Its plant, housed in a 25,000-sq.-ft. leased facility built during World War II, is operated manually Û with the exception of a Cemen Tech computerized mixer Û by seven employees capable of producing 3,000 sq. ft. per day. As early as next year, Biesiadecki would like to begin constructing a 100,000-sq.-ft. structure to accommodate new automated operations.

Accompanying the expansion will be an addition to the ThermalShell product line. Now in progress are plans for a load-bearing, highly insulated wall panel to supplement the insulated concrete/steel wall panels, insulated steel/steel roof panels, and 4-in.-thick architectural precast spandrels currently offered. To date, demand for ThermalShell products has been generated entirely by word of mouth Û no formal marketing campaign has been implemented Û thus demonstrating the value of ingenious design for Îworking smart.Ì