NuDown CEO Interview: Air as Insulation

NuDown CEO Bob Hall Insulation Interview

In the ongoing pursuit to stay warm during outside activities, I’ve explored a variety of insulation topics. We all know about down, of course, but I’ve interviewed a variety of people about alternate insulation as well, including yak wool, bison fiber, llama fleece and even NASA spacesuits. Yet there’s another insulator that all of us are familiar with but never really considered for clothing: air. Except NuDown CEO Bob Hall, that is.

Hall’s company, founded 2.5 years ago, has based its business on using air as its primary insulation for outdoor apparel. Whereas other insulating materialsinspire questions about sustainability, NuDown’s use of air doesn’t have that same effect. That’s not to say I didn’t have questions. After all, NuDown is injecting an entirely new insulator into the outdoor-apparel conversation, and it’s exploring uncharted territory with air as a viable insulator. Fortunately, Hall was quite accommodating in answering my inquiries.

Outdoorsy folks often think exclusively of insulation coming from natural fibers or synthetics. NuDown’s use of air is a radical departure. How did the idea to use air as an insulator first arise?

Mankind has understood air as insulation for millennia. The challenge has been how best to deal with the structure required to maintain the open space for the air to do its job. With the convergence of fabric technology, lamination technology and welding technology, NuDown has figured out how to eliminate the structure (feathers, fill, wool fibers, etc.) traditionally required to create the (insulating) air spaces.

What advantages does air as an insulator have over the “more traditional” materials that apparel manufacturers often use for insulation?

Again, it’s the air, not the feathers that insulates. Eliminating the structure reduces weight and is animal friendly (no geese or sheep suffer). Also important is that with NuDown, the wearer can vary the amount of insulating air throughout the day. Add air for more warmth, or release air for less warmth.

Do the “traditional” insulation materials hold any advantages, even if minor, over air?

As pure insulation, none. This is because the insulating value is purely a function of the air layer retained. So the same volume “baggie” enclosed yields equal insulating results (we’ve had this proven at Kansas State with lab testing of CLO values). NuDown actually beats down, as it hugs the torso as more air is compressed, while down drapes away from the torso. Ditto for wool. While wool retains much of its warmth when wet, and down fails when wet, NuDown is waterproof (and obviously air-proof), so not susceptible to water issues.

How often does popping or puncturing happen? Can you describe your stress-test procedure during development and testing?

We test our air compression extensively. 100% QC testing is done at the factory, before shipping. A consumer will compress only about 2.5 psi at most, but we test 100% up to 6.0 psi on each jacket – more than double the consumer use. Puncture is a remote risk, but real. In reality, we’re going to an even lighter denier fabric for fall 2016, as we have had essentially no consumer incidents of failure and only rare punctures. Consumers can do a quick-patch job themselves, or send it back to us for a factory repair weld.

Your 2016-17 styles also include a jacket that puts the air pockets underneath an exterior shell. Was this done to protect the air bladders, or simply to give consumers an additional style choice?

It was done first for style (some people prefer the sleek look), and second for added warmth (having a shell over the air-compression bladder area adds another air-trapping layer). That style, the Diamond Peak, is a pure ski parka – intended for very cold temperatures and maximum warmth.

Why do you suppose other manufacturers haven’t looked so specifically to air as an insulator? What’s NuDown’s proverbial “secret sauce”?

One, we are far down the patent road with our IP covering various methods of air compression to achieve this. Two, only recent evolution in technology allows our variable air compression to work – the convergence of fabric technology, welding technology and lamination technology.

Does NuDown apparel require any special care?

Machine wash and line dry.

What’s the temperature/comfort range of NuDown clothing? Does it have a corollary in down fill (or perhaps a range of corollaries, since pumping it up/down adjusts the amount of insulation)?

We claim a 40-degree range of comfort, since the wearer can adjust his/her insulation on the fly.

What’s been your most useful lesson, be it through clothing design, baffle design or stress-testing, since launching NuDown? How has that lesson influenced your upcoming apparel lineup?

While we knew it was all about the air (as insulation), we knew we had to prove it. We did this with Kansas State University’s lab. The real surprise was the value of Variable insulation. While everyone focuses on the “is it as warm as down?” question, the real advantage is that you can equal (or exceed) the warmth of down, yet at the same time you can back-off 10 or 20 or 30 degrees of warmth by releasing air. That eliminates a layer, which eliminates weight, and adds consumer convenience. This influenced the Fall-2016 collection as we took more than 20% of the weight out of the new fabric – making the jackets lighter.

Special thanks to NuDown CEO Bob Hall for taking the time to participate in this Q&A.

Jonas Allen

Jonas spent 17 years covering travel, technology and entertainment for regional and international media. He now writes about gear, clothes and tips to stay warm. He hopes his lessons will help other people who get cold (re)discover the great outdoors.

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