Asbestos furnace tape” is an unfortunately generalized term, referring to any number of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) that were wrapped around hot water pipes, steam and boiler pipes and furnace and HVAC ductwork in homes and commercial buildings prior to the 1980s. Asbestos furnace tape was either a kind of paper tape impregnated with asbestos fiber, or some type of asbestos fabric tape. Either kind may have been affixed to the surface of the pipes with asbestos adhesives.
Many websites advise that such asbestos furnace tape be left alone if it is not visibly damaged and crumbling (i.e., “friable”). The problem is that such materials do become brittle and prone to damage over time. In any event, it is a problem that will have to be dealt with sooner or later.
Most homes build prior to the mid-1980s are likely to have asbestos furnace tape somewhere in the structure, most likely in the basement or crawlspace beneath the ground floor. Some sources advise that if asbestos furnace tape is discovered in a friable state, that the pipe be rewrapped with duct tapein all damaged areas. This is certainly a solution, but is inadvisable unless the homeowner is prepared to build a containment area and take all appropriate precautions. These include wearing a full hazmat suit (colloquially called a “bunny suit”) as well as a full-faced respirator with HEPA filters. The material would need to be wet with amended water (water to which dish soap or other detergent has been added) and any waste material would have to be disposed of in plastic bags no less than six millimeters thick and sealed with additional duct tape. The waste must then be disposed of only at approved toxic waste sites.
Unlike homeowners who are (in most states) legally allowed to remove asbestos furnace tape and other ACMs from their primary residents, owners of commercial buildings and rental properties are legally required to have asbestos abatement removed by certified asbestos contractors. Failing to do so means facing felony charges that carry large fines and prison sentences.
Keep in mind that not all furnace tape is necessarily made with asbestos. Such tape has not been manufactured in the U.S. since the 1980s, and while it is not illegal, falling market demand has caused companies that manufacture building materials to phase out the use of asbestos. If in doubt, the best course of action is to send a small sample of the material to an environmental services lab for testing.