Trace heating is a technique used to heat pipelines and related vessels or devices. This relatively simple method of surface heating can be used on almost any type of pipe, from plastic to iron. Electric trace heating can also be applied to the pipe's source tanks or vessels to warm contents as they travel throughout a plumbing or pipeline system.
To heat pipes using this technique, installers wrap special heat trace cables around the diameter of the pipe. The majority of trace heating systems require installers to use this spiraling application, while newer systems can simply be run in a straight line along the length of the pipe. Depending on the application, the cables can be constructed from copper, stainless steel, or nickel. One end of the cable is connected to an electrical power source, and the entire assembly is then wrapped with insulation to prevent heat loss.
Both constant-wattage and self-regulating trace heating systems are available. Constant-wattage heating is a complete system, which means that it cannot be cut or modified during installation. This is the most affordable type of heat trace system, and is also able to handle the widest range of temperatures. Self-regulating systems offer more flexibility, but are also more costly. They can be cut and modified as needed during installation, but will only operate effectively within a small range of temperatures.
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Either of these trace heating systems can be operated using a thermostat, and some even have built in thermostats for quick adjustments. More advanced models can be programmed to adjust heating levels automatically as temperatures fluctuate. The most basic heat trace systems do not come with a thermostat, so users have little control over the temperature of the pipe and its contents.
This process is frequently used on pipes exposed to cold temperatures, or those left unused for long periods. Trace heating is also helpful for underground piping systems, particularly those located in very cold climates. It can also be used in industrial settings to keep chemicals, oil, or other products at the required temperature. For instance, products such as wax and tar tend to congeal if conditions are too cold, so trace heating may be added to keep these materials soft and flowing. Homeowners may also use this system to keep gutters from freezing, or to help gutters thaw more quickly after a period of extreme cold.
Electric heat tracing is known for its relatively simple installation and low maintenance requirements. As long as pipes and heat cables are insulated, the system is also considered very energy-efficient. Heat tracing is an effective way to prevent pipes from freezing or bursting, and can keep plumbing systems operating as intended when the weather turns cold.