A Guide To Industrial Heat Trace for Water Pipes

Last year (2022), State Farm Insurance reported paying out $181 million to settle over 9,000 claims for damage from frozen pipes. And that’s only one insurance company. Did you know that a one-eighth-inch crack in a water line can leak more than 250 gallons of water a day? 

Industrial heat trace for pipes, a.k.a. pipe heaters are essential for preventing damage and loss due to frozen water pipes. Heat trace systems eliminate the risk of pipe failure from ice buildup.

This guide provides an in-depth look at the advantages of using industrial heat trace for plumbing pipes, the various types of designs available, and what to consider when selecting a system. 

Benefits of Industrial Pipe Heaters for Water Pipelines

Heat trace systems justify the cost of installation because they:

  1. Maintain a consistent temperature to ensure safe and efficient operation. 
  2. Help to reduce condensation and corrosion in pipes. 
  3. Increase the lifespan of pipes by protecting them from damage caused by frozen water. 
  4. Are an energy-efficient way to keep water flowing in below-freezing environments. 
  5. Prevent costly downtime due to burst pipes. 

Heat trace systems avoid unnecessary shutdowns and ensure efficient operation. 

Types of Heat Trace Systems

There are two main types of heat trace systems, fluid and electric thermal cable. 

Fluid Heat-Tracing

A fluid heat trace for water pipes uses a smaller tube that runs next to the pipe. Steam is the most used fluid, and waste heat is the primary heating source. The drawback of steam is that it is harder to regulate and can deliver two to ten times the heat required. 

Besides steam, other fluids or “circulating media” include oils, organic fluids, and glycols. Fluid heat trace systems can leak and be costly to maintain.

Electric Heat Tracing

Electric heat tracing for pipes is more flexible and less costly than comparable steam systems. Thermal cable systems use wire embedded in a plastic or rubber insulation. Some industrial heat trace cables use a mineral coating to achieve higher temperatures, up to 1,000°F (537°C). 

The heating cable wraps around the pipe’s surface and requires aluminum or another heat-resistant tape to secure it. 

Factors to Consider When Selecting a Heat Trace System

Two primary factors for designing a heat trace are the products flowing inside the pipes and the potential ambient temperatures outside. A water line heat trace only needs to prevent internal freezing, not the high heat required to lower viscosity, such as petroleum products.

A self-regulating cable uses a temperature sensor to combat freezing ambient temperatures. When the pipe’s surface temperature decreases, the cable applies heat. The cable’s overall power output increases and decreases depending on the external temperature.

Before purchasing and installing a heat trace system, consider the characteristics of your water pipes, the temperatures they will experience, and the type of system you want. Common water pipe materials include copper, PVC, iron, galvanized steel, and polyethylene. Metal conducts heat better than plastic, requiring fewer wraps. 

Next, you will need to determine the temperatures the pipes will experience throughout the year. Select a heat trace system that can maintain a constant temperature in the pipes during the coldest months. 

Troubleshooting Heat Trace Systems

When troubleshooting heat trace,  most problems with electric trace heating systems have two causes:

  1. Wet, damaged, or missing insulation. 
  2. Physical damage to the wire or sensors.

Visual inspection is the best way to determine where the fault is. Here are six other possible issues you may experience when installing or maintaining a heat trace:

Symptom Possible Cause
  1. No heat or current
Loss of Power; The controller failed or is set too low; The high-temp limit switch activated
  1. Low temperature – System wide
Controller setpoint is too low; The temperature sensor is too close to the trace heater; Insulation material is damaged or incorrect; low voltage; ambient temperature is lower than its design
  1. Low temperature – In sections
Wet, damaged, or missing insulation; Damaged trace heater;  Heat sinks like valves, pumps, and pipe supports do not have proper coverage
  1. High temperature – System wide
Controller is “on” continuously or fails with contacts closed; The sensor is on an uninsulated pipe or too close to a heatsink
  1. Excessive cycling
Temperature sensor located too close to the trace heater; Ambient temperature near controller setpoint; Connected voltage or trace heater output too high
  1. Temperature variations – System wide
Inconsistent trace heater installation along pipe; Faulty trace heater; Unanticipated flow patterns or process operating  temperatures


Common Heat Trace FAQs

Do you have questions about heat tracing? Here are some answers.

Can you put a heat trace in water?

Only specialized heat traces can contact water directly to provide pipe heat. Heatline heating cable is a self-regulating tubular heat trace cable used for pipe freeze protection of non-pressurized drain, waste, and sewer pipe applications.

How do you heat tape water lines?

The first step is to wrap the electrical pipe heat trace around the pipelines, valves, and instruments. The next step is to secure the trace with fiberglass or aluminum tape. 

Covering with insulation is advisable for most applications.

When should you heat a trace pipe?

Even with a slight possibility of a waterline freezing, such as in the southern states, you should install a heat trace to prevent damage or disruption of your process. It’s insurance against the more significant loss of a broken pipe.

How much does it cost to heat trace a pipe?

The heat trace cable costs between $3.00 and $6.00 per linear foot for most applications. Accessories like tape, splice kits, end terminations, and caution labels add to the overall cost by an additional $1 to $4 per foot.

How does heat tape for water pipes work?

A heat trace is an electrically heated cable that wraps around piping and provides heat through conduction. Read “Everything you need to know about heat trace” for a more detailed explanation

Put An End to Frozen Pipes

In a freezing environment, insulation alone will not prevent freezing, especially if the water is not flowing. Using Powerblanket’s heat trace systems, you can handle any weather that comes your way without worrying about frozen water pipes. Heat trace lines keep water flowing and prevent costly structural damage from a burst pipeline.

If you need to protect water pipes, but don’t know where to start, contact the experts at Powerblanket. We will help you select and design the appropriate industrial heat trace system for your facility.

Don't let the cold weather stop your business. Powertrace heat trace cable will keep you running smoothly no matter how low the temperatures.


Alex Pacanowsky

Meet Alex, one of our experts in freeze protection and the head of the custom team at Powerblanket! For the past several years, Alex has worked closely with oil & gas pros, medical device startups, and pharmaceutical suppliers (just to name a few) to create weatherproof operations. No matter how cold the weather, or what needs to be heated, Alex knows just what to do! He also loves mountain biking and spending time with his two boys, 5 and 9, and two Labrador Retrievers.

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