Tracks on Fire: Keeping Train Tracks Thawed

Winter has a habit of freezing progress in its tracks. Snow and ice can make roads unsafe to travel on, bury runways, and cause fuels to thicken. Even railroads can’t escape the damage done by Jack Frost.

In fact, railroads have to deal with some of the most dangerous effects of snow and ice. Track switches that freeze up lead to costly delays, as well as the potential for derailments. Keeping tracks thawed and switches ice-free is critical for operating a safe and efficient railroad.  

The Long Island Railroad uses a variety of methods to keep their switches from freezing, even by setting their rails on fire. According to the Long Island Railroad blog, electricity, natural gas, kerosene oil and a hydrocarbon oil called Hexane, are used every winter across the railway to ensure switches are thawed and operational.

rail heating
Gas heating along a rail line keeps the tracks thawed and operational.

These days on the LIRR, most switch heaters are electric. They are made up of high resistance metal bars that are bolted to the sides of the running rail. One end is grounded to the running rail and the other end is tied to the third rail through a knife switch in a little box. Most are activated onsite, but there are some that are remote controlled.

rail heating
Workers monitor tracks as they thaw with help from natural gas.

The gas powered switch heaters are older: vestiges from an age when electric power was expensive and unreliable and gas was cheap. The gas powered heaters would keep a place like Jamaica open even if electric power failed. Today the gas heaters use natural gas that is provided by the utility companies (at one time they used manufactured gas from coal). The gas to these heaters is supplied by a one-and-a-half inch pipe with a globe valve down in a pit near the switch. A mechanic from the LIRR’s Buildings and Bridges department turns on the gas and lights it with a fuse. Then the winds blow it out.

rail heating
Some railroads use a snowblower to thaw rails. The heat blast eliminates ice build up, but the process is slow.

These days it is the gas heaters which are less than reliable; they blow out in high wind and have to be re-lit (a tricky task in the middle of rush hour).

The LIRR still also uses the really old “switch pots” which are filled with kerosene and burn a wick under the switch points. These are maintained by the track department. Trackmen work through the storms filling and lighting these.

And no story about switches and ice can be complete without mentioning “switch oil.” To thaw out frozen switches, trackmen use Hexane, a hydrocarbon oil that is dumped along the rail from a long snouted can that looks like a flower watering can. Another trackman follows the first with a blazing broom that was soaked in the stuff which he uses to light up the oiled switches. The goop burns for fifteen minutes, effectively de-icing the frozen switch. 

ground thawing warming blanket
Ground thawing blankets eliminate the need for costly heating systems and are easily portable.

There is an easier way, of course, to keep rail switches thawed during winter storms. Introducing: Powerblanket Extra-Hot Ground Thawing Blankets. These provide a cheaper, more efficient method to prevent delays that come from iced tracks.

Simply plug the blanket into an electrical source, and the thawing begins. With a preset of 150 ͒ F, the rapid thaw blanket is a maintenance-free heating solution that reduces downtime, eliminates headaches associated with frozen ground, and saves money.

Reliance on manual labor or antiquated heating methods can stay where they belong: in the past. Use the Extra-Hot Ground Thawing Blankets to keep rail switches thawed, passengers safe, and trains on time.

Methane Hydrates: A Dilemma for the Pipeline Industry

Sometimes the word methane carries with it a negative connotation, but if there’s a word or combination of words to trump it, it’s “methane hydrate,” at least if you’re in the piping industry that is. While methane hydrates can be found naturally occurring in the deep abys of the ocean bottom (and could serve as a good energy source) when it comes to gas lines, there’s nothing good to say about them.

 

 

What are Methane Hydrates?

In terms of simplicity, a methane hydrate is a combination of methane gas and water. When these two combine at freezing temperatures, they form a solid methane hydrate. Interestingly enough, these crystal-like rocks form naturally at the depths of the sea. And in cases of potential energy sources, well, methane hydrates could be a thing of the future. However, when it comes to the piping industry, these rocks just plain get in the way.

 

Methane Solids in Your Pipes

In the case of the piping industry, methane hydrates can put a stop on gas flow like plaque can put a halt on blood flow in our arteries. When natural gas passes through piping equipment at temperatures near or below freezing, the buildup of condensation and the contraction of gas molecules create these gnarly solids we’ve been talking about. When these hydrates buildup in pipelines, especially at transition points like valves, manifolds, and instrumentation, they can pose a substantial risk to continued operation. In fact, they can outright stop it in its tracks.

So what’s the solution? It’s a simple one. It’s heat. Adding heat to a pipeline can keep temperatures at the ideal level and will entirely prevent the formation of methane hydrates. When adding regulated and even heat distribution to your equipment in the form valve heaters, manifold heaters, and instrumentation heaters, hydrate formation is no longer a problem. Thankfully, this is one of the major areas Powerblanket assists the piping industry with. Our valve, manifold, and instrumentation heaters offer the easiest and most efficient solutions to heat maintenance on a natural gas or liquid pipeline. So if hydrate formation is a dilemma that keeps you up at night, reach out to Powerblanket today, so you can start sleeping better.

 

 

Powerblanket® Outperforms Heat Trace

When it comes to maintaining and protecting the precious valves and instrumentations on your pipes or pipeline, Powerblanket valve heaters and instrumentation heaters outperform the best heat trace. If that seems like a bold statement, read on to find out how and why.

 

Heat Trace vs. Powerblanket

Heat trace, often times referred to synonymously as trace heating, is a common form of providing heat and freeze protection to pipes and pipe valves, manifolds, and instrumentation. Trace heating (TH) has been around for a long time, but the cons associated with the technology are still present today. While TH offers a great solution for long stretches of pipeline sitting above ground, it certainly has its limitations when it comes to protecting valves, actuators, and instrumentation from cold weather.

One potential downside or setback related to TH installation is the requirements that come with its use. If a company is going to install TH on their piping system, they’re going to have to hire a certified electrician to do it. This translates into more time and more money. What’s more, once it’s installed, it’s permanent, whether it gets in the way or not. And while TH works well with metal piping instruments, due to the conductive nature of the material, it doesn’t work with anything else.

Benefits of the Powerblanket Solution

TH amounts to installing heated wires to the external surface or your pipes and instrumentation, but this isn’t the best option when it comes to protecting your assets from the cold. Applied heat, and insulation are what’s needed, and TH only offers conductive heat. Powerblanket valve heaters and instrumentation heaters, on the other hand, offer the best combination of both. With Powerblanket, you can easy install, uninstall, reinstall our rugged vinyl blanket to add an insulated wrap of direct heat to keep your instrumentation at the ideal temperature, regardless of the weather.

In addition to this, Powerblanket instrumentation heaters offer the most consistent and efficient heat distribution on the market. With our patented technology and proprietary blend of materials, Powerblanket heaters provide even and regulated heat distribution throughout the entire surface area of application. What’s more, our custom approach makes our technology available to fit the biggest, smallest, or most uniquely shaped instruments around.

So whether you’re looking to protect small, large, or oddly shaped instrumentation, look no further than Powerblanket.

Heat Tape—And the Better Solution

Heat tape (or heating tape, as it’s sometimes referred to) is a way you can implement low-key freeze protection for your exposed pipes during the winter. In fact, this handy technology can even be used to safeguard instrumentation and other devices that are left out in the cold. However, as savvy as this approach sounds, did you know that there is a much better solution?

Heating Blankets Bolster Safety and Efficiency

Heat tape has its uses in very small applications, but in most scenarios, it can be like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone. Such a technology offers direct heat only where the tape contacts the pipe or apparatus on which it’s placed. When used on metal pipes, the heat exchange is bound to spread, merely because metal is an obvious conductor of heat. With this in mind, then, we can see another limitation in the freeze protection offered by heating tape; it can only be used on heat conductive surfaces.

Aside from this, another problem with heating tape is the simple fact that it offers only heat. Such an approach provides no insulation against the cold. Insulation on its own isn’t enough; that’s for sure. But neither is heat. Instead, the proper combination for free protection and temperature regulation is the combination of both. And this is where heating blankets come in.

 

 

The Better Heating Solution

Now that we’ve sufficiently covered all the shortcomings of heating tape, we can address the characteristics of a far better solution. That far better solution is heating blankets, or heat blankets. Heat blankets are a combination of heat-distribution capabilities married with durable insulation for a myriad of industrial and commercial applications.

In the case of Poweblanket, we offer a revolutionary and patented approach to heating blankets. Our durable vinyl shells are capable of insulating assets in temperatures as low as -50° F. What’s more, Powerblanket heating blankets offer the best and most efficient heat distribution on the market. So if you have valuable material or equipment to protect from the effects of cold weather, give us a call today.

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Winter Preparation: Now’s the Time

As the temperatures around the nation rise into the hundreds, cold-weather preparation may be the furthest thing from your mind. What’s more, there are plenty of warm-weather applications that Powerblanket technology is used for. But we would be completely remiss if we didn’t say enough of proper winter preparation. After all, when it comes to preparing for winter, you don’t want to be a grasshopper…

Aesop’s Fable: The Ant and the Grasshopper

Perhaps you’re already familiar with the old fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper from Aesop. If you’re not (and even if you are) we’ve recited it here. Below follows the most popular English renditions of the story:

“In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

‘Why not come and chat with me,’ said the Grasshopper, ‘instead of toiling and moiling in that way?’

‘I am helping to lay up food for the winter,’ said the Ant, ‘and recommend you to do the same.’

‘Why bother about winter?’ said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present.’ But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

When the winter came, the Grasshopper found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing, every day, corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew it is best to prepare for the days of necessity.”

Of course, the implications of this story can go far deeper than the need for good winter preparation. But for the sake of comparison, the story’s plot is rather poignant for the industries we serve. When cold weather does hit, it’s best to already have the systems and products you need in place to brave the effects of winter. So if you have assets to cover come late October, now’s the best time to start getting together the protection you’ll need.

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Heat Trace: What You Should Know

When you think of the phrase “heat trace” or “heat tape,” what images come to your mind? Perhaps you haven’t ever heard of these terms before, and now you’re curious. When it comes to heated pipes for protection against the ruthless cold of winter, trace heating is the system by which the warmth you need for your pipes flows. Read here to learn more about the uses and value of trace heating.

 

Powerblanket Xtreme Drum heater

Understanding How it Works

Trace heating does just as its name implies: an electrical surface or wiring is linked to some other surface (whether it be a pipe, flooring, etc) and traces its way along that surface’s path. This, in turn, provides and maintains heat where it’s most needed. Thermal insulation is wrapped around both the supplier of heat and the recipient of heat to ensure stable, permanent warmth. The apparatuses involved with heat trace (also known as heat tape) can vary in size and surface area, depending on the physical dimensions of the application.

 

What Are the Benefits of Heat Trace?

Think of the value of trace heating as twofold—accommodating functionality and increasing throughput. While its prime purpose is to protect and insulate against undesired invasions from the elements (i.e. keeping substances flowing that can solidify or slow in cold temperatures), thus accommodating functionality, it can also be utilized to increase the efficiency of operations. For example, heat trace can drastically improve the throughput of gas transportation and extraction by increasing tank and pipe pressure—being that gas slows as it cools.

Drawing upon the fundamentals of heat trace, Powerblanket uses a patented blend of technologies as a highly efficient and less expensive means of distributing heat evenly over the surface of any application. Whether you need to protect a piping system, valves, manifolds, instrumentation, gas tanks, liquid storage, or anything else from cold weather or depreciation in efficiency, Powerblanket technology can enable you to do so with greater ease and dependability.