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Heat Cable, Tape, and Cord - Is One Just Like the Other?

Updated: May 18, 2023

Yes … and no. In fact, an internet keyword search on any of these terms usually yields similar, if not the same, results. And while both professionals and DIY-ers tend to use the terms interchangeably, it’s a good idea to know the exact specifications of different Heat trace products, as they each can have unique applications, from roof heating to regulating the temperature around oil pipelines and inside research laboratories.


Heat Trace Cable or Wire

Your heat cable generally looks like a standard two-conductor house wire, where two or more wires are wrapped together in plastic housing. It's slightly rounded and about as flexible as a garden hose. It can handle lower power densities and temperatures, and it can heat up to anywhere between 150 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the kind of cable you would use when you think of roof de-icing, as it is most often designed for outdoor use. Heat tracing wire serves as excellent freeze protection in high-moisture environments like rooftops, gutters, and downspouts, where it operates under snow and ice. Unlike heat trace tape and heat cord, you also have the option to trim the heating cable to fit your needs at the worksite. Generally, heat cable comes in two different styles, self-regulating and constant wattage. When in operation, self-regulating (also known as self-limiting) cable adjusts the heat according to the ambient temperature. It also draws down the power as the line heats up, not allowing it to overheat. For example, if the roof temperature starts to fall below freezing, the temperature sensor catches this and activates the cable, turning up the heat as needed. It will work inversely as outside temperatures begin to rise. We recommend using a basic thermostat with self-regulating cable for temperature control. On the other hand, a constant-wattage cable holds a constant temperature throughout its operational time. This kind of cable requires a controller to cut the power at appropriate times so as not to overheat. Constant-wattage also tends to perform poorly when air temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. As you may have already guessed from our past blogs, we prefer to use self-regulating heating cable for roof and gutter deicing, because it’s more effective against ice dams.


Electric Heating Tape

As the name implies, Heat Tape has a flat cross-section and is much more pliable than cable. Its structure makes it ideal for spiral-wrapping pipes. Electric heating tape is your best bet if you want to prevent your water lines from freezing and bursting in colder weather. You are limited to fixed lengths, as you can't cut heat tape to fit your project on-site, but manufacturers sell this type of heating application in various sizes. With fixed lengths from 10 feet to 200 feet, you shouldn't have any trouble finding the size you need. Like constant-wattage heat trace cable, heat tape requires a controller to ensure it doesn't overheat and cause damage. This is important because heat tape can run much hotter than cable, with maximum heat output as high as 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. When dealing with that kind of heat, a suitable controller will make the difference between enough warmth for toasty pipes and a house fire. Check out our blog for more important information on heat cable safety. Different types of heat tape design include silicone rubber, fiberglass insulated, and an extremely high-temperature insulated cloth called Samox created by Fisher Scientific. While silicone rubber tape is water and chemical resistant, you can by no means immerse it in liquid like a heat cable. Heat tape was created primarily for indoor use. Another critical thing to remember when using heat tape is to wrap it carefully so that it lies fully flat against the pipe surface. If any section of the tape has air exposed to both sides, such as in a kink, it will not transfer heat efficiently to the pipe. The heat then builds up in that section of tape and can overheat.


Heating Cord

Cord has a round cross-section and operates similarly to heat trace tape. Some applications lend themselves more to heat cord than heat tape, mainly because of cord's more forgiving nature when it comes to spiral-wrapping around the pipe. Whereas heat tape requires a precise wrap, especially around tight corners and at shut-off valves, it's easier to ensure constant contact to the pipe with a cord's rounded surface. Also, heat cords are less likely to kink around corners and uneven surfaces. Standard heating cords max out at around 900 degrees Fahrenheit, while high-temperature cords reach 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. It's also used predominantly for indoor heating applications. The main concern for you? Determining which one will work best for your heating project. Our site is filled with How-To videos and helpful blogs that will aid you in answering that question. And if you can't find what you're looking for there, give our heat trace products experts a call at (801) 896-8960.

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