Updated: May 18
It might surprise you to discover that heat wire is good for a few things other than roof heating and pipe trace. One of the best self-regulating heating elements out there, and the only one we like to use, is Drexan heat cable. So, when we’re talking about using heat trace products for other projects, we mean a high-quality, self-regulating cable like Drexan. The wire is encased in a rugged, polyolefin jacket that’s resistant to water and ultraviolet rays, and it adjusts its heat output according to ambient conditions, so you won’t have to worry about it overheating or underperforming.
Note, most heat cable companies don’t have specific design guides for some of these different uses, so you’ll likely have to do a little experimenting to see what set-up best fits your needs. Your best bet will be to talk with an expert in ice dam prevention products for specific electrical questions or consult the internet to see what others have put together.
1. Winter Gardening
Think you would need a greenhouse to garden in the winter? Nope. Heat trace cable is great for keeping the soil warm enough to germinate seeds and grow plants and flowers during the icy cold winter months. According to a company contact, one Drexan customer in British Columbia, Canada, comes in and regularly buys heat trace cable for growing his tomatoes year-round. Home-grown tomatoes in February? Say less! When it comes to ideal growing conditions, the temperature above the ground doesn't matter to a plant. It's the temperature of the soil that's important. Since soil isn't a great heat conductor, though, you'll need to do a little more than just burying the cable. You can either build an above-ground heat bench or create a heat bed in the ground. For a heat bench, you'll need to put together a planting box that's about eight to 10 inches deep. Begin by covering the bottom with an inch or two of foam insulation board. Since wet sand is a better heat conductor, you next want to line the box with a heavy waterproof polythene sheet to keep the moisture inside. Make sure to have sufficient lining to extend well over the box frame. Next comes an inch or two of sand to cover the bottom. Lay the cable in a zig-zag fashion across the surface, so it is about 3-4 inches apart, just like in that of a heated blanket or mat. Then cover with another layer of sand, water thoroughly, and smooth the surface. Plug your heat cable into a thermostat, set the temperature, and place your seedling trays right on top of the sand. Cover it with a cold frame if your box is outside to protect it from heavy winds or snow. The process for an in-ground bed is similar. You'll need to dig a square or rectangle hole about eight inches deep. Next, pour two inches of sand in the hole, zig-zag the cable along the surface, and then cover with another two inches of sand. Place a hardware cloth onto the sand, and then cover with about four inches of topsoil. All you need to do is plant the seeds, enclose the area in a cold frame, and you're done.
2. Reptile Habitat and Fish Pond Heating
Have you ever wondered what happens to Koi and goldfish in an outdoor pond in winter? They hibernate at the bottom of the pond and live quite happily through the cold. However, suppose it's cold enough where your small, backyard pond freezes over. In that case, the fish will gradually become starved for oxygen. The ammonia build-up from their waste and other dead, decaying plants can also dangerously toxify their living environment. Imagine swimming in your toilet bowl with zero opportunity to come up for fresh air. Ewww! If you have outdoor fishies, it's a great idea to secure a waterproof, self-regulating heating cable to the bottom of the pond to keep the water at a consistent temperature to prevent the surface from freezing over. The fish don't need to be toasty warm, but they do need to have fresh air. Letting the pump run all winter also will help filter out all that waste, keeping your fish and pond plants alive and happy. More and more reptile owners see heat tracing wire as the ideal substitute for traditional reptile aquarium heaters, as it is not as bulky and can be hidden under the enclosure floor. Heat cable also does a better job distributing the heat evenly throughout the enclosure and can function in terrariums with both water and land features. While pet stores sell special reptile heat cable kits, you can easily use any self-regulating tape and attach it with clips. The key is to use a thermostat to set the right temperature for the habitat.
3. RV Cold-Camping
Gone are the days where you need to put your recreational vehicle in cold storage for the winter. Do you want to escape to the mountains to enjoy some snow sports or a bit of seclusion? Heat tracing and freeze protection products will make that possible and won't break your generator budget. The most important things to keep warm are your RV's water pipes. Start by wrapping in aluminum foil the freshwater hose that will extend from your RV's water compartment to the main water connection at your campsite. The metal's conductivity will help distribute the cable's heat more evenly along the hose, as well as protect your rubber hose from possible heat damage. Next, take the wrapped hose and place it into a split-foam tube, securing the heat wire in a straight line along the hose inside. Wrap the hose this way from a few inches inside the water compartment to the campsite's water inlet. Finally, duct tape the split-foam seams to ensure your hose stays fully encapsulated. Connect the hose inside the water compartment to the sealed hose from the outside and turn on the water to check the water pressure and for leaks. Once everything looks good, you'll want to protect the site's water inlet as well. Using the same method, wrap the inlet tube in foil, extend the heating cable along the tube and enclose it in a split-foam tube. Since the split-foam likely won't fit over the spigot, you can instead wrap this with heat wire insulation tape. You should be able to plug in your heat cable and thermostat at the site's electrical hook-up station, usually co-located with the water main. If you're worried about your greywater (sewer) hose freezing and backing up, you can wrap it much the same way. Since this hose is a lot bigger than your fresh water hose, however, you're better off wrapping your heat trace cable around the hose and then covering it with the larger insulation tape. If the temperature drops significantly, you may also want to keep a hundred-watt bulb turned on within the water compartment to keep that area warm. Of course, even if you don't have a snake, fish pond, garden, or RV, we recommend keeping some extra heat cable around if you need it for some other creative project that sparks your imagination. Just don't hide it away in a box where you'll never find it.