‘Heat Tape’ vs. ‘Heat Cable’

What is the difference between heat tape and heat cable? 

In short, nothing. The terms heat cable and heat tape are used interchangeably to describe a special class of wires that use electrical resistance to generate heat. Heat tape and heat cable are the most common variations of the nomenclature but many others exist, including heat coils, gutter heating wires, heat trace and more. 

The primary types of heat cables include self-regulating, constant wattage, mineral insulated, and series resistance cables.

Self-Regulating Heat Cables:

These cables consist of a conductive polymer matrix that adjusts its electrical resistance based on temperature. As the temperature increases, the resistance increases, reducing the power output. This ensures that the cable won’t overheat, making it energy-efficient and safe to use. They are widely used in applications like pipe freeze protection, temperature maintenance for process piping, roof and gutter de-icing, and snow melting on walkways.

Constant Wattage Heat Cables:

These cables provide a constant heat output per unit length, regardless of the ambient temperature. They are often used in applications where a steady temperature is needed, such as process temperature maintenance, long pipeline heating, and tank heating. However, they require a separate temperature control system to prevent overheating. They are unfortunately also used for roof and gutter de-icing,  an application that has serious drawbacks that we discuss in our Case Studies. 

Mineral Insulated Heat Cables:

These cables consist of a conductive heating element, typically made of copper or nickel, surrounded by a layer of magnesium oxide insulation and enclosed within a metal sheath. Mineral insulated heat cables provide high power output, durability and can withstand high temperatures. They are ideal for applications in harsh environments, such as industrial process heating, fire-rated wiring, and high-temperature exposure in chemical plants or refineries. They are also frequently used in embedded applications such as pavement heating.

Series Resistance Heat Cables:

These cables consist of a continuous wire with fixed resistance per unit length. The length of the cable determines the overall resistance and power output. They are typically used in applications with lower power requirements and short circuit lengths, such as frost protection for pipes and tanks or floor heating.

Each type of heat cable has its unique features and is suited for specific applications. The choice of heat cable depends on factors like required temperature, power output, environmental conditions, and installation constraints. It’s crucial to understand the specific requirements of your application before selecting the appropriate heat cable solution.

A Brief History of Heat Cable

The history of heat cables can be traced back to the early 20th century, with some of the first recorded applications in the 1920s and 1930s. However, significant advancements in technology and increased demand for efficient heating solutions led to the development of various types of heat cables over the years. Here is a brief history of heat cables:

Early Developments (1920s-1930s):

The first recorded use of heat cables dates back to the 1920s when they were used to prevent the freezing of pipes and gutters. Early heat cables were simple, consisting of a single conductive wire wrapped around a pipe to provide heat. These systems were relatively inefficient and faced challenges such as uneven heat distribution and high energy consumption.

Constant Wattage Cables (1940s-1950s):

The development of constant wattage cables provided a more consistent heat output and better temperature control. These cables were composed of a resistance wire wrapped in an insulating material, delivering constant heat along the cable’s length. Constant wattage cables became popular in industrial applications such as process temperature maintenance and freeze protection.

Mineral Insulated Cables (1950s-1960s):

Mineral insulated cables were introduced as a more durable and high-temperature-resistant heating solution. These cables consist of a conductive heating element surrounded by a magnesium oxide insulation and enclosed within a metal sheath. Mineral insulated cables offered higher power output, longer service life, and resistance to harsh environments, making them suitable for various industrial applications.

Self-Regulating Cables (1970s):

In the early 1970s, self-regulating heat cables were developed, offering a more energy-efficient and safe heating solution. Self-regulating cables use a conductive polymer matrix that adjusts its electrical resistance based on temperature, preventing overheating and providing consistent heat output. They quickly gained popularity for applications such as pipe freeze protection, roof and gutter de-icing and process temperature maintenance.

Heat Cable Control Systems (1980s-Present):

With the advent of digital technology, heat cable systems have become more sophisticated and efficient. Advanced control systems are now capable of monitoring and adjusting heat output based on real-time temperature data. This has resulted in more accurate temperature control, energy savings, and improved safety in heat cable applications. One particularly innovative technology is the PowderWatts System, out of Utah. Click here to learn more about PowderWatts.

Today, heat cables are widely used across various industries for a range of applications, from residential pipe freeze protection to high-temperature process heating in refineries. Continued research and development in materials and control systems are expected to drive further innovation and efficiency in the heat cable industry.

Latest Technology (Present)

Radiant Solutions Company is proud to lead the self-regulating heat cable market in the development of numerous new technologies related to roof and gutter de-icing systems. We are inspired almost daily by the challenges brought to us by our contractors around North America. If you have a heat cable application problem without a current solution we want to know about it.