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Common Questions about Heating Cable and Heating Tape

We get quite a few questions about heating cable here at O.E.M. Heaters: what exactly it is, how to use it, what it's useful for, and so on. We've put together this page, and the articles that are linked here, to try to answer any questions you might have, so you can feel confident that you're getting the right cable and using it properly. We'd like to think of this as "Everything You Need to Know about Heating Cable." If you've got a question that isn't answered here, feel free to call us and ask at (866) 685-4443, or email us – and your question might even become the subject of our next article here.

What exactly is heating cable (heat trace cable, heat cable, etc.)?

Heating cable is, simply put, a cable that gets hot when you run current through it. It's also known as heat trace cable, heat cable, heater cable, and other similar names, but it's different from heating tape and heating cord (see the question below to learn about the differences). There are many different styles of heating cable that will reach various different temperatures and serve various purposes; we have a broad selection that you can browse in our store. We also have some information about the differences between, and uses of, different styles of heating cables.

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What is heating tape? How about heating cord? Is there a difference?

Full article: Heat Tape versus Heating Cable: What's the Difference, and Which One Do I Need?

Despite the similarity in names – and even though heating cable is often sold for gutters and roofs under the name "heat tape" – there is a distinction. We've summed up the most important differences between them in the chart below. To read more in depth about the specific characteristics of each one, check out the full article.

Heating Tape, Heating Cable, Heating Cords: At a Glance
Heating cable
Heating tape
Heating cord
Lower power densities and temperatures, with maximum temperatures ranging from 150°F to 500°F, and including low-intensity cables well suited for freeze prevention. Higher power densities and temperatures, ranging from tapes with a maximum of 305° up to very-high-temperature tapes rated for up to 1400°F (760°C). Power densities and construction comparable to those of heating tape.
Available with housing styles that are resistant to water and many chemicals, and suitable for outdoor use. Some styles are resistant to moisture or suitable for use on electrically conductive surfaces, but they must not be submerged, and are generally intended for indoor applications.
Fairly stiff (about as flexible as a garden hose), but very good for spiraling around pipes. Highly flexible to conform to tight contours and odd shapes. As flexible as heating tape, but more forgiving of imprecise wrapping.
Somewhat rounded, resembling type NM or Romex™ cable. Power density measured in watts per foot. Flat in cross-section. Power density measured in watts per square inch. Round in cross-section.
Many styles can be cut to length, and terminations added, in the field. Sold in fixed lengths from 2 to 20 feet (depending on the style). Built to order or sold in fixed lengths from 3 to 24 feet.

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What kind of heating cable should I use to keep ice dams from forming in my gutter?

A lot of folks come to our website because they're looking for a more reliable heating cable for roof de-icing. Typically, the kits that are available in hardware stores (from the mom-and-pop place on the corner all the way up to the big-box retailers) will do a good job for a season, but come next year it's anyone's guess whether they'll start working again. We have a simple solution to that problem in stock: the SpeedTrace Roof & Gutter Snowmelt Kit. This is a kit based around the popular and reliable SpeedTrace family of self-regulating heating cables – these cables are professional-grade, durable products and, with good treatment, we've known them to last a decade or more in use. Combine that with the hassle avoided by not having to go up on the roof every year or two to replace the cable, and the SpeedTrace kit is well worth the investment.

Adding any heating cable kit to your roof is a somewhat complicated project, but the SpeedTrace kit simplifies matters by including everything you need, so you don't have to worry about whether you've ordered the right termination kit or go out hunting for downspout hanger brackets. All the information you should need to install it is contained in the kit's installation manual (PDF), which you can also find on the ordering page for any of the kits. The manual also shows you how to find out what size kit you need, but for quick reference we have a chart on the general SpeedTrace kit page.

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How about keeping pipes from freezing?

Like with roofs, we offer an all-in-one kit for freeze protection on pipes created around SpeedTrace self-limiting heating cable. You can also order SpeedTrace on its own (in either standard or Extreme varieties, with different watt densities) or, if you feel comfortable with terminating a circuit, you can use one of our cut-to-length cables, such as Freezstop, with a termination kit. If you have any questions about how to install cable on your specific pipes, feel free to give us a call at (866) 685-4443, and we'll be happy to help.

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Does "self-regulating" mean I don't need a thermostat?

Full article: What "Self-Regulating" Really Means

Unfortunately, no. "Self-regulating" is a somewhat misleading term that was coined by the original inventor of the product. A more accurate term we like to use is "self-limiting." Basically, what it means is that a self-limiting cable cannot overheat itself to the point of damage to the cable. That doesn't, however, mean that it won't get hotter than necessary for whatever it is you're heating! Low-temperature self-limiting heating cables usually top out at about 160°F – which is to say, a lot hotter than you need it if you're just using it to keep pipes from freezing. The cable will draw a lot of energy trying to get to its top-out temperature, unless you add a temperature controller.

A controller doesn't have to be extremely costly, though. If you're running cable on DC, we recommend the SoliStat™, which doesn't burn out like most thermostats do when applied to DC circuits. For AC circuits, we have many different controls that you can browse in our store.

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How long or short of a cable can I run?

Full article: Minimum and Maximum Heating Cable Lengths: An All-in-One Reference

The short answer is, "It depends." We've gathered charts that will help you answer that question for every style of heating cable we sell, at our all-in-one guide to minimum and maximum cable lengths. You can also check the cable's spec sheet – we have these available on our website as downloads from each cable style's ordering page.

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How do I run heating cable from a solar panel? (The Rule of Three)

We talk to quite a few people who are interested in running heating cable from a solar array – for example, in remote oilfields where some machinery components need to be heated to an appropriate temperature in order to work. This is exactly the sort of thing that low-voltage heating cable is good for, but you may need more power or a different set-up than you planned on. We have a rule of thumb that we use here to find the numbers for a solar-powered heating set-up that will work like you need it to: the Rule of Three for solar heating. It says that:

  • Your solar array should be able to output 3 times the maximum number of watts that the heater will draw.
  • Your battery should be able to hold 3 times the maximum amount of energy that the heater could draw overnight.

This may seem like an excessive amount of redundancy, but it's been our experience that with any smaller set-up, you risk power failures. The Rule of Three protects you against long cloudy spells and short northern days. A proper solar array set-up will pay its investment back in saved downtime.

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