When the weather is cold, providing heat insulation can help prevent freezing problems like icicle formation and ice dams. However, in extremely cold conditions, mere insulation would be insufficient.
So, what is the solution?
Heat tapes are very handy in these situations. Again, heat tapes may do their job well but come with their own set of disadvantages. The most prominent among them is the high energy consumption and consequent surge in your energy bills.
No doubt heat tapes are essential to protect various household articles and help them function smoothly. But this gain is offset by the high energy cost it incurs. How can we overcome this hurdle?
Solar powered heat tapes are the answer to our prayers. As the name suggests, this product taps on the free power made available by the sun. These tapes can do the work as well without consuming electricity and adding to your financial burden. Seems interesting? Read on.
This article takes an in-depth look at solar heat tapes. You will find all the information you may need about this wonder product. Here you will find answers to your common questions like how these tapes work, where you can use them, and what to look for when shopping for them.
What is the purpose of solar heat tape?
In colder regions, during the winter months, any household article with water content or moisture will freeze. Ice/icicle formation can prevent their normal functioning and may even cause permanent damage to them. The reason is the larger volume of ice for the same quantity of water.
Covering these materials with heat tapes can prevent this problem. However, conventional heat tapes use electricity to maintain temperature. This results in high energy bills.
You can achieve the same result without incurring any cost when using solar heat tapes. By utilizing solar power, these tapes can ensure the desired temperature and prevent freezing in cold conditions.
Parts of a solar heat tape
A solar powered heat tape needs to have a solar panel to convert solar energy into a usable form. It also needs an inverter, battery, an MPPT, and a cabinet for easy integration.
Let’s understand each component one by one.
This is an essential constituent of this system. The function of a solar panel is to harness solar power and turn it into electricity. This is the component that helps in supplying heat without consuming energy from the grid.
While installing, care should be taken to place the solar panel close enough to avoid long-winding cables.
Another vital component for the functioning of this system. The electricity generated by the solar panels is Direct Current or DC. The heat tapes can use only Alternating Current or AC. This means an inverter is needed to convert DC to AC.
For round-the-clock heating, a battery is essential to the setup. Being solar-powered, this heating system cannot produce power 24×7. At night or whenever the sun is not shining, we need backup power to keep the system going. That is the function of a battery. It stores electricity generated by the solar panels for use when it is unable to generate energy.
MPPT charge controller
Maximum Power Point Tracking is a technique to regulate the charge flowing into the battery. This helps in avoiding overcharging the battery and extending its lifetime. The MPPT charge controller is an integral part of all solar systems.
As this system is usually kept outdoors and exposed to the elements of nature, it is vital to keep the components, except solar panels, safe in a cabinet.
How to install solar heat tape?
The first step when shopping for a solar powered heat tape is to get a rough estimate of the length of tape required for your purpose. In case you are unable to find the exact length, go in for the closest one on the higher side.
These are the steps you need to take at the time of installation.
1) Estimate the length of tape needed
Even though you may have made a rough estimate earlier, before installing it, you can check it once again. Measure the surface that needs to be covered. Also, take into account the lowest temperature you can expect during the coldest days.
You may refer to the recommendations made by the manufacturer as to how much length of tape you need to use to get optimal performance.
2) Prepare the surface
Once you have identified the surface for installing the heat tape, the next step is to remove the dirt and debris. The surface needs to be clean and ready for installing the heat tape.
The presence of dust, grime, and residues may trigger sparks and may even result in the material catching fire. Installing heat tape on an unclean surface can destroy the very thing you are trying to protect.
3) Wrap the tape without gaps
The surface needs to be covered with heat tape completely. Take care to wrap it tightly. Leaving gaps or tying them loosely will not serve the purpose. To keep the heat tape in position, you may use electrical tape.
4) Fix the insulation layer
Giving an extra layer of insulation over the heat tape can help in protecting the heat tape itself and the article it is intended to protect. An insulation layer can also prolong the life of the heat tape and the material from severe weather conditions.
More than anything, providing insulation helps in keeping the heat in and reduces heat loss. As weatherproofing can be beneficial, opting for foam insulation would be a good choice.
Typically an insulation cover works the best when it is shaped the same as the article. For instance, insulation for pipes comes in a cylindrical shape.
5) Hook up the tape to the solar system
Now that the heat tape is in place and well-insulated, it is time to connect it with the energy source. Here, you need to plug it into the inverter.
Before finishing the installation, it is recommended to run a test. Here are some precautionary measures you should carry out before leaving it plugged in 24×7.
- Ensure that the article on which you are installing the heat tape is not touching the ground. If it does, it may result in power surges as the heat tape is grounded.
- Keep the heat tape running only when there is water present on the surface.
- Take care to remove all flammable materials from the vicinity.
- Try not to use an extension cable to connect the heat tape with the inverter. This may interfere with the grounding.
- Make sure that the material on which heat tape is installed doesn’t melt when it comes in contact with the heated-up tape.
Remember that a shabbily installed heat tape is a major fire risk. Check and double-check the installation before leaving it switched on round the clock. It is highly recommended to test it at least once.
Testing a solar heat tape
As there are risks involved and the stakes are high, it would be worthwhile to check it once more and conduct a dry run. Here are the steps recommended for this.
- Remove the plug of the heat tape from the inverter.
- Set aside the insulation covering the heat tape.
- Run your hand over the heat tape to detect any anomalies or defects like cracks.
- Check the performance of the heat tape during the dry run. You can do it with a waterproof bag filled with ice. As there won’t be water flowing out, there is no risk involved in this.
- Keep it on top of the tape for half an hour. Once it gets sufficiently cold, plug in the power cord of the heat tape to the inverter. Now, the heat tape should generate heat.
In case you don’t detect any warmth in the heat tape, you can assume that there is a defect in it. As the defect is not easy to detect, you may have to throw away the entire heat tape and install a new one in its place.
Do this test until you are getting a positive result. Then and only then do you know that the system is performing the way it should.
Working of solar heat tapes explained
The function of a solar powered heat tape is to keep the article from freezing over in extreme weather conditions. Being powered by the sun’s energy, it manages to achieve this without consuming energy from the grid.
This heat tape comes with a heat conducting material inside, running the entire length. This conducting material is so chosen that it has high resistance. When electricity flows through this conductor, due to its high resistance, some of the electricity will get converted into heat energy.
The heat thus generated helps in melting the snow accumulating on top of it. By keeping the temperature in the normal range, the heat tape prevents ice/icicle formation outside or inside the object. This way, you can avoid the trouble of clearing the snow with a broom.
A solar heat tape is capable of generating temperatures in the range of 500-1000°F. As in the case of a conventional heat tape, a solar-powered one also consumes around 9W of electricity for every linear foot of surface to be heated. The advantage of using solar heat tape is that this doesn’t get added to your energy bills.
A point to remember here is not to run the heat tape in warmer weather conditions. This heat tape does come with a built-in thermostat but it is recommended not to keep it running when there is no snow.
Features of a solar heat tape
At the time of buying a solar heat tape, you should pay attention to these specifications to get the best one for your situation.
Power-rating of the panel
The efficiency of the heat tape in keeping the object from freezing over depends on how much heat it can generate. That means how much energy it consumes. To ensure the good performance of the heat tape, it has to be paired with a solar panel with a rating of 10W to 20W.
If the climate is too cold or the area that needs to be covered is extensive, the heat tape should be linked with a larger solar panel or a series of several smaller panels.
Voltage of the heat tape
The voltage of the system differs from brand to brand. However, usually, heat tapes are available in 12 volts, 24 volts, 36 volts, 48 volts, and 120 volts.
As the voltage goes up, the heat tape can produce more heat.
Size of the heat tape
This depends entirely on the surface to be covered by the heat tape. Different brands have standardized the length of heat tape made available in the market. It is in the range 1m – 20m (3.25ft – 65ft).
Operating temperature for the heat tape
If the heat tape is left running when there is no snow, it is a fire hazard. It is dangerous and not recommended. The temperature limit for running a heat tape is typically 32°F.
Even if your solar heat tape comes equipped with a thermostat, you should not just rely on it alone. It may malfunction and allow the heat tape to run even when the temperature is above 32°F. For your own safety, you should keep track of this and if necessary, manually switch it off.
Flexibility of the heat tape
The heat tape needs to be flexible enough to wrap it around objects of any shape. As heat tapes are most commonly used on water pipes, this is a vital feature to check at the time of buying.
Price of the solar heat tape
In comparison with conventional heat tapes, the cost of solar-powered ones is on the higher side because of the additional cost of the solar panels. Inverter, battery, and MPPT charge controller.
The high upfront cost may seem daunting but you also need to take into consideration the running cost of the two kinds of heat tapes. The running cost is high for conventional ones while solar heat tapes will not incur any expenditure.
Where can you use solar heat tapes?
For home use, these heat tapes are ideal to protect roofs, water pipes, hoses, and gas regulators. Or, anything else that tends to freeze. Solar powered heat tape for pipes, heat tape for gutters, and roof heat tape are the most popular.
The commercial application of heat tapes is in various processes in manufacturing units. It’s also common to install solar heat tapes on vehicle windshields to control snow pileups.
Frequently asked questions
The function remains the same for both - providing heating to surfaces that freeze in cold climates. However, they differ in their physical features and thereby in their applications.
Heat cables are stiffer and hence difficult to wrap around uneven and oddly-contoured surfaces. Their best application is on rooftops and pipes.
Heat cables come with the advantage of length. While heat tapes are available only in set lengths, heat cables come in bigger rolls from which it is possible to get the length we want. This is possible because it is easier to fix terminals at the end of the cables.
Heat cables have a better tolerance to defects in the product as well as installation. This makes them much easier to install than heat tapes.
Solar heat tape is a fire hazard when allowed to run when the temperature is above 32°F. Snow needs to be present for the safe functioning of the heat tape. Besides this, leaving solar powered heat tapes plugged in even when the temperature is higher is a waste of electricity.
Even if you are not paying anything for the solar power used in this case, it can be put to better use otherwise. Wasting it unnecessarily is not considered a good practice.
In worst-case scenarios, this may even result in triggering a fire.
A solar heat tape comes with a battery just for this purpose. When the sun is shining, the battery will store excess energy generated. This is used up when the sun is not shining to provide heat.
As the battery has a limit on energy storage capacity, the heat tape will function as long as the battery can provide electricity.
However, in practice, this doesn’t work very well. When drawing power from the battery, solar powered heat tapes are not as efficient. It will end up wasting the energy stored in the battery.
If using solar-powered what tapes, it is recommended to turn it on during the daytime and switch it off at night. Having an automatic timer can help with this.
Running it when the temperature is above 32°F is a definite fire hazard. With no water from melting snow present, the heat may result in sparks. Dust particles and dry debris on the surface may catch fire.
Another reason for the heat tapes to trigger fire is the structural damage found in them. Moreover, if the heat tape system doesn’t have a regulating mechanism to control the temperature with changes in atmospheric temperature, the surface may heat up uncontrollably leading to sparks.
Though this may sound frightening, you can easily avoid this eventuality by switching it off when the temperature crosses 32°F.
Heat tapes have become essential in parts of the world experiencing severe winters. Having a solar powered heat tape helps in limiting your energy use from the grid and keeping the energy bills low. It’s convenient, efficient, and cost-effective.
For those who live off the grid, this is a blessing. Solar-powered roof heat tape can help you avoid the hassle of climbing to the roof and removing the accumulated snow. Only those who have done this will understand the true benefits of solar heat tape.
Check our solar panel buying guide if you are planning to buy solar panels for your home. This will help you choose the right product for your needs.