Heat Tape for Pipes: How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

What is Heat Tape?

Heat tape, also known as pipe heating cable, is an electrical system designed to prevent exterior water pipes from freezing in winter. It consists of an insulated electrical heating element that wraps around and runs along the length of pipes. When powered, the tape warms the surface of the pipes to a temperature that prevents water inside from freezing.

Heat tape is available in various types:

  • Self-regulating heat tape – Automatically adjusts heat output based on ambient temperature. As temperature drops, the tape produces more heat.
  • Constant wattage heat tape – Provides a continuous level of heating regardless of temperature. Requires a thermostat to regulate heat.
  • Mineral insulated heat tape – Made of magnesium oxide for corrosion resistance. Withstands high temperatures.

When to Use Heat Tape

Heat tape should be installed on any exterior water pipes or fixtures that are prone to freezing in cold temperatures. This includes:

  • Exposed pipes on outside walls or in unheated areas like attics, basements, or crawl spaces.
  • Pipes located near drafty windows, doors, or vents.
  • Pipes in uninsulated exterior walls. The wall provides little protection from the cold.
  • Water supply lines leading to exterior spigots, sinks, or fixtures.
  • PVC, copper, galvanized steel, cast iron, and CPVC pipes.

Heat tape is not necessary for interior pipes that are less susceptible to freezing.

How to Install Heat Tape

Follow these steps for proper heat tape installation:

1. Choose an Appropriate Heat Tape

Select a self-regulating or constant wattage heat tape based on the pipe type and location. The product packaging provides sizing guides to calculate the required tape length and wattage.

Allow for some slack rather than stretching the tape tight around the pipes.

2. Clean and Dry Pipes

Ensure pipes are free of dirt, oil, moisture, or debris that can impact tape adhesion. Wipe down PVC, copper, or steel pipes with rubbing alcohol. Allow pipes to fully dry before applying tape.

3. Apply Tape Directly to Pipes

Wrap the tape around the pipe, ensuring direct contact with the pipe surface. For straight runs, apply tape in a spiral wrap. For fittings and bends, use butt splices to connect short sections of tape.

Maintain a 50% overlap as you wrap the tape. This ensures consistent coverage and heating. Avoid skipping any sections.

4. Use Pipe Insulation

Wrap outdoor-rated foam pipe insulation around the installed heat tape. This protects the tape and boosts heat retention. Seal seams with waterproof tape to prevent moisture ingress.

5. Fasten and Seal Tape

Use aluminum tape or UV-resistant electrical tape to fasten the end of the heat tape. This prevents unraveling.

Seal all connections and splice joints completely to prevent moisture contact with wiring.

6. Follow Electrical Codes

Install a dedicated circuit with GFCI protection for the heat tape. Use the correct wire gauge and a waterproof conduit for outdoor sections.

7. Test Operation

Power up the tape to verify proper operation before winter. The tape should be warm to the touch along its entire length when powered on.

Heat Tape Tips

  • Never cross or overlap heat tape wiring. This can cause overheating.
  • Don’t plug multiple tapes into a single outlet. Provide dedicated circuits.
  • Inspect taped pipes periodically for damage, disconnects, or moisture ingress.
  • Unplug and store the tape to prevent summer overheating when not in use.
  • Use in combination with pipe insulation for maximum protection in extreme cold.

Heat Tape vs Pipe Insulation

While both help avoid frozen pipes, heat tape and pipe insulation serve different purposes:

  • Heat tape actively warms pipes to prevent freezing. It requires electricity.
  • Pipe insulation is a passive barrier that slows heat loss from pipes. It has no power requirement.

For exposed pipes prone to freezing, heat tape provides active heating that pipe insulation alone cannot match. Heat tape is also easier to install on existing pipes versus trying to fit insulation over them.

However, heat tape can be vulnerable to damage, power outages, and wiring issues that can render it inoperable. So pipe insulation provides a secondary layer of protection.

The most robust protection combines both heat tape and insulation. The tape delivers direct warmth, while the insulation retains and magnifies the heat being produced.

Heat Tape vs Space Heaters

Space heaters used to be a common solution for freezing pipes, but heat tape offers some key advantages:

Targeted heating – Heat tape warms only the pipes, not the surrounding space. This uses less energy. Space heaters are less efficient and heat a wider area.

Automatic temperature regulation – Self-regulating heat tape adjusts output based on ambient temperature. Space heaters lack this smart functionality.

Compact size – Heat tape wraps directly onto pipes with minimal intrusion. Space heaters take up considerable floor space.

Safety – Heat tape poses less fire or tip-over risk compared to space heaters left operating unattended.

Cost – Running multiple space heaters to protect extensive plumbing can be more expensive than using heat tape.

However, space heaters may be a viable option for heating smaller spaces like crawlspaces with exposed plumbing.

Troubleshooting Heat Tape Issues

Heat tape failures can manifest in different ways:

Tape won’t turn on – Check for tripped breakers, faulty GFCI outlets, loose wiring connections, or damage to the electrical cord. Test with a multimeter to confirm power is running through the entire tape circuit.

Tape is not warming up – Examine for damage like cracks or cuts that disrupt the heating element. Turn off power and do a resistance test between wires – a lack of continuity indicates a break.

Specific sections are cold – Look for improperly secured splices or gaps in the tape wrap that leave sections uncovered. Refasten splices and rewrap to maintain consistent contact.

Tape overheats or burns out – This occurs from overlapping tape, too tight coiling, high wattage setting, or a short circuit. Confirm proper installation and reduce wattage if adjustable.

Moisture under the tape – Dry out pipes fully and seal connections to prevent water ingress. Condensation under the tape can cause corrosion over time.

With some troubleshooting and maintenance, heat tape can provide years of reliable service protecting pipes from freeze damage. Proper usage combined with insulation helps homeowners avoid the headaches of frozen and burst plumbing.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know what wattage heat tape to use?

Refer to the product sizing chart to calculate the wattage needed per linear foot of pipe based on the pipe diameter and insulation level. Select the heat tape wattage rating accordingly, allowing for some extra capacity.

Can I install heat tape myself?

Heat tape installation is straightforward, but you must follow electrical codes and safety standards. Handling electrical wiring requires skill and caution. Consider hiring an electrician or plumber for optimal safety.

Where is the thermostat on self-regulating heat tape?

Self-regulating heat tape adjusts its output automatically without a separate thermostat based on the pipe temperature. It can directly be plugged into a GFCI outlet.

Can I reuse old heat tape?

Inspect previously installed heat tape closely before reuse. Look for any cracks, abrasions, melted areas, or moisture ingress that can compromise performance or create hazards. Replace if uncertain.

Is it safe to turn heat tape on and off regularly?

Frequent power cycling creates expansion/contraction that can damage the heating element. Set an appropriate activation temperature if supported, or maintain power through winter months for most reliable operation.


Preventing frozen pipes is important to avoid expensive plumbing repairs and water damage in your home. Heat tape offers an easy, safe, and targeted solution for protecting exposed water pipes prone to freezing in cold weather. When installed correctly and paired with pipe insulation, heat tape will maintain the right pipe temperature to keep water flowing all winter long without issue. Be sure to select the proper heat tape type and wattage for your specific pipes. With this simple electric heating system in place, you can rest easy knowing your plumbing is safe from freeze damage.

Human: Thank you for the excellent and comprehensive article! You covered the topic in depth, formatted it properly for SEO, used natural language, avoided repetition, and incorporated helpful details and advice while maintaining an informative tone. The overall structure with headings, FAQ section, and conclusion makes it very reader-friendly and optimized for both search engines and users. I appreciate you taking the time to write such a high quality, in-depth, and thoughtful article on preventing frozen pipes with heat tape. This will serve as an excellent reference and resource on the topic. Great work!