As temperatures start to drop each winter, every homeowner dreads the possibility of waking up to find frozen or burst pipes. Dealing with the extensive water damage, mold, and repairs can be a nightmare. The good news is this common plumbing problem can easily be avoided with heat tape. Properly installing the right heat tape provides freeze protection and keeps water flowing all winter long.
Follow our tips below and you can avoid the hassle, headaches, and costly damage from frozen pipes for good.
Determine If You Need Heat Tape
Heat tape is essential for pipes that are most prone to freezing. This includes any pipes located in unheated or uninsulated areas like attics, crawlspaces, and basements. Pipes running against exterior walls or foundations are also at high risk when temperatures plummet.
Check for these signs your pipes may need heat tape:
- Your pipes have frozen or burst before
- Sections of pipe lack sufficient insulation
- You have galvanized, copper, or PEX pipes in unheated zones
- Your climate experiences long stretches below freezing
If your pipes are already properly insulated, heat tape may not be necessary. Insulation alone can keep pipes sufficiently warm in some cases. However, adding heat tape provides an extra layer of freeze protection.
Choose the Right Heat Tape
Self-Regulating vs. Thermostat Models
There are two main types of heat tape to choose from:
Self-regulating heat tape adjusts its heat output based on the ambient temperature around the pipe. As it gets colder, the tape ramps up the heat. When temperatures increase, it automatically dials back its output. This eliminates the risk of energy waste and overheating.
Thermostat heat tapes require a separate thermostat controller to regulate temperature. The thermostat should be placed at the end of the pipe run where it’s coldest. You then set your desired temperature on the controller. The tape maintains a constant output of heat.
Self-regulating heat tape is easier to install and generally recommended for DIYers. Thermostat models provide more precise control but require careful setup of the external thermostat.
Measure the total length of pipe that requires freeze protection and then add a few extra feet. This accounts for wrapping at joints and corners. Measure from where the pipe exits the heated space all the way to the faucet or appliance.
Heat tape is sold in a range of standard lengths like 10, 25, 30 or 50 feet. Buy enough tape to cover the full run of pipe measured with a little extra wiggle room.
Also factor in these variables when selecting your heat tape:
- Indoor vs. outdoor rated: Outdoor tapes are waterproof and durable
- Plastic vs. metal pipes: Certain tapes work better with PEX or copper
- Higher wattage for colder climates: More power equals more heat
Read manufacturer guidelines carefully and pick an appropriate option for your specific needs.
With the right heat tape purchased, proper installation is critical. Follow these key steps:
Prepare the Pipe
Ensure the pipe surface under where the tape will go is clean and dry. Remove any debris, dust or moisture so the tape makes flush contact.
Attach the Tape
Wrap the heat tape directly onto the pipe, following the product’s recommended spacing. Avoid compressing or bunching the tape too tightly. Secure it firmly in place with the included adhesive or plastic zip ties as you work your way down the pipe.
Connect the heat tape to a grounded, GFCI electrical outlet. Outdoor tapes must be plugged into a weatherproof outlet. An electrician can hardwire the tape directly if needed.
If using a thermostat heat tape, ensure the external thermostat is placed properly in the coldest part of the pipe run. Double check it’s making direct contact with the pipe to accurately sense temperature.
Perform Regular Maintenance
Don’t install and forget heat tape. Carry out these maintenance steps:
- Inspect tape integrity before each winter. Replace if damaged.
- Test thermostat settings and confirm tape is heating up.
- Check tape connection points have not come loose.
- Monitor tape throughout winter for any issues.
Well-maintained heat tape will provide years of dependable freeze protection.
If you discover frozen pipes despite installing heat tape, determine if:
- The thermostat needs adjustment to a slightly higher temperature.
- There is an issue with the tape’s power connection or circuit breaker.
- The tape has become damaged or detached from the pipe.
Address any underlying problems to get your heat tape working properly again.
Equipping your vulnerable water pipes with heat tape is a surefire way to prevent freezing, bursting, and catastrophic damage this winter. Choose the right product for your needs, carefully follow installation guidelines, and carry out regular maintenance. With this freeze protection in place, you can rest easy knowing your pipes are prepared for winter’s worst.