The future is ‘smart’ 

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Garrett Walsh, P.E., control and monitoring product manager at nVent, assesses the benefits of smart technology in electric heat-tracing systems. 

Progress in the world of industrial processing and production is closely linked to the development of new heat-tracing technology. Since the introduction of the self-regulating electric heat tracing (EHT) cable in the early 1970s, processes have become increasingly complex, with specifiers demanding a greater level of accuracy and energy efficiency than ever before. In applications requiring the maintenance of moderate to low temperatures in particular, self-regulating technology provided considerable improvement over traditional constant wattage cables. 

More cost competitive and simpler in terms of infrastructure and planning, self-regulating systems provided the ability to automatically adjust power output based on localised heat loss. This was the first step in the evolution of smarter, more reliable heat tracing systems. Today, as the industry becomes even more specialised, the demand for more efficient systems has culminated in another technological development: the introduction of ‘smart’ heat-tracing. 

Smarter solutions

Offering comprehensive connectivity, insight and control, smart heat-tracing systems integrate EHT data with Distributed Control Systems (DCS) to allow open communication and real-time monitoring. Such systems are already being adopted to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs, suggesting that the debate over the coming years will be when, not whether, to adopt smart electrical heat-tracing equipment. 

What are the benefits companies can expect from ‘smart’ heat-tracing? As systems become ever more sophisticated, what does the future hold for the heat-tracing industry? 

Smart, connected and cost-effective

The remote monitoring capabilities and advanced connectivity of smart systems offer significant advantages for a range of applications: from chemical production to tank storage and offshore oil and gas facilities. Whereas traditional monitoring devices such as thermostats require regular manual maintenance checks, smart system controllers can eliminate the need for these checks and associated costs by connecting and integrating every EHT system component. This allows EHT data from any point in the system to be delivered digitally to where it can be used. 

This digital method of monitoring allows real-time status to be presented instantly – making the location and cause of faults easily identifiable and helping to reduce the need for costly site interventions. With smart monitoring, engineers are also better equipped to make informed decisions regarding the severity of an issue and to prevent unscheduled system shutdowns. This not only results in increased uptime and fewer unnecessary stoppages, but also ensures heat-tracing systems operate as safely and efficiently as possible. 

Smart systems can also significantly increase performance and value in freeze-protection applications. Traditional heat-tracing systems are designed for worst case scenarios during the coldest months, leaving them oversized and inefficient throughout the majority of the year. 

New smarter systems can accurately calculate the precise level of power needed based on current conditions and make intelligent control decisions resulting in significant energy savings, helping to reduce total operating costs (TOC). With these benefits taken into account, the energy and cost savings offered by intelligent heat-tracing helps offset the total installed costs (TIC) of the system, making these systems the smart choice for a variety of applications. 

Smarter is safer 

System insight is arguably the most powerful tool in the plant engineer’s arsenal in terms of ensuring safe and reliable operations. Without complete knowledge of the status of each component, faults may not be identified until they become critical issues, and key decisions may be delayed while data is gathered from disparate parts of the system. The advanced connectivity offered by smart heat-tracing technology delivers this timely insight, enabling the integration of heat trace data into process control, power management and maintenance management systems. 

This allows engineers to assess information from all areas of a system simultaneously and in-real time, enabling them to quickly make informed decisions. This capturing of historical data and analysis of trends provides a more proactive approach to plant safety. The implications of these comprehensive insights for operational reliability and safety are significant, minimising the chances of system shutdowns. 

What’s next?

What can we expect from smart heat-tracing in the future? While safety and reliability continue to be paramount, technology will play an increasing role in maximising production. Managers and engineers, in particular, value the opportunity to better understand how their systems are working to stay abreast of the status of their operation at all times. 

The value of systems that provide this highly accurate, real-time test and measurement data will only increase as more components become smarter and connected. Whatever the next few years bring in terms of technological developments and new products, it seems that the future of heat-tracing is looking ‘smart’.