Steam tracing is a process that is designed to prevent heat loss as materials are moved through a plumbing system. A common application for this process is in the oil industry, where the plumbing at refineries is commonly fitted with steam tracing equipment. Using this technique allows manufacturers to control temperatures in their pipes, keeping their processes safe as well as efficient.
The general practice of heating piping as materials flow through it to keep the materials at a constant temperature and compensate for heat loss is known as heat tracing. In the case of steam tracing, the heat is accomplished with steam. Other options include electrical heat tracing, where electrical heating elements are wrapped around piping to provide a consistent supply of heat.
For steam tracing, a small diameter pipe is run alongside the large pipe used for moving materials. A conductive compound is smeared between the two pipes so heat will transfer easily from the steam pipe to the main pipe. Both pipes are wrapped in insulation and jacketing to minimize heat loss as much as possible and provide protection from the elements.
Steam tracing can be used to maintain a desired viscosity, prevent freezing of transported materials, or control temperatures to keep pressure within safe ranges. These systems can be found in a variety of industrial environments, along with the boilers and support equipment needed to keep the heat tracing system running.
When a steam tracing system is designed, an engineer must consider the materials being transported in the plumbing, the width of the main pipe, and the rate of anticipated heat loss once insulation is taken into account. This information is used to determine the width of the steam pipe, the type and thickness of the insulation, and other factors in the system. Keeping the design as efficient as possible from the start is very important to reduce costs associated with building and maintaining the heat tracing system.
Steam tracing tubing must be tough enough to withstand steady heating as well as the pressure associated with steam. While these systems are fairly stable and safe when designed properly, they still require relief valves and other safety measures that can be used to address concerns such as pressure buildups. It is also necessary to be able to periodically clean the pipework to remove built-up impurities deposited on the wall of the pipe over time. Service requirements for the main pipe must also be built into the design.