What is Steam Tracing?

Mary McMahon

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.

Oil refineries often use steam tracing equipment.
Oil refineries often use steam tracing equipment.

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.

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Discussion Comments


I'm an Electrician/Instrument fitter and i have run quite a bit of steam trace. Yes the line has a supply, from which the steam comes, and either a return "which brings the steam back to the main supply" or a trap which lets the steam off into the air/build up pressure. Any questions, just shoot away!


Yes, in the food industry. particularly with hydrogenated oils which need to be kept above 140 f.


I found myself wondering what some of the other materials are that would need to be heated as they go through a pipe. Like the article mentions, oil is the obvious choice, since it is relatively thick and wouldn't flow well.

Can this system be used in food processing, or does that violate some type of federal regulation? I could see where something like sugar water or syrup could be heated and transported to make the system move quicker.

I can't really think of any other examples besides oil that are not food related. Does anyone have any ideas?


So, steam is one form of heat tracing, but what are some others?

The only thing that I could really think of is somehow using electricity to heat up a pipe. I would think you could find a way to run a set of wires next to a pipe that are charged. The heat from the excited wires would be able to keep the pipe at the right temperature.

I guess you could always use heaters or blowers next to the pipes, but this sounds like it would be inefficient.

Does anyone know of any more heat tracing systems, and which ones are the best and worst at doing the job?


@cardsfan27 - Good question. I would have to agree that there is some way for steam to escape the pipe system. I'm not a plumber or contractor, but I talk to my friend who somehow oversees the piping system in the factory where he works. They don't use steam tracing, but he was familiar with the system. He said that there are things called steam traps that can release the pressure.

They come in a lot of different types depending on the use, but the principles are the same. Once the pressure or temperature increases to a certain point, the valve is forced open and steam is allowed to exit.

I did a brief search online, and it looks like there is quite a bit of information about steam traps if you are interested.


I used to work at a factory that used a stream tracing system to deliver oil across the building. I always noticed that there were two pipes wrapped together, but I never recognized what the purpose was. Now I know.

I don't remember the system very well, but wouldn't it be possible for the steam to build up sometimes, much like it does in a radiator system? Are there some sort of release valves that are able to let steam escape the system? If not, how does the system work to manage pressure build up?

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