It's time to get smart - intelligent systems and the IoT

6th January 2021
Joe Bush

How intelligent systems and the Internet of Things (IoT) are transforming electric heat tracing operations – from industrial production to home heating. Thomas Vranken, Marketing Manager at nVent explains.

From smart washing machines to video-enabled doorbells - hyper-connected, intelligent technology is increasingly becoming a staple of modern living – and of electric heat tracing systems. At its most basic level, electric heat tracing compensates the heat loss from a pipe or other piece of equipment by the application of heating cables, with the objective to keep the contained liquid or surface at a constant temperature.

Heat tracing is often the unsung hero of many industries worldwide, protecting critical processes, assets and personnel. These essential applications include protecting surfaces from dangerous ice and snow, freeze protection for fire-fighting systems, ensuring water stays warm as it travels from boiler to sink, and keeping vital oil and other petrochemical pipelines flowing across countries. Beyond just tracing applications, heating cables have also found use in underfloor home heating systems as a highly effective alternative to hot water pipes.

Thanks to its foundational role in many industries, developments in heat tracing technology have often closely followed advancements in other fields. For example, the invention of the self-regulating electric heat tracing cable by the RAYCHEM corporation (now part of nVent) in the early 1970s came largely as a reaction to industrial processes becoming increasingly complex, with chemical engineers and specifiers demanding a greater level of safety, accuracy and energy efficiency than ever before. In applications requiring the maintenance of moderate-to-low temperatures in particular, self-regulating technology provided a considerable improvement over traditional constant wattage cables. More recently, as industries across the board became more and more specialised and digitally focused, the world of heat tracing has responded with the development of ‘smart’ and ‘connected’ solutions.

Smarter solutions

Offering comprehensive connectivity, insight and control, smart heat tracing systems can be integrated into distributed process control systems, or commercial Building Management Systems (BMS) and home hub devices like Amazon’s Alexa for the residential sector. This intelligent integration with other devices and networks allows for open communication and real-time monitoring – helping improve efficiency and production up-time, as well as reducing energy usage and operating costs. In light of these clear advantages, the debate now seems to be when, not whether, to adopt smart electrical heat tracing equipment.

Here, Thomas Vranken, Marketing Manager at nVent RAYCHEM highlights how smart technology and IoT are transforming heat tracing systems in three core sectors; industrial, commercial and residential, and the unique benefits they bring for plant and building managers, facility managers and homeowners alike.

Industrial sectors

The remote monitoring and full connectivity of smart systems offers significant advantages for chemical production, tank terminals and unmanned oil and gas facilities, amongst many other sectors. Whereas traditional tracing installations with local thermostats require regular maintenance checks on-site, smart controllers feature embedded self-check capabilities, eliminating the need for field inspections, and their associated costs. Connecting the smart field controllers to a central monitoring platform allows for real-time data analysis and a more planned, preventative approach to system servicing and maintenance.

Other advanced prognostic tools made possible by the adoption of intelligent control systems are digital twins or device shadows. These are digital models housed within a monitoring system that provide an accurate real-time replica of individual pieces of tracing equipment, or even an entire production plant. Through the digital copy, engineers can simulate various scenarios to prepare for planned stoppages, predict failures in the real-world equivalent by running diagnostics on the digital twin, or safely devise ways to increase plant productivity by testing the impact of upgrades on the digital copy first, risk-free.

With smart monitoring technology like this, engineers are also better equipped to make informed decisions regarding the severity of an issue and prevent unscheduled system shutdowns. This not only results in increased up-time and fewer unnecessary stoppages, but also ensures heat tracing systems operate safely and efficiently. The energy and cost savings offered by intelligent heat tracing systems, particularly those equipped with the latest wireless communication technology, helps offset the total installed costs (TIC) of the setup, making them the smart choice for a variety of industrial applications.

Commercial sectors

Smart, internet-enabled tracing systems also have a lot to offer hotels, shopping malls, hospitals, online retail warehouses and other commercial buildings. In such a diverse landscape, the types of tracing systems and their control technology can vary wildly. A simple and easy-to-install on/off tracing control system for example, is the perfect solution for a small business looking to prevent an exterior pipe from freezing when temperatures fall overnight. At the other end of the spectrum, larger organisations with more specialised heat tracing needs in turn require, smarter, more technologically advanced control methods:

Proportional ambient sensing control (PASC): PASC technology is an equally impressive option for businesses seeking an intuitive and energy efficient tracing control method as it is for industrial plants, where it first saw widespread use. Using an intelligent algorithm, PASC systems measure the ambient temperature and reference it against predicted heat loss to determine when to run or shut off heating power.

This form of control maintains a consistent temperature profile across an entire circuit because it can predict and account for variations in the ambient temperature, meaning temporary extremes do not throw off the whole system. PASC is the best ‘all-rounder’ in terms of heat tracing control: easy to install, energy efficient, offering a 70% reduction in energy usage compared to uncontrolled systems, and sufficiently accurate for most applications. While still very sophisticated and undeniably effective, new technology has now emerged to challenge PASC’s status as the most advanced control method available today.

‘Smart’ tracing systems: In line with the rise of internet-enabled appliances in other industries, commercial ‘smart’ control systems offer comprehensive insight and monitoring of all heating operations for greater transparency and real-time control. Though it has only recently become commercially available, systems using this technology are already being adopted across several industries, including retail, hospitality and public facilities like museums and libraries, to help improve efficiency and reduce operating costs.

Practical protection: Simply evaluating the theoretical capabilities of these control methods makes their advantages for the commercial sector clear, but it’s the practical application of these systems that truly demonstrate the value smart technology can bring to businesses.

Example 1: Paths, walkways and ramps

Ensuring routes around a building are kept clear of ice and snow helps prevent painful slips and falls, but also has important implications for service continuity and efficiency. Safe, ice-free ramps and driveways allow deliveries, product distribution and general activities to continue undisrupted, avoiding costly closures or slowdowns.

Electric surface snow melting systems, utilising self-regulating heat tracing cables, can be installed along a variety of surfaces, including concrete, asphalt and paving, to keep vital thoroughfares moving. When combined with PASC enabled heat tracing controllers, surface snow melting systems distribute the exact amount of heat needed, only when the ambient temperature drops below a set point. This adaptive control ensures installation and operating costs are kept to a minimum, and means companies can keep key areas free of ice, without having to manually shovel or grit surfaces after every chilly night.

Example 2: Pipe freeze protection

Any external water pipe is vulnerable to expanding and rupturing in cold weather, which can result in significant water wastage and costly repairs. Indeed, fixing a single burst pipe can set a business back £700 on average, an expense no business can afford every time the mercury drops.
Self-regulating heating cables are the ideal option for protecting exposed pipes thanks to their ability to automatically adjust temperature for optimal energy usage. Combining self-regulating cables with a smart, connected controller, such as the nVent RAYCHEM Elexant 450c, gives installers the flexibility to choose the most efficient control method for each application, and easily incorporate heat tracing control into any Building Management Software (BMS) package, giving building owners invaluable insight.

Residential sectors

Bringing the many benefits of intelligent heat tracing systems closer to home, the same heating cables that help safely transport petrochemicals can also offer customisable comfort to homeowners. In many areas of the UK and mainland Europe, electric underfloor heating, powered by self-regulating heating cables, represents a more cost effective, reliable and efficient home heating option than traditional gas central heating. In addition to improved energy efficiency, a more even spread of heat throughout the house and reduced disruption of dust and other allergens in the air, advanced electric underfloor heating systems offer users the opportunity to personalise their home heating via a smart thermostat.

The nVent RAYCHEM SENZ-WIFI thermostat for instance, gives homeowners the option to select the right heating program for each room within their home, using either the thermostat’s own intuitive user interface or the dedicated control app, which can be downloaded onto any smartphone or tablet. These heating zones can be set to the user’s exact requirements, utilising the adaptive pre-set programs that automatically adjust according to conditions within the home. The thermostat’s advanced control essentially allows the homeowner to create a DIY smart home, that can be controlled remotely via a wireless connection to a central operating system or user interface.

above: Image 1. Urban scape, nVent RAYCHEM Elexant 450c  Controller

Above: Image 1. Urban scape, nVent RAYCHEM Elexant 450c Controller

The app integration feature additionally ensures the heating can be turned off instantly wherever the user is, helping to keep energy usage to a minimum. Taking this concept a step further, many smart home thermostats are also equipped with continuous energy monitoring capabilities, acting as real-time energy meters to help homeowners assess their power usage, without compromising on comfort.

The recent explosion in the popularity of home hub devices has not gone unnoticed by the manufacturers of smart thermostats either. With consumers increasingly relying on their Amazon Alexa or Google Nest devices to do everything from filling them in on the day’s news, to running household appliances, allowing integration with electric underfloor heating systems was an obvious development. In 2019, nVent launched the first Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat to offer home hub device compatibility, with other manufacturers swiftly following suit.

In coming years, compatibility with leading smartphone operating systems and home hub brands, such as Android, Apple, Google and Amazon, is likely to become the industry standard for most, if not all, heating systems. But the development of smarter technology for the home is unlikely to end there. As manufacturers, including nVent, release open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for their smart thermostats, integrators and developers will be able to create custom connections for bespoke home automation systems, making the smart home of the future a present-day reality.

Smart technology never stays still

With these recent developments in mind, what can we expect from smart heat tracing in the future? Electric heat tracing as an industry has always embraced the latest advancements in communication and monitoring technology – be that via the automation of theoretical control methods through the development of PASC algorithms in the late 1990s, or the incorporation of wireless communication technology and sharing of open APIs in more recent years.

Moving forward, heat tracing control is likely to become further aligned with advancements in the fields of ‘big’ data analysis, machine learning and artificial intelligence – taking the industry from a place of manual programming and system optimisation, to fully automated, self-improving systems.

With regard to their application, safety and reliability will continue to be of paramount importance. Intelligent systems will undoubtedly also play a role in helping industrial sectors expand production more efficiently and sustainably, while offering greater opportunities for energy efficiency, business continuity and personalisation for the commercial and residential markets. Building managers and engineers in particular, already value smart systems’ ability to help them better understand how their systems work day-to-day, and stay abreast of the status of their operation at all times. The importance of systems that provide this highly accurate, real-time test and measurement data, as well as the ability to instantly assess significant amounts of historical data and automatically make improvements, will only increase as more components become smarter, more connected and autonomous.

Whatever the next few years bring, it seems that the future of heat tracing is ‘smart’.

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