A heater is an object that emits heat causing other objects to achieve a higher temperature. Creating and controlling heat is a crucial factor for an extremely wide range of applications and industrial processes. From small heaters keeping a few batteries warm to large industrial dryers and complex injection molding machines, heaters are versatile devices that require very specific design elements to tailor them to the application.

Principles of Heating

Heating is a complex process governed by the principles of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and heat transfer. Heat transfer, in particular, is useful knowledge as it will help inform important aspects of heater selection and system design.

Heat transfer is the movement of heat from one area (or object) to another, always from areas of high concentration (hot) to areas of low concentration (cool). There are three methods of heat transfer:


Conduction is the method of heat transfer by way of direct contact. The classic example is heating one end of a metal rod. After a period of time the heat will travel through the rod to the cooler end. Conduction heating is influenced by the ease of which heat travels through a material, its thermal conductivity, as well as the amount of mass available to absorb the heat energy.


Convection is best explained by the saying, “heat rises.” Heat causes liquids or gases to expand which results in lower weight per unit volume. The lower weight increases buoyancy of the heated fluid causing it to rise. As it rises cooler, heavier fluid fills the void. As the new, cooler fluid is also heated it too rises thus continuing the cycle and creating enough movement to form a convective current capable of moving large amount of heat. Convection is influenced by the fluid's permissible watt densities, thermal conductivity and expansion coefficient.


Radiant heating relies upon electromagnetic waves to radiate heat onto an object without any need for direct contact. While all electromagnetic waves will "heat," the infrared band of the spectrum contains the most useful heating energy. Important factors in radiant heating are the distance between object and heat source, and how well the object absorbs radiant energy. Gases absorb radiant energy poorly so are largely unaffected by radiant heating. Dark surfaces absorb radiant heat better than light, or reflective surfaces.

Types of Heaters:

Heaters are used over a huge variety of applications. The need for them to fit particular types of equipment or do particular jobs has resulted in a wide variety of designs. There is little functional difference between radically different looking designs, however. Heater “type” generally refers to the shape of the heater.

When we discuss types of heaters we try to use industry standards. Individual manufacturers may have different names. There is also a great amount of diversity within each type.

Band Heaters: Band heaters are designed to clamp to an exterior or interior cylindrical surface. Band heaters often have higher watt densities allowing fast heat-up and high operating temperatures. They generally include clamp assemblies making installation easy. Band heaters are used for injection molding barrels and nozzles, extrusion and molding presses, pipe heating, heat treating and autoclaves, food industry and other applications.

Cable Heaters: Cable heaters, also known as coil heaters, are small diameter heating elements that can be bent into nearly any shape to heat curved or flat surfaces, be wound around an object, or snaked through a narrow opening. Cable heaters have low mass so they have a quick response for both heating and cooling. They are extremely versatile and used for plastic injection molding nozzles, cast-in heaters, laminating and printing presses, semiconductor manufacturing and wafer processing, and many other applications.

Cartridge Heaters: Cartridge heaters are designed to be inserted into a close fit hole drilled into a mold or platen containing solids to be heated via conduction. Cartridge heaters offer superior heat transfer and uniform temperatures and are ideal for applications requiring higher kilowatts. They are often used for mold die and platen heating, sealing bars, and many other applications.

Ceramic Fiber Heaters: Heating units constructed of ceramic fiber insulation isolate the heating chamber from the outside to offer some of the highest temperature heaters available. Their lightweight, low-density properties are ideally suited for high temperature applications requiring low thermal mass. Combining the heating element and insulation into one package is useful for a number of applications including ovens and furnaces.

Circulation Heaters: Circulation heaters generally have multiple elements mounted on a screw plug or flange fitting and placed in an insulated vessel through which liquids or gas passes. The medium is heated as it flows past the heating elements. Circulation heaters are ideal for water heating, freeze protection, heat transfer oil heating, and other applications.

Flexible Heaters: Flexible heaters are thin and bendable which allows them to be easily shaped and bonded or vulcanized to nearly any type of equipment. Their flexible nature permits heating of complex shapes and geometries without sacrificing efficiency or dependability. Flexible heaters are extremely versatile and provide uniform heat distribution and high watt densities. Their low profile and ability to be bonded to equipment gives them excellent heat transfer providing fast heat-up and cool-down rates.

Flexible heaters work well for applications requiring distributed wattage or limited space including freeze protection, food service, laminate curing, battery heating, and many others.

Heated Platen: In manufacturing, a platen is a metal plate used in presses. The press can be for laminating or for the production of a wide range of items including gaskets, particle board, semiconductor wafers, and plywood. Many of these processes require heating the platen to high temperatures. These heaters deliver high watt densities and are designed to fit in tight spaces.

Tubular and Process Heaters: Tubular and process heaters is the catch-all category of heaters. They are general purpose devices used to generate heat as part of a manufacturing or industrial process. They can be installed inside of ducts to heat air or gases or put inside a tank as part of chemical manufacturing. Immersion heaters, screw plug heaters, and flanged heaters are all examples of process heaters.

How Heaters Work

Electric heaters work on the principle of resistive heating in which an electrical current passing through a conductor creates heat. According to Joule’s First Law, the heat produced by an electric current is equal to the product of the resistance of the conductor, the square of the current, and the time for which it flows.

Heating systems generally require precise instruments to reach and maintain appropriate temperatures and to control the large current load need to create heat from electricity. Systems usually have the following components:

Power Supply + Heater + Temperature Controller + Temperature Sensor + Load Handling Device

Generally speaking, the heater takes electrical power and converts it to heat. The temperature controller switches the heater on or off after comparing the pre-set target temperature with the actual process temperature supplied by the temperature sensor. Temperature controllers, however, are unable to switch the high current loads required from most heaters. For all but the smallest heaters, the system must include a load handling device such as a power controller, SSR (solid state relay), SCR (silicon-controlled rectifier), or mechanical relay. These electronic switching devices are able to handle large current and act upon the orders of the temperature controller.

Calculating Required Heat Energy

The first step in selecting and electric heater is determining the amount of heat required to do the job asked of it. The total heat energy, in either kWH or BTU, required to satisfy the system needs will be whichever of the following values is larger:

  • Heat required for start-up
  • Heat required to maintain the desired temperature

Calculating either of these values requires a fair bit of knowledge. A somewhat simplified method can be used for a quick estimate:

Heat required for start-up:

  • Start-up watts = A + C + 2/3 L + safety factor

Heat required to maintain the desired temperature:

  • Operating watts = B + D + L + safety factor


  • A = Watts required to raise the process temperature to the operating point, within the time desired
  • B = Watts required to maintain the process temperature during the working cycle
    • Calculating A & B: (lbs x Cp x °F) ÷ (hrs x 3.412)
      • lbs = weight of material
      • Cp = specific heat of material (BTU/lb x °F)
      • °F = temperature rise
      • hrs = start-up or cycle time
  • C = Watts required to melt or vaporize load material during start-up period
  • D = Watts required to melt or vaporize load material during working cycle
    • Calculating C & D: (lbs x BTU/lb) ÷ (hrs x 3.412)
      • lbs = weight of material
      • BTU/lb = heat of fusion or vaporization
      • hrs = start-up or cycle time
  • L = Watts lost from surfaces by conduction, radiation, and convection
    • Calculating L: (k x ft2 x °F) ÷ (in. x 3.412)
      • k = thermal conductivity (BTU x in./[ ft2 x °F x hr])
      • ft2 = surface area
      • °F = temperature differential to ambient
      • in. = thickness of material (inches)
  • Safety factor is normally 10 to 35 percent based on application

Watt density, described as watts/in2 of heater surface, is an important consideration in designing heating systems. Watt density does not describe the total power of the system but rather the extent to which power is concentrated on the heater surface. For example, a 1000 watt system with a heater having 100 in2 of surface area has a watt density of 10 watts/ in2. A 1000 watt system with a heater having 50 in2 of surface area has a watt density of 20 watt/ in2. Both systems have the same power but their watt densities are much different. This is especially important with regard to material compatibility. All materials have suggested maximum watt densities beyond which the material will burn.

Things to Consider When Selecting a Heater:

  • What material do you want to heat?
  • What is the maximum watt density for the material?
  • How much of the material (mass) is there to heat?
  • What is the available voltage and phase?
  • What is the starting process (cold) temperature?
  • What is the final/operating process temperature?
  • What is the target heat up time?

If you have any questions regarding heaters please don't hesitate to speak with one of our engineers by e-mailing us at sales@instrumart.com or calling 1-800-884-4967.