Do’s and Don’ts of Tracer Wire

Do's and Don'ts of Tracer Wire

When receiving bids to design water and sewer systems, I wonder if you have noticed that the requirements for tracer wires are clearly defined within the bid?
The answer is no.

Most water utilities have very broad specifications for tracer wires.
Many state water departments do not use tracer wires at all.
Their requirements for tracer wire are very low, and warning tape, detectable tape, bare copper, coated solid copper, copper-clad steel, stainless steel, and stranded copper or stranded stainless steel are all options being used.

So, what kind of tracer wire should we choose?

By the way, choosing the right tracer wire is only a small part of the puzzle. Proper installation and placement on the pipe, termination of the tracer line, and proper connection of the tracer line when splicing or connecting to the service are also very important.

Many cities write overly broad tracer wire codes. For example: “Install 12 gauge solid copper wire with sheathing”. There are no requirements for technical parameters or sheath thickness.
As a result, contractors run to the local lumber yard or electrical wholesaler and buy the cheapest wire available, usually THHN.

gas line tracer wire system2

The nylon PVC coating on THHN usually lasts about two years before it deteriorates and exposes the copper.
THHN is not meant to be buried directly. The copper, on the other hand, will, over time, change back to its original state or turn to earth. The location signal will no longer remain in the wire path.

What should be considered when writing a tracer wire specification?


Wire Size or Gauge (AWG)

The common size is from 8 AWG to 18 AWG.
A common failure that occurs during installation is fracture.
Large sizes of high-strength copper-clad steel (CCS) have twice the fracture load of solid copper.
Therefore, this allows the use of smaller diameter wire, often resulting in cost savings.


Jacket Color

The common colors are:

1) Yellow Tracer Wire
2) Green Tracer Wire
3) Blue Tracer Wire
4) Red Tracer Wire
5) Purple Tracer Wire
6) Orange Tracer Wire
7) Black Tracer Wire


Jacket/ coating type

A number of different jackets or coatings are available. High density polyethylene (HDPE) or high molecular weight polyethylene (HMWPE) is designed for direct burial. Nylon is not.


Wire Types - Copper Clad Steel, Copper

Solid copper or copper clad steel (CCS) works well and does not require stranding.

High strength copper clad steel (CCS) has a 2X strength advantage over solid copper.

Copper-clad steel has comparable electrical conductivity to solid copper and stainless steel, but is usually cheap.


Proper connections

Even if you have the best ground tracer, it is only as good as the connection.

Proper waterproof connectors that protect against moisture and corrosion are very important.


Placement of the wire in regards to pipe

Place the tracer wire in the same direction on all installed piping.

Tying the wire to the pipe helps prevent damage to the wire during backfill or during future excavation around the pipe.

Preferably, installing color-coded warning tape one foot above the pipe will enhance utility identification during excavation when repairs are needed.
Once the tape is found, hand excavation should be allowed only.


Termination method for wire, test stations and connections

What is the best tracer wire systems?

Connected with current characteristics in mind.

The current will take the path of least resistance. Good grounding and wire termination will improve the quality of the signal.

It is best to use a test station to bring the tracer wire above ground to allow for termination of the signal. Grounding one or both ends of the wire, or introducing a small anode, will improve signal strength.


Specification for open ditch/direct bury, pipe bursting and directional boring

For different installation applications, we should consider different types of tracer wire.

Open trench/direct burial does not require as strong of a wire as directional drilling or burst pipe.

To ensure that the project is completed or positioned without surprises, we consider the strength of the tracer and the type and thickness of the coating.


Inspection and testing upon completion of a new system

Another very important step is to make sure the contractor or city inspector performs a locate or conductivity test before signing off on the project.

It’s much easier to correct any problems in a timely manner than when you need to locate a pipe months or years later and can’t find it.

Just like your fire hydrants, curb stations, manholes, pipes and other important components of your system, please take seriously for tracer wires.


This is a cheap insurance policy, especially if you can’t find out where the damage is and overspend on unnecessary repairs. 

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