Insulation tape

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Electrical tape (or insulating tape) is a type of pressure-sensitive tape used to insulate electrical wires and other material that conduct electricity. It can be made of many plastics, but vinyl is most popular; it stretches well and gives an effective and long lasting insulation. Electrical tape for class H insulation, however, is made of fiberglass cloth instead of a form of plastic.

A wide variety of electrical tapes is available; some for highly specialized purposes. Electricians generally use only black tape for insulation purposes. The other colours are used to indicate the voltage level and phase of the wire. (In fact, the coloured tape is referred to as "phasing tape".) This is done on large wire which is available only in black insulation. When wires are phased, a ring of tape is placed on each end near the termination so that the purpose of the wire is obvious. The following table describes this usage.

Tape colour Usage (US) Usage (UK – old) Usage (International – new)
Black Insulation
Low voltage, phase A
Low voltage, neutral
Low voltage, phase B
Red Low voltage, phase B Low voltage, phase A Sheath, 415v 3 phase
Blue Low voltage, phase C Low voltage, phase C Low voltage, neutral
Sheath, 230v
Brown High voltage, phase A Low voltage, phase A
Orange High voltage, phase B Sheath, garden tools
Yellow High voltage, phase C Low voltage, phase B Sheath, 110v site wiring
Green Earth ground Earth
Green with yellow stripe Isolated ground Earth
Grey Low voltage, neutral
High voltage, neutral
Low voltage, phase C
White Low voltage, neutral
High voltage, neutral

Not all black vinyl tape is safe for electrical usage, some are not even labelled as electrical tape. UL (or Underwriters Laboratories) listed tape is certified to not catch fire and burn when overheated, meanwhile non-UL listed tape may start or contribute to a fire and burn like a petroleum product.

The tape is usually available in hardware stores. The fact that it is often more UV-resistant than other tapes and its ability to stretch has led to a wide range of uses beyond insulation. Electrical tape is torn by grasping it between the pointer fingers and thumbs of both hands with thumbs touching. Pulling the hands apart stretches the tape until it breaks (about 4 inches.) As it is easily torn by hand, can be written on, and generally removes from smooth surfaces cleanly (i.e. not leaving any marks or sticky residue) it's useful for a number of other applications such as labelling (including colour coding) and temporarily attaching objects to one another.

When used to temporarily hold together a bundle of wires (or other objects), a tail can be made for easy removal. After wrapping the bundle, twist the end several times so the tape wraps around itself then pull away from the bundle to create the tail. A tail can also be achieved by folding a small part of the free end back onto itself, contacting the two sticky sides. This can also allow for reuse of the end.

Use in sport and related activities

Electrical tape is often used in sports where knee high socks or shin guards are worn, such as rugby. This keeps them from slipping down out of place. Rugby players also use it to tape back their ears to avoid abrasion, cuts and cauliflower ear.

In motor-sports such as rallying, electrical tape is used to tape up the lights on the car in case of crashes which would usually lead to spillage of glass.

Australian rules football players occasionally wear arm bands of black electrical tape, in honour of someone related to the player or their club who recently died.

Electrical tape is also used by youths in cricket playing nations. It is wrapped around tennis balls to make them look and/or act like cricket balls.

Many martial arts schools use electrical tape, sometimes in different colors, to mark intermediate stages between belts.

Before the introduction of mass produced roller hockey pucks, certain brands of electrical tape were used as a puck substitute given that traditional ice hockey pucks are poorly suited for use on concrete and asphalt. Scotch 88 tape, in particular, was commonly used in general and league play during the 1990s.

In the Irish sport of Hurling electrical tape is wrapped around certain parts of the hurl to hold grips in place, act as grips, and to hold the hurl together in case of cracks or splinters. In Camogie, it is required to wrap the band of the hurl to protect other players. Electrical tape is used as it is strong, waterproof and easy to apply.

People involved in color guard use electrical tape to tape their flags, rifles, and sabres for ease of use and identification.

Marching percussionists use electrical tape to wrap their sticks. The purpose is twofold: the first being the increased durability and the second being increased visibility against marching uniforms, making stick movement and uniformity more obvious.

During the cross country phase of eventing a horse back riding competition riders use electrical tape to ensure that the velcro on their horses boots does not come undone.

Additional usage

Electrical tape is sometimes also used to secure lighting cables to the truss in stagecraft, and is commonly known as LX tape for this reason, particularly in the UK. It is also used to join fuses in firework rigging, to provide both mechanical strength and short-term waterproofing and is sometimes used for the marking out of set and stage space whilst in rehearsal spaces.

Israeli soldiers commonly use electrical tape (called isolierband in Hebrew and originated in German) to perform quick fixes and to "upgrade" their equipment. In effect, isolierband is used in the IDF as a substitute for duct tape due to its small roll size and common black color.

Electrical tape is also a very unconventional, functional yet aesthetically pleasing art material, used infrequently in sculpture installation and graphic design.

Additional information

The original electrical insulating tape was made of cloth tape impregnated with Chatterton's compound, an adhesive material manufactured using Gutta-percha.

In the early 1940s, vinyl plastic emerged as a highly versatile material for a wide range of applications, from shower curtains to cable insulation. Making it work for tape, however, was a different story.

A major ingredient in vinyl film was tricresyl phosphate (TCP), which was used as a plasticizer. Unfortunately, TCP tended to migrate, giving the surface of the vinyl film an oily quality and degrading every tape adhesive known. Research chemists and engineers at 3M set out to create a dependable, pressure-sensitive tape made of vinyl film that would have the required electrical, physical and chemical properties.

Experiments were conducted combining new plasticizers with the white, flour-like vinyl resin. Finally, in January 1946, inventors Snell, Oace, and Eastwold of 3M applied for a patent for a vinyl electrical tape with a plasticizer system and non-sulfur-based rubber adhesive that were compatible. The first commercially available version of the tape was sold for use as a wire-harness wrapping. Interestingly, this original black tape wasn't black at all. Tapes formulated for high-temperature were yellow, and later versions were white. White tape, because of its instability in ultraviolet light, was eventually replaced with black tape, although colored vinyl tapes are still used as identification and marking tapes. Black became the standard industry color for vinyl standard tape, primarily because of its ultraviolet resistance. Thicknesses originally were 4-mil, 8-mil and 12-mil. These were standardized to 7-mil and 10-mil in 1948.

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