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The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal, July 2009. Copyright 2009 American
Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc. It is presented for
educational purposes only. This article may not be copied and/or distributed electronically or in
paper form without permission of ASHRAE.

System Design for

Compressor Reliability

This paper examines the evaporation of a refrigerant in various types of heat transfer structures by (a) relat- (Fig. 1). The pan is illustrated as
ing refrigerant evaporation to control with load changes; (b) evaluating the effect of large volume increases about 1/3 full and as having, at the
at low temperatures; and (c) reviewing specific examples of compressor damage and the corrections made.
left side, a float device attached for

he compressor is a vapor tion temperature at the compressor inlet the purpose of maintaining a prede-
pump and must have, as a part pressure. But only a correctly designed termined level. Heat applied to the
of the system, foolproof means evaporation system, adequately con- bottom of the pan causes the water to
for protection against damage from trolled for all load changes, will provide boil, and the resulting vapor release
hydraulics such as liquid refrigerant or the required inlet conditions. causes an increase in the overall vol-
oil. Positive displacement compressors ume and a rise of the surface level.
for refrigeration service are designed for CONTROL LIMITATION However, the weight of the water and
pumping a refrigerant vapor at a tem- Control limitation may be com- vapor has not changed and excessive
perature above 10F above the satura- pared to a pan of water on a stove heat under the bottom will cause the


MILTON W. GARLAND, P.E., was honored in 1998 as the nations Commemorative Refrigeration Award for Project Excellence,
oldest worker, having begun his career in 1920 at the Frick Co., which recognizes the designer and owner of a non-comfort
now part of York/Johnson Controls. cooling refrigeration application that highlights innovation and/
He was known as Mr. Refrigeration for his work in refrigera- or new technologies. He was also a member of several SPCs and
tion systems for gold mines in South Africa and in the SSPCs. He was a recipient of the ASHRAE F. Paul Anderson
ice cream factories of Philadelphia. Mr. Garland held Award, the Distinguished 50-Year Member Award and the
some 40 patents of refrigeration-related items, ranging Louise and Bill Holladay Distinguished Fellow Award.
from icemakers to screw compressor volume controls. In 1996, he received the first Andy Ammonia
His work in refrigeration aided in the construction of Award from the International Institute of Ammonia
the Hoover Dam for which he designed systems to cool Refrigeration for his paper, The Influence of Vapor
the water, sand and rock used to make the concrete to build it. Pressure in the Condensing Process of the Ammonia
At ASHRAEs Centennial Meeting in 1995, Mr. Garland Refrigeration Cycle. Garland died in July 2000 at age 104. He
was recognized as a pioneer in technology. In 1989, ASHRAE was inducted into the ASHRAE Hall of Fame at the Societys
endowed an award in his honorthe Milton W. Garland 2003 Winter Meeting.

42 ASHRAE Journal a s h r a e. o rg July 2009

contents to overflow. The float device, while responsive to
heat, has in itself no means for preventing the overflow. F I G . 1 Control limitation.
The thermal control shown on the right side of the figure
would sense the boil-over and cut off the feed, but it can-
not correct the cause.
Using ammonia R-717 in an example (Fig. 2), it can be
seen that the ratio of liquid to vapor for one ton of refrig-
eration at an evaporating temperature of 30F is 1 to 192;
at an evaporating temperature of 0F it is 1 to 380, and at
an evaporating temperature of 40F it is 1 to 1,071. Note
that the liquid temperatures used were assumed at levels
normally found in plants operating at the evaporation tem- F I G . 2 Example of using ammonia R-717.
peratures given.
The purpose of the illustration in Fig. 2 is to show that
evaporators, with their control, when designed for service
at 0F are not suitable for service at 40F. This error is one
most often committed in refrigeration application. Peculiar
to providing an inadequate vapor releasing area is that it
results in evaporator starvation and that to accomplish the
work desired an operator will have to bypass the normal
automatic control by hand control, causing a liquid refrig-
erant return to the compressor.
Fig. 3 shows the horizontal shell and tube flooded type
chiller. It has a large vapor releasing area, and because of
that a fixed float device will maintain a reasonably stable F I G . 3 Horizontal shell and tube flooded type chiller.
refrigerant level, provided the load is maintained within
the anticipated design range.

An example of misuse resulting in compressor dam-
age was an installation specified and engineered to chill
brine from 30F to 35F. The gpm was given and the
overall tons of refrigeration were about 150. Investigation
revealed that some of the brine was used in the coils and
jacket of a large reaction tank. No brine was being used
during the reaction time and, as a result, the brine in the
coils and in the jacket reached 90F. After a given length of
time the 90F brine in the coils and jacket was returned to increase in the refrigerant in the chiller, which when it
the chiller. This suddenly applied hot load caused a liquid reached the outlet level, was carried as liquid refrigerant
refrigerant return to the compressor, resulting in broken into the compressor. The float device may have cut off any
compressor valves. of the incoming liquid refrigerant, but that did not protect
The mechanism was simply the normal decrease of the compressor. Protection for the compressor was later
vapor volume at the time of reduced load, thus permit- added in the form of a separator in the return line, at a
ting an increase of liquid volume in the chiller. The sud- height sufficient to return the separated liquid refrigerant
den return of the 90F brine generated an overall volume by gravity into the chiller.

July 2009 ASHRAE Journal 43

Fig. 4 shows the chiller in a vertical position. The physi-
cal dimensions are unchanged, but control of the refrigerant FIG.4 Vertical shell and tube flooded type chiller.
cannot be obtained by a float level device positioned on
the shell because the area for vapor release has been greatly
reduced from that in the horizontal position. The overall
liquid lift caused by boiling is inversely proportional to
the reduction in area. Thus, control of the pressure head
for refrigerant feed must be accomplished externally of the
Fig. 5 depicts a commonly used evaporator for all types of
refrigerated storage and freezer service. It is operated as a flooded
unit, very often consisting of a bank of vertically mounted ser-
pentine coils connected in parallel by a bottom feed and top
vapor header. Unlike the horizontal flooded chiller, this unit has
a relatively high vapor releasing velocity. The vapor bubbles can- FIG.5 Evaporator for all types of refrigerated storage and freezer service.
not rise vertically, but must be caused to flow horizontally. This
gravity flow recirculation system, when properly proportioned,
has excellent performance character. The height of the float above
the coil is calculated from the load, internal pipe area, and the
resulting leaving vapor velocity. When fixed for one set of condi-
tions, it is correctly placed for that set of conditions only. The fan
is representative of the fact that the product being cooled is air.

An excessive liquid refrigerant return will always occur if
product flow is stopped, in this or any other type of evapora-
tor, without stopping the refrigerant flow, the reason being
that refrigerant feed is at a fixed head established for full FIG.6 Dry expansion type chiller simulation.
heat load. Stopping the fan (product flow) causes a loss of
load; the evaporator feed, if permitted to continue, will fill
the coil, and on a restart of the fan the excess refrigerant will
be returned to the separator at a rate higher than normal
design. A carryover to the compressor will then occur.
A basic design rule should be that refrigerant flow must
be stopped when product flow is stopped.
Fig. 6 illustrates a dry expansion type chiller and simu-
lates an installation situation which resulted in serious
damage to three compressors during the first month of
operation. After corrections were made, this same installa- flow was being stopped because of production problems,
tion had no compressor damage of a serious nature in ten but the refrigeration was being continued because a prod-
years of operation. The design specification for the system uct flow was to be expected any minute. In consequence
called for multistage R-22 refrigeration at 80F evapora- to a no heat load, the bottom tubes of the chiller filled
tion to chill a nitrogen vapor from 40F to 60F, and to with liquid refrigerant. When the product flow resumed,
be suitable for continuous operation. Investigation follow- the excess liquid was forced out of the chiller and back to
ing reported compressor failures showed that the product the compressor.

44 ASHRAE Journal a s h r a e. o rg July 2009



A clarification of the actual performance in the condenser-receiver

F I G . 1 0 Refrigeration system using a receiver.
system, which should enable application engineers to properly
specify the requirements for such systems.
There has been a tendency to consider the condenser-
receiver system (when the latter is used) as two independent
components and it has often been installed without consider-
ation of the definite relationship between them. These compo-
nents must be treated as a single unit: The condenser is a source
for generation of a condensate and the receiver is the collector
of said condensate. The condensate in the receiver must be
maintained at the condenser outlet temperature for maximum
system efficiency.
Fig .10 represents a refrigeration system using a receiver. Also receiver to the condenser inlet. The purpose is to permit vapor
shown is the cycle related to the Mollier diagram for ammonia. A in the receiver to pass upward into the condenser.
condenser rated at 96F condensing will have an inlet pressure of This misconception is borne out of the fact that the gauge
184.2 psig. At C (the outlet of the condenser) the gauge pressure pressure is greater at A than at C; flow through the condenser is
will be slightly lower than at A. At the same point the tempera- not obtainable in another manner. Also, the temperature in the
ture will be the lowest of any in the system. C also represents the receiver is much lower than the temperature at the entrance to
area of lowest vapor pressure in the condenser-receiver system. the condenser. Therefore, the colder vapor in the receiver will
Because the receiver is often located in a warm machinery not rise into the hotter area at the entrance to the condenser.
room and the condenser is not, the bad practice evolved of As C is the coldest area in this system, it becomes evident
installing a so-called equalizing line from the top of the that vapors in the receiver will migrate to the condenser outlet C.

The correction made was the addition of a flow switch in

the product line. When product flow was less than the mini- F I G . 7 Refrigerant temperature control scheme.
mum compressor capacity, the liquid refrigerant feed to the
evaporator was stopped. The compressors were permitted to
cycle on a pressure control, but no refrigerant was permitted
to feed until the product flow was increased above the mini-
mum design level.
Fig. 7 illustrates a scheme of refrigerant temperature
control often used in process work where close regulation of
outlet product temperature is required. This type of control
may present a hazard to the compressor because product
flow may be at such a low level that refrigerant liquid will
replace vapor and, when full product flow is resumed, the
excess liquid and increased vapor volume may cause an pressure regulating device, and have it set at the required
overflow into the return line to the compressor. A refriger- pressure when the valve is approximately 3/4 closed. At that
ant temperature control of the type shown must always have air pressure the sensing device causes the refrigerant feed line
a pressure-sensing device in the air line to the refrigerant valve to close.

July 2009 ASHRAE Journal 45


Therefore, the receiver must be so located and the drain piping

F I G . 1 1 Horizontal drain line.
from C into the receiver must be so designed as to create an
open passage, which will permit condensate drainage into the
receiver without filling the drain line. There must be no traps
so that vapor from the receiver can have open passage into the
coldest area C.
All condensers provide some liquid subcooling. This pro-
vides a permissible pressure drop in the liquid feed line to the
system without generating flash gas in the liquid feed at the
evaporator control valve, (Fig. 10 D). Obviously, the open drain
between C and the top of the receiver permits refluxing of the
vapors in the receiver into the area of lowest temperature in
the condenser, thus maintaining the sub-cooling of the liquid
in the receiver. For example: If the condensing temperature of from the fact that no two condensers will have the exact same
96F and 184.2 psig in the condenser was reduced to 183.8 psig leaving condensate temperature. There will be a migration problem
through pipe pressure drop in the condenser; and if there was unless proper structure is used, which will permit migration without
2F of actual liquid subcooling, the liquid temperature of 94F drainage flow interruption. The horizontal drain line (Fig. 11) shown
in the receiver has a vapor pressure of 178 psig. Therefore, 183.8 enlarged from condenser 2 has become filled because of the neces-
to 178 = 5.8 psi permissible liquid line pressure drop (without sary head required to cause horizontal flow. Assuming that the
any temperature increase) in the liquid delivery line. outlet temperature of condenser 2 is lower than that of condenser
1, there will be migration flow from 1 to 2 and the pipe line being
PARALLEL DRAINAGE filled with liquid acts as a dam against migration flow from con-
Parallel condenser drainage, not fully understood, has caused denser 1 to condenser 2. Condenser 2 will thus stop draining and
serious problems in numerous installations. These problems stem becomes bottleda term generally applied to that situation.

All evaporators have the ability to accumulate excess liq- A plate type of freezer may, by virtue of the operational
uid refrigerant at low load conditions and means must be program, cause serious compressor damage. An excess liquid
provided to prevent this kind of accumulation. refrigerant return in the operational program occurs when
the freezing day is discontinued, the freezer is left filled with
DELAYS product, and refrigeration is continued during the night
Product freezers designed for a 30F freezing level without any limitation of the amount of liquid refrigerant
are often brought down to temperature prior to product being accumulated and stored. When this freezer is opened
entrance. Very often a product arrival estimated for 7:00 and warm product added, the excess liquid thrown out may
a.m. may extend to 8:00 a.m. Meanwhile, under many well exceed the capabilities of the separator and thereby pass
present-day control arrangements, the freezer will remain directly to the compressor. A corrective measure is to limit
on line and continue to lower in temperature. There is very the liquid supply during the night so that the evaporator
little heat load, the liquid content of the coils becomes exces- area will not be filled with liquid at the time of starting the
sive, and immediately when the warm product load arrives next freezing day.
there is a serious liquid refrigerant return to the compressor.
A proper control would have stopped refrigerant flow the COMPRESSOR DAMAGE
instant 30F was obtained, and a two degree differential Fig. 8 illustrates the low temperature section of a pump
thermostat would renew refrigerant flow at 28F. recirculation system. The pumping tank, at evaporator pres-

48 ASHRAE Journal a s h r a e. o rg July 2009


F I G . 12 Ideal parallel condenser-to-receiver drainage. F I G . 1 3 Using the receiver inlet with multiple condensers.

IDEAL age from all condensers. Usually, when it is a direct vertical flow
Fig. 12 represents the ideal parallel condenser-to-receiver into the receiver, as shown, the acceleration of gravity will ensure
drainage. Horizontal drain piping is avoided and the pitch to complete liquid drainage. But vapor flow upward could be impeded.
be used is such that liquid drainage will occur without filling Therefore, the receiver vent line is added to ensure that all vapor
the drain line more than 1/2 of the cross-section. Thus, natural areas communicate freely with the area of lowest vapor pressure.
migration can occur from any area of the condenser-receiver A large single condenser structure with many parallel coils
system into either of the condensers. In this structure of Fig. 12 (Fig. 14), will have internal bottling and in complete drain-
independent liquid drains are provided into the receiver. age if a horizontal liquid outlet is used. The horizontal line
Additional condensers are often added to an existing installa- may fill with liquid because of the level of build-up required
tion, which has one receiver. The existing inlet connection should for generation of flow. Warm vapors from the receiver, seek-
be used to avoid recertification of this pressure vessel. Fig. 13 shows ing the area of lowest vapor pressure, will back this liquid into
how to use this receiver inlet with multiple condensers. The size the collecting header and thus prevent drainage from many
of the existing receiver inlet may be marginal for the total drain- of the parallel circuits.

sure, is the separator for the mixture of vapor and unevaporated

liquid returning from the evaporator. It is the collector of liquid F I G . 8 Illustration of low temperature section of a pump recirculation system.
returned during defrost. It is the flash area for reduction of liq-
uid temperature from condensing or any pre-cooler tempera-
ture to the evaporator temperature. It must have no less than
three controls. The top control senses the highest permissible
liquid refrigerant level and must sound an alarm of sufficient
intensity to attract responsible personnel for the adjustments
necessary to avoid compressor damage if the level builds higher.
The vapors from the evaporators contain unevaporated liquid
and this unevaporated liquid must be separated from the vapor
in the area above the top control. The volume of this area must
be suitable for the maximum vapor flow of the system.
The next lower control must maintain the normal neces- and the top safety switch be the maximum volume necessary
sary liquid level for operation. Here the important consider- to accommodate the maximum liquid volume returned
ation is that the volume between the normal operating level because of defrost or any other pumpout situation.

July 2009 ASHRAE Journal 49


F I G .14 Large single condenser structure with many parallel coils. F I G . 1 5 System with sloping drains.

A sloping (dashed) line to drain the condensate at a maximum Plants with multiple parallel condensers require a reduction
filling of 1/2 of the cross-sectional area will eliminate the drainage in effective condensing surface during cold weather operation
problem and ensure condensate in the receiver at the condenser to maintain a condensing pressure sufficient to ensure the
outlet header temperature. This open drain-condenser-to- necessary pressure difference at the evaporator feed devices.
receiveralso provides the simplest, most effective and least Fig. 15 shows such a system with the sloping drains, sized for
sensitive structure for removal of noncondensibles. In freezer not over 50% of pipe cross-section being filled with liquid. This
plants where low temperature operation causes system evapora- design will permit any one or more condenserswith air and
tor pressure to be lower than atmospheric pressure, the entrance water turned off for evaporative condensers and no water flow
of air may be unnoticed until an excessive condensing pressure through shell and tube condensersto perform at maximum
occurs. In the system with an open drain-condenser-to-receiver efficiency.
the noncondensibles fall into the receiver and are removable from In conclusion, the condenser is a condensate generator and the
the top of the receiver without interrupting plant operations. receiver simply serves to accommodate the condensates normal
operational requirements. This reservoir of condensate must be
SURFACE REDUCTION maintained at the temperature of the condensers outlet for maxi-
In any system where a trap is used in the drain line between mum system efficiency. Maintaining open communication, receiver-
the condenser and the receiver, the noncondensibles remain in the to-condenser outlet provides for this desired low condensate
condenser, thus reducing effective condensing surface. Also, the temperature, eliminates parallel condenser drainage problems and
limited internal volume of the condenser causes a much faster rise provides best noncondensible separation and purging without inter-
in operating condensing pressure than in the open drain system. ruption of operation and with least effect on condensing pressure.

The bottom control is for pump protection. It is used morning. At that time, the remaining frozen product was
to stop the pump in the event of a low liquid level before removed into storage areas and the freezer feed was manually
it has lost its prime. On a restart, after the level rises, the closed. Compressor operation was from pressure control. A
pump will deliver liquid without cavitation. night attendant was assigned to the defrosting and general
Compressor damage was caused in this type of system freezer cleanup. He manually closed the necessary valves
from an improperly controlled defrost program. A very large to isolate the evaporator and manually opened the hot gas.
freezer with a more than usual surface was capable of main- Having (and taking) all night to do the job permitted the
taining temperatures at 30F from Monday to Saturday flow of hot gas to continue long after the coils were freed

50 ASHRAE Journal a s h r a e. o rg July 2009

of frost. The result was a sufficient accumulation of liquid
in the separator to shut down the compressors because of F I G . 9 Typical defrost system using hot gas.
high liquid level. However, other areas of the plant needed
refrigeration, and that prompted the attendant to short out
the safety switch, thus getting a compressor on line. Serious
compressor damage resulted from this maneuver.
Fig. 9 shows a typical defrost system using hot gas and
depending on accumulating a partial amount of liquid in
the separator. Separators are not always of sufficient size to
accomodate the volume of liquid to be returned from the
the coil. Many installations rely on a timed pumpout so
as to decrease the liquid volume to a safe level. The fault
associated with this pumpout method is the variable of
heat transfer because of frost buildup. A frost buildup of
50% of fin space closure might provide for a sufficient liq- trolled for all possible load changes, programmed for defrost
uid pumpout in one hour. But if the fin space is permitted before excess frost accumulation, and with a main line suc-
to become fully closed with frost it could require as much tion line separator for collection and prompt disposition of
remove the volume of liquid normally as four hours to any accidental returned liquid refrigerant.
pumped out in one hour with 50%
fin frost closure. A recent investiga-
tion of a compressor problem, after
five years of trouble-free operation,
showed that a change in the number
of defrosts was the cause. For five
years the programming system caused
three defrosts every 24 hours. New
management changed the defrost
programming to two defrosts every
24 hours. The result was an insuf-
ficient liquid removal in the one-hour
pumpout. The separator was overfilled
at each defrost and a severe liquid
return to the compressor resulted with
each defrost.
The volume of liquid returning to
any compressor may not in itself be
sufficient to damage the compressor,
but liquid in any small quantity may
cause oil foaming and thus lower the
lubricating quality of that oil.

Positive action for full compressor
protection begins by designing into the
system correctly sized evaporators, con-
July 2009 ASHRAE Journal 51