Can the Efficiency Be Greater Than One?

This is one of the perennial top search terms for this blog.

Anticlimactic answer: Yes, because input and output are determined also by economics, not only by physics.

Often readers search for the efficiency of a refrigerator. Its efficiency, the ratio of output and input energies, is greater than 1 because the ambient energy is free. System’s operators are interested in the money they pay the utility, in relation to the resulting energy for cooling.

If you use the same thermodynamic machine either as a refrigerator or as a heat pump, efficiencies differ: The same input energy drives the compressor, but the relevant output energy is either the energy released to the ‘hot side’ at the condenser or the energy used for evaporating the refrigerant at the ‘cool side’:

The same machine / cycle is used as a heat pump for heating (left) or a refrigerator or AC for cooling (right). (This should just highlight the principles and does not include any hydraulic details, losses etc. related to detailed differences between refrigerators / ACs and heat pumps.)

For photovoltaic panels the definition has sort of the opposite bias: The sun does not send a bill – as PV installers say in their company’s slogan – but the free solar ambient energy is considered, and thus their efficiency is ‘only’ ~20%.

Half of our generator, now operational for three years: 10 panels, oriented south-east, 265W each, efficiency 16%. (The other 8 panels are oriented south-west).

When systems are combined, you can invent all kinds of efficiencies, depending on system boundaries. If PV panels are ‘included’ in a heat pump system (calculation-wise) the nominal electrical input energy becomes lower. If solar thermal collectors are added to any heating system, the electrical or fossil fuel input decreases.

Output energy may refer to energy measured directly at the outlet of the heat pump or boiler. But it might also mean the energy delivered to the heating circuits – after the thermal losses of a buffer tank have been accounted for. But not 100% of these losses are really lost, if the buffer tank is located in the house.

I’ve seen many different definitions in regulations and related software tools, and you find articles about how to game interpret these guidelines to your advantage. Tools and standards also make arbitrary assumptions about storage tank losses, hysteresis parameter and the like – factors that might be critical for efficiency.

Then there are scaling effects: When the design heat loads of two houses differ by a factor of 2, and the smaller house would use a scaled down heat pump (hypothetically providing 50% output power at the same efficiency), the smaller system’s efficiency is likely to be a bit lower. Auxiliary consumers of electricity – like heating circuit pumps or control systems – will not be perfectly scalable. But the smaller the required output energy is, the better it can be aligned with solar energy usage and storage by a ‘smart’ system – and this might outweigh the additional energy needed for ‘smartness’. Perhaps intermittent negative market prices of electricity could be leveraged.

Definitions of efficiency are also culture-specific, tailored to an academic discipline or industry sector. There are different but remotely related concepts of rating how useful a source of energy is: Gibbs Free Energy is the maximum work a system can deliver, given that pressure and temperature do not change during the process considered – for example in a chemical reaction. On the other hand, Exergy is the useful ‘available’ energy ‘contained’ in a (part of a) system: Sources of energy and heat are rated; e.g. heat energy is only mechanically useful up to the maximum efficiency of an ideal Carnot process. Thus exergy depends on the temperature of the environment where waste heat ends up. The exergy efficiency of a Carnot process is 1, as waste heat is already factored in. On the other hand, the fuel used to drive the process may or may not be included and it may or may not be considered pure exergy – if it is, energy and exergy efficiency would be the same again. If heat energy flows from the hot to the cold part of a system in a heat exchanger, no energy is lost – but exergy is.

You could also extend the system’s boundary spatially and on the time axis: Include investment costs or the cost of harm done to the environment. Consider the primary fuel / energy / exergy to ‘generate’ electricity: If a thermal power plant has 40% efficiency then the heat pump’s efficiency needs to be at least 2,5 to ‘compensate’ for that.

In summary, ‘efficiency’ is the ratio of an output and an input energy, and the definitions may be rather arbitrary as and these energies are determined by a ‘sampling’  time, system boundaries, and additional ‘ratings’.

Cooling Potential

I had an interesting discussion about the cooling potential of our heat pump system – in a climate warmer than ours.

Recently I’ve shown data for the past heating season, including also passive cooling performance:

After the heating season, tank temperature is limited to 10°C as long as possible – the collector is bypassed in the brine circuit (‘switched off’). But with the beginning of May, the tank temperature starts to rise though as the tank is heated by the surrounding ground.

Daily cooling energy hardly exceeds 20kWh, so the average cooling power is always well below 1kW. This is much lower than the design peak cooling load – the power you would need to cool the rooms to 20°C at noon on a hot in summer day (rather ~10kW for our house.)

The blue spikes are single dots for a few days, and they make the curve look more impressive than it really is: We could use about 600kWh of cooling energy – compared to about 15.000kWh for space heating. (Note that I am from Europe – I use decimal commas and thousands dots :-))

There are three ways of ‘harvesting cold’ with this system:

(1) When water in the hygienic storage tank (for domestic hot water) is heated up in summer, the heat pump extracts heat from the underground tank.

Per summer month the heat pump needs about 170kWh of input ambient energy from the cold tank – for producing an output heating energy of about 7kWh per day – 0,3kW on average for two persons, just in line with ‘standards’. This means that nearly all the passive cooling energy we used was ‘produced’ by heating hot water.

You can see the effect on the cooling power available during a hot day here (from this article on passive cooling in the hot summer of 2015)

Blue arrows indicate hot water heating time slots – for half an hour a cooling power of about 4kW was available. But for keeping the room temperature at somewhat bearable levels, it was crucial to cool ‘low-tech style’ – by opening the windows during the night (Vent)

(2) If nights in late spring and early summer are still cool, the underground tank can be cooled via the collector during the night.

In the last season we gained about ~170kWh in total in that way – only as much as by one month of hot water heating. The effect also depends on control details: If you start cooling early in the season when you ‘actually do not really need it’ you can harvest more cold because of the higher temperature difference between tank and cold air.

(3) You keep the cold or ice you ‘create’ during the heating season.

The set point tank temperature for summer  is a trade-off between saving as much cooling energy as possible and keeping the Coefficient of Performance (COP) reasonably high also in summer – when the heat sink temperature is 50°C because the heat pump only heats hot tap water.

20°C is the maximum heat source temperature allowed by the heat pump vendor. The temperature difference between 20°C and the set point of 10°C translates to about 300kWh (only) for 25m3 of water. But cold is also transferred to ground and thus the effective store of cold is larger than the tank itself.

What are the options to increase this seasonal storage of cold?

  • Turning the collector off earlier. To store as much ice as possible, the collector could even be turned off while still in space heating mode – as we did during the Ice Storage Challenge 2015.
  • Active cooling: The store of passive cooling energy is limited – our large tank only contains about 2.000kWh even if frozen completely; If more cooling energy is required, there has to be a cooling backup. Some brine/water heat pumps[#] have a 4-way-valve built into the refrigeration cycle, and the roles of evaporator and condenser can be reversed: The room is cooled and the tank is heated up. In contrast to passive cooling the luke-warm tank and the surrounding ground are useful. The cooling COP would be fantastic because of the low temperature difference between source and sink – it might actually be so high that you need special hydraulic precautions to limit it.

The earlier / the more often the collector is turned off to create ice for passive cooling, the worse the heating COP will be. On the other hand, the more cold you save, the more economic is cooling later:

  1. Because the active cooling COP (or EER[*]) will be higher and
  2. Because the total cooling COP summed over both cooling phases will be higher as no electrical input energy is needed for passive cooling – only circulation pumps.

([*] The COP is the ratio of output heating energy and electrical energy, and the EER – energy efficiency ratio – is the ratio of output cooling energy and electrical energy. Using kWh as the unit for all energies and assuming condenser and evaporator are completely ‘symmetrical’, the EER or a heat pump used ‘in reverse’ is its heating COP minus 1.)

So there would be four distinct ways / phases of running the system in a season:

  1. Standard heating using collector and tank. In a warmer climate, the tank might not even be frozen yet.
  2. Making ice: At end of the heating season the collector might be turned off to build up ice for passive cooling. In case of an ’emergency’ / unexpected cold spell of weather, the collector could be turned on intermittently.
  3. Passive cooling: After the end of the heating season, the underground tank cools the buffer tank (via its internal heat exchanger spirals that containing cool brine) which in turn cools the heating floor loops turned ‘cooling loops’.
  4. When passive cooling power is not sufficient anymore, active cooling could be turned on. The bulk volume of the buffer tank is cooled now directly with the heat pump, and waste heat is deposited in the underground tank and ground. This will also boost the underground heat sink just right to serve as the heat source again in the upcoming heating season.

In both cooling phases the collector could be turned on in colder nights to cool the tank. This will work much better in the active cooling phase – when the tank is likely to be warmer than the air in the night. Actually, night-time cooling might be the main function the collector would have in a warmer climate.

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[#] That seems to be valid mainly/only for domestic brine-water heat pumps from North American or Chinese vendors; they offer the reversing valve as a common option. European vendors rather offer a so called Active Cooling box, which is a cabinet that can be nearly as big as the heat pump itself. It contains a bunch of valves and heat exchangers that allow for ‘externally’ swapping the connections of condenser and evaporator to heat sink and source respectively.

The Collector Size Paradox

Recently I presented the usual update of our system’s and measurement data documentation.The PDF document contains consolidated numbers for each year and month of operations:

Total output heating energy (incl. hot tap water), electrical input energy (incl. brine pump) and its ratio – the performance factor. Seasons always start at Sept.1, except the first season that started at Nov. 2011. For ‘special experiments’ that had an impact on the results see the text and the PDF linked above.

It is finally time to tackle the fundamental questions:

What is the impact of the size of the solar/air collector?

or

What is the typical output power of the collector?

In 2014 the Chief Engineer had rebuilt the collector so that you can toggle between 12m2 instead of 24m

TOP: Full collector – hydraulics as in seasons 2012, 2013. Active again since Sept. 2017. BOTTOM: Half of the collector, used in seasons 201414, 15, and 16.

Do we have data for seasons we can compare in a reasonable way – seasons that (mainly) differ by collector area?

We disregard seasons 2014 and 2016 – we had to get rid of a nearly 100 years old roof truss and only heated the ground floor with the heat pump.

Attic rebuild project – point of maximum destruction – generation of fuel for the wood stove.

Season 2014 was atypical anyway because of the Ice Storage Challenge experiment.

Then seasonal heating energy should be comparable – so we don’t consider the cold seasons 2012 and 2016.

Remaining warm seasons: 2013 – where the full collector was used – and 2015 (half collector). The whole house was heated with the heat pump; heating and energies and ambient energies were similar – and performance factors were basically identical. So we checked the numbers for the ice months Dec/Feb/Jan. Here a difference can be spotted, but it is far less dramatic than expected. For half the collector:

  • Collector harvest is about 10% lower
  • Performance factor is lower by about 0,2
  • Brine inlet temperature for the heat pump is about 1,5K lower

The upper half of the collector is used, as indicated by hoarfrost.

It was counter-intuitive, and I scrutinized Data Kraken to check it for bugs.

But actually we forgot that we had predicted that years ago: Simulations show the trend correctly, and it suffices to do some basic theoretical calculations. You only need to know how to represent a heat exchanger’s power in two different ways:

Power is either determined by the temperature of the fluid when it enters and exits the exchanger tubes …

[1]   T_brine_outlet – T_brine_inlet * flow_rate * specific_heat

… but power can also be calculated from the heat energy flow from brine to air – over the surface area of the tubes:

[2]   delta_T_brine_air * Exchange_area * some_coefficient

Delta T is an average over the whole exchanger length (actually a logarithmic average but using an arithmetic average is good enough for typical parameters). Some_coefficient is a parameter that characterized heat transfer for area or per length of a tube, so Exchange_area * Some_coefficient could also be called the total heat transfer coefficient.

If several heat exchangers are connected in series their powers are not independent as they share common temperatures of the fluid at the intersection points:

The brine circuit connecting heat pump, collector and the underground water/ice storage tank. The three ‘interesting’ temperatures before/after the heat pump, collector and tank can be calculated from the current power of the heat pump, ambient air temperature, and tank temperature.

When the heat pump is off in ‘collector regeneration mode’ the collector and the heat exchanger in the tank necessarily transfer heat at the same power  per equation [1] – as one’s brine inlet temperature is the other one’s outlet temperature, the flow rate is the same, and also specific heat (whose temperature dependence can be ignored).

But powers can also be expressed by [2]: Each exchanger has a different area, a different heat transfer coefficient, and different mean temperature difference to the ambient medium.

So there are three equations…

  • Power for each exchanger as defined by [1]
  • 2 equations of type [2], one with specific parameters for collector and air, the other for the heat exchanger in the tank.

… and from those the three unknowns can be calculated: Brine inlet temperatures, brine outlet temperature, and harvesting power. All is simple and linear, it is not a big surprise that collector harvesting power is proportional temperature difference between air and tank. The warmer the air, the more you harvest.

The combination of coefficient factors is the ratio of the product of total coefficients and their sum, like: \frac{f_1 * f_2}{f_1 + f_2} – the inverse of the sum of inverses.

This formula shows what one might you have guessed intuitively: If one of the factors is much bigger than the other – if one of the heat exchangers is already much ‘better’ than the others, then it does not help to make the better one even better. In the denominator, the smaller number in the sum can be neglected before and after optimization, the superior properties always cancel out, and the ‘bad’ component fully determines performance. (If one of the ‘factors’ is zero, total power is zero.) Examples for ‘bad’ exchangers: If the heat exchanger tubes in the tank are much too short or if a flat plat collector is used instead of an unglazed collector.

On the other hand, if you make a formerly ‘worse’ exchanger much better, the ratio will change significantly. If both exchangers have properties of the same order of magnitude – which is what we deign our systems for – optimizing one will change things for the better, but never linearly, as effects always cancel out to some extent (You increase numbers in both parts if the fraction).

So there is no ‘rated performance’ in kW or kW per area you could attach to a collector. Its effective performance also depends on the properties of the heat exchanger in the tank.

But there is a subtle consequence to consider: The smaller collector can deliver the same energy and thus ‘has’ twice the power per area. However, air temperature is given, and [2] must hold: In order to achieve this, the delta T between brine and air necessarily has to increase. So brine will be a bit colder and thus the heat pump’s Coefficient of Performance will be a bit lower. Over a full season including the warm periods of heating hot water only the effect is less pronounced – but we see a more significant change in performance data and brine inlet temperature for the ice months in the respective seasons.

Data for the Heat Pump System: Heating Season 2016-2017

I update the documentation of measurement data [PDF] about twice a year. This post is to provide a quick overview for the past season.

The PDF also contains the technical configuration and sizing data. Based on typical questions from an ‘international audience’ I add a summary here plus some ‘cultural’ context:

Building: The house is a renovated, nearly 100-year old building in Eastern Austria: a typical so-called ‘Streckhof’ – an elongated, former small farmhouse. Some details are mentioned here. Heating energy for space heating of two storeys (185m2) and hot water is about 17.000-20.000kWh per year. The roof / attic had been rebuilt in 2008, and the facade was thermally insulated. However, the major part of the house is without an underground level, so most energy is lost via ground. Heating only the ground floor (75m2) with the heat pump reduces heating energy only by 1/3.

Climate: This is the sunniest region of Austria – the lowlands of the Pannonian Plain bordering Hungary. We have Pannonian ‘continental’ climate with low precipitation. Normally, monthly average temperatures in winter are only slightly below 0°C in January, and weeks of ‘ice days’ in a row are very rare.

Heat energy distribution and storage (in the house): The renovated first floor has floor loops while at the ground floor mainly radiators are used. Wall heating has been installed in one room so far. A buffer tank is used for the heating water as this is a simple ‘on-off’ heat pump always operating at about its rated power. Domestic hot water is heated indirectly using a hygienic storage tank.

Heating system. An off-the-shelf, simple brine-water heat pump uses a combination of an unglazed solar-air collector and an underwater water tank as a heat source. Energy is mainly harvested from rather cold air via convection.

Addressing often asked questions: Off-the-shelf =  Same type of heat pump as used with geothermal systems. Simple: Not-smart, not trying to be the universal energy management system, as the smartness in our own control unit and logic for managing the heat source(s). Brine: A mixture of glycol and water (similar to the fluid used with flat solar thermal collectors) = antifreeze as the temperature of brine is below 0°C in winter. The tank is not a seasonal energy storage but a buffer for days or weeks. In this post hydraulics is described in detail, and typical operating conditions throughout a year. Both tank and collector are needed: The tank provides a buffer of latent energy during ‘ice periods’ and it allows to harvest more energy from air, but the collector actually provides for about 75% of the total ambient energy the heat pump needs in a season.

Tank and collector are rather generously sized in relation to the heating demands: about 25m3 volume of water (total volume +10% freezing reserve) and 24m2 collector area.

The overall history of data documented in the PDF also reflects ongoing changes and some experiments, like heating the first floor with a wood stove, toggling the effective area of the collector used between 50% and 100%, or switching off the collector to simulate a harsher winter.

Data for the past season

Finally we could create a giant ice cube naturally. 14m3 of ice had been created in the coldest January since 30 years. The monthly average temperature was -3,6°C, 3 degrees below the long-term average.

(Re the oscillations of the ice volume are see here and here.)

We heated only the ground floor in this season and needed 16.600 kWh (incl. hot water) – about the same heating energy as in the previous season. On the other hand, we also used only half of the collector – 12m2. The heating water inlet temperatures for radiators was even 37°C in January.

For the first time the monthly performance factor was well below 4. The performance factor is the ratio of output heating energy and input electrical energy for heat pump and brine pump. In middle Europe we measure both energies in kWh ;-) The overall seasonal performance factor was 4,3.

The monthly performance factor is a bit lower again in summer, when only hot water is heated (and thus the heat pump’s COP is lower because of the higher target temperature).

Per day we needed about 100kWh of heating energy in January, while the collector could not harvest that much:

In contrast to the season of the Ice Storage Challenge, also the month before the ‘challenge’ (Dec. 2016) was not too collector-friendly. But when the ice melted again, we saw the usual large energy harvests. Overall, the collector could contribute not the full ‘typical’ 75% of ambient energy this season.

(Definitions, sign conventions explained here.)

But there was one positive record, too. In a hot summer of 2017 we consumed the highest cooling energy so far – about 600kWh. The floor loops are used for passive cooling; the heating buffer tank is used to transfer heat from the floor loops to the cold underground tank. In ‘colder’ summer nights the collector is in turn used to cool the tank, and every time hot tap water is heated up the tank is cooled, too.

Of course the available cooling power is just a small fraction of what an AC system for the theoretical cooling load would provide for. However, this moderate cooling is just what – for me – makes the difference between unbearable and OK on really hot days with more than 35°C peak ambient temperature.

Simulations: Levels of Consciousness

In a recent post I showed these results of simulations for our heat pump system:

I focused on the technical details – this post will be more philosophical.

What is a ‘simulation’ – opposed to simplified calculations of monthly or yearly average temperatures or energies? The latter are provided by tools used by governmental agencies or standardization bodies – allowing for a comparison of different systems.

In a true simulation the time intervals so small that you catch all ‘relevant’ changes of a system. If a heating system is turned on for one hour, then turned off again, he time slot needs to be smaller than one hour. I argued before that calculating meaningful monthly numbers requires to incorporate data that had been obtained before by measurements – or by true simulations.

For our system, the heat flow between ground and the water/ice tank is important. In our simplified sizing tool – which is not a simulation – I use average numbers. I validated them by comparing with measurements: The contribution of ground can be determined indirectly; by tallying all the other energies involved. In the detailed simulation I calculate the temperature in ground as a function of time and of distance from the tank, by solving the Heat Equation numerically. Energy flow is then proportional to the temperature gradient at the walls of the tank. You need to make assumptions about the thermal properties of ground, and a simplified geometry of the tank is considered.

Engineering / applied physics in my opinion is about applying a good-enough-approach in order to solve one specific problem. It’s about knowing your numbers and their limits. It is tempting to get carried away by nerdy physics details, and focus on simulating what you know exactly – forgetting that there are huge error bars because of unknowns.

This is the hierarchy I keep in mind:

On the lowest level is the simulation physics, that is: about modelling how ‘nature’ and system’s components react – to changes in the previous time slot. Temperatures change because energies flows, and energy flows because of temperature differences. The heat pump’s output power depends on heating water temperature and brine temperature. Energy of the building is ‘lost’ to the environment via heat conduction; heat exchangers immersed in tanks deposit energy there or retrieve it. I found that getting the serial connection of heat exchangers right in the model was crucial, and it required a self-consistent calculation for three temperatures at the same point of time, rather than trying to ‘follow round the brine’. I used the information on average brine temperatures obtained by these method to run a simplified version of the simulation using daily averages only – for estimating the maximum volume of ice for two decades.

So this means you need to model your exact hydraulic setup, or at least you need to know which features of your setup are critical and worthy to model in detail. But the same also holds for the second level, the simulation of control logic. I try to mirror production control logic as far as possible: This code determines how pumps and valves will react, depending on the system’s prior status before. Both in real life and in the simulation threshold values and ‘hystereses’ are critical: You start to heat if some temperature falls below X, but you only stop heating if it has risen above X plus some Delta. Typical brine-water heat pumps always provide approximately the same output power, so you control operations time and buffer heating energy. If Delta for heating the hot water buffer tank is too large, the heat pump’s performance will suffer. The Coefficient of Performance of the heat pump decreases with increasing heating water temperature. Changing an innocuous parameter will change results a lot, and the ‘control model’ should be given the same vigilance as the ‘physics model’.

Control units can be tweaked at different levels: ‘Experts’ can change the logic, but end users can change non-critical parameters, such as set point temperatures.We don’t restrict expert access in systems we provide the control unit for. But it make sense to require extra input for the expert level though – to prevent accidental changes.

And here we enter level 3 – users’ behavior. We humans are bad at trying to outsmart the controller.

[Life-form in my home] always sets the controller to ‘Sun’. [little sun icon indicating manually set parameters]. Can’t you program something so that nothing actually changes when you pick ‘Sun’?

With heat pumps utilizing ground or water sources – ‘built’ storage repositories with limited capacity – unexpected and irregular system changes are critical: You have to size your source in advance. You cannot simply order one more lorry load of wood pellets or oil if you ‘run out of fuel’. If the source of ambient energy is depleted, the heat pump finally will refuse to work below a certain source temperature. The heat pump’s rated power has match the heating demands and the size of the source exactly. It also must not be oversized in order to avoid turning on and off the compressor too often.

Thus you need good estimates for peak heat load and yearly energy needs, and models should include extreme weather (‘physics’) but also erratic users’ behaviour. The more modern the building, the more important spikes in hot tap water usage get in relation to space heating. A vendor of wood pellet stoves told me that delivering peak energy for hot water – used in private bathrooms that match spas – is a greater challenge today than delivering space heating energy. Energy certificates of modern buildings take into account huge estimated solar and internal energy gains – calculated according to standards. But the true heating power needed on a certain day will depend on the strategy or automation home owners use when managing their shades.

Typical gas boilers are oversized (in terms of kW rated power) by a factor of 2 or more in Germany, but with heat pumps you need to be more careful. However, this also means that heat pump systems cannot and should not be planned for rare peak demands, such as: 10 overnight guests want to shower in the morning one after the other, on an extremely cold day, or for heating up the building quickly after temperature had been decreased during a leave of absence.

The nerdy answer is that a smart home would know when your vacation ends and start heating up well in advance. Not sure what to do about the showering guests as in this case ‘missing’ power cannot be compensated by more time. Perhaps a gamified approach will work: An app will do something funny / provide incentives and notifications so that people wait for the water to heat up again. But what about planning for renting a part of the house out someday? Maybe a very good AI will predict what your grandchildren are likely to do, based on automated genetics monitoring.

The challenge of simulating human behaviour is ultimately governed by constraints on resources – such as the size of the heat source: Future heating demands and energy usage is unknown but the heat source has to be sized today. If the system is ‘open’ and connected to a ‘grid’ in a convenient way problems seem to go away: You order whatever you need, including energy, any time. The opposite is planning for true self-sufficiency: I once developed a simulation for an off-grid system using photovoltaic generators and wind power – for a mountain shelter. They had to meet tough regulations and hygienic standards like any other restaurant, e.g.: to use ‘industry-grade’ dishwashers needing 10kW of power. In order to provide that by solar power (plus battery) you needed to make an estimate on the number of guests likely to visit … and thus on how many people would go hiking on a specific day … and thus maybe on the weather forecast. I tried to factor in the ‘visiting probability’ based on the current weather.

I think many of these problem can be ‘resolved’ by recognizing that they are first world problems. It takes tremendous efforts – in terms of energy use or systems’ complexity – to obtain 100% availability and to cover all exceptional use cases. You would need the design heat load only for a few days every decade. On most winter days a properly sized heat pump is operating for only 12 hours. The simple, low tech solution would be to accept the very very rare intermittent 18,5°C room temperature mitigated by proper clothing. Accepting a 20-minute delay of your shower solves the hot water issue. An economical analysis can reveal the (most likely very small) trade-off of providing exceptional peak energy by a ‘backup’ electrical heating element – or by using that wood stove that you installed ‘as a backup’ but mostly for ornamental reasons because it is dreadful to fetch the wood logs when it is really cold.

But our ‘modern’ expectations and convenience needs are also reflected in regulations. Contractors are afraid of being sued by malicious clients who (quote) sit next their heat pump and count its operating cycles – to compare the numbers with the ones to be ‘guaranteed. In a weather-challenged region at more than 2.000 meters altitude people need to steam clean dishes and use stainless steel instead of wood – where wooden plates have been used for centuries. I believe that regulators are as prone as anybody else to fall into the nerdy trap described above: You monitor, measure, calculate, and regulate the things in detail that you can measure and because you can measure them – not because these things were top priorities or had the most profound impact.

Still harvesting energy from air - during a record-breaking cold January 2017

Simulating Peak Ice

This year ice in the tank was finally melted between March 5 to March 10 – as ‘visual inspection’ showed. Level sensor Mr. Bubble was confused during the melting phase; thus it was an interesting exercise to compare simulations to measurements.

Simulations use the measured ambient temperature and solar radiation as an input, data points are taken every minute. Air temperature determines the heating energy needed by the house: Simulated heat load is increasing linearly until a maximum ‘cut off’ temperature.

The control logic of the real controller (UVR1611 / UVR16x2) is mirrored in the simulation: The controller’s heating curve determines the set temperature for the heating water, and it switches the virtual 3-way valves: Diverting heating water either to the hygienic storage or the buffer tank for space heating, and including the collector in the brine circuit if air temperature is high enough compared to brine temperature. In the brine circuit, three heat exchangers are connected in series: Three temperatures at different points are determined self-consistently from three equations that use underground tank temperature, air temperature, and the heat pump evaporator’s power as input parameters.

The hydraulic schematic for reference, as displayed in the controller’s visualization (See this article for details on operations.)

The Coefficient of Performance of the heat pump, its heating power, and its electrical input power are determined by heating water temperature and brine temperature – from polynomial fit curves to vendors’ data sheet.

So for every minute, the temperatures of tanks – hot and cold – and the volume of ice can be calculated from energy balances. The heating circuits and tap water consume energy, the heat pump delivers energy. The heat exchanger in the tank releases energy or harvests energy, and the collector exchanges energy with the environment. The heat flow between tank and ground is calculated by numerically solving the Heat Equation, using the nearly constant temperature in about 10 meters depth as a boundary condition.

For validating the simulation and for fine-tuning input parameters – like the thermal properties of ground or the building – I cross-check calculated versus measured daily / monthly energies and average temperatures.

Measurements for this winter show the artificial oscillations during the melting phase because Mr. Bubble faces the cliff of ice:

Simulations show growing of ice and the evolution of the tank temperature in agreement with measurements. The melting of ice is in line with observations. The ‘plateau’ shows the oscillations that Mr. Bubble notices, but the true amplitude is smaller:

2016-09 - 2017-03: Temperatures and ice formation - simulations.

Simulated peak ice is about 0,7m3 greater than the measured value. This can be explained by my neglecting temperature gradients within water or ice in the tank:

When there is only a bit of ice yet (small peak in December), tank temperature is underestimated: In reality, the density anomaly of water causes a zone of 4°C at the bottom, below the ice.

When the ice block is more massive (end of January), I overestimate brine temperature as ice has less than 0°C, at least intermittently when the heat pump is turned on. Thus the temperature difference between ambient air and brine is underestimated, and so is the simulated energy harvested from the collector – and more energy needs to be provided by freezing water.

However, a difference in volume of less than 10% is uncritical for system’s sizing, especially if you err on the size of caution. Temperature gradients in ice and convection in water should be less critical if heat exchanger tubes traverse the volume of tank evenly – our prime design principle.

I have got questions about the efficiency of immersed heat exchangers in the tank – will heat transfer deteriorate if the layer of ice becomes too thick? No, according also to this very detailed research report on simulations of ‘ice storage heat pump systems’ (p.5). We grow so-called ‘ice on coil’ which is compared to flat-plate heat exchangers:

… for the coil, the total heat transfer (UA), accounting for the growing ice surface, shows only a small decrease with growing ice thickness. The heat transfer resistance of the growing ice layer is partially compensated by the increased heat transfer area around the coil. In the case of the flat plate, on the contrary, also the UA-value decreases rapidly with growing ice thickness.

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For system’s configuration data see the last chapter of this documentation.

Mr. Bubble Was Confused. A Cliffhanger.

This year we experienced a record-breaking January in Austria – the coldest since 30 years. Our heat pump system produced 14m3 of ice in the underground tank.

The volume of ice is measured by Mr. Bubble, the winner of The Ultimate Level Sensor Casting Show run by the Chief Engineer last year:

The classic, analog level sensor was very robust and simple, but required continuous human intervention:

Level sensor: The old way

So a multitude of prototypes had been evaluated …

Level sensors: The precursors

The challenge was to measure small changes in level as 1 mm corresponds to about 0,15 m3 of ice.

Mr. Bubble uses a flow of bubbling air in a tube; the measured pressure increases linearly with the distance of the liquid level from the nozzle:

blubber-messrohr-3

Mr. Bubble is fine and sane, as long as ice is growing monotonously: Ice grows from the heat exchanger tubes into the water. The heat exchanger does not float due to buoyancy, as it is attached to the supporting construction. The design makes sure that not-yet-frozen water can always ‘escape’ to higher levels to make room for growing ice. Finally Mr. Bubble lives inside a hollow cylinder of water inside a block of ice. As long as all the ice is covered by water, Mr. Bubble’s calculation is correct.

But when ambient temperature rises and the collector harvests more energy then needed by the heat pump, melting starts at the heat exchanger tubes. The density of ice is smaller than that of water, so the water level in Mr. Bubble’s hollow cylinder is below the surface level of ice:

Mr. Bubble is utterly confused and literally driven over the edge – having to deal with this cliff of ice:

When ice is melted, the surface level inside the hollow cylinder drops quickly as the diameter of the cylinder is much smaller than the width of the tank. So the alleged volume of ice perceived by Mr. Bubble seems to drop extremely fast and out of proportion: 1m3 of ice is equivalent to 93kWh of energy – the energy our heat pump would need on an extremely cold day. On an ice melting day, the heat pump needs much less, so a drop of more than 1m3 per day is an artefact.

As long as there are ice castles on the surface, Mr. Bubble keeps underestimating the volume of ice. When it gets colder, ice grows again, and its growth is then overestimated via the same effect. Mr. Bubble amplifies the oscillations in growing and shrinking of ice.

In the final stages of melting a slab-with-a-hole-like structure ‘mounted’ above the water surface remains. The actual level of water is lower than it was before the ice period. This is reflected in the raw data – the distance measured. The volume of ice output is calibrated not to show negative values, but the underlying measurement data do:

Only when finally all ice has been melted – slowly and via thermal contact with air – then the water level is back to normal.

In the final stages of melting parts of the suspended slab of ice may break off and then floating small icebergs can confuse Mr. Bubble, too:

So how can we picture the true evolution of ice during melting? I am simulating the volume of ice, based on our measurements of air temperature. To be detailed in a future post – this is my cliffhanger!

>> Next episode.

Ice Storage Hierarchy of Needs

Data Kraken – the tentacled tangled pieces of software for data analysis – has a secret theoretical sibling, an older one: Before we built our heat source from a cellar, I developed numerical simulations of the future heat pump system. Today this simulation tool comprises e.g. a model of our control system, real-live weather data, energy balances of all storage tanks, and a solution to the heat equation for the ground surrounding the water/ice tank.

I can model the change of the tank temperature and  ‘peak ice’ in a heating season. But the point of these simulations is rather to find out to which parameters the system’s performance reacts particularly sensitive: In a worst case scenario will the storage tank be large enough?

A seemingly fascinating aspect was how peak ice ‘reacts’ to input parameters: It is quite sensitive to the properties of ground and the solar/air collector. If you made either the ground or the collector just ‘a bit worse’, ice seems to grow out of proportion. Taking a step back I realized that I could have come to that conclusion using simple energy accounting instead of differential equations – once I had long-term data for the average energy harvesting power of the collector and ground. Caveat: The simple calculation only works if these estimates are reliable for a chosen system – and this depends e.g. on hydraulic design, control logic, the shape of the tank, and the heat transfer properties of ground and collector.

For the operations of the combined tank+collector source the critical months are the ice months Dec/Jan/Feb when air temperature does not allow harvesting all energy from air. Before and after that period, the solar/air collector is nearly the only source anyway. As I emphasized on this blog again and again, even during the ice months, the collector is still the main source and delivers most of the ambient energy the heat pump needs (if properly sized) in a typical winter. The rest has to come from energy stored in the ground surrounding the tank or from freezing water.

I am finally succumbing to trends of edutainment and storytelling in science communications – here is an infographic:

Ambient energy needed in Dec/Jan/Fec - approximate contributions of collector, ground, ice

(Add analogies to psychology here.)

Using some typical numbers, I am illustrating 4 scenarios in the figure below, for a  system with these parameters:

  • A cuboid tank of about 23 m3
  • Required ambient energy for the three ice months is ~7000kWh
    (about 9330kWh of heating energy at a performance factor of 4)
  • ‘Standard’ scenario: The collector delivers 75% of the ambient energy, ground delivers about 18%.
  • Worse’ scenarios: Either collector or/and ground energy is reduced by 25% compared to the standard.

Contributions of the three sources add up to the total ambient energy needed – this is yet another way of combining different energies in one balance.

Contributions to ambient energy in ice months - scenarios.

Ambient energy needed by the heat pump in  Dec+Jan+Feb,  as delivered by the three different sources. Latent ‘ice’ energy is also translated to the percentage of water in the tank that would be frozen.

Neither collector nor ground energy change much in relation to the base line. But latent energy has to fill in the gap: As the total collector energy is much higher than the total latent energy content of the tank, an increase in the gap is large in relation to the base ice energy.

If collector and ground would both ‘underdeliver’ by 25% the tank in this scenario would be frozen completely instead of only 23%.

The ice energy is just the peak of the total ambient energy iceberg.

You could call this system an air-geothermal-ice heat pump then!

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Continued: Here are some details on simulations.

Earth, Air, Water, and Ice.

In my attempts at Ice Storage Heat Source popularization I have been facing one big challenge: How can you – succinctly, using pictures – answer questions like:

How much energy does the collector harvest?

or

What’s the contribution of ground?

or

Why do you need a collector if the monthly performance factor just drops a bit when you turned it off during the Ice Storage Challenge?

The short answer is that the collector (if properly sized in relation to tank and heat pump) provides for about 75% of the ambient energy needed by the heat pump in an average year. Before the ‘Challenge’ in 2015 performance did not drop because the energy in the tank had been filled up to the brim by the collector before. So the collector is not a nice add-on but an essential part of the heat source. The tank is needed to buffer energy for colder periods; otherwise the system would operate like an air heat pump without any storage.

I am calling Data Kraken for help to give me more diagrams.

There are two kinds of energy balances:

1) From the volume of ice and tank temperature the energy still stored in the tank can be calculated. Our tank ‘contains’ about 2.300 kWh of energy when ‘full’. Stored energy changes …

  • … because energy is extracted from the tank or released to it via the heat exchanger pipes traversing it.
  • … and because heat is exchanged with the surrounding ground through the walls and the floor of the tank.

Thus the contribution of ground can be determined by:

Change of stored energy(Ice, Water) =
Energy over ribbed pipe heat exchanger + Energy exchanged with ground

2) On the other hand, three heat exchangers are serially connected in the brine circuit: The heat pump’s evaporator, the solar air collector, and the heat exchanger in the tank. .

Both of these energy balances are shown in this diagram. The direction of the arrows indicates energy > 0, and they re in line with the signs used in the diagrams below.

Energy sources, transfer, storage - sign conventions

The heat pump is using a combined heat source, made up of tank and collector, so …

Ambient Energy for Heat Pump = -(Collector Energy) + Tank Energy

The following diagrams show data for the season containing the Ice Storage Challenge:

Season 2014 - 2015: Monthly Energy Balances: Energy Sources, Transfer, Storage

From September to January more and more ambient energy is needed – but also the contribution of the collector increases! The longer the collector is on in parallel with the heat pump, the more energy can be harvested from air (as the temperature difference between air and brine is increased).

As long as there is no ice the temperature of the tank and the brine inlet temperature follow air temperature approximately. But if air temperature drops quickly (e.g. at the end of November 2014), the tank is still rather warm in relation to air and the collector cannot harvest much. Then the energy stored in the tank drops and energy starts to flow from ground to the tank.

2014-09-01 - 2015-05-15: Temperatures and ice formation

2014-09-01 - 2015-05-15: Daily Energy Balances: Energy Sources, Transfer, Storage

On Jan 10 an anomalous peak in collector energy is visible: Warm winter storm Felix gave us a record harvest exceeding the energy needed by the heat pump! In addition to high ambient temperatures and convection (wind) the tank temperature remained low while energy was used for melting ice.

On February 1, we turned off the collector – and now the stored energy started to decline. Since the collector energy in February is zero, the energy transferred via the heat exchanger is equal to the ambient energy used by the heat pump. Ground provided for about 1/3 of the ambient energy. Near the end of the Ice Storage Challenge (mid of March) the contribution of ground was increasing while the contribution of latent energy became smaller and smaller: Ice hardly grew anymore, allegedly after the ice cube has ‘touched ground’.

Mid of March the collector was turned on again: Again (as during the Felix episode) harvest is high because the tank remains at 0°C. The energy stored in the tank is replenished quickly. Heat transfer with ground is rather small, and thus the heat exchanger energy is about equal to the change in energy stored.

At the beginning of May, we switched to summer mode: The collector is turned off (by the control system) to keep tank temperature at 8°C as long as possible. This temperature is a trade-off between optimizing heat pump performance and keeping some energy for passive cooling. The energy available for cooling is reduced by the slow flow of heat from ground to the tank.

Frozen Herbs and Latent Energy Storage

… having studied one subject, we immediately have a great deal of direct and precise knowledge … of another.

Richard Feynman

Feynman referred to different phenomena that can be described by equations of the same appearance: Learning how to calculate the distribution of electrical charges gives you the skills to simulate also the flow of heat.

But I extend this to even more down-to-earth analogies – such as the design of a carton of frozen herbs resembling our water-tight underground tank.

(This is not a product placement.)

No, just being a container for frozen stuff is too obvious a connection!

Maybe it is the reclosable lid covering part of the top surface?

Lid of underground water/ice storage tank.

No, too obvious again!

Or it is the intriguing ice structures that grow on the surface: in opened frozen herb boxes long forgotten in the refrigerator – or on a gigantic ice cube in your tank:

Ice Storage Challenge of 2015 - freezing 15m3 of water after having turned off the solar/air collector.

The box of herbs only reveals its secret when dismantled carefully. The Chief Engineer minimizes its volume as a dedicated waste separating citizen:

… not just tramping it down. He removes the flaps glued to the corners:

And there is was, plain plane and simple:

The Chief Engineer had used exactly this folding technique to cover the walls and floor of the former root cellar with a single piece of pond liner – avoiding to cut and glue the plastic sheet.