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:


Mr. Bubble is fine and sane, as long as ice is growing monotonously: Ice grows from the heat exchanger tubes into the water, and 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!


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?


What’s the contribution of ground?


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 arrows indicates energy > 0):

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 (… although that sometimes helps if some sensors do not co-operate).

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.

How Does It Work? (The Heat Pump System, That Is)

Over the holidays I stayed away from social media, read quantum physics textbooks instead, and The Chief Engineer and I mulled over the fundamental questions of life, the universe and everything. Such as: How to explain our heat pump system?

Many blog postings were actually answers to questions, and am consolidating all these answers to frequently asked questions again in a list of such answers. However, this list has grown quickly.

An astute reader suggested to create an ‘animation’ of the gradual evolution of the system’s state. As I learned from discussions, one major confusion was related to the role of the solar collector and the fact that you have to factor in the history of the heat source: This is true for every heat pump system that uses a heat source that can be ‘depleted’, in contrast to a flow of ground water at a constant temperature for example. With the latter, the ‘state’ of the system only depends on the current ambient temperature, and you can explain it in a way not too different from pontificating on a wood or gas boiler.

One thing you have to accept though is how a heat pump as such works: I have given up to go into thermodynamical details, and I also think that the refigerator analogy is not helpful. So for this pragmatic introduction a heat pump is just a device that generates heating energy as an output, the input energy being electrical energy and heat energy extracted from a rather cold heat source somewhere near the building. For 8kW heating power you need about 2kW electrical energy and 6kW ambient energy. The ratio of 8kW and 2kW is called the coefficient of performance.

What the typical intro to heat pumps in physics textbooks does not point out is that the ambient heat source actually has to be able to deliver that input energyduring a whole heating season. There is no such thing as the infinite reservoir of energy usually depicted as a large box. Actually, the worse the performance of a heat pump is – the ratio of output heat energy and input electrical energy, the smaller are the demands on the heat source. The Chief Engineer has coined the term The Heat Source Paradox for this!

The lower the temperature of the heat source, the smaller the coefficient of performance is: So if you run an air source heat pump in mid-winter (using a big ventilator) then less energy is extracted from that air source than a geothermal heat pump would extract from ground. But if you build a geothermal heat source that’s too small in relation to a building’s heating demands, you see the same effect: Ground freezes, source temperature decreases, performance decreases, and you need more electrical energy and less ambient energy.

I am harping on the role of the heat source as the whole point of our ‘innovation’ is our special heat source that has two components, both of them being essential: An unglazed solar / air collector and an underground water / ice tank plus the surrounding ground. The collector allows to replenish the energy stored in the tank quickly, even in winter: Air temperature just needs to be some degrees warmer than the cold brine. The tank is a buffer: When no energy is harvested by the collector at ambient temperatures below 0°C, water freezes and releases latent heat. So you can call that an air heat pump with a huge, silent and mainentance-free ‘absorber’ plus a buffer that provides energy for periods of frost and that allows for storing all the energy you don’t need immediately. Ground does provide some energy as well, and I am planning to post about my related simulations.(*) It can be visualized as an extension of the ice / water energy storage into the surroundings. But the active volume or area of ground is smaller than for geothermal systems as most of the ambient energy actually comes from the solar / air collector: The critical months in our climate are Dec-Jan-Feb: Before and after, the collector would be sufficient as the only heat source. In the three ‘ice months’ water is typically frozen in the tank, but even then the collector provides for 75-80% of the ambient energy needed to drive the heat pump.(*)

(*) Edit: This post written in 2017 show how much energy is stored / exchanged by each component. An overview of essential numbers is given here; emphasis on the volume of ice – which is compared to simulations here.

Components are off-the-shelf products, actually rather simple and cheap ones, such as the most stupid, non-smart brine-water heat pump. What is special is 1) the arrangement of the heat exchanger in the water tank and 2) the custom control logic, that is programming of the control unit.

So here is finally the series of images of the system’s state, shown in a gallery and with captions: You can scroll down to see the series embedded in the post, or click on the first image to see an enlarged view and then click through the slide-show.

More information on the system (technical data, sizing) and measurement data since 2012 can be found in this documentation – updated every few months.

Information for German readers: This post contains the German version of this slide-show.

Economics of the Solar Collector

In the previous post I gave an overview of our recently compiled data for the heat pump system.

The figure below, showing the seasonal performance factor and daily energy balances, gave rise to an interesting question:

In February the solar collector was off for research purposes, and the performance factor was just a bit lower than in January. Does the small increase in performance – and the related modest decrease in costs of electrical energy – justify the investment of installing a solar collector?

Monthly Performance Factor, Heat Pump System

Monthly heating energy provided by the heat pump – total of both space heating and hot water, related electrical input energy, and the ratio = monthly performance factor. The SPF is in kWh/kWh.

Daily energy balances, heat pump system, season 2014-2015

Daily energies: 1) Heating energy delivered by the heat pump. Heating energy = electrical energy + ambient energy from the tank. 2) Energy supplied by the collector to the water tank, turned off during the Ice Storage Challenge. Negative collector energies indicate cooling of the water tank by the collector during summer nights. 200 kWh peak in January: due to the warm winter storm ‘Felix’.

Depending on desired pay-back time, it might not – but this is the ‘wrong question’ to ask. Without the solar collector, the performance factor would not have been higher than 4 before it was turned off; so you must not compare just these two months without taking into account the history of energy storage in the whole season.

Bringing up the schematic again; the components active in space heating mode plus collector are highlighted:

Space heating with solar collector on, heat pump system punktwissen.

(1) Off-the-shelf heat pump. (2) Energy-efficient brine pump. (3) Underground water tank, can also be used as a cistern. (4) Ribbed pipe unglazed solar collector (5) 3-way valve: Diverting brine to flow through the collector, depending on ambient temperature. (6) Hot water is heated indirectly using a large heat exchanger in the tank. (7) Buffer tank with a heat exchanger for cooling. (8) Heating circuit pump and mixer, for controlling the supply temperature. (9) 3-way valve for switching to cooling mode. (10) 3-way valve for toggling between room heating and hot water heating.

The combination of solar collector and tank is ‘the heat source’, but the primary energy source is ambient air. The unglazed collector allows for extracting energy from it efficiently. Without the tank this system would resemble an air heat pump system – albeit with a quiet heat exchanger instead of a ventilator. You would need the emergency heating element much more often in a typical middle European winter, resulting in a lower seasonal performance factor. We built this system also because it is more economical than a noisy and higher-maintenance air heat pump system in the long run.

Our measurements over three years show that about 75%-80% of the energy extracted from the tank by the heat pump is delivered to it by the solar collector in the same period (see section ‘Ambient Energy’ in monthly and yearly overviews). The remaining energy is from surrounding ground or freezing water. The water tank is a buffer for periods of a few very cold days or weeks. So the solar collector is an essential component – not an option.

In Oct, Nov, and March typically all the energy needed for heating is harvested by the solar collector in the same month. In ‘Ice Months’  Dec, Jan, Feb freezing of water provides for the difference. The ice cube is melted again in the remaining months, by the surplus of solar / air energy – in summer delivered indirectly via ground.

The winter 2014/2015 had been unusually mild, so we had hardly created any ice before February. The collector had managed to replenish the energy quickly, even in December and January. The plot of daily energies over time show that the energy harvested by the collector in these months is only a bit lower than the heating energy consumed by the house! So the energy in the tank was filled to the brim before we turned the collector off on February 1. Had the winter been harsher we might have had 10 m3 of ice already on that day, and we might have needed 140kWh per day of heating energy, rather than 75kWh. We would have encountered  the phenomena noted during the Ice Storage Challenge earlier.

This post has been written by Elke Stangl, on her blog. Just adding this in case the post gets stolen in its entirety again, as it happened to other posts tagged with ‘Solar’ recently.

Ice Storage Challenge: High Score!

Released from ice are brook and river
By the quickening glance of the gracious Spring;
The colors of hope to the valley cling,
And weak old Winter himself must shiver,
Withdrawn to the mountains, a crownless king.

These are the first lines of the English version of a famous German poem on spring, from the drama Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Weird factoid about me: I was once inclined to study literature, rather than physics. But finally physics won, so this is a post about joyful toying with modeling heat transport in ice and water.

After 46 days we had a high score: The ice cube, generated by our heat pump, stopped growing at about 15m3. About 10mof water remained unfrozen. After the volume of ice had been in a steady state for a a while, we turned on the solar collector again to return to standard operations.

Where did the energy for the heat pump come from before?

The lid of the tank is insulated against ambient air, the solar collector was not operational, and no ice had been created: The remaining energy has to be provided by the 5th element that cannot be shut off: 1) water 2) ice, 3) ambient air, 4) solar radiation … 5) ground.

Normally ground supplies about 15 W per m2 surface area – deduced from monitoring the power transported with the brine flow and energy accounting for the tank. The active interface between tank and ground below frost depth is about 35 m2. This results in about 0,5 kW in total, thus just 12 kWh per day, much lower than the ~ 50 kWh ambient energy fed into the heat pump.

After much deliberation and playing with the heat transfer equation we came up with this description of the evolution of the ice cube:

Phase 1: Growth of ice into water.

  • Ice starts to grow from the heat exchanger tubes into the remaining water. These tubes are installed in a meandering pattern, traversing the storage tank.
  • At some point the thick layers of ice covering adjacent parts of the pipes touch each other. The surface of this solid ice cube is smaller than the interface between the meandering ice formations and water before. The power needed by the heat pump has to be pushed through a smaller surface – which is only possible if the temperature gradient within the ice gets larger. As the temperature at the ice-water interface has to be 0°C, the temperature at the heat exchanger has to decrease. This is exactly what we see from monitoring data – brine temperature drops well below 0°C.
  • Side-effect: Due to the lower brine temperature the coefficient of performance  decreases slightly. So more of the total heating energy needs to be provided by the electrical input. We call this the heat source paradox: The worse performance is, the more you spare the energy stored in the heat source. Thanks to this self-protection mechanism, the energy in the tank will not suddenly drop to zero.
Ice in the water tank, 2015-03-30

Evolution of the volume of ice, ambient temperature and brine temperature over time. The ice is now quickly melting again – in March the collector is already harvesting enough energy again for balancing heating demands!

Phase 2: Ice touching ground.

  • As long as there is some water between ice and ground, the water temperature is 0°C. This is the temperature ground ‘sees’ and the temperature which is relevant for the low heat transport from ground to water.
  • Ice touches some surfaces of the cuboid tank – the ones where the heat exchanger tubes are closest to the surface. Now ground is directly connected to ice with its temperatures < 0°C. The temperature gradient between ground and ice provides for a higher flow of energy. This is also indicated by the evolution of the temperature in the ground below the tank: While temperatures of undisturbed ground and the region below the tank had been aligned before, ground temperature beneath the tank still kept getting lower – although a few meters away from the tank ground is already warming up again.
  • If enough heat is delivered by ground, no more heat is needed by freezing the remaining water in the tank. When ground temperature reaches zero, it can even freeze – which happens with geothermal systems, too. We might have extended the ice storage into ground.
Temperatures in ground, beneath the water tank.

The temperature sensor closest to the tank in 30 cm underneath. A few meters from the tank ground is already warming up again (following the standard ‘yearly temperature wave’), but below the tank the temperature is still getting lower – as highlighted by the blue rectangle.

Heat transport within ice is actually more efficient than transport in water: Ice has 4 times the heat conductivity of water, and 10 times the thermal diffusivity. The latter is a measure for the time a deposited ‘lump of heat’ will be spread in space:

Heat eqnSo we have built a very efficient cold bridge between the heat exchanger and ground. Everything is consistent with the poetry of the differential equation of heat transfer.

I marvel at the intriguing and mathematically appealing physics in my backyard!

When we grow up, we'll be eggplants!

For the backyard (‘Office desk farming’). Happy Easter everybody!