Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bearing Failure Leads to Cooked Winding

I ran across a failed capacitor start motor on an air compressor recently. It is obvious that the start winding got barbecued (see picture).

A student asked me how I knew right off that it was the start winding.  Notice that the winding which is burned has smaller gauge wire than the winding that appears OK. The start winding in single phase motors is constructed of smaller gauge wire than the run winding and has fewer turns. It is tempting to call this an electrical failure after seeing the cooked winding. However, most motor failures can be traced back to bearing failures.

Disassembling the motor we saw that the rotor had been dragging – a sure sign of bearing failure. (see picture)

The lead end bearing was to blame in this case. You can see that the dragging all took place on the lead end of the motor. Taking a close look at the stator you can see where the rotor has been rubbing the stator. (see picture)

This can cause two types of winding failures: one where the rotor knocks some of the metal layers into the slots where the windings are, and another where the rotor stays magnetically locked down at startup, which is what I believe happened here. Even though the rotor turns easily by hand and there is no play that can be casually observed by hand, it is obvious the bearing was allowing the rotor to touch the stator. If this happens on startup, the reaction will be like two magnets with opposite polarity pulling together. The motor will lock down, draw high current, and heat up.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Toggle Switch Failure in a Crawl Space

A very common problem encountered in crawl spaces is for the toggle switch used as a furnace disconnect to die. Often you turn it off, and it will never turn on again. They can also fail on their own over time. Toggle switches are not really made for the environment found in most crawl spaces. The contacts and the switch mechanism get corroded. The contact corrosion causes voltage drop and heat, further degrading the switch. 

The picture shows what is left of the toggle switch that was serving as a furnace disconnect. The switch had failed, keeping power from reaching the furnace. It was relatively easy to diagnose: nothing happening with any thermostat setting, no transformer hum, and no LEDs glowing. My non-contact voltage detector showed power entering the switch but not leaving it. When I started to remove it so I could check it, it just fell apart.

To avoid similar problems, toggle switches in crawl spaces should be installed inside a weather proof switch box. I also recommend spending a few extra dollars to get a commercial, heavy duty toggle switch instead of the normal light duty residential toggle switch. In fact, the NEC requires the weatherproof box, but it is often overlooked. The relevant NEC sections are listed below. These are from the 2017 edition, but I do not think these particular sections have changed from previous code versions.

“404.4 Damp or Wet Locations
(A) Surface-Mounted Switch or Circuit Breaker. A surface mounted switch or circuit breaker shall be enclosed in a weatherproof enclosure or cabinet that complies with 312.2.
312.2 Damp and Wet Locations.
In damp or wet locations, surface-type enclosures within the scope of this article shall be placed or equipped so as to prevent moisture or water from entering and accumulating within the cabinet or cutout box, and shall be mounted so there is at least 6-mm (1∕4-in.) airspace between the enclosure and the wall or other supporting surface. Enclosures installed in wet locations shall be weatherproof. For enclosures in wet locations, raceways or cables entering above the level of uninsulated live parts shall use fittings listed for wet locations.

Exception: Nonmetallic enclosures shall be permitted to be installed without the airspace on a concrete, masonry, tile, or similar surface.”

Monday, September 4, 2017

Entropy, oh Entropy, What Art Thou?

Ok, so Shakespeare did not wax lyrical about entropy. I was talking with Bryan Orr the other day and the subject of entropy came up. Bryan does HVACR podcasts and organizes educational resources for HVACR. His website is The quickest way to discover that you don’t really know everything you should about a subject is to try and explain it to someone else. In talking with Bryan, I realized my grasp on entropy was a bit tenuous.

Anyone looking carefully at a refrigerant pressure-enthalpy diagram might have noticed the steep, diagonal lines on the right side of the saturation curve labeled entropy. Entropy is a measure of the level of disorganization in something. Entropy is a natural process: everything tends to become less and less organized over time. The inside of most service technician’s trucks towards the end of the week is an example of increasing entropy. Parts and tools scattered about, service tickets and coffee cups in the dash, and a copy of Fundamentals of HVACR, 3rd edition open in the front seat. So how does this concept of increased randomness have anything to do with air conditioning?

In researching for an answer to that very question I came upon many explanations that were honestly a bit beyond me. It seems I am not the only person who struggles with exactly what entropy is. The definition that I found which came the closest to something which made sense from an HVACR point of view was “Entropy, the measure of a system's thermal energy per unit temperature that is unavailable for doing useful work. Because work is obtained from ordered molecular motion, the amount of entropy is also a measure of the molecular disorder, or randomness, of a system.” Another idea that helped was “Thermodynamic entropy is part of the science of heat energy. It is a measure of how organized or disorganized energy is in a system of atoms or molecules.” From these descriptions I can visualize that entropy is a measure of the amount of energy required to keep something at its present condition and state. That energy is unavailable for useful work because that amount of energy is required just for the substance to remain as it is.

If you think about the different physical states and the way molecules are arranged, you can see that solids have a low entropy – the molecules have very few possible arrangements, liquids have a higher entropy – the molecules move freely around, and gasses have the highest entropy – the molecules are whizzing around nearly independently. Extending the mental concept a bit further, increasing the temperature of a gas increases the entropy because now the molecules are moving more, so there are more possible arrangements. On the other hand, increasing the pressure of a gas decreases its entropy because the molecules are packed in more tightly, decreasing their ability to move around. Increasing the volume of a gas increases the entropy because the molecules have more room to play, and thus, more arrangements.

OK, so we still have not really nailed down how this has anything practical to do with a refrigeration system. Entropy is measured in BTU per pound per degree. Basically, that is the definition of specific heat. Notice that if you follow any line of constant entropy from left to right, the gas increases in temperature and pressure. That is exactly what happens in a compressor. These two changes counteract each other in terms of the effect they have on entropy, leaving entropy unchanged. When gas is compressed its entropy remains the same. Mechanical energy is converted into heat energy, but the amount of heat per degree for each pound of refrigerant stays the same.

Next time you are on a job and want to plot the system operation on an enthalpy diagram, remember that you can use the lines of constant entropy to make it a bit easier. The compressor line starts where the evaporator pressure line intersects the suction temperature line. Compression will follow the lines of constant entropy up until you intersect with the condenser pressure line.      

Friday, August 11, 2017

Court Rules Against EPA SNAP Ruling

Two refrigerant manufacturers, Mexichem and Arkema, have successfully sued the EPA over their decision to start phasing out HFC refrigerants because of their global warming effect. The gist of the argument is that the law which established the EPA’s right to regulate refrigerants is specifically about ozone depletion, not global warming. The EPA’s legal right to regulate replacement refrigerants is limited to their effect on ozone depletion. The court ordered the EPA to redo their ruling with this in mind. Below are a couple of direct quotes from the ruling.

“The fundamental problem for EPA is that HFCs are not ozone-depleting substances, as all parties agree. Because HFCs are not ozone-depleting substances, Section 612 would not seem to grant EPA authority to require replacement of HFCs. Indeed, before 2015, EPA itself maintained that Section 612 did not grant authority to require replacement of nonozone-depleting substances such as HFCs.”

“EPA’s novel reading of Section 612 is inconsistent with the statute as written. Section 612 does not require (or give EPA authority to require) manufacturers to replace non-ozone depleting substances such as HFCs. We therefore vacate the 2015 Rule to the extent it requires manufacturers to replace HFCs, and we remand to EPA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The EPA still has to do their rewrite, and of course it is possible that they might choose to appeal to the supreme court. But for now, the HFC phase down has been phased out.

You can download the ruling and read it for yourself here:$file/15-1328-1687707.pdf

Below are two links to other articles about this ruling.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Stay Away from Unapproved Flammable R22 Substitutes

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am once again talking about the dangers of unapproved, highly flammable R22 substitute refrigerants which are still easily available over the internet to anyone who wants to buy them. A quick Google search for R22 replacement refrigerant will list several places to buy these dangerous mixtures. The manufacturers market these under a variety of names. The EPA has listed many of them as specifically NOT approved for use. They include refrigerant products sold under the names R-22a, 22a, Blue Sky 22a refrigerant, Coolant Express 22a, DURACOOL-22a, EC-22, Ecofreeez EF- 22a, Envirosafe 22a, ES-22a, Frost 22a, HC-22a, Maxi-Fridge, MX-22a, Oz-Chill 22a, Priority Cool, and RED TEK 22a. The main component of all of these is propane.
It is true that the EPA has approved some flammable refrigerants for use in new systems with  lot of restrictions. However, the allowed use is for small refrigerators. The total allowable amount is very small, the systems must be new and specifically designed for flammable refrigerant. Refrigeration systems designed for flammable refrigerant meet strict safety standards, including non-sparking controls and labeling.  Class 3 flammable refrigerants are specifically NOT approved for use as a retrofit refrigerant for R22, or any other system designed for non-flammable refrigerant.

Every time a contactor or relay opens or closes they make a spark which is hot enough to ignite a flammable gas. If someone is losing refrigerant, their system has a leak. Continuing to add a flammable refrigerant on top of R22 will eventually create a flammable mixture. More worrying is that the flammable mixture will be leaking out somewhere.

As a practical matter, most recovery units are not designed to handle flammable refrigerants. Master Cool has just come out with one that is  specifically designed to safely handle flammable refrigerant. Even if you did not use any flammable refrigerant, are you certain that someone before did not add one of these flammable substitutes?

Here is a copy of some of the text from the EPA ruling

“ For retrofit residential and light commercial AC and heat pumps— unitary split AC systems and heat pumps, EPA is listing as unacceptable, as of January 3, 2017:
• All refrigerants identified as flammability Class 3 in American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/ American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard 34–2013; and
• All refrigerants meeting the criteria for flammability Class 3 in ANSI/ ASHRAE Standard 34–2013. These include, but are not limited to, refrigerant products sold under the names R-22a, 22a, Blue Sky 22a refrigerant, Coolant Express 22a, DURACOOL-22a, EC-22, Ecofreeez EF- 22a, Envirosafe 22a, ES-22a, Frost 22a, HC-22a, Maxi-Fridge, MX-22a, Oz-Chill 22a, Priority Cool, and RED TEK 22a. “

Here is a link to the EPA ruling banning flammable refrigerant as a retrofit refrigerant.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Alphabet Soup

Daikin just announced the release of R407H and the US EPA has added it to their SNAP list of acceptable refrigerants for both new and retrofit uses. 407H is designed to be a lower GWP refrigerant to replace R404A and R22 in commercial refrigeration applications. I confess, I did not know there was a 407G. I am often asked where all these numbers and letters come from.

The numbers for refrigerants which are mixtures of two or more refrigerants start with either a 4 or a 5. All zeotropic refrigerant numbers start with a 4 while azeotropic refrigerants numbers start with a 5. Zeotropic refrigerants separate when boiling; azeotropic refrigerants do not separate when boiling. The number after the 4 indicates the order that mixture of chemicals was tested by ASHRAE. For example, R401A was the very first. The letter after a zetropic refrigerant designates the order of testing for that specific mix of chemicals. For example, 407A was the first mixture of R32, R125, and R134a to be tested while 407H is the eighth. Please note that the letters for 400 series refrigerants should be upper case.

So what is the difference between 407A, 407C, 407H, and all the other 407 refrigerants? Just the percentage mix of the three ingredients. All eight versions of 407 have slightly different mixtures of the same three constituent refrigerants. A lot of this is done to tweak performance for a specific application or improve a particular characteristic, such as lowering the refrigerant’s GWP. 407H has a GWP of 1500 compared to 404A of 3922.

So what about the other refrigerant numbers, such as 22, or 134a, or (gasp) 1234yf? These describe the chemical construction of the molecules in these refrigerants. These refrigerants all consist of just one chemical compound. Compounds such as R12 or R22 are simple enough to be described without a trailing letter because there is only one way to build them. On the other hand, refrigerants 134a and 1234yf can be built many ways because they have more than one carbon atom. The trailing letters describe how the atom is constructed, which makes a difference in how it behaves. Note that these letters are lower case.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Flammable Refrigernats

I confess that I have always thought of flammability as an either or question: it either burns or it doesn’t. So the concept of different levels of flammability was a hard one for me to grasp. I wondered: what is the difference between 3,2, and 2L refrigerant designations? What follows is a somewhat lengthy discussion of what I learned.

First off,  found that it is not all that simple. There are several flammability characteristics that can be compared: lower flammability limit, upper flammability limit, auto ignition temperature, minimum ignition energy, heat of combustion, and flame velocity. The table at the bottom of the article shows these different specifications for a small selection of flammable refrigerants. Note that pressure and temperature also play a part. For the ASHRAE safety tests, a temperature of 140°F at atmospheric pressure is specified. You get different results when applying higher pressures and temperatures.

The original three classifications (1,2,3) were determined by the lower flammability limit and the heat of combustion. A refrigerant is classified as highly flammable, Class 3, if  either it requires 3.5% or less less by volume for a flammable mixture or it has a heat of combustion equal to or exceeding 19 kilojoules per gram. Note that EITHER condition will place it in class 3. Class 2 refrigerants require a concentration greater than 3.5% by volume to create a flammable mixture and they must have a heat of combustion less than 19 kilojoules per gram. Note that BOTH conditions must be met in order to be classified as class 2. Later, ASHRAE added a 2L category for refrigerants with burning velocities less than 10 centimeters per second. The table below summarizes the different flammability classifications.

Lower Flammability Limit % by volume
Heat of Combustion
Burning Velocity
Does not support combustion at atmospheric pressure
Greater than 3.5%
Less than 19 kj/g
10 cm/s or less
Greater than 3.5%
Less than 19 kj/g
Greater than 10 cm/s
3.5% or less
19 kj/g or more

Lower flammability limit (LFL) is the minimum percentage required in air to be combustible. For example propane (R290) has an LFL of 2.1% by volume while ammonia (R717) has an LFL of 15%. Notice that propane only requires 2.1% while ammonia requires 15%. So that is one difference – the amount that must build up before it can burn.

Upper flammability limit (UFL) describes the maximum concentration which will still burn. If the concentration of flammable vapors exceeds the UFL, it will not ignite. It is more difficult to draw a straight line comparison using the UFL. However, you can say that refrigerants whose LFL and UFL are closer together are generally a bit safer simply because the conditions dor a flammable mixture are less likely to occur.

Auto ignition temperature is the lowest temperature at which it spontaneously ignites in normal atmosphere without an external source of ignition. With the exception of 1234yf, the lower flammability refrigerants have higher auto ignition temperatures than the more flammable refrigerants.

Minimum ignition energy is a bit different than the auto ignition temperature. It is the minimum amount of energy required to ignite a flammable mixture, measured in megajoules. Note that in this case R1234yf stands out because the minimum ignition energy is so high compared to the other refrigerants. Also note that the class 2L refrigerants all have minimum ignition energy ratings in the hundreds of megajoules or higher while propane’s minimum ignition energy is a very small 0.25 megajoules. Basically, this means it takes a lot more energy to ignite the 2L refrigerants than a highly flammable refrigerant such as propane. Again, this means that the chance of having the right condition for combustion is much lower for class 2L refrigerants.

Heat of combustion is a measure of the amount of heat created when the refrigerant burns. Note that the class 2L and class 2 refrigerants have a heat of combustion in the single digits per gram while propane jumps to 46 kilojoules per gram. This means that the heat produced by combustion of a class 2L or class 2 refrigerant is far less than a class 3 refrigerant. Indeed, it would be possible for a class 2L refrigerant to burn and not ignite other nearby flammable materials.

Burning velocity is the characteristic which distinguishes 2 and 2L refrigerants. It is the speed with which the flame advances. Note that the 2L class refrigerants have a burning velocity in the single digits while 152a, a class 2 refrigerant, has a BV of 23 cm/sec. Propane’s burning velocity is twice that of 152a. The take home point here is that the flames from higher flammability refrigerants spread faster.

So wrapping it up, my general impression is that lower flammability refrigerants are less likely to burn in the first place and when they do burn, the flames are not as hot and do not spread as quickly as a high flammability refrigerant such as propane.
717 Ammonia
290 Propane
Safety Group
Lower Flammability LImit
Upper Flammability Limit
Auto Ignition Temperature
Minimum Ignition Energy
5,000 – 10,000 mJ
30 – 100 mJ
100 – 300 mJ
0.38 mJ
0.25 mJ
Heat of Combustion
9.5 kJ/g
9 kJ/g
22.5 kJ/g
6.3 kJ/g
46.3 kj/g
Burning Velocity
1.5 cm/sec
6.7 cm/sec
7.2 cm/sec
23 cm/sec
46 cm/sec