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Mechanical Refrigeration Systems

Learning Objective: Identify and understand different types of refrigeration system components and their operation

Mechanical refrigeration systems are arrangements of components in a system that puts the theory of gases into practice to provide artificial cooling. To do this, you must provide the following:

(1) a metered supply of relatively cool liquid under pressure

(2) a device in the space to be cooled that operates at reduced pressure so that when the cool, pressurized liquid enters, it will expand, evaporate, and take heat from the space to be cooled

(3) a means of repressurizing (compressing) the vapor

(4) a means of condensing it back into a liquid, removing its superheat, latent heat of vaporization, and some of its sensible heat

Every mechanical refrigeration system operates at two different pressure levels. The dividing line is shown in figure 6-14. The line passes through the discharge valves of the compressor on one end and through the orifice of the metering device or expansion valve on the other.

Figure 6-14.—Refrigeration cycle.

The high-pressure side of the refrigeration system comprises all the components that operate at or above condensing pressure. These components are the discharge side of the compressor, the condenser, the receiver, and all interconnected tubing up to the metering device or expansion valve.

The low-pressure side of a refrigeration system consists of all the components that operate at or below evaporating pressure. These components comprise the low-pressure side of the expansion valve, the evaporator, and all the interconnecting tubing up to and including the low side of the compressor.

Refrigeration mechanics call the pressure on the The refrigerant low-pressure vapor drawn from the high side discharge pressure, head pressure, or evaporator by the compressor through the suction line, high-side pressure. On the low side, the pressure is in turn, is compressed by the compressor to a called suction pressure or low-side pressure. high-pressure vapor, which is forced into the

The refrigeration cycle of a mechanical refrigeration system may be explained by using figure 6-14. The pumping action of the compressor (1) draws vapor drawn from the evaporator (2). This action reduces the pressure in the evaporator, causing the liquid particles to evaporate. As the liquid particles evaporate, the evaporator is cooled. Both the liquid and vapor refrigerant tend to extract heat from the warmer objects in the insulated refrigerator cabinet.

The ability of the liquid to absorb heat as it vaporizes is very high in comparison to that of the vapor. As the liquid refrigerant is vaporized, the low-pressure vapor is drawn into the suction line by the suction action of the compressor (1). The evaporation of the liquid refrigerant would soon remove the entire refrigerant from the evaporator if it were not replaced. The replacement of the liquid refrigerant is usually controlled by a metering device or expansion valve (3). This device acts as a restrictor to the flow of the liquid refrigerant in the liquid line. Its function is to change the high-pressure, sub-cooled liquid refrigerant to low-pressure, low-temperature liquid particles, which will continue the cycle by absorbing heat.

The refrigerant low-pressure vapor drawn from the evaporator by the compressor through the suction line, in turn, is compressed by the compressor to a high-pressure vapor, which is forced into the condenser (4). In the condenser, the high-pressure vapor condenses to a liquid under high pressure and gives up heat to the condenser. The heat is removed from the condenser by the cooling medium of air or water. The condensed liquid refrigerant is then forced into the liquid receiver (5) and through the liquid line to the expansion valve by pressure created by the compressor, making a complete cycle.

Although the receiver is indicated as part of the refrigeration system in figure 6-14, it is not a vital component. However, the omission of the receiver requires exactly the proper amount of refrigerant in the system. The refrigerant charge in systems without receivers is to be considered critical, as any variations in quantity affects the operating efficiency of the unit.

The refrigeration cycle of any refrigeration system must be clearly understood by a mechanic before repairing the system. Knowing how a refrigerant works makes it easier to detect faults in a refrigeration system.  


The refrigeration system consists of four basic components—the compressor, the condenser, the liquid receiver, the evaporator, and the control devices. These components are essential for any system to operate on the principles previously discussed. Information on these components is described in the following sections.


Refrigeration compressors have but one purpose—to withdraw the heat-laden refrigerant vapor from the evaporator and compress the gas to a pressure that will liquefy in the condenser. The designs of compressors vary, depending upon the application and type of refrigerant. There are three types of compressors classified according to the principle of operation— reciprocating, rotary, and centrifugal.

Many refrigerator compressors have components besides those normally found on compressors, such as unloaders, oil pumps, mufflers, and so on. These devices are too complicated to explain here. Before repairing any compressor, check the manufacturer's manual for an explanation of their operation, adjustment, and repair.

External Drive Compressor.—An external drive or open-type compressor is bolted together. Its crankshaft extends through the crankcase and is driven by a flywheel (pulley) and belt, or it can be driven directly by an electric motor. A leakproof seal must be maintained where the crankshaft extends out of the crankcase of an open-type compressor. The seal must be designed to hold the pressure developed inside of the compressor. It must prevent refrigerant and oil from leaking out and prevent air and moisture from entering the compressor. Two types of seals are used—the stationary bellows seal and the rotating bellows seal.

An internal stationary crankshaft seal shown in figure 6-15 consists of a corrugated thin brass tube (seal bellows) fastened to a bronze ring (seal guide) at one end and to the flange plate at the other. The flange plate is bolted to the crankcase with a gasket between the two units. A spring presses the seal guide mounted on the other end of the bellows against a seal ring positioned against the shoulder of the crankshaft. As the pressure builds up in the crankcase, the bellows tend to lengthen, causing additional force to press the seal guide against the seal ring. Oil from the crankcase lubricates the surfaces of the seal guide and seal ring. This forms a gastight sea whether the compressor is operating or idle.

Figure 6-15.—An internal stationary bellows crankshaft seal.


An external stationary bellows crankshaft seal is shown in figure 6-16. This seal is the same as the internal seal, except it is positioned on the outside of the crankcase.

Figure 6-16.—An external stationary bellows crankshaft seal.

An external rotating bellows crankcase seal is shown in figure 6-17. This seal turns with the crankshaft. This seal also consists of a corrugated thin brass tube (seal bellows) with a seal ring fastened to one end and a seal flange fastened to the other. A seal spring is enclosed within the bellows. The complete bellows assembly slips on the end of the crankshaft and is held in place by a nut. The seal ring that is the inner portion of the bellows is positioned against a non-rotating seal fastened directly to the crankcase.

Figure 6-17.—An external rotating bellows crankcase seal.

During operation, the complete bellows assembly rotates with the shaft, causing the seal ring to rotate against the stationary seal. The pressure of the seal spring holds the seal ring against the seal. The expansion of the bellows caused by the pressure from the crankcase also exerts pressure on the seal ring. Because of this design, double pressure is exerted against the seal ring to provide a gastight seal.  

Hermetic Compressor—In the hermetically sealed compressor, the electric motor and compressor are both in the same airtight (hermetic) housing and share the same shaft. Figure 6-18 shows a hermetically sealed unit. Note that after assembly, the two halves of the case are welded together to form an airtight cover. Figure 6-19 shows an accessible type of hermetically sealed unit. The compressor, in this case, is a double-piston reciprocating type. Other compressors may be of the centrifugal or rotary types.

Figure 6-18.—Hermetic compressor.


Figure 6-19.—A cutaway view of a hermetic compressor and motor

Cooling and lubrication are provided by the circulating oil and the movement of the refrigerant vapor throughout the case.

The advantages of the hermetically sealed unit (elimination of pulleys, belts and other coupling methods, elimination of a source of refrigerant leaks) are offset somewhat by the inaccessibility for repair and generally lower capacity.


The condenser removes and dissipates heat from the compressed vapor to the surrounding air or water to condense the refrigerant vapor to a liquid. The liquid refrigerant then falls by gravity to a receiver (usually located below the condenser), where it is stored, and available for future use in the system.

There are three basic types of condensers — air-cooled, water-cooled, and evaporative. The first two are the most common, but the evaporative types are used where low-quality water and its disposal make the use of circulating water-cooled types impractical.

Air-Cooled Condensers—The construction of air-cooled condensers makes use of several layers of small tubing formed into flat cells. The external surface of this tubing is provided with fins to ease the transfer of heat from the condensing refrigerant inside the tubes to the air circulated through the condenser core around the external surface of the tubes (fig. 6-20). Condensation takes place as the refrigerant flows through the tubing, and the liquid refrigerant is discharged from the lower ends of the tubing coils to a liquid receiver on the condensing unit assembly.

Figure 6-20.—Air-cooled condenser mounted on a compressor unit.


Water-Cooled Condensers— Water-cooled condensers are of the multi-pass shell and tube type, with circulating water flowing through the tubes. The refrigerant vapor is admitted to the shell and condensed on the outer surfaces of the tubes (fig. 6-21).

Figure 6-21.—Water-cooled condenser.

The condenser is constructed with a tube sheet brazed to each end of a shell. Copper-nickel tubes are inserted through drilled openings in the tube sheet and are expanded or rolled into the tube sheet to make a gastight seal. Headers, or water boxes, are bolted to the tube sheet to complete the waterside of the condenser. Zinc-wasting bars are installed in the water boxes to minimize electrolytic corrosion of the condenser parts.

A purge connection with a valve is at the topside of the condenser shell to allow manual release of any accumulated air in the refrigerant circuit.

The capacity of the water-cooled condenser is affected by the temperature of the water, quantity of water circulated, and the temperature of the refrigerant gas. The capacity of the condenser varies whenever the temperature difference between the refrigerant gas and the water is changed. An increased temperature difference or greater flow of water increases the capacity of the condenser. The use of colder water can cause the temperature difference to increase.

Evaporative Condensers—An evaporative condenser operates on the principle that heat can be removed from condensing coils by spraying them with water or letting water drip onto them and then forcing air through the coils by a fan. This evaporation of the water cools the ‘coils and condenses the refrigerant within.

Liquid Receiver

A liquid receiver as shown at position (5) on Figure 6-14, serves to accumulate the reserve liquid refrigerant, to provide a storage for off-peak operation, and to permit pumping down of the system. The receiver also serves as a seal against the entrance of gaseous refrigerant into the liquid line. When stop valves are provided at each side of the receiver for confinement of the liquid refrigerant, a pressure relief valve is generally installed between the valves in the receiver and condenser equalizing line to protect the receiver against any excessive hydraulic pressure being built up.

Figure 6-14.—Refrigeration cycle.


The evaporator is a bank or coil of tubing placed inside the refrigeration space. The refrigerant is at a low-pressure and low-temperature liquid, as it enters the evaporator.

As the refrigerant circulates through the evaporator tubes, it absorbs its heat of vaporization from the surrounding space and substances. The absorption of this heat causes the refrigerant to boil. As the temperature of the surrounding space (and contents) is lowered, the liquid refrigerant gradually changes to a vapor. The refrigerant vapor then passes into the suction line by the action of the compressor.

Most evaporators are made of steel, copper, brass, stainless steel, aluminum, or almost any other kind of rolled metal that resists the corrosion of refrigerants and the chemical action of the foods.

Evaporators are mainly of two types—dry or flooded. The inside of a dry evaporator refrigerant is fed to the coils only as fast as necessary to maintain the temperature wanted. The coil is always filled with a mixture of liquid and vapor refrigerant. At the inlet side of the coil, there is mostly liquid; the refrigerant flows through the coil (as required); it is vaporized until, at the end, there is nothing but vapor. In a flooded evaporator, the evaporator is always filled with liquid refrigerant. A float maintains liquid refrigerant at a constant level. As fast as the liquid refrigerant evaporates, the float admits more liquid, and, as a result, the entire inside of the evaporator is flooded with liquid refrigerant up to a certain level determined by the float.

The two basic types of evaporators are further classified by their method of evaporation, either direct expanding or indirect expanding. In the direct-expanding evaporator, heat is transferred directly from the refrigerating space through the tubes and absorbed by the refrigerant . In the indirect-expanding evaporator, the refrigerant in the evaporator is used to cool some secondary medium, other than air. This secondary medium or refrigerant maintains the desired temperature of the space. Usually brine, a solution of calcium chloride is used as the secondary refrigerant.

Natural convection or forced-air circulation is used to circulate air within a refrigerated space. Air around the evaporator must be moved to the stored food so that heat can be extracted, and the warmer air from the food returned to the evaporator. Natural convection can be used by installing the evaporator in the uppermost portion of the space to be refrigerated, so heavier cooled air will fall to the lower food storage and the lighter food-warmed air will rise to the evaporator. Forced-air circulation speeds up this process and is usually used in large refrigerated spaces to ensure all areas are cooled.

Control Devices

To maintain correct operating conditions, control devices are needed in a refrigeration system. Some of the control devices are discussed in this chapter.

METERING DEVICES.—Metering devices, such as expansion valves and float valves, control the flow of liquid refrigerant between the high side and the low side of the system. It is at the end of the line between the condenser and the evaporator. These devices are of five different types: an automatic expansion valve (also known as a constant-pressure expansion valve), a thermostatic expansion valve, low-side and high-side float valves, and a capillary tube.

Automatic Expansion Valve.—An automatic expansion valve (fig. 6-22) maintains a constant pressure in the evaporator. Normally this valve is used only with direct expansion, dry type of evaporators. In operation, the valve feeds enough liquid refrigerant to the evaporator to maintain a constant pressure in the coils. This type of valve is generally used in a system where constant loads are expected. When a large variable load occurs, the valve will not feed enough refrigerant to the evaporator under high load and will overfeed the evaporator at low load. Compressor damage can result when slugs of liquid enter the compressor.

Figure 6-22—A. Thermostatic expansion valve; B. Automatic expansion valve.

Thermostatic Expansion Valve.—Before discussing the thermostatic expansion valve, let’s explain the term SUPERHEAT. A vapor gas is superheated when its temperature is higher than the boiling point corresponding to its pressure. When the boiling point begins, both the liquid and the vapor are at the same temperature. But in an evaporator, as the gas vapor moves along the coils toward the suction line, the gas may absorb additional heat and its temperature rises. The difference in degrees between the saturation temperature and the increased temperature of the gas is called superheat.

A thermostatic expansion valve (fig. 6-22) keeps a constant superheat in the refrigerant vapor leaving the coil. The valve controls the liquid refrigerant, so the evaporator coils maintain the correct amount of refrigerant at all times. The valve has a power element that is activated by a remote bulb located at the end of the evaporator coils. The bulb senses the superheat at the suction line and adjusts the flow of refrigerant into the evaporator. As the superheat increases (suction line), the temperature, and therefore the pressure, in the remote bulb also increases. This increased pressure, applied to the top of the diaphragm, forces it down along with the pin, which, in turn, opens the valve, admitting replacement refrigerant from the receiver to flow into the evaporator. This replacement has three effects. First, it provides additional liquid refrigerant to absorb heat from the evaporator. Second, it applies higher pressure to the bottom of the diaphragm, forcing it upward, tending to close the valve. And third, it reduces the degree of superheat by forcing more refrigerant through the suction line.

Low-Side Float Expansion Valve.—The low-side float expansion valve (fig. 6-23) controls the liquid refrigerant flow where a flooded evaporator is used. It consists of a ball float in either a chamber or the evaporator on the low-pressure side of the system. The float actuates a needle valve through a lever mechanism. As the float lowers, refrigerant enters through the open valve; when it rises, the valve closes.

Figure 6-23.—A low-side float expansion valve.

High-Side Float Expansion Valve.—In a high-side float expansion valve (fig. 6-24), the valve float is in a liquid receiver or in an auxiliary container on the high-pressure side of the system. Refrigerant from the condenser flows into the valve and immediately opens it, allowing refrigerant to expand and pass into the evaporator. Refrigerant charge is critical. An overcharge of the system floods back and damages the compressor. An undercharge results in a capacity drop.

Figure 6-24.—A high-side float expansion valve.

Capillary Tube.—The capillary tube consists of a long tube of small diameter. It acts as a constant throttle on the refrigerant. The length and diameter of the tube are important; any restrictions cause trouble in the system. It feeds refrigerant to the evaporator as fast as it is produced by the condenser. When the quantity of refrigerant in the system is correct or the charge is balanced, the flow of refrigerant from the condenser to the evaporator stops when the compressor unit stops. When the condensing unit is running, the operating characteristics of the capillary tube equipped evaporator are the same as if it were equipped with a high-side float.

The capillary tube is best suited for household boxes, such as freezers and window air-conditioners, where the refrigeration load is reasonably constant and small horsepower motors are used.

Accessory Devices

The four basic or major components of a refrigeration system just described are enough for a refrigeration unit to function. However, additional devices, such as the receiver already described, make for a smoother and more controlled cycle. Some of the accessory devices used on a refrigeration unit are described in this section. Before proceeding, take a close look at figure 6-25 that shows one type of refrigeration system with additional devices installed. Some of the devices and their functions are explained to help you understand installation and troubleshooting of a refrigeration unit.

Figure 6-25.—A basic refrigeration system.

Relief Valve—A refrigeration system is a sealed system in which pressures vary. Excessive pressures can cause a component of the system to explode. The National Refrigeration Code makes the installation of a relief valve mandatory. A spring-loaded relief valve is most often used and it is installed in the compressor discharge line between the compressor discharge connection and the discharge line stop valve to protect the high-pressure side of the system. No valves can be installed between the compressor and the relief valve. The discharge from the relief valve is led to the compressor suction line.

Discharge Pressure Gauge and Thermometer —A discharge pressure gauge and thermometer are installed in the compressor discharge line (liquid line) to show the pressure and temperature of the compressed refrigerant gas. The temperature indicated on the gauge is always higher than that corresponding to the pressure when the compressor is operating.

COMPRESSOR MOTOR CONTROLS.—The starting and stopping of the compressor motor is usually controlled by either a pressure-actuated or temperature-actuated motor control. The operation of the pressure motor control depends on the relationship between pressure and temperature. A pressure motor control is shown in figure 6-26. The device consists of a low-pressure bellows, or, in some cases, a low-pressure diaphragm, connected by a small diameter tube to the compressor crankcase or to the suction line.

Figure 6-26.—Pressure-actuated motor control.

The pressure in the suction line or compressor crankcase is transmitted through the tube and actuates the bellows or diaphragm. The bellows move according to the pressure, and its movement causes an electric switch to start (cut in) or stop (cut out) the compressor motor. Adjustments can be made to the start and stop pressures under the manufacturer’s instruction. Usually the cutout pressure is adjusted to correspond to a temperature a few degrees below the desired evaporator coil temperature, and the cut-in pressure is adjusted to correspond to the temperature of the coil.

The temperature-actuated motor control is similar to the pressure device. The main difference is that a temperature-sensing bulb and a capillary tube replace the pressure tube. The temperature motor control cuts in or cuts out the compressor according to the temperature in the cooled space.

The refrigeration system may also be equipped with a high-pressure safety cutout switch that shuts off the power to the compressor motor when the high-side pressure exceeds a preset limit.

Solenoid Stop Valves—Solenoid stop valves, or magnetic stop valves, control gas or liquid flow. They are most commonly used to control liquid refrigerant to the expansion valve but are used throughout the system. The compressor motor and solenoid stop valve are electrically in parallel; that is, the electrical power is applied or removed from both at the same time. The liquid line is open for passage of refrigerant only when the compressor is in operation and the solenoid is energized. A typical solenoid stop valve is shown in figure 6-27.

Figure 6-27.—A solenoid stop valve.

Improper operation of these valves can be caused by a burned-out solenoid coil or foreign material lodged between the stem and the seat of the valve, allowing fluid to leak. Carefully check the valve before replacing or discarding. The valve must be installed so that the coil and plunger are in a true vertical position. When the valve is cocked, the plunger wi II not reseat properly, causing refrigerant leakage.

THERMOSTAT SWITCH.—Occasionally, a thermostat in the refrigerated space operates a solenoid stop valve, and the compressor motor is controlled independently by a low-pressure switch. The solenoid control switch, or thermostat, makes and breaks the electrical circuit, thereby controlling the liquid refrigerant to the expansion valve. The control bulb is charged with a refrigerant so that temperature changes of the bulb itself produce like changes in pressure within the control bulb. These pressure changes are transmitted through the tubing to the switch power element to operate the switch. The switch opens the contacts and thus releases the solenoid valve, stopping the flow of refrigerant to the cooling coil when the temperature of the refrigerated space has reached the desired point. The compressor continues to operate until it has evacuated the evaporator. The resulting low pressure in the evaporator then activates the low-pressure switch, which stops the compressor. As the temperature rises, the increase in bulb pressure closes the switch contacts, and the refrigerant is supplied to the expansion valve.

LIQUID LINE.—The refrigerant accumulated in the bottom of the receiver shell is conveyed to the cooling coils through the main refrigerant liquid line.

A stop valve and thermometer are usually installed in this line next to the receiver. Where the sight-flow indicator, dehydrator, or filter-drier is close to the receiver, the built-in shutoff valves may be used instead of a separate shutoff valve.

LIQUID LINE FILTER-DRIER OR DEHYDRATOR.—A liquid line filter-drier (fig. 6-28) prevents or removes moisture, dirt, and other foreign materials from the liquid line that would harm the system components and reduce efficiency. This tank like accessory offers some resistance to flow. and, for this reason, some manufacturers install it in a bypass line. A filter-drier consists of a tubular shell with strainers on the inlet and outlet connections to prevent escape of drying material into the system. Some filter-driers are equipped with a sight-glass indicator, as shown in figure 6-28. A dehydrator is similar to a filter-drier, except that it mainly removes moisture.

Figure 6-28.—A liquid line filter-drier with sight-glass indicator.

Sight-Flow Indicator.—The sight-flow indicator, also known as a sight glass (fig. 6-29), is a special fitting provided with a gasketed glass, single or double port, and furnished with or without seal caps for protection when not in use. The double-port unit permits the use of a flashlight background. The refrigerant may be viewed passing through the pipe to determine the presence and amount of vapor bubbles in the liquid that would indicate low refrigerant or unfavorable operating conditions. Some filter-driers are equipped with built-in sight-flow indicators, as shown in figure 6-29.

Figure 6-29.—Sight-flow indicators with different types of connections.

Suction Line.—Suction pressure regulators are sometimes placed between the outlet of the evaporator and the compressor to prevent the evaporator pressure from being drawn down below a predetermined level despite load fluctuations. These regulators are usually installed in systems that require a higher evaporator temperature than usual.

Pressure Control Switches.— Pressure control switches (fig. 6-30), often called low-pressure cutouts, are essentially a single-pole, single-throw electrical switch and are mainly used to control starting and stopping of the compressor. The suction pressure acts on the bellows of the power element of the switch and produces movement of a lever mechanism operating electrical contacts. A rise in pressure closes the switch contacts and thereby completes the circuit of the motor controller, which, in turn, starts the compressor automatically. As the operation of the compressor gradually decreases the suction pressure, the movement of the switch linkage reverses until the contacts are separated at a pre-determined low-suction pressure, thus breaking the motor controller circuit and stopping the compressor.

Figure 6-30.—Pressure type cut-in, cutout control switch.

Suction Line Filter-Drier.—Some systems include a low-side filter-drier (fig. 6-31) at the compressor end of the suction line. The filter-drier used in the suction line should offer little resistance to flow of the vaporized refrigerant, as the pressure difference between the pressure in the evaporator and the inlet of the compressor should be small. These filter-driers function to remove dirt, scale, and moisture from the refrigerant before it enters the compressor.

Figure 6-31.—A suction line filter-drier.

Gages and Thermometers.— Between the suction line stop valve and the compressor, a pressure gauge and thermometer may be provided to show the suction conditions at which the compressor is operating. The thermometer shows a higher temperature than the temperature corresponding to the suction pressure indicated on the gauge, because the refrigerant vapor is superheated during its passage from the evaporator to the compressor.

Accumulators and Oil Separators.— Liquid refrigerant must never be allowed to enter the compressor. Liquids are non-compressible; in other words, their volume remains the same when compressed. An accumulator (fig. 6-32) is a small tank accessory; that is, a safety device designed to prevent liquid refrigerant from flowing into the suction line and into the compressor. A typical accumulator has an outlet at the top. Any liquid refrigerant that flows into the accumulator is evaporated, and then the vapor will flow into the suction line to the compressor.

Figure 6-32.—Accumulator location.

Oil from the compressor must not move into the rest of the refrigeration system. Oil in the lines and evaporator reduces the efficiency of the system. An oil separator (fig. 6-33) is located between the compressor discharge and the inlet of the condenser. The oil separator consists of a tank or cylinder with a series of baffles and screens, which collect the oil. This oil settles to the bottom of the separator. A float arrangement operates a needle valve, which opens a return line to the compressor crankcase.

Figure 6-33.—A cutaway view of an oil separator.

David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015