I wanted to share some of the results we logged when creating air dams to simulate various fault conditions on a Bard wall mount air conditioner, commonly used on mobile buildings and construction site trailers.  The unit we tested was missing placards, but the trailer it was mounted to suggested it was built in 1996 and there was every reason to believe this unit was the original.  We think it was at least 15 yrs old.

One long held premise was that dirty air filters would make a significant impact on the machine.  It turns out that it’s very difficult to impact these machines directly by blocking the flow through the air filter.  They are “leaky” enough that air will find its way through one way or another, transferring dirt problems on to the evaporator coils.  There is not a tight seal around the filter.  You can have a completely blocked filter and if the evaporator coils and condenser are clean, the unit will behave normally without any change.

It was shown that a severely blocked evaporator coil or condenser coil can cause runtimes to soar 300% – 600% or more over normal operations.  This type of degradation is easily detectable via runtime monitoring like Virtjoule does with either vibration or CT/Amperage monitoring.

We know these units survive in very harsh environments and I think you’ll see from the results below that they are extremely robust.  Cooling still occurs even while the unit is degrading severely.  This does give the opportunity to detect this degradation and be able to do something about it before complaints occur.

Anatomy of a Bard wall mount air conditioner

Bard Wall Mount

Bard Wall Mount

Project Goal

The conditions I wanted to recreate have shown up on repair bills for these types of units.  Of the field failures reported to us, dirty evaporator coils and condenser coils were two problems that were mentioned frequently.  It wasn’t clear from the reports if the repair person thought those issues were part of the problem or whether cleaning was performed as a part of good maintenance practice while he was there.  In one case the repair bill mentioned a highly “impacted” filter meaning it was very well blocked so the conditions affecting that filter could very well impact the condenser and evaporator coils with dust and dirt.

Test Strategy

There were four main tests that I ran.  All involved restricting or blocking the condenser coils or the evaporator coil air flow similar to what would happen if dust, dirt, mud, or damage clogged the fins.  I’ll show you pictures of the test as well as the recorded results.

A fifth test that I wanted to run, one that would simulate a failure mentioned in the repair bills, was to disconnect the condenser fan fully to simulate a broken fan or faulty relay that fails to start the condenser fan.  This is an occurrence we’ve experienced in the field on a number of occasions with our customers.  I didn’t have time for this and it was a bit more invasive than I wanted to do, but next chance I get I’d love to measure the results.

Unable To Force Short Cycling Condition

Knowing how the machine responds to a broken condenser fan would be an important pattern to understand.  In many cases we’ve seen in package and condenser units, the machine will short cycle endlessly starting and stopping the compressor on very short intervals, 30 seconds or less, which is very hard on the compressor and in some cases the repair of the fan required a replacement of the compressor at the same time due to the damage.  This is not to mention all the extra energy costs for the customer to start and stop a compressor that much.

I was not able to get short cycle behavior from the air dam tests.  I think that was primarily because the condenser fan was in fact running and even though air was not going all the way through the condenser fins, it was still bouncing off the inside of the condenser and probably accomplishing some heat rejection effect despite our efforts to block the flow.  Unhooking the condenser fan would be an interesting test that I was not able to fit in.

Test #1:

Goal: Determine standard runtimes with unit in existing condition

Evaporator condition:

This is a photo of the existing evaporator coils.  This turned out to be, by far, the dirtiest evaporator coils I saw on the dozens of units I’ve inspected.  My estimate is that these coils are 15-20% blocked including this spot in the upper right hand corner and the condition of the rest of the coils.

Dirty Evaporator

Evaporator - 15-20% blocked

Condenser coil condition:

The condition of the condenser coils was decent.  I did a mirror based inspection from the back where I slid an inspection mirror inside the condenser fan shroud and angled the mirror such that I could look through the fins to the daylight back to the outside.  Needless to say, this is not an easy thing to get a picture of. Although not perfectly clean, there was no significant blockage from what I could see.

Air filter:

The air filter was in pristine/new condition

Return air filter:

The return air filter was in pristine/new condition

I set the thermostat in the building to 65 degrees.  I did not check temperature inside since it was not a concern in this test with the exception of getting it set such that the machine would cycle on and off enough to make for a convenient test.

I did let the building come down to temperature over the course of an hour and a half or so before starting any tests.  The interior of the building was cool.

Normal runtimes averaged about 6 minutes of compressor time with an additional one minute of blower time after the compressor shut down.  Some cycles were much shorter.  The building was at this equilibrium for about five cycles before the tests began.  Outside air temperature at this time was logged at 73 degrees using the nearest Yahoo weather station.  The temperature did not change during the course of the tests.

Bard Test - Normal runtime

Bard Test - Normal runtime

Average compressor runtime:  6 minutes

Test #2:

Condition: Significantly blocked air flow coming out of the condenser.  Simulate dust plugged condenser coils or damaged condenser fins.  

Bard partial block

Bard partial block

With the help of a mechanic on site, we fashioned a piece of plywood that could be screwed onto the outside of the condenser in place of the condenser fin cover.  The idea here was that we would start with significantly blocked air flow and then be able to apply duct tape to further restrict flow as needed.

With this dam in place, the runtime on the unit rose noticeably and significantly.  I did two tests.

First run:  21 minutes

Second run: 17 minutes

Average runtime: 19 minutes

300+% increase in runtime over normal conditions.

If you put your hand up over the air flow coming through the holes, that air was hot compared to the air flow coming through the fins under normal conditions.  This suggests the unit was rapidly building up heat and not successfully rejecting the heat of compression.

It’s also the case that the magnitude of the signal also increased, probably due to the extra vibration effects of back pressure on the fan due to lower air flow.  We don’t typically take action based on the signal magnitude, but it is worth noting that there was a significant rise in the signal magnitude.  We don’t often have the privilege of putting a machine through the paces like this to actually compare fault scenarios to normal conditions.

Bard Test 2 - 300% increase in cycle time

Bard Test 2 - 300% increase in cycle time

Test #3:

Condition: Fully blocked condenser covering holes with duct tape.  Simulate dust plugged condenser coils.  

Bard Test 3 - 600% increase in cycle time

Bard Test 3 - 600% increase in cycle time

It turned out that it was much more difficult to restrict the air flow over the condenser than I would have thought.  I used duct tape to tape over the fairly small holes in the board.  The problem is that as the refrigerant gets hotter and hotter, because of the restricted air flow, the temperature on the tape was also getting hotter and hotter.  Eventually the tape glue was too weak to hold.  However, I did get a run in with this condition while standing on the ladder pushing the duct tape back down.

Interestingly, the drain holes in the bottom of the cabinet ended up serving as additional air flow outlets when the condenser is blocked in this way.  I continually had to find ways to reduce the air flow as if the condenser itself was blocked.  I taped over those drain holes part way through the test when I realized it was another escape path.  By the time I was done it was pretty absurd what had to happen to completely block it, suggesting that even in the worst conditions in the field there will still be air flowing over the condenser unless the fan itself is broken.

It was also interesting to note that if you put a tissue up to the side grates under normal circumstances, the tissue would stick to the grate because of the air flow going into the cabinet from the sides and out the front.  With the air flow restrictions in place, the air flow became very turbulent and some places on the grill would be pushing air while other places were pulling air.  This does suggest that cooler outside air was getting into the condenser fan area and providing some heat transfer.

With this extra restriction, the runtime zoomed higher.  Now looking at the previous test, it’s obvious even a little air flow helped a lot.  Nearly complete restriction of air flow caused very long runtimes.

I believe the slight amount of heat rejection that was still taking place is the reason I never saw short cycling in this machine due to a high head pressure fault.

There was some cooling still taking place judging by the hand check at the interior air outlets.  I believe this is because the condenser is multi layered and despite my best effort to shut off air flow there was still some heat rejection taking place on the back side of the condenser…the side facing the fan with that turbulent air getting mixed around in the cabinet.

I did terminate the test after 30 minutes so as to not put the machine under too much stress and to save some time for additional tests.  Quite possibly if I had let the machine continue it might have heated up enough to produce a high head pressure fault.  The outside air temperature at this time was still 73 degrees.

After the 30 minutes were up, I removed the dam and let the machine come to its normal state.  Because it was so hot it took a full normal length cycle to cool down and shut down.  So the entire runtime was just over 35 minutes.

Bard Test 3

Bard Test 3

This test showed that a blocked condenser would likely radically raise runtimes.  Even after I stopped the test before the machine faulted or reached the setpoint, the runtime had already exceeded 600% of the standard runtime.

600% plus increase over standard conditions.

Test #4:

Condition: Fully blocked condenser using dam with no holes.  Simulate dust plugged condenser coils.  

Bard Test 4 - 600% increase in cycle time

Bard Test 4 - 600% increase in cycle time

After the struggle to keep the duct tape in place, we completely blocked the condenser using a piece of interior paneling material.  I re-ran the test to see if there was any significant difference.

I didn’t expect much of a difference, but their was in two aspects.  First is that the signal magnitude was the highest of any of the tests suggesting that there was indeed less air flow through the condenser and more back pressure on the fan.  I again terminated the test after 30 minutes and it took about 15 minutes for the unit to come to equilibrium again instead of the usual six minutes.  Since I didn’t have any temperature gauges, I can only guess that the refrigerant was that much hotter during this run.  But we still did not invoke a high head pressure fault or find short cycling in those 30 minutes.  Outside air temperature was still around 73 degrees.

Again, this was a 600% plus increase in runtime over the standard condition and the test wasn’t allowed to run its full course.  Full runtime to setpoint or fault could have been much higher.

Test #5:

Condition: Partially blocked evaporator coils using a dam with some holes.  Simulate dust/mud plugged evaporator coils.

We measured the size of the evaporator and a mechanic cut me a piece of paneling and drilled many holes into it.  We’re trying to simulate a reduced air flow over the evaporator coils.  Evaporator coils will get dirty if the air filter or the return air filter in the unit is not changed.  As air is sucked in by the blower, dirty air can come into the cabinet in other ways around the air filter.  There is not a tight seal around the filter and, as we’ve proven in other tests on a similar unit.  You can have a completely blocked filter and if the evaporator coils and condenser are clean, the unit will behave normally without any change.

I used lightweight aluminum wire to lash the air dam to the evaporator fins using the coils themselves on the sides as the tie down points.  There was a pretty snug fit between the back of the dam and the evaporator fins.

Bard Test 5 - Partially blocked evaporator

Bard Test 5 - Partially blocked evaporator

Remember that this evaporator was already 15-20% plugged and was still satisfying the setpoint in 6 minutes before we put the air dam in.

The test was started and it too produced a significantly long runtime.  However, it completed before my 30 minute cutoff in 28 minutes.  I’m sure that it met the setpoint rather than shut down from a fault.

Interestingly, under these conditions, condensed water was pouring out of the condenser hose, more than under normal conditions.  This is because the evaporator was getting extra cold due to the reduced warm air flow over the coils, a precursor to the evaporator coils freezing over.  Because cold air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air the fact that there was an excessive amount of condensate suggests that the air flow was much slower and colder as we might expect.  Less air flow over the evaporator, even though colder, didn’t allow enough air to enter the building to satisfy the setpoint as quickly as it normally would resulting in higher runtimes.

By the time I pulled the panel back off, I did not see any ice or frost, but the evaporator itself was very wet.  It’s possible ice was there and already melted by the time I got the machine apart.

In other types of machines, an evaporator coil freezing over is usually caused by a clogged air filter or an extremely dirty blower that isn’t moving enough air.  But we already know from the previous set of experiments on these machines that a clogged filter won’t inhibit the amount of air flow the unit can get.  Problems in the evaporator side of the machine will likely come from dirty evaporator or a dirty or faulty blower, not a dirty filter.

What we’ve shown here is that any of the number of causes of low air flow over the evaporator will also show up in increased runtimes.


The air dam strategy, although not a perfect simulation, can show how common problems in the field can show up with increased runtime.  We’ve shown in our other work that counting the number of cycles and cycle times can give you a good picture of the health of the machine.

We’ve also shown here that a dirty condenser or faulty condenser fan can cause refrigerant temperatures and runtimes to sky rocket, putting a lot of thermal and runtime stress on the compressor.  This will always reduce the life of a compressor.  If you see a large increase in runtime you can bet the unit is under a lot more stress and likely needs a service call.

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You might call a 300 hp Caterpiller natural gas fired engine, powering a huge fan and compressor, the ultimate piece of HVAC equipment.  We call it just another day of critical machine monitoring for Virtjoule.   Instead of monitoring machines to cool contents of walk-in refrigerators or occupants of buildings, this time the compression and cooling that is occurring is for the benefit of natural gas being pumped into the interstate gas pipeline system.

A solar powered version of Virtjoule Vibe, is uniquely suited to monitor these large pieces of equipment at Priority Oil and Gas pipeline locations in western Kansas.  Using a vibration microphone, Virtjoule Vibe monitors vibration from the huge compressor engines and can tell the oil field service, LaRana Resources, when they are down.  A previous system requiring a long distance radio connection was much more power hungry, expensive, and less reliable than the Virtjoule system.

Caterpillar engines that drive the compressors can fail from a variety of reasons including engine oil temperatures, bitter cold and frozen gas fields in the middle of the winter which starve the gas supply, blown turbo chargers, cracked cylinder heads, cracked manifolds, etc.  Virtjoule isn’t figuring out what those reasons are, that’s LaRana Resources’ job.  But Virtjoule is on guard 24 hrs a day ready to alert LaRana field engineers if the compressor shuts down.  If you thought they just punch holes in the ground and watch the bank account grow, you would be wrong.

Natural gas fired compressor motor for natural gas pipeline

Natural gas fired compressor motor for natural gas pipeline

Key Points

Virtjoule Vibe gives more information and is more reliable than other oil and gas industry specific solutions.

Multiple alert mechanisms give Virtjoule Vibe flexible 24 hour alert capability including text, email, and voice callout.

Applications where there is no electrical proxy for runtime activity makes Virtjoule Vibe a clear choice.

Cellular coverage from our national carrier, Verizon, is amazingly good and the sensors can pull in almost anything if it’s there.  The nearest cell tower that we know about is about 15-20 miles away from the various locations that we’re monitoring.

Remote locations can really benefit from our cellular approach.  Even though there is cellular coverage, there is no local internet connection or phone line anywhere close to these machines.

Role of Natural Gas

It doesn’t matter where you stand on the expansion of natural gas production in the United States, most people agree that domestic natural gas production has helped create a certain amount of energy independence and is one of the cleanest methods of producing energy from carbon sources that we have.  The underground Niobrara formations in eastern Colorado (Phillips and Yuma counties, and others) and Western Kansas (Cheyenne County), have been prolific producers and Priority Oil & Gas and LaRana Resources are teamed up on wells that are tapping these resources.  I grew up in northeastern Colorado and have seen natural gas production expand many fold over the years in that area.  My chemical engineering and petroleum refining education has given me good insights into the processes required to bring natural gas to market.

The Compressor Station

The natural gas compressor station provides a critical role in getting natural gas to the interstate gas pipeline and on to the market.  These stations collect gas from many wellheads in the area and compress that gas up to the pressure required to move it into the pipeline.  The gas is compressed in several stages as it would be much too difficult to compress to pipeline conditions all in one stage.  Also, as you compress any type of gas, it will heat up.  Gas that is compressed must be cooled some amount after it is compressed to avoid adding a lot of extra heat to the pipeline system.

The photo below is of one compressor station Virtjoule is monitoring.  12 VDC power is used to power the sensor that can run on anything between 12 VDC to 24 VAC.  That 12 VDC power is provided by the solar panel you see on the building.  Inside the gray box under the solar panel is a 12 V deep cycle marine battery and a solar charge controller.

This gray box is also housing a much more expensive monitoring system specifically designed for oil and gas companies that Virtjoule is replacing.  Both monitoring systems are being run in parallel, but much of the time the other system is not operational.

The huge fan that you see on the left hand side of the photo is part of a gas cooler that itself is attached to the big Caterpiller engine inside the building.  Air is exchanged across tubes in the cooler while the hot gas flows through the tubes.  Virtjoule’s vibration microphone is literally attached to this cooler just inside the building.  The cooler has a hard connection to the compressor and engine and so it vibrates with the engine.  If the engine isn’t running, nothing else is happening in this building.  Compressed gas is then routed outside the building to go through a dehydrator to remove extra water vapor that comes up naturally with the gas.  Some fields have more water in the gas than others and the amount of dehydration needed varies from field to field.

As you can imagine, safety is important when working around this much natural gas.  There is no other electricity in the building except from the solar DC system.  In a smaller booster pump station that Virtjoule is monitoring in the same field for an owner based in McAllen, TX, Virtjoule is powered off of a standalone battery and works for many weeks before they replace the battery with a charged one.  LaRana engineers visit these sites at least once a day, so occasionally putting recharged 12 V battery in is no big deal.  Virtjoule’s sensors are very low power and so the drain is not large.  Adding Virtjoule to the current solar setup has not caused any problems.

Natural gas pipeline compressor station

Natural gas pipeline compressor station

Fault Detection

Although these engines have throttles and they are sometimes operated at less than full throttle, for the most part they are running all-out all of the time.  This is pretty straightforward runtime fault detection for Virtjoule.  It’s always supposed to be running.  There’s no purposeful cycling and no short cycling faults like you might see in HVAC machines.

As a point of interest, if you’re standing in the building shown above, the ground shakes.  The building shakes.  There is no missing the fact that the compressor is running.  These effects far overwhelm any noise from wind or rain.  We’ve had no problems distinguishing the difference.

LaRana Resources has a small group of super smart field mechanics.  Kevin Andrews, VP of LaRana, has the mechanics on shift rotations as they’ve found that these compressors can go down any time of day or night.  They also purposely bring them down roughly once a month for routine maintenance for either the engine, pipeline, or other mechanical issues.  Just this morning, the compressor they dub “Cherry Creek” went down about 5:00 am for a little over an hour.  We see the calls go out at all times of day or night and know that someone may have gotten out of bed and are driving to the site.  Depending on the problem, the mechanic may be there for a very long shift or even making a mad dash to Denver to pick up parts for the engines.

Alerts also go out to Melissa Gray, business and operations manager at Priority Oil & Gas.  Everyone wants to know when these things go down.  Melissa has mentioned to me in the past that it can cost $500/hr or more when a compressor goes down.

Natural gas pipeline compressor failure

Natural gas pipeline compressor failure

Other Benefits

Melissa has also seen other benefits by using the Virtjoule system.  For starters, since Virtjoule keeps all the runtime history of the machine, she is able to determine the service level of the compressor.  Priority Oil & Gas used to own these compressors, but now actually rent them from a supplier.  Let’s just say the rental would make your rent or mortgage look small.  As such, it’s important to get the most out of these machines and if they’re not performing up to the service level set by the supplier she can get a rebate on the monthly fees.  Virtjoule machine history makes our $29.95/mo look really cheap when our service does both fault detection and provides the runtime history for such an important and expensive piece of equipment.  Virtjoule never throws away runtime data, no matter how old it is.


Virtjoule’s ability to monitor the vibration of a machine is particularly well suited for industrial gas compression where compression is done not by electric motor, but by a natural gas fired engine.  Because Virtjoule is based on a cellular chip in each device, there is no need for an internet connection to be brought in or any need for a telephone line.  These compressors are amongst farmland, pasture, and prairie land.  They’re in range of a Verizon cell tower, but any other communication method would be thousands of dollars more expensive…one of the reasons Virtjoule is a good fit in oil & gas applications.

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineer for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com] – See more at:

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Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT’s are ideal for monitoring pool pump and chlorine generation equipment.  Using a Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT sensor, you can now monitor amperage of the pool pump and other electrical components critical to the system such as chlorine generators.  This is suitable not only for large pool equipment, but it’s affordable enough to monitor smaller apartment complex pools and even residential pools.

TurboCell Chlorine Generator

Virtjoule Juice can monitor activity of a Turbo Cell chlorine generator

Key Points

Pool pump equipment is often unattended for days.  It seems when you need the pool ready for the weekend is when you find out the pump has failed.

The first step in maintaining a healthy pool is keeping the pool pump running.  If the pump isn’t running you’ll see that heating, chlorine generation, and water circulation simply stops.  What else is there to a pool besides water and people?

Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT’s are uniquely capable of monitoring all the electrical components of a pool plant.

A Small Residential Pool

What you see here is a common residential pool plant setup.  There is a gas fired heater, a WhisperFlo pump, Turbo Cell chlorine generator, and a large filter.

Residential pool pump setup

A typical residential pool pump setup with chlorine generator

In this setup, a single Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT was installed in the disconnect box for the plant.  Activity level of both the pump and the chlorine generator can be monitored with just one sensor.

Below is a routine chart generated by Virtjoule showing the activity of both pump and chlorine generator.

Runtime graph of pool pump and chlorine generator

Runtime graph of pool pump and chlorine generator

It’s plain to see on this chart that there is a base level of around 9 amps that is contributed by the pool pump.  The label on this pump says it runs from 8.8 to 9.8 amps, right in the range we’re measuring.  This particular pump is a WhisperFlo pump.

The chlorine generator is a model called “Turbo Cell”.  The Turbo Cell doesn’t continuously generate chlorine.  It intermittently runs depending on the level setting on the cell which is determined by the pool maintenance service, how often the pool is used, and whether or not the pool is covered when not in use.

Chlorine Generator Energy Use

People often ask, “How much energy does my chlorine generator use?”  If you search the Internet there are a variety of answers that amount to “It depends.”  People do want to know since what you’re doing with a chlorine generator is using electricity to break apart NaCL (salt) to temporarily generate chlorine which kills pathogens in the water.  Just as quickly, that chlorine recombines forming salt again.

You may have heard of salt water pools.  These aren’t done to mimic the ocean.  It’s done as a more economical and environmentally friendly way to produce chlorine.  The net result is a pool without chlorine and the chlorine smell and burn when you swim in it.  Chlorine generators do cost money to run because it takes electricity to run the cell.  Now there is an easy way to quantify how much energy your chlorine generator is using and also whether it’s running or not.

In this example, the chlorine generator is running every 2 hrs for 10 minutes taking roughly 2 amps.  That’s 120 minutes at 2 amps on 220 voltage.  2 amps on 220 is 440 watts.  Times 2 hrs is 0.880 kWh.  That costs you roughly $0.10/day in most places in the US.  Virtually nothing.

Pool Pump Energy Use

The pool pump, on the other hand, is where all the electricity cost is going.  9 amps, 220 V is 1,980 watts.  24 hrs/day is 47 kWh per day which is between $4-$5 / day or anywhere from $100 – $150 / month to run depending on your part of the country…and that’s a small pump.

Fault Detection

Most pools have a lot of problems that start when the pool pump shuts down.  This can happen for a variety of reasons including lightning storms and pool pump failure.  Chlorination and circulation cease.  Water quality can get cloudy very quickly.  Virtjoule Juice can alert you when your equipment isn’t running by either text message, email, or even voice callout.


With just one Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT, it’s possible to watch over two critical pieces of equipment that keep your pool clean and healthy.

Nice looking pool

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineer for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com] – See more at:

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Several months ago, Virtjoule converted the vibration sensors on four compressors at Niwot Market over to the Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT.  Because there were two large Copeland compressors on each rack, there was a lot of vibration from one compressor being picked up on sensors for other compressors, what we call “cross-talk”.

Our goal for Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT was to isolate the runtime of each compressor by itself, making it easier to visually and programmatically analyze what was going on.

Remote mounting board for Cellular CT's

Remote mounting board for Cellular CT's

Key Points

CT’s are very good at isolating runtime behavior of components in more complex or integrated system of machines.

CT’s can be run a very long distance from the source to the Virtjoule sensor, 100′ or more.

Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT’s are like having someone standing with a clamp meter on a machine 24/7.

Need To Know It’s Running

The primary thing Bert Steele, owner of Niwot Market, needs to know is whether the compressors are running or not.  Oil temperature problems, refrigerant changeover, refrigerant leaks, and plain old worn out compressors have caused numerous problems over the time.  All of those problems have caused shutdowns on these critical compressors.  Sometimes it was a single compressor.  Sometimes the whole rack.  Virtjoule’s monitoring service and its ability to tell him his compressors are running has been critical to running a tight margin grocery business.

The compressor racks at Niwot Market have been one of the toughest environments for the Virtjoule vibration input sensors.  There are four compressors total, two each on a rack.  Because these are heavy compressors, when one operates it will vibrate the entire rack.  We were still able to distinguish one compressor from another via vibration, but analysis was more difficult and not as clear to the customer as we would have liked.

Niwot Market Low Temperature Rack

Niwot Market Low Temperature Rack

CT Installation

It’s easy to install CT’s.  Simply pull the top off the CT, wrap the body of the CT around the alternating current wire you’re interested in, and put the top back on.

Magnelab 70 amp CT on one of three phases

Magnelab 70 amp CT on one of three phases

The CT Run

In this installation, the compressors are in a basement room, underneath a corrugated metal and concrete floor, and situated near the center of the building.  Needless to say, cellular coverage from this location was not good.  We were able to find a location in a stairwell that gave us good cellular reception, but was still out of the way, yet accessible.


Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT’s can easily isolate and monitor electrical components such as large electric motors, compressors, fans and blowers, chlorine generators, sump pumps, air conditioners, walk-in and reach-in refrigerations, and many more types of critical electric machinery.

With amperage information, you can not only make power estimates, you can use Virtjoule’s 10 second data to determine if the machine is running, how often it’s cycling on and off, how long those cycle times are, and produce critical alerts via text, email, or callout.

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineer for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com] – See more at:

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Virtjoule has been in production and in the field with a new Cellular CT device called Virtjoule Juice.  It’s a new continuous monitoring system for amperage readings used on any type of equipment electric motors or other types alternating current draw.

The new Virtjoule Cellular CT has been calibrated with the Magnelab SCT-0750 line of industrial current transducers (CT) making it both accurate and flexible for reading amperages from 0 to 3,000 amps.

With the Virtjoule Cellular CT sensor and monitoring service, you can find problems such as short or long cycles, over or under amperage conditions, and after hours operations, all of which may indicate operational problems which should be corrected before becoming expensive repairs, large utility bills, or interrupting critical business processes.

Monitor Amperage and Power

Current transducers are a special type of sensor that can not only tell if current is flowing through an alternating current wire, it can also tell you how much amperage is flowing through the wire which is useful for both fault detection and energy studies.

First dedicated cellular CT on the market

This is the first low-cost dedicated cellular CT available on the market.  Other CT products are available on the market, but they are either unconnected loggers that have to be retrieved and uploaded or are connected to gateway devices that cost well over $1,000 and don’t stand alone.

CT’s are sized and based on the electrical current used on one leg of an alternating current wire.  Sizes can go from 5 to 200 amps in the SCT-0750 line and up to 3,000 amps on other parts of the Magnelab CT lineup.

Virtjoule cellular CT with Magnelab 20 amp CT

Virtjoule cellular CT with Magnelab 20 amp CT

A Must-Have Tool for Energy Auditors, Retro-Commissioning, and Service Providers

A cellular CT will become a must-have tool.  Energy auditors, retro-commissioning specialists, and service providers are all aware of the basic usefulness of a regular handheld CT.  24/7/365 monitoring via CT gives you the ability to isolate a single component of a machine or the flexibility to find the variable energy use of an entire machine.

Virtjoule has been known for excellent fault detection capabilities and using a CT is now one more way to tap into fault detection capability in addition to understanding the energy usage of a machine.

True RMS

The Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT is a True RMS sensor.  In addition to normal sinusoidal power feeds, it can be used to accurately measure amperage on variable speed devices and other pulse width modulated machines where computing the True RMS is key to knowing the correct amperage.  Knowing correct amperage is critical to knowing how much power a machine is using and, for that matter, what parts of the machine are running.

How can you use a Cellular CT?

Cycling and hours of operation

Use the Cellular CT to pick up runtime information which includes amperage levels, cycling behavior, and hours of operation.

Failing compressors

It’s a well known fact that most aging compressors will begin to draw more amps, not only on startup, but at runtime as well.  We have seen a recent example where amperage monitoring showed that a compressor was at the end of its life and we caught the actual failure when it happened.  Monitoring amperage can give you insight into machine life expectancy issues.

Locating energy wasters

Use the Cellular CT to do sub-metering on selected units.  With power output estimates from known amperage, it’s now possible to find those energy hogging machines.

Use the Cellular CT to demonstrate how much after hours operations cost.  By monitoring the machine 24/7, you know when it is running after hours.  Because you now have amp information, along with voltage and power factor it’s now possible to closely estimate how much after hours operations are costing.  Virtjoule can help you do that.

Monitor complex behavior of individual components

Cellular CTs can be used to monitor specific electrical components of a much more complex machine.  For instance, you can know conclusively at any time how many stages of compressors are being used in a large package unit.  Also, estimating energy usage on larger and more complex machines can be very inexact because you can only estimate just exactly how the machine is used.  Rules-of-thumb break down, particularly on larger machines.  Now you can find out exactly how the machine is being used and how it’s performing.

Because amperage can be turned into power information and because we’re taking 10 second averages of amperage, you can get very accurate estimates of power usage on any electrical machine, motor, or other electrical component of a machine.

Multi-tenant situation, expense sharing

Do you have a multi-tenant situation, but sub-metering is not possible?  Use Cellular CTs to understand power use across shared machines or electrical input and allocate costs appropriately and fairly.

Comparing a standard “clamp meter” with Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT

Clamp Meter vs Cellular CT

Clamp vs Cellular CT

Available now

Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT is available now.  Call us today to discuss how Virtjoule Juice Cellular CT can help you or your clients and get your order in for this first of a kind monitoring device.

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineer for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com] – See more at:

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Virtjoule is proud to announce the availability of cellular HVAC and refrigeration monitors!  With nearly a year of experience in the field with the cellular version of our monitors, all of our current customers have been converted from the short range radio based monitors.  No longer will you need a netbook computer somewhere within radio range.  No longer will you be at the mercy of the Internet connection at remote locations.

The vision we had when we started the company over three years ago is now finally a reality.  That is, “parachute” onto a building, stick on and power up a sensor and begin collecting machine runtime data immediately and remotely without expensive installations, capital expense, or expensive integration projects with building automation systems.

Key Points

- Sensor comes already activated on one of the nation’s leading cellular providers:  Click here

- All sensors are independent of each other.  No more mesh network and the possibility of one weak link bringing down the whole sensor network.

- Even easier install.  New sensor is polarity independent, running on any power source from 12 VDC to 24 VAC.  A standard RTU can be installed in less than 10 minutes.

- New web application features including automated short cycle fault detection.

- Built-in internal cellular antenna.  External magnetic mount and direction antenna options are available for those really difficult locations.

- New, smaller, and lighter weight vibration microphone.  Tape and screw mount options available.

Virtjoule Cellular HVAC Monitor

Virtjoule Cellular HVAC Monitor

The back story

When the first versions of Virtjoule HVAC monitors were developed over three years ago, they communicated over a low power and short distance radio network.  This was the only way to create an economical sensor that could be applied to such a wide range of equipment, everything from large 125 hp pumps and fans on huge cooling towers to small beverage coolers.

Since that time a quiet revolution was taking place in what is now called “Machine to Machine” (M2M) applications.  Cellular carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and many others were aggressively developing their growth plans and decided that much of their strategy would depend not on selling more handset devices, but selling more lines for sensors, tablets, and all sorts of devices that needed internet connectivity.  Suddenly the price to acquire a cellular internet connection for a single device became an order of magnitude lower.

Virtjoule always knew that the mesh network radio based approach was an initial architecture.  We didn’t know how or when we would be able to transition that architecture to fulfill our original vision.

Certified cellular device

One year ago, Virtjoule became a certified device for one of the nation’s leading cellular providers.  We were approached by our business account representatives and the M2M specialists and we discussed moving Virtjoule to cellular.  This was a process that took months of development, negotiations, learning, and investment.  Since that certification, we have rolled out this new cellular sensor to all of our customers.

Say “No!” to obsolescence

A huge benefit to the Virtjoule way of monitoring is that no one actually buys the sensor.  It is included in the monthly service cost.  No Virtjoule customer was left holding an obsolete piece of equipment.  We simply replaced everything in the field with our newest model and we all moved forward together.

If you’re ready for the advantages of true 24/7/365 HVAC and refrigeration monitoring that is independent of the local tenant or building internet connections, then get in touch with us so we can tell you how you can start today!  Call 1-800-658-1864 or click on the contact link to tell us about yourself.

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineer for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com]

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Of all the faults that Virtjoule can detect, refrigerant leaks generally give the most warning.  In most cases there is plenty of time to fix the problem before it becomes critical and before you have to spend money on expensive overtime or disrupt your business.

That being said, this article has a unique perspective in that it covers a refrigerant leak that progressed from normal to total failure before being addressed.

Key Concepts

- Refrigerant leaks cause very common behavior changes in a condenser or package unit that can be detected by Virtjoule

- Most refrigerant leaks occur slowly enough that they don’t have to turn into crises

- It’s simple to measure and show that a fix has worked

- Temperature is a lagging indicator of a problem.  By the time temperature control is lost, the failure has already occurred.  Runtime and cycle monitoring can give warnings of impending failure days in advance.

The Setup

I will run through a set of six charts, one per day, that illustrate various phases of runtime behavior that we saw when a walk-in split system was on its way to total failure.

Not surprisingly, refrigerant leaks can occur at various rates.  Some occur over months while others, once developed, can progress over the course of a few days.  We have the luxury of monitoring a unit whose leak progressed at a very specific rate, day by day, over the course of six days, each day exhibiting a new and interesting behavior.

From experience, we see split systems are much more prone to leaks.  This is primarily because there is more custom-installed refrigerant line and longer runs with more field soldered joints. These installations often have to work around difficult building designs, turning several corners along the way.  In many cases a split system may be installed well after the building was built.  Computer room air conditioners (CRAC units) are one example.  Another is restaurants where a new walk-in refrigerator is added to a space that lacked one before.

Package units can also develop refrigerant leaks, but our experience shows us this scenario is rarer.  Because refrigeration circuits are built at the factory, they can be subjected to higher quality standards.  Because the compressors, condenser, and evaporator are all in the same unit, there are fewer things to go wrong and fewer people coming together to make the thing work.  It can more easily be pressure tested before being shipped.

Phase I – Normal Operation

Normal Refrigeration Cycling

Normal Refrigeration Cycling

One of the nice things about 24/7 monitoring is that you can easily determine what is normal.  This is a normal looking cycling pattern for a walk-in condenser unit.  Very regular cycles in lower load times of the day.  Cycle times stretch out a little and intensity increases when the unit is under the most load: from opening at around 9 am through to about 6 pm.

Phase II – Unexplained shutdown for 1.5 hrs

Intermittent Refrigeration Cycling

Intermittent Refrigeration Cycling

On Day 2, we called a fault at around 2 pm because there was a non-operation alert  indicating that the unit had not come on for about an hour and a half, something that was very unusual for this machine.   You can also see that cycle times before the shutdown were much longer than the day before.

The unit started up again on its own.  The next cycle was understandably longer as the unit worked to catch up with the demand caused by no runtime for 1.5 hrs.  Notice that all of the cycles after that were longer than the day before, even when the unit didn’t have as much load.

Phase III – Erratic cycling

Erratic refrigeration cycling

Erratic refrigeration cycling

The slightly elongated cycles continued throughout the next morning.  At 6 am there was another unexplained shutdown which triggered a non-operation alert.  From then on, cycles became much longer with longer shutdowns than normal in between.

By now, even an untrained observer of these graphs could tell you that Day 3 of runtime looks a lot different than Day 1.

Phase IV – Failure begins

Walk-in refrigerator going into failure

Walk-in refrigerator going into failure

Notice that the morning cycles continued at much longer intervals indicating that the unit is still working hard to keep up.  Around 10:30 am, both the intensity jumped as well as the cycle times started to lengthen each and every cycle.  By the middle of the afternoon the unit was running non-stop.

Once a unit is running in a non-stop state like this, the only thing we can tell the customer is that the unit is almost certainly not meeting the cooling demand required.  How long it will be from here before there is a noticeable temperature rise in the cooler depends on a lot of things:  what time of day constant runtime began, how often the walk-in is accessed thereby placing more load on the cooler, whether the walk-in is a freezer or refrigerator, how much product is in the cooler, how big the cooler is, and what the air temperature is outside the cooler.

We get very nervous on behalf of the customer at this point.  The clock is ticking and something should be done — soon.

Phase V – Total Failure

Full failure of walk-in refrigerator

Full failure of walk-in refrigerator

We confirmed for the client the next morning that the unit ran non-stop all night.  We had no reason to believe the situation was going to get better as we’ve seen this degradation pattern a number of times before.  The client confirmed that temperature was rising in the cooler.  They had to crowd all of the product into another unit until the leak could be found and fixed.

The HVAC technician worked on it that afternoon, but had not confirmed the leak yet.  The unit was not restarted.

Phase VI – The Fix

Refrigerant leak fixed.  Catch up and then normal cycling begins

Refrigerant leak fixed. Catch up and then normal cycling begins

By the next day, the leak was located and fixed.  The unit was restarted.  A condenser unit will always run a long time until the cooler reaches the right cold temperature.  This is normal.  By about 6 pm the unit fell back into its normal cycle rhythm and has been running this healthy pattern ever since.


Because normal cycling behavior was well established for this unit, abnormal cycling behavior was very apparent, both to the eye and to our fault detection algorithms.

Unless a refrigerant line is physically damaged, most refrigerant leaks occur over much longer periods of time.  The rate of the refrigerant leak will determine how long the customer has between fixes, if the leak is not found.

Condenser units often have plenty of capacity which is part of why they cycle as much as they do.  A refrigerant leak can go for a quite a while until the condenser unit runs out of capacity to meet heat rejection demand.  The pre-failure phases mentioned above can often be seen over the course of a few days or even a few weeks, giving the client ample time to address the problem before it turns into a crisis.

Temperature monitoring is a lagging indicator of a failure.  By the time temperature control is lost, the failure is already mature and you’ve lost valuable time to get it repaired.  Runtime and cycle monitoring the condenser unit can detect system wide degradation and failure sometimes giving days of warning.  In this case there were indications of a major problem three days before the failure.


[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineering for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com]

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The official answer is 165,000 cycles per year is too much.  That’s true and facetious at the same time, but just when we thought we’ve seen most of the reasons for short cycling, we now have one more to add to the list.  In this article you’ll see how a temperature control short cut done to make up for the lack of a defrost cycle clock led to a setup that caused this Heatcraft HyperCore walk-in condenser unit to cycle about 9,900 times more per month than it should have.

Key Concepts:
- Short cycling can be caused by a number of problems, control design being one of them.
– Fixing detrimental operational behaviors can add years of life to a machine and save maintenance problems in the meantime.

At this point it would be very hard for us or the customer to know when this bad control setup happened since no monitoring had been done with the condenser unit and the walk-in cooler itself had not lost control of the temperature.  It’s quite likely they may have inherited this condenser and evaporator unit set up when they leased the space.  But let’s back up.

When we started monitoring this unit back in August we knew right away that it was short cycling.  This is the first full day of monitoring and it was cycling over 400 per day.

Heatcraft HyperCore short cycling caused by control workaround

Heatcraft HyperCore short cycling caused by control workaround

Notice how dark the chart gets.  When you see more dark than light area in the chart you not only have a lot of run time, you also have a lot of cycles as the graph is showing.  It’s quite easy to visualize this fault without the benefit of Virtjoule’s automated alerts on cycle maximums.

This is the chart of a different Heatcraft HyperCore that we’re monitoring and it’s prototypical of what we see with most walk-in condenser units.  It’s quickly apparent that this unit is not cycling as many times as the one above.

Virtjoule chart of a normally operating Heatcraft HyperCore

Virtjoule chart of a normally operating Heatcraft HyperCore

Is it time to make the call?

When do you know it’s time to call someone to repair the machine?  They had not lost control of the temperature in the cooler.  In this case it really is a business decision since there is no imminent crisis.  But consider this, a newly installed compressor for a Heatcraft Hypercore has cost this customer $2,200 on a different unit.  They do have a serious financial incentive to avoid a $2,200 replacement and whatever interruption it causes to their business or distraction it creates for their store managers.

I consulted with a local commercial HVAC and refrigeration company in Boulder County, Timberline Mechanical.  Timberline does commercial HVAC and refrigeration for some of the larger food manufacturers in Boulder County.  Founder and president, John Kuepper, was able to validate that this behavior is detrimental.  One of their rules-of-thumb is that if a machine is cycling more than five times per hour then it’s short cycling.  If it’s cycling six times an hour then it’s probably not worth a trip.

In this case this unit was cycling 18-20 times per hour.  It was turning on for about a minute and shutting down for about two minutes before coming back on again.  Start-to-start cycle times were averaging about three minutes and runtimes during the cycle were averaging about a minute.  Timberline is saying that start-to-start cycle times shouldn’t really go much less than 12 minutes.

With that rule-of-thumb in mind, this condenser unit was cycling four times more than it should have been.

What does it mean to the owner/operator of this unit?  

This unit might continue to operate for quite a while into the future without needing a repair, but when it does it’s going to be a huge bill.  It’s quite possible that if this unit was cycling normally that the customer may never have to replace the compressor while they’re leasing the space.  While under their lease they are contractually responsible for maintenance and anything that happens to those machines.  A 10 year lifetime machine is reduced to just two to three years, easily within the time span of a commercial lease.  If they have inherited this machine with time already on it, the expensive failure could come at any time and would be their problem, not the landlord or the previous operator.

The Problem

Enough with the suspense of what was actually happening.  Timberline Mechanical was called to take a look after the current service had just given the unit a clean bill of health after months of this behavior while Virtjoule was still saying it was short cycling.  What was found was hair raising for any refrigeration technician.  This unit did not have a thermostat or defrost clock installed.  Instead someone had gotten a Johnson Controls bulb thermostat, set the set point to 35 degrees and then embedded it into the evaporator part of the split system in the cooler.  The idea was as soon as it got cooler than 35 degrees it would shut down the evaporator.

I don’t know where to start with this one.  It worked only because the condenser unit was still running well.  It worked only because it was an extremely clumsy and inefficient way of getting what amounted to a nearly continuous defrost cycle.  Of course this worked at the expense of a very expensive compressor.  Timberline had a more colorful opinion of this approach.  Do we even need to speculate that there could be many more installations like this?

But why the short cycle?

Let’s go deeper into why this caused a short cycle.  First and foremost, in a medium temperature cooler you might try to hold temperature in the cooler at 38 degrees.  To achieve 38 degree temperatures, temperatures out of the evaporator would have to be about 20 to 24 degrees.  If this poor man’s defrost cycle thermostat is sitting in the evaporator set at a cutout setpoint of 35 degrees then 20-24 degree cooler air is going to satisfy that set point really fast.  The evaporator will only be on for a little while.

20-24 degree evaporator air is blowing on the embedded thermostat set at 35 degrees.  It is satisfied quickly and the evaporator is cut off.  Let’s say 38-40 degree walk-in air continues to circulate through the evaporator.  At some point the thermostat will notice it’s more than 35 degrees and the evaporator comes back on.  The condenser unit on the roof is still working correctly as is the evaporator itself and cold air is coming out which is why they never lost temperature control.  The store manager is happy because there is no health problem.  But that cold air quickly satisfies the thermostat and everything shuts down again.  It’s a nasty short cycle that has continued, perhaps, for the entire life of this unit.  The people who pay the bills long term should care a lot about this behavior.

What needs to happen here is to install a basic control system of thermostat and defrost cycle clock in the cooler, not a simple thermostat buried in the evaporator.


This unit was built with a good refrigeration system.  Heatcraft HyperCores, in our experience, have been some of the most reliable condenser units we’ve monitored which was part of the reason this setup poked out like a sore thumb.  The design of this system did not include a thermostat in the cooler with a defrost clock in series to manage a proper defrost cycle.  There was a very bad choice made by the installation technician(s) that short cut basic refrigeration control design.

We may never know the real reason this unit was designed without the proper temperature and defrost controls, or for that matter how many more installations there are like this one.  However, with the current setup the customer could have to replace a compressor prematurely only to have to do it again and again, perhaps even blaming Heatcraft products, and never know why they have such a lemon.  The lemon in this case was the control design which affected everything about how the system operated.

Virtjoule was quickly able to pinpoint the short cycling behavior of this unit and fixing it could easily add years to the lifespan of this machine, avoiding large expenses, compared to its previous operation.

Heatcraft HyperCore condenser unit for walk-in refrigerator

Virtjoule monitored Heatcraft HyperCore condenser unit for walk-in refrigerator

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineering for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com]

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If you have a BAS (Building Automation System) you can’t assume that everything is always well.  Our experience has shown there can be numerous control problems with BAS systems even when staffed by full time employees (earlier blog article).  

In this article we’ll discuss problems with a Trane Tracker BAS used on a small 12,500 ft2 office and retail building in Niwot, CO.  

Without the knowledge of the building owner and operator or their HVAC service company, three out of the four Trane Voyager units were running 24 hrs a day multiple days a week, including weekends, when the building was not occupied.  The BAS programming interface was obtuse enough that even an experienced HVAC control technician failed to correct the problem on the first trip.  The problem was fixed on all four units on the second trip and our monitoring showed that the building owner would save over 5,600 hours of runtime over the course of a year.

This building is managed like many others where the building owner hires an HVAC service provider to provide varying levels of service, primarily to handle complaints and do some routine maintenance a few times a year.  The building is not large enough to justify a full time facility manager or maintenance person.

All four package units were the same Trane YCD120B3HCEB, a 10 ton package unit, installed in a small quad on the roof of this building.

After the first few weeks of monitoring, a clear picture emerged that suggested that all the units were running on flawed schedules.  Here’s a summary of what we found:

Unit 1:
Sunday through Tuesday – Unit ran 24 hrs each day
Wednesday – Saturday – 5:00 am – 11:00 pm

Unit 2:
Monday – Midnight to 7:30 pm
Tuesday – Friday – 4:30 am – 7:30 pm
Sat – on demand
Sun – 24 hrs midnight to midnight

Unit 3:
Monday – Midnight to 10:00 pm
Tuesday – Friday – Starts ranged from 3:00 am to 5:00 am with stops at 10:00 pm
Saturday – 6:00 am – 7:00 pm
Sunday – 24 hrs midnight to midnight

Unit 4:
Monday – Friday – 4:30 am – 6:30 pm
Saturday – Sunday – 3:00 am – 5:00 am and then on demand

To summarize that list, there were several units running 24 hrs per day for several days, several units with startup and shutdown times well before and after the building was occupied, and unexpected weekend runtime.

Keep in mind that this was a professional building that had some empty suites and the rest were 9-5 offices and a doctor’s office.  There was rarely any activity outside of normal business hours.

The byzantine BAS interface

This particular vintage of Trane Tracker BAS had a serial interface to the system.  The HVAC technician to had to “jack” into it with his laptop computer and was presented with a command line interface.  The building is divided into zones and groups and any particular suite would belong to both a zone and a group.

The HVAC service company for the building had only been in charge for about a year and was never asked to fully commission the building.  They had only been at the building a few times and never to fully explore the current BAS programming.  This particular BAS was old enough that their experience with it was out of date.

Everything is not as it seems

The technician discovered that there were several zones assigned to multiple groups, almost certainly caused by tenants moving in and out followed by layer upon layer of changes being made to the system.  Some of those groups had the obsolete schedules and somewhere along the line a programmer didn’t reconcile what was going on with all the zones and all the groups.  Who knows, perhaps someone did notice something amiss, but left it alone assuming the last person knew what they were doing and the problems kept stacking on.

Once we found this nest of issues we were sure that the problem would be fixed.  In the command line interface, the technician changed the schedules from things like 03:00 to –:– which was his latest understanding of how to zero out a schedule entry.

With much tedium through this interface, day by day, zone by zone, group by group, the technician dutifully found and “zeroed” out all the offending schedules by putting in –:–.  We wrapped up quite sure all was going to be well again.  It turned out it wasn’t.  Virtjoule was still detecting bad schedules, but this time it was a different set of bad schedules and all four units had the same bad schedule.  That was a disappointment, but also a clue.

The technician returned a few days later after conferring with a colleague who used to work at Trane and was an expert in these systems.  It was suggested that putting –:– to zero out a schedule entry left the Trane Tracker system assuming that it should continue whatever the last state was.  If the last state was that the building was occupied then it would go through the next schedule with the same state.  The new schedules were leaving the building in an “occupied” state at the wrong times.

The fix

Since it was not possible to tell this version of the Trane Tracker that a specific day was unoccupied, the technician had to set up very short run times on Saturday and Sunday such that the units would come on, but they would not stay on for very long.  Correcting all of the weekday schedules and double checking that the same zone did not belong to multiple groups cleaned up the other issues.  It became obvious that the new schedules were in place and correct.

Wrap up

Without the Virtjoule monitoring system, the schedule flaws programmed into this BAS would have gone unnoticed for years.  No one really knows how long it had been like that.  Left unchecked this could take years off the life of the equipment not to mention the extra utility expenses most often passed on to the tenants.

Even after a trained technician made changes, things were still not right.  Without the monitoring capability to actually know the machine was running, there would have been little resolve or patience to notice that the service call didn’t actually fix the problem.  Virtjoule not only found the problem, but it was able to verify that the problem hadn’t been fixed initially and was fixed on the second trip.

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineering for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com]

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If there’s one thing that we know for sure when monitoring for refrigeration failures, it’s that finding behavior changes in the compressors or condenser unit will give you hours, if not days, of notice that your equipment needs attention…before you’ve lost control of the temperature of your walk-in or refrigerator or freezer cases.

In this article, we’ll cover a recent shutdown of a bank of two large Copeland compressors that served a low temperature refrigeration circuit at Niwot Market, Niwot, CO.  Notice was given to the owner, Bert Steele, within minutes, well before he knew that anything was wrong, giving him time to correct the problem before there were any temperature problems in the freezer cases.

Niwot Market is an independent small grocery store in the town of Niwot outside of Boulder, CO.  It is owned and operated by Bert Steele.  The market has two refrigeration circuits in the store.  One for low temperature freezer cases and ice cream and one for medium temperature refrigeration cases for products like meat, milk, and produce.

If there is one thing Bert worries about it’s an unexpected failure of either of those refrigeration systems.  With enough lead time on the problem, he can move frozen products to his back room walk-in freezer which has more capacity to stay cold for hours while the problem is getting fixed.  If he doesn’t get that lead time, several large display cases of food are at risk of total loss.

Failures tend to be in two categories, power failures and compressor failures.  Weather in Colorado can be unpredictable and violent.  Afternoon thunderstorms can take out the electricity for minutes to hours at a time.  Winds in the area can exceed 80 mph several times a year, often occurring at night time after the market has closed, and he can lose electricity for several hours.  Although this particular case did not represent a power failure across the whole store, it was a type of power failure in the low temperature compressors that caused the problem.

Below is a picture of the compressor rack for the low temperature system.  It has three Copeland compressors.  The one on the right is permanently out of service and not needed due to lower demands on refrigeration as Bert has updated his units in the store.

Low temperature compressor bank for Niwot Market

Low temperature compressor bank for Niwot Market

You’d think this might be an April Fools prank it it were not such a serious problem.  Right before 8 am on April 1st, the low temperature compressor rack shut down after running continuously for months.

Niwot Market refrigeration failure

Niwot Market refrigeration failure

Virtjoule’s servers were monitoring this with automated rules that required that in the previous 25 minutes that the compressors had to have run for at least 10 minutes.  Soon after 8 am the Virtjoule alert was sent out.  Since a non-operation fault is pretty rare, I looked at the charts and it was clear that both compressors had shut down.  It was highly unlikely to be a sensor error since both sensors were reporting the same thing.  There were no other good explanations except that the units had shut down.

I gave Bert a call on his cell phone and then at the store where I reached him.  I explained the situation and he said he would go check on things.  I got a call back at 8:28 am from Bert saying he thought things were okay.  He had put his hand into the freezer cases and the fans were still running and cool was still coming out.  The fact that the compressors had shut down had not quite reached the freezer case yet, but it’s a great example of the fact that a serious problem had not yet surfaced on a temperature probe.

I was a bit puzzled since nothing would explain why the readings flatlined near zero.  Fortunately Bert decided to go on down to the basement where the compressor racks are and check the source.  Sure enough, I got a call at 8:40 from him saying that the compressors had shut down.  He was able to reset them and they have been running ever since.

Bert’s comment at the time was, “You just paid for yourself for the next three years.”

It was obviously very gratifying to hear that and stories like this make all the work we’ve put into the company very worthwhile.  Whether it’s a story of saving thousands of hours of HVAC time, energy, and money, or helping a small grocery avoid a very expensive loss of products, we really get a kick out of helping businesses find these very tangible problems.

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineering for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com]

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An economizer is a set of controls and dampers, usually fitted to a rooftop package unit, that can allow variable amounts of outside air into the system to supply cooling when outside air temperatures allow. This is an energy saving tactic to take advantage of “free cooling” by using cool outside air rather than running compressors and the refrigeration circuit.

With Virtjoule’s economizer opportunity metrics you can discover the following issues and opportunities:
– Identify units with economizers running refrigeration circuits when they could be cooling from outside air instead
– Compute the potential savings for an existing unit to have an economizer installed or be replaced with a unit that has a built-in economizer
– Find the total amount of time the outside environment spent below a certain temperature threshold.

An economizer is one of the most misunderstood HVAC components there is.  They can be complex, prone to failure, and controlled improperly.  What starts off to be an energy and money saving device can turn into an achilles heel of extra equipment expense, maintenance costs, and lost energy saving opportunities.

In an excellent case study recently published by the Western Cooling Efficiency Center (WCEC) at UC Davis, Davis, CA, economizer faults made up two of the top 10 most common HVAC faults.

We especially like this paper because the Virtjoule sensor got a front page picture and we were included in a feature roundup of fault detection products.  I would encourage you to take a look at the paper where Kristin Heinemeier reviews the state of standards development for fault detection, particularly as it relates to California Title 24 initiatives.

According to the WCEC report, the two main economizer failures are incorrect or sub-optimal set point and economizer damper failure.

The WCEC and CA Title 24 recommend a 75 degree set point.  That means that when outside air temperature is 75 degrees or less, the dampers for the economizer should be coming open.

There is a huge range of capability with economizers.  Some are completely manual where a building technician will manually adjust the outside air damper to a certain degree.  But to be useful, the damper position should be able to be automatically set by economizer controls.

A 75 degree set point makes sense in the dry climate of California, but there is this thing called enthalpy that affects how much good you can get out of air with a certain humidity and temperature.  It turns out that the usefulness of cool outside air goes down when the humidity of that air goes up.  That’s because enthalpy, or the total amount of heat in that air, is higher at higher humidities.

Because humidity is a measure of how much water is in gaseous form, there is extra heat content in air that has higher humidity due to the latent heat required to hold water in a gaseous form.  That heat is in addition to the sensible heat, the heat you can feel, in the air, raising the total enthalpy and heat content of the air making it harder to cool.  There is no linear relationship between temperature, humidity, and enthalpy.  It has to be experimentally determined and is the focus of the engineering field of psychrometrics  (not psychometrics…another topic, another blog).

In many parts of the country, a useful set point temperature for the economizer would have to be much lower, meaning that the outside air temperature would have to be much lower before you can take advantage of the economizer.  For warm and humid climates, an economizer may never make sense to install.

Ultimately, a good economizer is one that can select an air stream, or mix an airstream, with the lowest enthalpy, the lowest total heat, so the air going in will take less energy to cool to the desired temperature.  A good economizer will measure the enthalpy of the return air as well as the outside air by using temperature and humidity sensors.  A combination of temperature and humidity sensors are required to compute enthalpy and faulty temperature and humidity sensors are a common cause for improper economizer function.


An economizer failure will show up in a couple of ways in run time statistics that Virtjoule provides.  If the economizer is stuck closed or the set point is set too low, then Virtjoule will see compressor run time at temperatures below the desired set point.  If the economizer is stuck open, then on warm days the run time of the unit will be longer than normal for a given condition because warmer air than is called for is being fed into the RTU.  Both ends of the failure spectrum can be noticed.  What is more subtle, and something we are not chasing at this time, is figuring out whether the compressors and economizer are working together to create an optimal mix and the subtle degradations that might be shown with more specific gauges.

Let’s look at an example.  The following graph shows compressor cycles for a 40 ton McQuay on an executive office building in San Diego.  The accompanying temperature chart shows the temperature trend throughout the day.

As you can see, a significant amount of compressor time was used for cooling for several hours between 9:00 am and noon and again after 3 pm.  And that’s time when it was below 55 degrees.  Humidity levels were 45-55% during that time.  Most HVAC people will tell you that humidity doesn’t make much difference at temperatures below 55 degrees and so computing enthalpy is a waste of time…just use the air less than 55 degrees to cool all you can.

These McQuays are fitted with economizer capability.  It looks to us like it’s not being used or controlled incorrectly as outside air temperature peaked at 57 degrees and most of the day was at 55 degrees or below.  There should have been ample cool air to supply cooling for most of the day.  Given that California recommendations are to use the economizer up to 75 degrees, minimizing compressor time, it looks like a lost energy and money saving opportunity.

In tables in the Virtjoule web application, we’ve tallied 6 hrs 16 minutes of compressor time on this unit this week.  It hasn’t been too warm in San Diego this week.  But we’ve also tallied 5 hrs and 18 minutes of compressor time when the temperature was below 55 degrees.  85% of the compressor run time this week has been at the same time outside air temperature was 55 degrees or less.  It’s almost certain the economizer is not paying for itself and could use a call to check the set point, temperature and humidity sensors, and the physical operation of the dampers at various levels.


In summary, new analytics functionality in Virtjoule makes it possible to identify lost opportunities to save money and energy for machines with economizers.  It’s also possible to use this same functionality to evaluate the potential benefit if retrofitting an economizer or replacing a machine by monitoring the cooling behavior of a machine when temperatures are less than 55 degrees.

[Randy Cox - CEO and co-founder of Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineering for Virtjoule Sense sensors. He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines. You may contact Randy at: randy at virtjoule dot com]

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Refrigeration is a critical component of any restaurant for a variety of reasons, not the least is the health and safety of its customers.  Keeping a close eye on how that refrigeration is working is key to avoiding health concerns and potentially the loss of all the contents of a walk-in cooler.  In this article you will see how easy it is to notice that a walk-in refrigeration condenser unit is beginning to malfunction.

Key concepts:

  • Most any kind of fault will disrupt the observable common pattern of how the condenser unit operates.
  • Condenser faults may build up over time wasting energy and working equipment harder before a total failure occurs.
  • There can be adequate time to get a faulty unit fixed before it completely fails if the behavior change caused by the fault is detected.
  • Quick visual inspection of Virtjoule charts to compare patterns can easily identify changes in behavior that need to be investigated.

We recently notified a customer of a behavior change that we observed in the walk-in refrigerator for their restaurant.  This is a critical unit for the restaurant as it’s the condensing unit for the only walk-in refrigerator that they have at this site.  As you will see in this article, it’s not hard to figure out that something had radically changed in the operation of this unit despite the fact that the temperature in the cooler hadn’t risen.  It was just a matter of time before this unit would have failed causing a big problem for the restaurant owner and the manager.

The walk-ins for this restaurant chain are made by Harford Duracool.  Their labels don’t last in the sun and so I don’t have the exact model number for this condenser unit.  The photo below is of the actual unit that failed.

Harford Duracool walk-in refrigerator condenser unit

Harford Duracool walk-in refrigerator condenser unit

What I want you to note in the following graphic is just how easy it is to determine that the unit has broken out of it normal pattern.  This could be done visually or by using the Virtjoule cycle counter which would have shown a radical drop in the number of full cycles that occurred.  The green and red highlights are mine.

You can see that just before 10:00 am on October 30, this unit stopped doing full cycles and ran continuously until about 4pm where it shut down for a few minutes and then started back up with an intense series of cycles only shutting down once every 5-6 hrs.  Clearly this is much different than the cycles you see on the left hand side of the chart.  The unit is working much more aggressively and constantly.

Harford Duracool Condenser breaking into failure pattern

Harford Duracool Condenser breaking into failure pattern

The unit wasn’t fixed right away and luckily there was not a catastrophic failure that would have required moving or throwing away the food in the cooler.  You can see this same failure pattern continued for quite some time.

Harford Duracool condenser in failure mode

Harford Duracool condenser in failure mode

Finally, about 9am on November 11th, the unit was shut down.  It was thawed out, condenser cleaned, and then restarted just after 10:30 am.  It ran continuously for a while in order to catch up on its cooling, but then settled back into its normal cycle rhythm about 6pm.  It has been running normally ever since.

Harford Duracool condenser failure fix

Harford Duracool condenser failure fix

In conclusion, you can see that it’s not at all difficult to notice that there was a problem developing and it was also quite easy to see when the problem was resolved.  Virtjoule didn’t diagnose what the problem was, but it gave enough warning time for the unit to be looked at, fixed, and restarted before a catastrophic failure occurred.  There was no other type of monitoring being done on this unit and it would have completely failed leaving the cooler to warm up at an inopportune time (night, food inspector dropping by, etc.).  Compared to that inconvenience, a call to the Harford Duracool dealer and service was all it took to get things working well again.

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Summary:  High head pressure faults can occur on air conditioners for a number of reasons.  This article will discuss two scenarios where high head pressure faults occurred because of two distinct and common problems. 

The first problem occurred when Liebert computer room air conditioner condenser fins were blocked by cottonwood seeds.  The second example was caused by a faulty condenser fan that would not turn on. 

You will see that both instances left distinctive signatures or patterns that Virtjoule’s beat charts were able to show.  I will review the basics of the refrigeration cycle which can help you understand why these two problems caused a high head pressure fault.

Key concepts:

  • High head pressure faults leave distinctive signatures.
  • Short cycling can be an indicator of a high head pressure fault.
  • The refrigeration cycle can help you understand the probable causes.

Even though HVAC units often live on top of roofs, it doesn’t mean they are immune to the environment around them.  The first example of a high head pressure fault occurred at a customer’s data center and office building in Fort Worth, Texas.  It was the middle of June and spring was winding down and one of the hottest summers on record in Texas was beginning to bear down on the state.  Below you can see the temperature graph for that day which topped out at 105 degrees just after 4 pm.

Temperature graph for Fort Worth on June 18, 2011

Temperature graph for Fort Worth on June 18, 2011

These Liebert units can show short cycling where they will turn on for just minutes and then off again for minutes.  According to sources we’ve talked to they are designed to handle this because many customers of computer room air conditioners want to have fairly constant temperatures.

You can see from the graph below that just after 11:00 am the lines get even closer together and denser indicating that the unit is cycling on and off even more frequently.  This was not normal behavior and was the first indication that there was a problem developing.

At 3:21 pm the unit shut down completely.  There were two Liebert units providing cool air to a data center room housing about $1.5 million in equipment.  On warm days, both units are required to cool the load generated there.  A Virtjoule alert was sent to the customer who was able to get the unit back up and running before they had to take any drastic measures to reduce the load in the center by turning off machines.  This also averted the associated lack of service to their customers not to mention all the extra time it takes their IT staff to shutdown and restart a large server system.

High head pressure fault on computer room air conditioner

High head pressure fault on computer room air conditioner

What happened to cause this problem?  The Liebert control panel in the data center indicated a high head pressure fault had occurred, but no alert from that system was sent.  After our alert to the customer, their authorized Liebert representative was called out and determined that the condenser coils had been blocked by cottonwood seeds in the air getting trapped in the fins by the draft going through the condenser.  The unit was cleaned and restarted even though the unit had recently been cleaned.

The refrigeration cycle

If you had a situation that said “High head pressure fault” do you know what was really happening in the machine and what might cause it?  Let’s review the refrigeration cycle where it will be easier to understand the sources of a high head pressure fault.

Refrigeration cycle illustration

Refrigeration cycle illustration

The refrigeration cycle depends on the laws of physics for refrigerants going through a phase change from high pressure liquid to low pressure gas and back to a high pressure liquid.  So how does this high pressure liquid actually cool itself?  The answer lies in the thermal expansion valve (TX, TXV, TEV).  It controls the pressure drop from the high to the low pressure side of the refrigerant cycle.  The expansion valve is basically a constriction of the refrigerant line that accomplishes a pressure drop across the valve.  By definition if you have pressure on one side of a valve and the valve is letting fluid move, then the fluid on the other side of the valve will be at a lower pressure.

Expansion (drop in pressure) of the high pressure liquid refrigerant will flash evaporate roughly half of the refrigerant prior to it being introduced to the evaporator.  Think about water that boils more quickly when you’re at altitude (lower atmospheric pressure).  It’s pressure that is holding the refrigerant in a liquid form and when that pressure is released that mixture wants to boil.

Because this mixture is not having heat added or removed at this time, the phase change from liquid to saturated liquid/gas will cause the mixture to radically drop in temperature.  This is because energy in the form of heat is being converted to a new form or energy to support part of the refrigerant in gaseous form.

Heat is lost to the formation of the gaseous form of the refrigerant.  This heat loss is called the heat of evaporation.  It’s the amount of heat needed to change a liquid to a gas.  You can add heat to the system to create the heat of evaporation (the burner adding heat to boil water on a stove) or the heat energy required can be pulled from the original mixture or its surroundings if the pressure is low enough and there is no other source.  Since the pressure is reduced the refrigerant is going to be forced into a phase change and it will literally suck heat out of the mixture to do it causing a large drop in temperature.

Refrigerants are simply special compounds or mixtures that exhibit very specific phase changes at convenient temperatures and pressures.  Many liquids could be used as a refrigerant, but the boiling and condensation properties of those liquids don’t work well under normal cooling conditions or they are uneconomical to produce.

The expansion valve itself is not actively accepting or rejecting heat (there will be some ambient heat transfer if the valve is exposed).  When the pressure drops the mixture starts to boil and the temperature drops as the heat of evaporation is extracted to support the saturated mixture of liquid and gas.  Now the low pressure side of the expansion valve is the place where you have truly cold refrigerant.

At this point in the cycle the air conditioner wants to put this cold refrigerant through a heat exchanger and transfer heat from the air in a room back to the refrigerant.  The now low pressure, low temperature liquid/gas refrigerant mixture is sent into a heat exchanger called an evaporator.  It’s called an evaporator because the warm air from the space is passed by a fan over coils containing the refrigerant and the heat in that air is transferred to the refrigerant causing it to thoroughly boil and change completely back to a gaseous form (saturated liquid/gas to a superheated stream of vapor).

Remember that the refrigerant is at a much lower pressure now.  Like water boiling at a lower temperature at high altitude, so will the refrigerant boil or change to a gas in this lower pressure environment and in the process soak up heat.  Remember, heat always moves from hot to cold.  So heat is naturally carried from the warm air to the cold refrigerant through the interface of the coiled pipe (usually copper pipe called the coil).  The air emerges colder because the heat has been removed.  The refrigerant vapor is now holding that heat and carrying it back to the compressor to start the cycle all over again.

High Head Pressure Fault:  A Vicious Cycle

Back to the original question:  What is a high head pressure fault?

A high head pressure fault is equivalent to a high temperature fault.  There is a direct relationship between temperature and pressure for a substance in gaseous form (from thermodynamics).  If temperature goes up then pressure goes up if the volume is constant.  If you know anything about the container of the gas and if you know the pressure you can figure out the temperature.  If you know the temperature, you can figure out what the pressure is.  In this case pressure is used as the way to determine the state of the fluid after it has been compressed.  If its pressure is high then so is its temperature.

High temperatures are a killer to compressors.  If it goes too high it will literally break down the lubricant for the compressor and the compressor will destroy itself with metal on metal wear.

After the low pressure vapor coming into the compressor is compressed, its temperature rises because the pressure rises from the mechanical work done by the compressor.  Energy is added through mechanical compression and the result is a high pressure, high temperature vapor.  You are converting electrical energy to mechanical energy to thermodynamic energy ready to be unleashed again.

A high head pressure fault develops if the vapor returning to the compressor is too hot and the subsequent compressed refrigerant will also be hotter than normal.  If there is too much heat in the refrigerant then it’s possible that the next step of putting it through the condenser to throw off that heat will not fully condense the refrigerant into liquid form.  At that point you have a degenerating refrigeration cycle where the refrigerant never makes it completely to liquid form in the condenser before being sent to the expansion valve.  The expansion valve works because you have high pressure liquid being converted to a saturated mixture of gas and liquid at lower pressure.

Therefore, you can’t put a gas through an expansion valve and get the refrigerant to cool down because cooling of the refrigerant occurs when pressure is released from a liquid and it starts to become gaseous.  If it’s already mostly gas then no significant expansion or flash cooling can occur.  Soon no more heat will be absorbed and all of the refrigerant cycle will be in gaseous form.  The compressor eventually overheats and destroys itself from rapidly increasing temperatures (getting hotter because heat is still coming from the space as well as mechanical heat added by the compressors.)

So the problem with having high head pressure is that it is an indication that the refrigeration cycle is broken and there is no use in trying to exercise it further.  You are in a vicious cycle.  The unit has to shut down before it destroys the compressor and this is why most modern systems have a safety cutoff in the case of high head pressure.

What failed in order to cause a high head pressure fault?

Ultimately a high head pressure fault is caused by excessive heat in the system.  That heat could be coming from a super hot room that you’re trying to cool.  It could come from the accumulation of heat from a poorly functioning condenser unable to throw off the heat the system is picking up and many other reasons including overcharging the refrigerant.  Let’s look at some of these problems and why they lead to a high head pressure fault.

Condenser Blockage

Most high head pressure faults will be on the condenser side of the system; the unit usually on the roof or outside the building.   One of the main problems is a physical fouling of the condenser fins which restricts air flow over the coils.  If air isn’t moving well over the fins and coils then there won’t be as much heat transferred and therefore less heat is ejected from the system.

As outside temperatures rise or the internal load rises, more and more heat will need to be rejected.  It’s possible to have more heat to reject than the condenser is able to throw off.  This leads to higher temperatures and therefore higher pressures at the expansion valve.  More heat ends up in the expanded refrigerant reducing the evaporator efficiency and that leads to higher temperatures and pressures of the vapor returning to the compressor. It’s a bad cycle that only gets worse unless the heat load is dramatically reduced or the unit is shut down.

In the case of our customer’s Liebert system, cottonwood seeds began to accumulate and block the air flow across the condenser eventually causing the condenser to not keep up as temperature rose and a high head pressure fault shut down the system.  Short cycling began as it reset itself a number of times before shutting down for good when ambient air temperatures reached about 105 F.

Damaged fins

Other causes of condenser inefficiency include damaged condenser fins.  If you’ve been up close and put your hands on these fins you know they are quite easy to bend.  Once they’re bent then no air can flow over that section of the coil reducing the overall efficiency of the condenser and therefore the condenser can’t reject as much heat.  If the damage to the fins is excessive it can dramatically reduce the heat load the system can handle.

We’ve seen examples where an overzealous maintenance person has directed high pressure spray across the fins and flattened entire sections.  What started out as an operation to improve the condenser efficiency by cleaning the fins and coils ended up damaging and reducing the condenser efficiency.

Liebert Computer Room Air Conditioner with flattened condenser fins

Liebert Computer Room Air Conditioner with flattened condenser fins

The photo above is a picture of one of the Liebert units on a data center in Fort Worth that we’re monitoring.  On the left side you can see bright spots on the condenser fins.  These are small pockets of bent over fins and might have been caused by hail.

What’s more disturbing is shown on the right half of the unit where you can see large swaths of condenser fin damage where the fins are literally bent over.  This is clearly not caused by hail damage and almost certainly caused by the incorrect use of a high pressure sprayer.  You can imagine how much less efficient this condenser is and can only imagine what happened next when cottonwood seed began to get trapped against the working side of the condenser.

Refrigerant contamination or internal coil fouling

A less common cause of condenser inefficiency occurs within the condenser coils itself.  If the refrigerant has been contaminated in the past it’s possible for the coil itself to begin to plug.  This reduces the flow of refrigerant through the coil and in turn reduces the amount of heat the condenser can throw off.

Very hot room

Because high head pressure issues are caused by excess heat in the system, you may need to look at other ways heat is getting in the system.  One potential problem comes from trying to cool down a hot room.  If you have a run-of-the-mill high head pressure fault and things were running well before, then it’s probably not going to be this reason.

Applications of commercial refrigeration run into this sort of problem all the time when they start up a walk-in refrigerator or freezer for the first time.  Commercial refrigeration systems aren’t really designed to take down a heat load in a box coming from room temperature or higher.  They’re usually designed to pull much smaller quantities of heat out of a box that is already pretty cold. For this reason you will often see special start up instructions that give specific sequences on how to get a walk-in refrigerator started up; methods to slowly cool the space rather than getting it to operating temperature quickly.

Similar issues come up in commercial refrigeration if a large load of room temperature product is added to a running refrigerator.  Manufacturers of these appliances usually know how much warm product you can load into the refrigerator without causing a problem.

Refrigerant load that is overcharged

At a high level it’s easy to think that more refrigerant is better.  But if you’ve understood a number of things so far about the refrigeration cycle, then you’ll understand that more is not necessarily better.  The primary reason is that if there is too much refrigerant then the condenser itself will be flooded to some extent.

The job of the condenser is to condense the vapor to liquid and it needs to be liquified by the time it exits the condenser.  But if there is too much refrigerant then there will be too much of it in liquid form inside the condenser.  As soon as a portion of the condenser has liquid in it then that part of the condenser will not help phase change the refrigerant and the condenser is less efficient and unable to handle a higher heat load.

A flooded condenser from overcharging causes problems similar to the fins being damaged or blocked because the ability of the condenser to throw off heat has been hampered.

Failed Condenser Fan

That’s a pretty detailed look at the underpinnings of a high head pressure fault and a few common causes.  Next, let’s look at another high head pressure fault condition.  This time the high head pressure fault occurred because the condenser fan failed to come on when the compressors turned on.

Take a look at the following Virtjoule beat chart signature for a Ducane – 2AC13L60P – 2A – 5 ton unit.

High head pressure fault due to faulty condensor fan

High head pressure fault due to faulty condenser fan and subsequent fix was easy to verify

The solid part of the graph is indicating that the unit is turning on and off hundreds of times a day.  We had seen this activity as soon as the sensor was installed and it was obvious that there was a problem.

The maintenance man for this unit called his HVAC company to make a service call.  A few days later he was under the impression from them that the problem had been fixed earlier.  The signature continued to prove otherwise.  We notified the customer of the situation and suggested they shut down the unit until it could be fixed.  You can see the shut down occurred just after 10 am.  The unit was then fixed that same day and restarted about 3 pm.  It is extremely easy to verify that the maintenance was performed.

Ducane 5 ton 2AC13L60P with a bad condenser

Ducane 5 ton 2AC13L60P with a bad condenser

Short cycling can be an indicator of a high head pressure fault

This is certainly a short cycling situation and short cycling is one of the indications that the refrigeration cycle is broken.  We were not able to tell exactly why this was occurring, but without a Virtjoule sensor on the unit the second situation could have continued until the compressor was burned out.  When standing by that unit it was pretty obvious what the problem was when you could hear the compressors turn on, but the condenser fan never turned.

If the condenser fan motor or relays to turn on the fan are broken then no significant air flow will go over the condenser.  Thermodynamically this is the same thing as having blocked condenser fins or even restricted refrigeration flow inside the coil.  The condenser simply can’t operate well enough to throw off all of the heat that is required.  Eventually the cycle turns to high temperatures and pressures and the safety switch is thrown to shut down the unit.

Many of these units will reset the high head pressure fault automatically and the unit will attempt to try again.  That’s what was happening in this case.  The unit could actually run for a little bit because there was enough ambient heat rejection to keep the cycle going for just a minute or two before the high head pressure occurred again.  The unit shuts off and cools off and it starts all over again…hundreds of times a day in this case with all the associated wear and tear and wasted energy.


I should be clear that currently the Virtjoule alert system does not directly diagnose high head pressure faults.  We wouldn’t have known exactly what the cause of the problem was, but we did see that there was a serious problem developing.

In both cases presented here, even though the cause was different, there were short cycling indications directly observed and that is something that can be alerted on.  We also alerted on the fact that the computer room air conditioner shut down and the Liebert system did not send an alert.

A high head pressure fault is a low level refrigeration cycle failure that could be caused by a number of reasons.  Even the machines that are throwing those faults aren’t diagnosing the problem.

What has been useful to our customers is the ability to see that the machine is operating in an unhealthy state or not operating at all because of the problem.  Then the problem can be looked at and fixed before expensive damage or a major inconvenience occurs.

[Randy Cox - CTO and VP of Software Engineering, Virtjoule - He is the software designer and analytics engineering for Virtjoule Sense sensors.  He studied Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines.  You may contact Randy at:  randy at virtjoule dot com]

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Is your package unit or split system cycling too much?  How do you know?  The correct answer is that it depends on the unit and the manufacturer.  However, common sense can play a huge role in figuring out if your machines are excessively cycling.  Finding out how often your machine is cycling and how long the cycle times are can tell you a lot about how healthy your machine is or whether you need to change your control regime. 

In this article we’ll look at a case study of a 90 ton chiller from Carrier and how we helped a customer cut over 14,000 cycles per year in normal operation even when the chiller was operated on a building automation system (BAS) with a dedicated maintenance staff.

Key concepts: Excessive cycling and compressor short cycling can be controlled.  Avoid excessive wear and tear on HVAC equipment.  Stop excessive HVAC energy consumption and expense.

Let’s set the scene.  This 90 ton Carrier chiller has normal operating hours of 6 am to 6 pm.  We could tell that its start up and shut down times were programmed correctly because it’s obvious from the Virtjoule beat chart below that the unit is running all the time between those hours.  The building was not occupied outside of 6 am to 6 pm and the owners of the building did not expect to see any unit operations in the off hours.  However, you can see from the graph below that even though there was a noticeable shutdown, the unit continued to cycle on and off throughout the night and early morning hours.

The extra cycles were typically 3-4 minutes in duration and numbered 40 or more per day and many more than that on weekends adding up to over 14,000 cycles per year of extraneous cycling and run time.  That’s 14,000+ cycles and over 700 hours of extra run time not to mention that electric motors can take up to three times the amount of electricity to start them than it takes to run them.  At common electricity rates all of this could add up to around $5,000 per year not to mention the wear and tear on a very expensive asset.

Here’s a snapshot of the run time graph for a typical day with out-of-hours cycling.  You can see out-of-hours cycling through the early morning hours up to 6:00 am and then solid operation between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm.  Out-of-hours cycling begins again at 6 pm and continues through midnight on this chart.  The excessive cycling continues until 6 am the following day.

Excessive cycles

Excessive cycles and out of hours operation on a 90 ton Carrier chiller

The following graph is how the machine operated on Saturdays and Sundays.  Two out of the seven days of the week had close to 90 extraneous short cycles.

Extra cycles and runtime on weekends when there should be none

Extra cycles and runtime on weekends when there should be none

Keep in mind that this was the main cooling unit and was operated on a building automation system.   Soon after this run time behavior was noted the building engineers were able to make control adjustments that completely eliminated the extra cycles.  Now you can see a very clean start up and shutdown of this chiller each day.  No extra cycles.  No wasted energy.  No unnecessary wear and tear.

Control problem fixed for out-of-hours operations and excessive cycles

Control problem fixed for out-of-hours operations and excessive cycles

If you’ve operated BAS before you are probably aware of how much work it can be to extract and analyze the data points that are available.  We often hear that the BAS should catch these kinds of problems, but case after case has shown us that it isn’t happening.  BAS has proven many times that it’s better at control than monitoring.  Even when it’s used for monitoring it can cost hundreds of dollars per data point to extract and then someone has to interpret and monitor the results regularly.  Maintenance organizations often have more urgent needs to attend to in their building and this sort of problem doesn’t usually cause immediate comfort problems in the building.

The steady burning of electricity and asset wear should make for a foul smell of burning money to someone in the building and so this should be a comfort problem under someone’s seat eventually.  The top maintenance organizations that we see deal with the issues of comfort, maintenance, energy conservation, and cost every day in their operations.  They like things to run well and to cost the least amount possible.  Fortunately those things usually go hand in hand.  With Virtjoule, after a 1 hr installation and setup, a few days later we had enough information to show that a change was needed.  The owners of the building were able to get their maintenance organization to make the changes and make an immediate difference on the healthy operation of this unit.

[Randy Cox - CTO and VP of Software Engineering, Virtjoule - is the software designer and analytics engineering for Virtjoule Sense sensors.  You may contact Randy at:  randy at virtjoule dot com]

Virtjoule installation on Carrier 90 ton chiller

Virtjoule installation on Carrier 90 ton chiller

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Summary: We’re often asked why Virtjoule HVAC vibration sensors report on a one-second interval.  Why not five minutes or even longer?  This article will cover an actual fault case we discovered on a customer site and demonstrate why a one-second update interval is beneficial for diagnosing HVAC problems such as short-cycling.

Key concepts: HVAC vibration analysis techniques, HVAC sensor reporting intervals, signal aliasing, HVAC short-cycling.

It’s fairly common to find short-cycling HVAC units, especially after we first install the Virtjoule sensor system.  They’re easy to see visually in the Virtjoule web application by looking at the sparklines for the building’s HVAC sensors.  The following is a typical sparkline of a short-cycling HVAC unit – it’s almost solidly filled with lines going from off to on and back to off:

Short cycling HVAC sparkline

Graph of Short cycling HVAC Unit

A more typical HVAC cycling pattern is shown in this sparkline:

Normal cycling HVAC

Graph of regular cycling HVAC Unit

The reason I’m using sparklines above is mainly to illustrate that the short cycling problem stands out from the visual contrast of these two graphs without regard to the actual timing of the cycle.  However, the reason it can stand out in such a simple way is because of a fairly rapid reporting interval by the sensors.

Here’s the short-cycling graph in a bit more detail – this represents about a 12 hour period of time.

24 hour short cycling HVAC waveform

Zooming in more closely, you can see the actual short-cycling wave form begin to take shape along with more detail with respect to the period of short cycling.

Closeup 1 short cycling

Another zoom level deeper:

Closeup HVAC short-cycling

And finally, a zoom level of the short-cycling waveform focusing on a single period or cycle of the HVAC unit.  From this, it’s easy to see the entire short cycling period is about two minutes.  Moreover, you can see the “click” of the HVAC unit attempting to turn on the condenser fan at about mid-way through the 10:20 mark.  The fan failed to start and a bit later, the compressors kicked on and shortly turned off, potentially due to a high head-pressure fault in the system which protects itself by shutting down the compressor.

Closeup 3 HVAC short cycling

Virtjoule-Sense sensors sample the vibrations from the HVAC unit nearly 10,000 times per second and report the average magnitude of the data over that one-second period.   If we sampled data once every minute or two minutes, we could easily miss short-cycling events such as those captured above.

A sampling period of 2 minutes could leave you believing the unit is running non-stop if the sample period happened to fall on the regular peak shown in this real-world example.  Or alternatively, a 2-minute sample could leave you believing the unit never ran at all if it happened to sample on the interval when the unit was not running between peaks.

Finally, the world is never so punctual, so the more likely scenario of sampling on a 2 minute interval is that you would see a mix of highs and lows which would show inaccurate, sporadic run time.

Using a one-second reporting interval, it’s possible to quickly capture subtle state changes in HVAC equipment and also form a very accurate picture of what’s happening within the unit.

Each HVAC unit will have a somewhat different acoustic signature when you get down to the small details of the waveform, but the overall picture of HVAC short-cycling, built on one second data, becomes very clear.

[Landon Cox - VP of Embedded Engineering, Virtjoule - is the hardware designer for Virtjoule Sense sensors.  You may contact Landon at:  landon at virtjoule dot com]

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This is the second post of a two post series demonstrating the flexibility and simplicity of installing our sensors.

Answers to the questions from the first post (Part 1)

- How many sensors do you think our system would need to monitor a system this large? Only 6 sensors to monitor this entire cooling tower system!

- How to keep the sensors from getting destroyed in a harsh environment? All sensors are sealed in UV and water resistant plastic enclosures.

Rugged Sensor

- Where do you place the sensors and not interrupt building operations? Since they are installed with industrial strength tape and are non intrusive they can be place almost anywhere, that means no equipment down time or service disruption.

These pictures shows the microphone attached directly to the cooling tower fan housing, no penetrations required!

Fan Housing Sensor Attached to Housing

- Doesn’t the system already have an energy management system?

These towers are monitored with the latest technology from Tridium (Honeywell Controls). Even with all this technology we found lots of opportunities for improvement from load balancing to reducing VFD hunting.

- How long did it take us to install our system? Only 2 hours for 2 people!

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This is the first post of a two post series demonstrating the flexibility and simplicity of installing our sensors. Included below is the video of a site walk around pre-hardware installation. The video is of a cooling tower system installation we did for a large casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. My second post will cover Part 2, once we have installed the hardware.

Some questions to think about while watching the video (I will answer them in the next post):

- How many sensors do you think our system would need to monitor a system this large?

- How to keep the sensors from getting destroyed in a harsh environment?

- Where do you place the sensors and not interrupt building operations?

- Doesn’t the system already have an energy management system?

- How long did it take us to install our system?

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Posted by admin at 9:02 pm

Daily Beats is a blog about sensor networks, HVAC engineering, smart buildings and trends in energy by the developers at Virtjoule.


Virtjoule is a new breed of HVAC monitoring company. We believe HVAC monitoring systems can be produced and installed cheaply which can save our customers a lot of money. From our experience, we know most other monitoring solutions are expensive and therefore often never get implemented. But with an inexpensive Virtjoule monitoring solution, our customers save money by reducing wear and tear on their equipment as well as lowering their energy bills by reducing off-hours operation.

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