Air-con bolt-on

Bulletin reader Adam F. is plagued by emails from a company selling a bolt-on thermostatic control for split-system air conditioning units. They claim ‘up to 40%’ savings. Is this plausible?

Now the rate of heat flow into an air-conditioned space is proportional to the outside-inside temperature difference (barring changes in ventilation rate and ignoring solar gain, which I will come back to). Let’s suppose you are maintaining 18°C indoors: the rate of heat inflow when it’s 28°C outside will be double what it is when it is 23°C (a ten-degree differential compared with a five-degree differential).

To maintain steady internal conditions the heat inflow must be balanced by an equal amount of cooling. There are two ways to reduce the energy used for cooling:

  1. reduce the rate of heat inflow; or
  2. improve efficiency or reduce losses in the refrigeration plant which provides the cooling

Solutions based on improved thermostatic control address the first option, and they claim to do so by preventing overshoot whereby the evaporator (indoor unit) continues to cool the space after the set point has been reached and it has turned off. The effect of such overshoot, if it occurs, will be to depress the internal temperature slightly. The heat flow into the space will accordingly increase slightly, balancing the excess cooling that has been supplied. But how significant will the effect be? Ultimately it depends on the impact on average internal temperature over time. Remember that the overshoot will be transitory, but let’s be pessimistic and suppose that it gives an average space temperature that is 0.2°C lower than it need be. With an outside-inside differential of 5 degrees, that would imply only 4% excess heat flow and corresponding cooling load. But this is 4% of quite a low load; if the system were sized for a 20-degree differential a 0.2°C offset in space temperature would be adding only 1% to the load when running at design conditions.

But there is a twist. Overshoot can only occur as the thermostatic control commands the cooling to turn off. This may be quite frequent at low loads, but becomes less so as the load increases and the cooling spends a greater proportion of its time running. So the hotter the weather and the harder the cooling has to work, the less waste there will be in absolute terms, and this smaller absolute waste becomes an infinitesimal percentage of the higher demand. Solar gain, when it occurs, increases the load on the cooling system, which reduces the number of start-stop cycles by lengthening the ‘on’ periods and hence cuts down the opportunities for thermostatic overshoot.

The final thing to bear in mind is that although we have, in this analysis, a range of potential savings from maybe 4% at low load to essentially nil at full load, not much consumption occurs at low load so the potential year-round savings are skewed well away from the 4% figure.

My verdict: plausible savings might be of the order of 1% but only if thermostatic overshoot actually occurs.