Tag: piston

I remember it like it was yesterday… It was my first day of work as a trainee at my first technician job, just a wet behind the ears kid fresh out of trade school.

It was a Monday morning and technicians and I were standing in the dusty warehouse surrounded by stacks and stacks of brand new condensing units drinking the nasty warehouse coffee…

and I was LOVING IT

Finally, I had made it, one of the guys, listening to the war stories and well-natured ribbing and getting a caffeine fix for the day.

One of the senior techs was telling a story of low suction pressure and he said “So I figured it has to be the wrong sized piston” and he stopped and looked over at me and said “you know what a piston is….. RIGHT”

It seemed like an eternity passed as the whole group stared at me, I mumbled “a piston sure” and gave a weak nod hoping that “LIAR” wasn’t emblazoned on my forehead for All to see.

The tech turned and finished his story and my mind raced….

Of course, I knew what a piston was in an ENGINE or even a reciprocating compressor but I had no clue that the little hunk of brass with a hole in it that we called a “fixed orifice” in school was called a piston.

Later I learned all there was to know about sizing and replacing pistons. The installers I worked with often forgot to put in the correct size.

In case you are like I was, a piston is a fixed orifice metering device used in systems for many years. They are especially in residential heat pumps and straight cool systems. Even now that TXVs and EEVs are becoming more popular you will still see pistons in many new Carrier models being used outside as the heat mode metering device.

Piston Facts

There are three common piston designs I see regularly and while different manufacturers may use them I will group them by the manufacturers I know them by.

Lennox / Rheem Type

The piston shown above is the Lennox / Rheem style. It is directional, meaning it can only be installed one way with the cone (tapered side) pointed at the evaporator and the other side pointed at the liquid line. This type uses seals toward the end of the cone to help prevent refrigerant bypass and it also uses an o-ring to seal the “chatleff” style housing.

Carrier Type

Carrier used to call their pistons “accurators” and maybe still do although I haven’t heard that term for years. These pistons can be installed in either direction but still use the same “chatleff” style housing as Lennox

Trane Type

The Trane style has a much smaller size and is directional. The Trane housings do not use o-rings.

Piston Size

The physical exterior dimensions of the piston must be the same as all the others for that brand/series otherwise it will not fit properly. It is only the internal bore diameter that changes.

Pistons are sized in decimals of an inch like a gas orifice, usually from the 40’s up to the low 100’s. When a piston is described as being a “65 piston” that means it is 0.065 of an inch and a “104” would be 0.104 of an inch.

Check Flow Operation

In a heat pump system, every metering device needs some method of bypassing the metering device when the refrigerant flows in the opposite direction. This is done in TXVs by means of an internal or external check valve but with a piston, the piston itself is allowed to slide in the housing allowing restricted flow in one direction and unrestricted flow in the other.

This is actually where a piston gets its name, because like a piston in an engine it is a cylinder within a cylinder that can slide back and forth.

Any carbon, wax or other solid material that gets into the piston housing can cause one of three undesired conditions

Piston Restriction in the Desired Mode

If something gets into or covers the orifice bored into the piston it can cause a restriction resulting in low evaporator pressure, low suction, high superheat and normal to high subcool. When a piston is restricted and the system is a heat pump with a liquid line filter/drier properly installed, we will often alternate the system into cool and heat and see if that will break free the contaminants and catch it in the line drier. Otherwise, the piston should be removed, inspected and cleaned or replaced and a new line drier installed.

Keep in mind that some systems have a screen built into the piston housing inlet that can also block up. Look for this once the piston housing is disassembled.

Piston Bypassing (Overfeeding)

If the piston fails to seat properly it can overfeed the evaporator in the same way it would if the system had a larger bore size than it should. This will result in high suction pressure, low superheat and low subcooling. In these cases, the piston should be removed and inspected for proper bore size and signs of contamination around the outside or near the seal surfaces of the piston and the housing.

Opposite Mode Piston Restriction 

In some cases, a heat pump piston may fail to fully unseat in the opposite mode. This will result in a pressure drop and an undesired restriction similar to a clogged liquid line filter drier.  In this case there will be a clear temperature drop across that piston when there should be little to none.

For example, if you are running a system in cooling and you notice frost starting to form on the liquid line side of the outdoor, heat mode piston housing, you can be sure it is restricting in the opposite direction. Sometimes this can be resolved by switching back and forth from heat to cool a few times but often it will require disassembly and inspection.

This condition is similar to what happens when an external TXV check valve fails.

In Closing

A piston is a simple little hunk of brass, it drives me nuts when a tech incompletes a call so that someone can “replace a failed piston”. A piston doesn’t just fail, if one does have an issue it’s either the wrong size or something got into it and got stuck in it or caused it to stop seating properly. Many of these issues lead back to improper vacuum, failing to flow nitrogen, getting copper shavings or sand in the system etc…

Every good residential tech should have a little plastic container with various brands and sizes of piston in it in case you find one that is the wrong size or worn down from improper seating. I may be a little late to the game here since pistons are a dying breed but they are simple enough that a return trip for a “failed piston” seems like a huge waste.

— Bryan

The piston (fixed orifice) and TXV (Thermostatic Expansion Valve) are the two most common metering devices in use today, with some modern systems utilizing an electronically controlled metering device called an EEV (Electronic Expansion Valve).  It should at least be noted that there are other types of fixed orifice metering devices like capillary tubes, but their use is not common on most modern A/C systems though you will see them in refrigeration.

While the compressor creates the pressure differential to get the refrigerant moving, by decreasing the pressure on the suction and increasing the pressure on the discharge side, the purpose of the metering device is to create a pressure drop between the liquid line and the evaporator coil or expansion line (the line between the metering device and the evaporator when there is one). When the high-pressure liquid refrigerant is fed into the metering device on the inlet the refrigerant flows out the other side and the immediate pressure drop results in an expansion of a percentage of the liquid directly to vapor known as “flashing”. The amount of refrigerant that “flashes” depends on the difference in temperature between the liquid entering the metering device and the boiling temperature of the refrigerant in the evaporator. If the difference is greater, more refrigerant will be “flashed” immediately and if the difference is less than less refrigerant will be flashed.

Piston

A piston is a replaceable metering device with a fixed “bore”. It is essentially a piece of brass with a hole in the center, the smaller the bore the less refrigerant flows through the piston and vice versa. The advantage of a piston is that it is simple and it can still be removed, the bore size changed and cleaned if required.

piston_flow

Some piston systems also allow the reverse flow of refrigerant as shown in the diagram to the above. In a heat pump system when the reversing valve is energized (cool mode), the unit will run in cool mode and the refrigerant will follow the path indicated on the bottom.  This seats the piston so refrigerant must pass through the orifice.  With the reversing valve de-energized the flow reverses.  This unseats the piston and allows the free flow of refrigerant.  In this case, there is a metering device in the condensing unit (outside unit) that meters the flow of refrigerant in heat mode and one inside that meters in cooling mode.

TXV

The TXV can vary the amount of refrigerant flow through the evaporator by opening and closing in response to evaporator heat load.  compared to a fixed orifice a TXV operates more efficiently in varying environmental conditions (theoretically at least).

To operate, the TXV has a needle and seat that restricts the flow of refrigerant and acts as the orifice.  This needle, when opened, allows more refrigerant to flow and, when closed, restricts refrigerant flow.  There are three factors that affect the flow of refrigerant flow through a TXV.  A sensing bulb filled with refrigerant exerts force to open the TXV.  Since gas pressure increases with a rise in temperature, the bulb, which is attached to the suction line after the evaporator coil, “senses” the temperature of the suction line.  If the suction line becomes too warm, the additional pressure created by the heated refrigerant opens the TXV more to allow additional refrigerant flow.  A spring inside the bottom of the TXV exerts pressure to close the valve.  An external equalizer senses pressure in the suction line after the evaporator, and also works to close the valve. In essence, the TXV is a constant superheat device, it sets a (relatively) constant superheat at the evaporator outlet by balancing bulb, spring and equalizer pressures.

The primary method of charging a system changes based on the type of metering device. A piston system uses the superheat method of charging and the TXV uses the subcooling method of charging.

No matter what primary method of charging you use it is still important to monitor suction pressure (Evap temperature) head (condensing temperature), Superheat, subcool and delta t (or some other method of air flow verification).

While a TXV and a piston function differently the end result is a pressure drop and boiling refrigerant in the evaporator.

— Bryan

We get a lot of questions about both evacuation procedure and TXVs so last week we produced videos on both topics including –

  • Before and after testing of piston vs. TXV
  • Using the Bluvac Measurequick app
  • Use of core remover tools for evacuation
  • flowing nitrogen process
  • creating an external equalizer port and much more

If you haven’t hit subscribe on our YouTube channel yet would you mind taking the time to do it today? it would be greatly appreciated. You can do that HERE 

P.S. – I will be at the Rectorseal booth 2545 in Chicago at the AHR conference on January 23rd at 2PM demonstrating the new Pro-Fit flaring tool. If you are at AHR come by and see me and sign up for a chance to win a free Pro-fit!

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