Understanding the tradeoffs between portable chillers and central systems can help extruders choose the right chiller -- or chiller combination -- for their plants.

A series of sizing fixtures are cooled with chilled water. As the extruded profile (shown in the photo entering from the right) moves through the fixtures, the final shape is maintained while heat is removed and the plastic solidifies.

Like many other processes, plastic extrusion requires a substantial amount of cooling capacity. During processing, the plastic is heated, melted and extruded through the die. It then must be cooled so that it will solidify into its new shape. In profile extrusion -- the process used to make siding and other plastic shapes -- the heat removal takes place in sizing fixtures and cooling tanks downstream from the die. Other extrusion processes use chill rolls or even cool air. Regardless of the cooling method and location, one basic fact remains: The faster the heat can be removed, the faster the extrusion line can run. For this reason, rapid heat transfer is crucial to plant efficiency and profitability.

So, what kind of cooling system is best for plastic extrusion -- a central chilled water system or multiple portable chillers? Both approaches offer certain benefits. Portable chillers require plumbing that is less complicated and less costly; they allow the processor to accommodate widely variable processing temperatures; and they are “safer” than a central system, in that the failure of one unit will not shut down an entire plant.

By contrast, for operations that use similar temperatures for all applications, a central system will require less operating tonnage for a comparably sized plant, occupy less floor space, and involve less equipment that needs to be maintained. As a general rule, any plant in which 80 percent of the materials are processed within a ±5°F (±3°C) temperature range can consider a central chilling system. However, keep in mind that the chiller must be sized to deliver the lowest required temperature. If just one material runs 10°F (5.5°C) below the others, the system must be sized to deliver that temperature and will actually be oversized for the vast majority of processing requirements. Also, a system will require 2 percent more capacity per degree when operating below the nominal rating of 50°F (10°C). In other words, running a material at 40°F (4.4°C) will require 20 percent more (essentially wasted) capacity than running the material at 50°F. In such circumstances, it might be more sensible to size the central system for all but the lowest temperatures and use portable chillers for those special materials.

Table 1. When determining the required chiller capacity, it is necessary to specify which materials will likely be run on which extruders.

Running the Numbers

Consider this scenario at an imaginary profile extrusion house, Hypothetical Extrusions Inc., to better understand the logistic and economic issues that come into play when selecting a chiller system. HEI has 16 extruders: two 6''; six 4.5''; six 3.5''; and two 2.5'' lines. The company processes four different materials: polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). While in this example HEI is a profile extruder, the following analysis would be the same for a film or sheet extruder. Chill rolls and bubble cooling would present slightly different loads, but the outcome would be much the same.

Admittedly, it would be unusual for a plant of this size to consider only portable chillers, but we will make that assumption to illustrate the tradeoffs between portable and central units. In addition, a variety of chiller options might be considered in an actual installation, depending on where the plant is location and the availability and cost of water. However, to simplify the analysis, assume that HEI is considering just two options: a system of air-cooled portable chillers, or a central water system that incorporates a single air-cooled, central chiller.

Capacity.As HEI's management begins to weigh various cooling options, it needs to look at the total chilling load of the extrusions. Different materials run at different temperatures and have different specific heats -- that is, they give up the heat required for processing at different rates. Therefore, HDPE, for instance, will require a larger chiller than PS running at the same production rate. These rates and capacities are well established. Table 1 shows the chiller capacity required by the machines and materials being run at Hypothetical Extrusions.

When determining the required chiller capacity, it is necessary to specify what materials will likely be run on which extruders. For the purpose of this illustration, assume that each line will require an average of all possible capacities. Using these averages, the calculation for total cooling required would be:

(12.4 x 2) + (5.8 x 6) + (4.6 x 6) + (4.3 x 2) = 95.8 tons of chiller capacity

Table 2. Each portable chiller must be sized to handle the most challenging material. Hypothetical Extrusions would need to use the loads required for polypropylene or high-density polyethylene.

Cooling Requirements.To simplify the example analysis, we will consider only the profile cooling load exerted on the water cooling system. Input heat from vacuum pumps, water spray pumps, uninsulated baths and piping losses, along with extruder barrel or gearbox cooling loads, should be included in calculations for a real plant, but they are insignificant enough to be ignored in this calculation.

The capacity calculations have shown that HEI needs 95.8 tons of chiller capacity when operating at full capacity. Of course, HEI will rarely, if ever, operate at full capacity across the plant. Like most typical extrusion operations, HEI often will have one or more lines down for maintenance or a product change, and even those lines that are running might be operating at a slower speed or with a material requiring less than peak cooling.

However, while it is unlikely that all machines will run at peak load all the time, it is quite likely that any one of the lines will be operating at peak at any given time. For this reason, if portable chillers are used, they must be sized for peak load. By contrast, if a central water system is chosen, it can safely be sized to match whatever load may be reasonably expected -- say, 90 percent of theoretical peak load.

Hot-Gas Bypass.Because portable chillers can be moved easily from place to place, a smaller chiller theoretically could be used any time a given extrusion line is not operating at peak load. This would be true if the processor has a sufficient number of portables of various capacities to match the changing loads around the plant. Even under the best of circumstances, however, chances are good that the chiller will be somewhat oversized and will need to unload some of its capacity. To maintain the proper temperature, therefore, portable chillers usually are designed to induce an artificial load instead. In other words, if the process requires only 85 percent of rated cooling capacity, the chiller will induce the other 15 percent using a hot-gas bypass.

For example, if HEI has a portable chiller that is sized for a 12-ton load, and the process actually only requires 9 tons, then the chiller needs to “lose” 3 tons of cooling by using a hot-gas bypass. But, operating costs are based on actual capacity, so there is a cost associated with those “lost” tons. For this air-cooled chiller, the annual cost of those 3 extra tons would be roughly $1,125/year.

By contrast, a central chiller usually is designed for compressor unloading and can more accurately match output to demand at any given time. Thus, the chiller only needs to handle the actual process load -- not the process load plus the load induced by hot-gas bypass.

Table 3. In this analysis for Hypothetical Extrusions, the equipment is configured to match the requirements of “high intensity” spray tanks. The total installed cost for portable chillers would be $297,850, and the annual operating cost would be $105,200.

Hypothetical Extrusions' Investment

Having looked at some of the factors that enter into a portable vs. central decision, it is time to consider some equipment and operating costs that HEI might face.

Portable Chiller Analysis.Table 2 summarizes the cooling loads presented by the different machines in the HEI plant, while Table 3 details the costs associated with installing and operating portable air-cooled chillers. All figures are approximate, and installation costs are factored in as 10 percent of the equipment cost.

Central Chiller Analysis.First, as previously noted, a central chiller usually does not need to be sized for 100 percent of theoretical load. Most companies will still size the chiller for 100 percent or more, but for the HEI example, assume that operating costs will never reflect 100 percent loading.

Second, because central chillers are sized without taking external pumps into account, the additional load that these pumps induce must be anticipated. A plant the size of HEI would likely require a pump tank with two pumps -- about 20 hp for the process pump and 10 hp for the recirculation pump. Pumps add heat to the system at a rate equivalent to 0.2 tons per horsepower, so our central chiller will need to deliver 6 tons of cooling capacity over and above the actual process load to handle the pump heat load.

Finally, the extra load caused by providing 35°F (1.67°C) water, which is required for PVC extrusion, must be taken into account. Factoring in the 2 percent per degree below 50°F rule mentioned earlier, the central chiller must be de-rated by approximately 30 percent.

Table 4. For Hypothetical Extrusions, the installed cost for a central water system would be $212,850, and the annual operating costs would be $92,000.

So, starting with an anticipated process load of 95.8 tons, HEI needs to add 6 tons for the pump load and then reduce the total by 10 percent on the assumption that the full load will never be realized. Then, assuming the chiller capacity must be de-rated by 30 percent, HEI can conclude that it would require a 156-ton air-cooled central chiller. This air-cooled chiller with an associated pump tank would cost roughly $92,000 to operate annually.

Table 4 shows the central water system costs for HEI. Again, equipment and operating costs are approximate. Because the installation of a central system requires more costly plumbing and permanent wiring, installation was factored in as 100 percent of the equipment cost.

Table 5 directly compares the equipment and operating costs of a portable vs. central cooling system. Even with dramatically higher installation costs, the central system offers considerable long-term savings over the portable system.

Table 5. Even with dramatically higher installation costs, the central system offers considerable long-term savings over the portable system.

The Right Chiller

Like Hypothetical Extrusions, some companies might find that a central system is less expensive to purchase and less costly to operate than individual portable chillers. However, this will not always be the case. While this particular scenario appears to favor a central water system, it is just as likely that multiple portable chillers could be the right choice in another plant. Additionally, almost all plants that use a central system will have at least a few portable chillers for emergencies or to handle processes that run outside the temperature range of the central system.

Determining which combination of central or portable chiller capacity is right for a given plant can be a difficult task. Water flow and pressure, for instance, are at least as important as cooling capacity, and plant layout and piping distances need to be analyzed for optimum efficiency.