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Condensation in Plate Heat Exchangers

Increases the Efficiency and Pressure Drop

Dr.-Ing. Edgar Beck

A major advantage of plate heat exchangers for heat recovery from extract air is that
the supply and extract air streams are isolated from each other. Transmission of dirt,
odours or moisture does not take place. Nevertheless, plate heat exchangers can use
part of the latent heat in moist extract air through condensation.
The question, however, to what extent the heat recovery efficiency is actually raised
with condensation is a controversial issue in practice. Different manufacturers claim
different values, some of which exceed physical limits. Whilst theoretical calculations
are still awaiting confirmation through neutral, reproducible test results, the European
Plate Heat Exchanger Association (EPHEA) has had 6 plate heat exchanger models
tested at the Luzern University of Technology and Architecture in February and
March 2000. The test results are described and interpreted below.

1. Condensation in the extract air

At low outside temperatures – when heat demand is highest – the fresh air cools down
the extract air to such a degree that the saturation temperature is reached and
condensation is formed. Thus the latent heat of evaporation is released.
With condensation not only the heat output but also the pressure drop of heat
exchangers is raised. In principle, this applies for all types of heat recovery units – i.e.
for recuperative as well as regenerative systems. As for plate heat exchangers the
following details are important:

Heat recovery efficiency

In Germany the VDI 2071 standard [1] defines a heat recovery efficiency Φ for each,
the supply and the extract air stream (also referred to as heat recovery figure):

t – t12
Φ1 = 11
t11 – t 21

t – t 21
Φ 2 = 22
t11 – t 21

With equal mass flows (m1 = m2) and constant absolute humidity (x1 = const.; x2 =
const.) the two heat recovery figures are the same (Φ1 = Φ2) [2]. But with conden-
sation in the extract air the situation looks different. In this case latent heat of
condensation is released, reducing further cooling of the extract air stream (figure 1).
As a result, the temperature difference between the two air streams is greater and
more heat is transmitted. In addition, also the heat transfer from the extract air to the
plate is increased with condensation, which likewise improves heat transmission. Thus
the cold air is heated more than in dry operation for two reasons and the overall heat
recovery efficiency Φ2w = Φ2d + ∆Φ2 increases accordingly.

Fig. 1:
Condensation in the hx diagram

The extent of this increase primarily depends on the dry heat recovery efficiency of the
plate heat exchanger and on the amount of condensate, in other words on the inlet
conditions of fresh air and extract air.

Since in practice the exit temperature of the fresh air stream is the deciding factor for
sizing the heater battery, design calculations almost always use the heat recovery
efficiency Φ2. Therefore the following considerations take into account only Φ2,
assuming equal mass flows (m1 = m2) and plate heat exchangers in the cross-flow

Diagram 1 shows the dependence of the heat recovery increase ∆Φ2 on extract air
humidity and dry heat recovery efficiency (relating to an extract air temperature of
20 °C and a fresh air temperature of –10 °C). The following points become clear:
• The heat recovery increase strongly depends on extract air humidity. The higher
the humidity, i.e. the more condensation takes place, the higher is the heat
recovery increase.
• The curve for 100 % relative air humidity represents the physical limit; it is not
relevant in practice. However, it clearly shows that the heat recovery increase first
grows with the dry heat recovery figure and then drops again. This is because the
total heat recovery efficiency Φ2w cannot exceed 100 %.
• With common extract air humidities of less than 50 % a certain minimum dry heat
recovery efficiency is required for the occurrence of condensation. Thus low heat
recovery efficiencies cannot be improved with little or no condensation. In other
words: For an optimum utilisation of condensation heat a dry heat recovery
efficiency of more than 50 % is required.

Heat recovery increase with condensation

(Representation of principle)
Extract air temperature t11 = 20°C
Fresh air temperature t21 = -10°C
Mass flow ratio m2/m1 = 1

Heat recovery increase DF2

(% points)



0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
Dry heat recovery efficiency Fd (%)

Diagram 1: Heat recovery increase with condensation

In cross-flow plate heat exchangers condensation generally occurs only in the «cold
corner» due to the uneven temperature pattern across the plates (figure 2); only when
the extract air humidity is extremely high can condensation be expected all over the
plates [3].

Figure 2:
Condensation Condensation is formed in the
in the cold corner
«cold corner».

Pressure drop
In case of condensation, drops or a water film are formed on the extract air side. This
reduces the free area of the airway. As a result, the slot velocity and pressure drop
increase. This fact is often neglected in design calculations although, with common
extract air conditions, pressure drop may well amount to 150 % of the dry value.

Freezing hazard
Under extreme conditions, i.e. with very low outside temperatures, the condensate
may freeze and possibly put the heat recovery unit out of order. There is plenty of
manufacturers’ information and literature on this subject [4].

In air handling units it is essential that the condensation is separated from the air
stream, collected and drained off. This may necessitate condensate eliminators but at
least requires collection trays and properly sized drain pipes with a trap. To avoid the
transmission of condensate from the extract air to the supply air, a pressure gradient
from the supply to the extract side should be provided.

2. Design problems

Even though the effects of condensation in the extract air are common knowledge
among experts the conclusions drawn are often exaggerated and the claimed high
heat recovery figures bear no comparison with practical experience. It is easily
understood why this is the case:

• In most countries heat recovery design calculations are based on the lowest
outside temperature, to allow correct sizing of the heater battery. Therefore many
calculation programs for heat recovery units disclose only the heat recovery
efficiency Φ2w valid under these conditions, calculated from the dry value Φ2d and
the increase with condensation ∆Φ2.

• Some manufacturers of heat exchangers overestimate the influence of

condensation on heat recovery; this way they obtain respectable Φ2w values. And,
except for extreme cases, these can hardly be proved wrong by theoretical

• Another common cause of too high heat recovery efficiencies are the assumed
extract air conditions. In spite of the dry fresh air at low outside temperatures the
extract air humidity is often greatly overestimated. As a result, too much
condensate in the extract air and consequently too high heat recovery figures are
calculated. (Therefore, to be on the safe side when sizing the heater battery, the
dry heat recovery efficiency should be used. This is also recommended for
conservative economic calculations).

3. Testing

In February and March 2000 four member companies of the European Plate Heat
Exchanger Association EPHEA had six plate heat exchangers of different designs
tested under condensing conditions. The dry heat recovery efficiencies ranged
between 46 % and 55 %, the pressure drops (dry) between 64 Pa and 350 Pa (see
table 1).
The tests were carried out on the test rig of the Luzern University of Technology and
Architecture in Horw (Switzerland). To our knowledge this is the only test rig in Europe
that meets the EN308 test standard for heat exchangers [5]. The arrangement of
tested units corresponds to common practice and is shown in figure 3.

Cold corner

Fig. 3:
Arrangement of tested

For reasons of time and money it is not possible to perform tests for all air conditions
relevant in practice. Yet meaningful measured values allow the verification of design
data (diagrams or computer programs). For this reason two test series have been
performed on each exchanger:
• Variation of the extract air humidity between 45 % and 75 % at constant extract air
and fresh air temperatures (t11 = 25 °C, t21 = 0°C)
• Variation of the fresh air temperature between 0 °C and –10 °C at constant extract
air conditions (25 °C and 45 %)

Inside Dry heat recov- Dry pressure
Tested Design Plate size
plate spacing ery efficiency drop ∆pd
unit principle (mm x mm)
(mm) Φ2d (%) (Pa)

1 550 x 550 4.00 50 165

2 484 x 484 3.46 55 350

3 581 x 581 5.13 48 190

4 500 x 500 5.00 47 155

5 790 x 790 7.50 46 64

6 790 x 790 3.50 56 230

Table 1: Characteristics of tested units

4. Test results

The results of each exchanger are listed in a test report from the Luzern University of
Technology and Architecture [6].

The heat recovery efficiencies Φ2w are given in absolute values for each test point (at
a mass flow ratio of 1.0), i.e. no distinction is made between the dry and wet heat
recovery efficiency.
Pressure drops of the plate heat exchangers were tested on a separate test rig
specifically designed to measure pressure drop accurately and are given in relation to
the air flow rate. Pressure drop increase with condensation was tested on the test rig
designed for accurate heat recovery efficiency measurements. This test rig can only
give approximate values for pressure drop.

Heat recovery increase depending on humidity

Diagram 2 shows the results of all tested units as a function of extract air humidity.
The following can be recognised:
• All plate heat exchangers show the same characteristic behaviour and (within the
tolerance range) equal values. This means that the heat recovery increase with
condensation is the same for all exchanger designs. Any differences are smaller
than measuring tolerances.
• Variations of the heat recovery increase for dry heat recovery figures ranging
between 45 % and 55 % are negligible. (This does not apply for extreme values,
i.e. for very low or very high dry heat recovery figures.)

Increase of the heat recovery efficiency

with condensation
Extract air temperature t11 = 25°C
Fresh air temperature t21 = 0°C
Mass flow ratio m2/m1 = 1
Heat recovery increase DF2

(% points)

20 30 40 50 60 70 80
Relative extract air humidity f11 (%)

Diagram 2: Heat recovery increase with condensation depending on extract air humidity

Heat recovery increase depending on fresh air temperature
Diagram 3 again shows all test results. The following facts can be seen:
• Likewise this test series shows that the heat recovery increase does not depend on
the design principle. All exchangers yield similar results.
• The influence of fresh air temperature is less strong than that of extract air

Increase of the heat recovery efficiency

with condensation
Extract air humidity t11 = 25°C
Rel. extract air humidity f11 = 45%
Mass flow ratio m2/m1 = 1

Heat recovery increase DF2

(% points)

-12 -10 -8 -6 -4 -2 0 2 4
Fresh air temperature t21 (°C)

Diagram 3: Heat recovery increase with condensation depending on fresh air


Pressure drop increase depending on condensation
The pressure drop of all tested plate heat exchangers increased with condensation; a
trend curve is shown in diagram 4. Unlike heat recovery increase, pressure drop
increase does depend on the exchanger design because it is determined by
• the plate spacing,
• the pressure drop in dry condition,
• the fitting position (where is the cold corner?),
• the design principle.

The relative increase of the pressure drop ∆p1 was found to range between 20 % and
50 %; it is strongly dependent on the extract air humidity.
From practical experience it is known that with high extract air humidity and low
outside temperature, i.e. with big condensate amounts, the pressure drop may well
rise to twice its initial value.

Pressure drop increase

with condensation
Extract air temperature t11 = 25°C
Fresh air temperature t21 = 0°C
Mass flow ratio m2/m1 = 1
Relative pressure drop increase (%)





20 30 40 50 60 70
Relative extract air humidity f11 (%)

Diagram 4: Pressure drop increase with condensation

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5. Conclusions

The following conclusions can be drawn from these test results:

• The heat recovery increase with condensation is not dependent on the design
• The test results make it possible to examine the manufacturers’ calculation
methods with condensation, i.e. under test conditions the heat recovery increase
must correspond to the values indicated in diagrams 2 and 3 (tolerance max.
± 1 percentage point).
• Even if a calculation method corresponds well with the test results it is not
necessarily ensured that it also yields correct results in extreme cases. Checks are
– for very low heat recovery efficiencies (Does condensation occur at all?)
– for very high heat recovery efficiencies and high air humidities (Do the
calculated values possibly exceed 100 %?)
It is advisable to calculate curves for the heat recovery increase depending on the
dry heat recovery figure and to compare this with the principles shown in
diagram 1.
• To make the influence of condensation apparent, design documentation should
indicate the wet heat recovery efficiency Φ2w as well as the dry heat recovery
efficiency Φ2d.
• A note about the pressure drop increase with condensation must be contained in
design documentation.
• The extract air conditions assumed in design calculations should be scrutinised.

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[1] VDI 2071: Wärmerückgewinnung in RLT-Anlagen, 1997, Beuth Verlag Berlin

[2] B e c k E . : Zum Problem mit den Rückwärmzahlen, HLH 39 (1988) Nr. 5,
VDI Verlag GmbH, Düsseldorf
[3] A m m a n n J . : EDV-unterstützte Berechnung von Kreuzstrom-Plattenwärme-
austauschern, HLH 1991 Nr. 10, VDI Verlag GmbH, Düsseldorf
[4] B e c k E . : Über das Einfrieren von Plattenwärmeaustauschern, HLH 1992 Nr. 7,
VDI Verlag GmbH, Düsseldorf
[5] F r e i B . , F u r t e r F . und E g o l f P . : Neuer WRG-Prüfstand am Zentral-
schweizerischen Technikum Luzern, Heizung Klima 1995 Nº 11, AZ Fachverlage
AG, Aarau
[6] HP 0009/1, HP 0010, HP 0012, HP 0018/1: Prüfberichte der Prüfstelle HLK der
Hochschule Technik und Architektur (HTA) Luzern, 2000

Explanation of symbols

Symbol Explanation Unit

Φ Heat recovery efficiency – or %

t Temperature K or °C

m Mass flow kg/h or kg/s

x Absolute humidity g/kg

f Relative humidity %

∆Φ Heat recovery increase %

∆p Pressure drop Pa

w wet, i.e. with condensation
d dry, i.e. without condensation
1st Index: 1 Extract air
2 Fresh air
2nd Index: 1 Plate heat exchanger entry
2 Plate heat exchanger exit

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