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Control and Optimization Issues

Associated with Algorithm-Controlled
Refrigerant Throttling Devices
Donal P. Finn, Ph.D., C.Eng. Cormac J. Doyle
Member ASHRAE Student Member ASHRAE

ABSTRACT by an electromagnetic actuated pulse valve. In either case,

optimization of evaporator heat transfer is achieved by micro-
Control and optimization of refrigerant expansion in
processor-based algorithm control in conjunction with evap-
vapor compression systems have traditionally been achieved
orator parameter measurement. For proprietary systems, the
by either capillary or thermostatic throttling valves. In recent
precise control strategies utilized in the expansion algorithms
years, the emergence of algorithm-controlled throttling valves
have for commercial reasons not been disclosed. Accordingly,
or electronic expansion valves has provided an alternative
methodology by which refrigerant expansion can be regulated. research studies to date have largely reported on comparative
To date, however, the precise nature of the control algorithms tests that have benchmarked the performance of proprietary
utilized by electronic expansion valves has largely been EEVs against conventional expansion devices such as ther-
proprietary knowledge and thus has not been widely reported mostatic or capillary valves (Mitsui 1987; Tassou and Al-
in the literature. In this paper, the development of a custom Nizari 1993; Hewitt et al. 1995). These studies have broadly
algorithm-regulated expansion valve is described. Control indicated that under transient and nonlinear operating condi-
algorithms for refrigerant expansion are implemented via a tions, EEVs can offer improved performance characteristics
building energy management system that is interfaced with a compared to capillary or thermostatic valves.
pulse-actuated throttling valve. Two control strategies are In this paper, control and optimization issues associated
investigated: a modulated proportional-width algorithm and with algorithm-controlled refrigerant expansion devices are
a modulated proportional-integral-derivative algorithm. examined. This research was originally motivated by the
Performance of the prototype valves is benchmarked against requirement to develop from first principles custom control
two reference throttling devices: a conventional thermostatic algorithms that could be implemented via a building energy
expansion valve and a commercial electronic expansion valve. management (BEM) system, such that direct control of a large
Experimental testing under conditions of automatic control number of vapor compression installations within a single site
and adaptive control are examined. Algorithm tuning issues could be possible. Accordingly, optimization of evaporator
are discussed. heat transfer through real-time regulation of refrigerant
expansion was essential. Two pulse-based electromagnetic
INTRODUCTION throttling devices were developed in this work; a non-modu-
The utilization of electronic expansion valves (EEVs) for lated device and modulated device. The non-modulated throt-
the control and optimization of evaporator heat transfer has tling device controls refrigerant flow rate using a simple on-
provided a promising alternative to traditional capillary and off cycle that utilizes proportional-only control. The modu-
thermostatic mechanisms (Tassou and Al-Nizari 1993). lated-pulse valve exploits full proportional-integral-deriva-
Commercially available EEVs typically consist of a micropro- tive (PID) control, thereby allowing optimization of
cessor-controlled throttling valve where refrigerant flow is evaporator heat transfer to be achieved through real-time algo-
regulated by either a stepper-motor actuated needle valve or rithm control of refrigerant expansion. Initial research

Donal P. Finn is a lecturer and Cormac J. Doyle is a student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University College Dublin, Dublin,

part without written permission of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc., 1791 Tullie Circle, NE, Atlanta, GA 30329.
Opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASHRAE. Written
questions and comments regarding this paper should be received at ASHRAE no later than February 18, 2000.
compared the performance of the two prototype systems erable potential still exists for the development of algorithm-
subject to preset algorithm parameter values. Further investi- controlled throttling valves in domains such as industrial
gation focused on the modulated valve and examined evapo- refrigeration, transport refrigeration, and air-conditioning
rator performance subject to automatic and adaptive control. systems.


Two streams of relevant work are evident from the liter- The experimental system utilized in this work consists of
ature. One body of work has examined the performance of a standard commercial cold room with approximate interior
commercial EEV units with conventional throttle valve dimensions of 2 m × 3 m × 2.5 m. A direct expansion cross-
systems, most typically thermostatic devices (Mitsui 1987; flow air evaporator capable of cooling the space to −35°C and
Tassou and Al-Nizari 1993; Hewitt et al. 1995). In all cases, rated at 4.0 kW at −30°C/45°C evaporating/condensing
research results indicate that proprietary EEV systems offer conditions is employed. The facility, which is fully instru-
more efficient operation, particularly under nonuniform mented, has recently been retrofitted from refrigerant R-502
conditions, thereby providing significant energy savings over to R-402A. Experimental measurements include compressor
conventional systems. It is worth noting, however, that none of suction and discharge pressures, refrigerant flow rate, evapo-
these studies examines the issue of algorithm design or evap- rator inlet and outlet temperatures, cold room and ambient air
orator heat transfer optimization. Nevertheless, Hewitt et al. temperatures, as well as compressor electrical consumption.
(1995) conclude that improved algorithm design can lead to All experimental measurements are recorded by the building
better expansion control and improved evaporator heat trans- energy management (BEM) system, which is interfaced with
fer performance. a personal computer.
More relevant to the current work is research that
Controller Hardware
concerns itself directly with the development of control algo-
rithms for integration with EEV systems. Outtergarts et al. Of particular relevance to this research is the throttle-
(1997) examines the transient response of a glycol evaporator evaporator combination illustrated in Figure 1. This
controlled by means of a stepper motor actuated, needle throt- subsystem facilitates parallel refrigerant flow, thereby allow-
tling valve. Two control algorithms are presented: a propor- ing comparison of the algorithm-controlled throttling devices
tional-derivative algorithm and a qualitative optimal developed in this work against the benchmark throttling
regulation algorithm. Outtergarts et al. establish optimal devices. Two custom throttling devices were developed, a PID
values for the various control parameters and examine vapor (proportional-integral-derivative) modulated pulse unit (EC1)
compression system response characteristics subject to step and a pulse-width modulated unit (EC2). The two benchmark
changes in compressor operating speed. Chia et al. (1997) devices included a thermostatic expansion valve (TEV) and a
examine the control of evaporator superheat in transport proprietary electronic expansion valve (EEV). For operational
refrigeration systems using an algorithm-controlled EEV that details of each of the key components, see Figure 1.
exploits fuzzy logic. Tests are carried out comparing the fuzzy Electro-magnetic throttling valve assembly (SV): The unit
controlled system with a commercial system. Results indicate consists of an in-line changeable orifice throttling assembly
that the fuzzy logic EEV system provides more robust control with a pulsing armature regulated by means of a 220 DC sole-
with respect to dynamic loading, particularly during transient noid coil.
evaporator pull-down. Bartlett et al. (1997) examines steady- Modulated-PID throttling valve (EC1): This unit, illus-
state and transient control using a modified proprietary elec- trated in Figure 2, utilizes a proportional burst-fire relay,
tronic expansion valve for an automotive air-conditioning switching a solid-state relay in conjunction with the electro-
application. He et al. (1998) present a MIMO (multiple input/ magnetic throttling valve assembly (SV). A four-second oper-
multiple output) feedback control model based on a lumped- ational period is employed based on a 200-cycle sequence at
parameter dynamic model. This work is motivated by the 50 Hz. Control is via a 0-10V DC signal produced by the build-
requirement to demonstrate that evaporator heat transfer could ing energy management system (BEM). Fully modulated PID
be optimized more satisfactorily by multiple parameter operation between 20 and 380 cycles is possible. Outside this
control compared to single parameter control (such as super- range, the operation is nonlinear.
heat). He et al. (1998) successfully implement a gain-sched- Pulse-width throttling valve (EC2): This unit exploits
uling scheme for a wide variety of operating conditions, such pulse-width modulation action that utilizes a seven-second
that controller gain can be easily determined at different oper- period with a minimum actuation time of one second. Propor-
ating points. tional control based on single-second increments is utilized.
Concluding, it is evident that published research that has The controller is coupled with the electromagnetic throttling
focused on algorithm development for electronic expansion valve assembly (SV).
valve systems is limited. Furthermore, any commercial devel- Commercial electronic expansion valve (EEV): An EEV
opment of EEV systems has primarily targeted retail and system from a leading manufacturer based on proportional-
commercial market refrigeration units. Accordingly, consid- integral regulation (PI) is utilized as a benchmark test. Propor-

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Figure 1 Evaporator and throttling subsystem.

Figure 2 Modulated-PID throttling valve.

tional control regulates valve opening according to superheat. Controller Software and BEM System Integration
The integral mode helps eliminate any proportional offset. The BEM system acts as both a monitoring and controller
The integral mode integrates error over time and adds the facility for the vapor compression system. It consists of a
weighted result to the controller output. The controller is inter- monitor/controller module (UC16) with 16 analogue inputs/
faced with the electromagnetic throttling valve assembly outputs, a communications module (UCC) that is interfaced
(SV). with a PC. For the two prototype controllers (EC1 and EC2),
Thermostatic expansion valve (TEV): This is a standard the control algorithms are implemented via the PC on the
externally equalized TEV that uses proportional regulation BEM system. For testing on the commercial EEV system, the
between superheat and level of valve opening. The valve is BEM system acts as a monitoring facility only.
fitted with a slightly larger orifice than the electromagnetic The prime function of the controller software is to regu-
throttling valve assembly (SV). late against changes in load. Figure 3 illustrates a block

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Figure 3 Schematic representation of controller system.

diagram of the controller algorithm. Evaporator superheat is with a uniform pulldown from +30°C cold start temperature.
the sole controlled variable; accordingly, evaporator inlet and Transient conditions persist until low pressure compressor
outlet temperatures are measured by the BEM system to calcu- cut-out occurs at a lower set point of −28°C. A restart set
late evaporator superheat. A superheat set point is established point of −23°C is utilized. Steady-state tests are based on the
either manually through the user interface (typically 6°C) or introduction of a 4 kW heat load once a one-hour period of
by the control algorithm by detection of the minimum stable cycling between the upper and lower set points has occurred.
superheat (MSS). MSS is defined as the superheat value at As the evaporator load is rated at 4 kW at −30°C, steady-state
which maximum evaporator heat transfer takes place (Huelle conditions persist under these conditions.
1998). Any further increase in liquid refrigerant supply will Three different testing programs were carried out as
result in a superheat value below the MSS, giving unstable follows:
evaporator behavior without any increase in evaporator heat
transfer. Two-phase refrigerant evaporation is assumed, and • Preliminary Comparative Studies: These studies
for these studies any pressure drop across the evaporator is focused on comparison of the two prototype valves
ignored. Two control approaches are utilized, automatic (EC1 and EC2) against the thermostatic and EEV
control and adaptive control. valves.
• Tuning and Automatic Control Studies: These studies
• Automatic control: The automatic controller utilizes focused on performance of the modulated PID throttling
user-input regulatory parameter values (proportional, valve under automatic control.
integral, and derivative) that regulate the degree of valve • Adaptive Control Studies: These studies examined the
opening. performance of the modulated PID throttling valve
• Adaptive control: The adaptive controller consists of under adaptive control conditions.
two control loops. An inner loop, which is the system
feedback loop, measures evaporator superheat in real PRELIMINARY COMPARATIVE STUDIES
time and compares it with the superheat setpoint. The Initial studies focused on comparison between the two
outer loop monitors cold room temperature, adjusts the prototype valves and the benchmark thermostatic and EEV
regulatory parameters, (proportional, integral, or deriva- valves. For these tests, the modulated PID unit operates with
tive values), and controls the degree of valve opening. proportional-only control.
Figure 4a illustrates steady-state performance where the
Experimental Procedure
4 kW electrical load is activated (at minute one) to provide
Experimental tests were carried out under either tran- steady-state operation. A cycle period of 120/400 is utilized
sient or steady-state conditions. Transient tests commence for the modulated pulse unit (EC1), whereas a 3/7 second

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Figure 4 Steady-state conditions: (a) cold room temperature and (b) evaporator superheat.

Figure 5 Transient operating conditions: (a) superheat 0-15 minutes, (b) superheat 15-50 minutes.

pulse basis is utilized for the pulse-width unit (EC2). The removes offset (superheat steady-state error), which is char-
difference in cold room air temperatures achieved by EC1 and acteristic of proportional-only control.
EC2 is attributed to the different proportional gain values
Transient tests were carried out under start-up conditions
associated with each valve. In both prototypes, the effect of
from a coldroom temperature of +30°C until the lower set
proportional control is evident and significant offsets are
observed. For the PI-regulated proprietary device (EEV), point of −28°C is reached. Figure 5 illustrates evaporator
proportional control achieves a lower setpoint, albeit with superheat from start-up to minute 15 and then on a different
additional on-off cycling of the system. scale from minute 15 to minute 55. In these tests, any pres-
sure drop across the evaporator is not accounted for; thus, a
Figure 4b illustrates the superheat recorded for the
difference exists between the real and apparent (measured)
steady-state conditions in Figure 4a. The pulse-width control-
ler (EC2) maintains an operational superheat with a cyclic superheat. This difference manifests itself as a negative
margin of ±1°C about its set point. The cyclic behavior is superheat value, which is evident in the initial start-up period
attributed to dynamic operation of the valve resulting from the associated with Figure 5. Examination of the superheat in the
one in seven (1/7) second pulsation period. The possibility of region 1-15 minutes reveals a higher value for the electroni-
hunting was considered and rejected as the valve is operating cally activated valves. This is attributed to the slightly
within a minimum stable superheat (MSS). Smaller fluctua- smaller orifice used in the electromagnetic valve assembly
tions (±0.2°C) are evident for the modulated pulse unit (EC1). compared to the thermostatic unit, which leads to a lower
The thermostatic valve (TEV) exhibits stable control but oper- evaporating pressure with a consequent reduction in refriger-
ates at a higher superheat level than the prototype valves, ant mass flow, thereby giving increased superheat. Another
which is attributed to its operation well outside its MSS. The point worth noting is that regulation of the TEV commences
proprietary valve (EEV) with integral control provides a earlier, at approximately 8 minutes, compared to EC1 at 12
smaller superheat with periodic on-off cycling. Integral action minutes, EEV at 14 minutes, and EC2 at 15 minutes.

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Considering transient operation between 15 and 50 where
minutes just before compressor shutdown, the nonmodulated KE = evaporator gain (dimensionless),
stepping action of the pulse throttling device (EC2) is evident, Td = evaporator time delay (s),
resulting in significant variation of up to ±2.0°C in evaporator τ = evaporator time constant (s).
superheat. The performance of controller EC1 is better with Two evaporator transfer functions were experimentally
determined for high load (HL) just after system start-up and
superheat fluctuations on the order of ±0.25°C. Some fluctu-
for low load (LL) just before system shutdown:
ation is to be expected as a fixed proportional value is utilized, High load:
whereas the evaporator load is changing dynamically through-
out the test. The TEV is observed to give stable performance; G(s) = (−0.098e-10s) / (1 + 20s)
however, as it is operating beyond the MSS, there is a rela- Low load:
tively high superheat. The proprietary electronic device grad-
ually reduces evaporator superheat toward 4°C as a result of G(s) = (−0.906e-10s) / (1 + 44s)
integral action. Using these evaporator transfer functions, it is possible to
determine appropriate proportional, integral, and derivative
The main conclusions that can be drawn from these
constants for the controller under different operating condi-
preliminary tests are (a) that the pulse-width valve (EC2) gives tions. Two tuning approaches were utilized: the well-known
poorer performance compared to the modulated unit (EC1), Ziegler-Nichols method and the Bekker method (Ziegler and
which is attributed to the nonmodulated nature of its control, Nichols 1942; Bekker et al. 1991).
and (b) that a combination of P, I, and D control is necessary The Ziegler-Nichols open loop tuning is based on relating
for optimization of evaporator performance, which is only the process parameters (delay time, process gain, and time
possible with the modulated PID valve (EC1). Accordingly, constant) to the controller parameters (controller gain and
further tests focused on controller tuning and evaporator opti- integral value).
mization associated with the modulated valve (EC1) under The Bekker approach focuses on a critically damped
response as it lends itself to root locus analysis. A critically
conditions of automatic and adaptive control.
damped response occurs when the roots of the system’s char-
acteristic equation make the transition from real to complex.
TUNING This transition, known as the breakaway point, can be found
from the system’s characteristic equation.
Tuning of the modulated pulse valve (EC1) is carried out Table 1 gives sample controller parameter values result-
using open loop response testing of the evaporator. Open loop ing for each of the two tuning approaches.
tuning is carried out by introducing different step changes in
the valve opening position and noting evaporator response AUTOMATIC CONTROL
characteristics. The evaporator is represented using a first Under conditions of automatic control, different values
order plus time delay model as follows: can be set for the proportional, integral, and derivative param-
eters by means of the BEM system. In this section, evaporator
response characteristics are examined subject to a variety of
KE e Td s
G ( s ) = ----------------- algorithm parameter settings. All tests were carried out using
1 + τs the PID modulated controller (EC1).

Automatic Control: Parameters Determined by the Ziegler-Nichols and Bekker Approaches

Controller Gain (P) Controller Integral (I) Controller Derivative (D)
Evaporator G(s) = (−0.098e-10s) G(s) = (−0.906e-10s) G(s) = (−0.098e-10s) G(s) = (−0.906e-10s) G(s) = (−0.098e-10s) G(s) = (−0.906e-10s)
transfer / (1 + 20s) / (1 + 44s) / (1 + 20s) / (1 + 44s) / (1 + 20s) / (1 + 44s)
P only 20.4 4.3
PI 18.4 3.9 33 33
PID 24.5 5.8 20 20 5 5
PI 7.5 1.8 20 44

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Evaporator Response Characteristics Subject Figure 7 shows the transient system response after
to Proportional-Only Control system start-up from ambient conditions. Two optimized
controller proportional gain values are utilized for low (Kp
Under conditions of proportional-only control, the evap-
= 4.3) and high (Kp = 20.4) evaporator load conditions.
orator response is exclusively dependent on the proportional
After an initial start-up period under open loop control (5
band of the controller. As an inverse relation exists between
the controller proportional gain and band, a large proportional minutes for Kp = 4.3, 15 minutes for Kp = 20.4), pulldown
gain results in a small proportional band. This is evident in of cold room temperature progresses until system cutout
Figure 6, where a set point target superheat of 6°C is utilized occurs (90 minutes for Kp = 4.3, 45 minutes for Kp = 20.4).
under steady-state conditions. For closed-loop control condi- Note that for low proportional gain values, the evaporator
tions, the controller proportional gain (Kp) is increased from response characteristics are stable but slow, with pulldown
10 to 22, giving a controlled superheat band between 6-16°C taking almost 90 minutes. For high proportional gain
and 6-10.5°C, respectively. It can be observed that as the values, however, pulldown is substantially faster (45
controller proportional gain (Kp) is increased, the controlled minutes) with a smaller superheat present throughout.
variable (superheat) becomes progressively more oscillatory.
However, under high proportional gain regulation, note that
Accordingly, for small proportional bands (high Kp), oscilla-
tion will be evident as the system is over responsive. Alterna- as the evaporator load decreases (after 25 minutes), the
tively, a wide proportional band (low Kp) leads to drift due to system response is observed to become more oscillatory.
lack of system responsiveness. For optimum conditions, a This can be attributed to overresponsiveness of the control-
narrow a band as possible should be chosen without causing ler due to the smaller proportional band associated with
oscillation. high proportional gain values.

Figure 6 Influence of proportional gain on system response.

Figure 7 Transient system response to proportional-only control: (a) Kp = 4.3, (b) Kp = 20.4.

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Figure 8 illustrates steady-state performance under low of 3.9 and 33 and 18.4 and 33, respectively. For low load
and high proportional gains (Kp = 4.3 and 20.4). Stable oper- conditions, it can be seen that the 6°C superheat set-point is
ation is observed under low gain values with a minimal vari- maintained with zero offset error until system cutout. For high
ation in room temperature and superheat. This is largely due load conditions, faster cold room pulldown is evident;
to the large superheat offset (steady-state error) associated however, once lower temperature conditions are reached,
with low proportional gain, leading to underutilization of the oscillation is evident in the superheat and the valve opening
evaporator but giving increased operational stability. At positions. In both cases, a zero set error in superheat is to be
higher gain values, oscillation of superheat and valve opening noted, reflecting integral control.
is evident, ultimately allowing lower coldroom temperatures Figure 10 shows evaporator response tuned using the
to be attained. Bekker control criteria for critically damped conditions. For
low load conditions, PI values of 1.8 and 44 (respectively) are
Evaporator Response Characteristics Subject utilized, whereas under high load conditions, PI values of 7.5
to Proportional-Integral Control and 20 are utilized. In both cases, steady-state set point error
has been reduced to zero.
Proportional-Integral control is examined where the
controller is tuned using the Ziegler-Nichols and Bekker
methods. For both methods, transient performance is exam- ADAPTIVE CONTROL
ined under cold-start conditions where open loop control is Adaptive control provides dynamic regulation against
utilized during the initial start-up stages. changes in load. The controller adjusts the control parameters
Figure 9 illustrates the system response tuning using the (PID) to control the valve operation, thereby maintaining the
Ziegler-Nichols criteria for proportional-integral gain values controlled variable (superheat) at the set point. PID valves are

Figure 8 Steady-state response to proportional-only control: (a) Kp = 4.3, (b) Kp = 20.4.

Figure 9 Transient system response to proportional-integral control (Ziegler-Nichols): (a) Kp = 3.9, I = 33;
(b) Kp = 18.4, I = 33.

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Figure 10 Transient system response to proportional-integral control (Bekker): (a) Kp = 1.8, I = 44; (b) Kp = 7.5, I = 20.

Figure 11 Adaptive control (PID): (a) transient conditions, (b) steady-state conditions.

determined via an independent loop where cold room temper- tions, it was possible to lower the superheat set point to 4°C
ature acts as an additional control input signal. Stable control and still retain satisfactory performance.
can only be accomplished through either conservative tuning Figure 12 shows transient and steady-state perfor-
or by periodic retuning of the control system. Conservative mance using PID parameters as defined by the Bekker
tuning yields sluggish control, whereas periodic retuning may tuning approach. Open loop control is observed for an initial
not be practicable in many applications. Adaptive control can 15-minute period with a ensuing stable superheat of 6°C
exploit these functions and offer several advantages over fixed maintained until system shutdown. System pull-down is
PID. The advantages include the elimination of tuning and the approximately 35 minutes and gives enhanced performance
automatic gain adjustment for load conditions. compared to the Ziegler-Nichols tuning approach. Simi-
Figure 11 illustrates PID adaptive control for the modu- larly, under steady-state conditions, a stable superheat of
lated throttling valve (EC1) under transient and steady-state 6°C is maintained.
conditions. Under transient conditions, open loop control
persists for an initial 15-minute period. Comparison with CONCLUSIONS
Figures 7 and 9 yields some interesting discussion points. For
adaptive control, it can it be seen that a stable superheat of 6°C The importance of controller tuning has been demon-
is maintained throughout the transient pull-down period. strated for algorithm-controlled throttling systems. Optimiza-
Furthermore, zero offset from the superheat set point due to tion of evaporator heat transfer by control of superheat has
integral action is also evident. In addition, adaptive control is been found to be a function of evaporator dynamic character-
observed to give faster pull-down characteristics (45 minutes). istics and evaporator load. Proportional gain values influence
In Figures 7 and 9, non-zero offsets were present, system pull- both steady and transient response time: low gain values give
down was slower, and valve oscillation was observed to occur. rise to an over-damped system with slower transient response
Additionally, it should be noted that under steady-state condi- characteristics, whereas high gain valves facilitate faster

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Figure 12 Adaptive control (Bekker): (a) transient conditions, (b) steady-state conditions.

response times but with increased oscillatory behavior. Inte- REFERENCES

gral action has been observed to reduce superheat offset error.
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This paper represents preliminary findings from an ongo- computer system for the control of refrigerant flow.
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Bekker J.E., P.H. Meckl, and D.C. Hittle. 1991. A tuning
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method for first-order processes with PI controllers.
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