How to Size Chilled Water Pipe? (Friction Loss Chart)


Air conditioning chilled water systems connect all equipment using chiller pipes. Without using sophisticated software, how to size chiller pipes with a chart?

In the following, I’ll share how I size chiller pipe using a friction loss chart for closed piping systems by Carrier Air Conditioning Company. I’ll be using a friction loss of 8 ft of water per 100 ft and a velocity of 10 ft per second to size chiller pipe.

You can download the friction loss chart for closed piping systems (PDF) from my google drive sharing. Notice that I’m using the chart for closed piping systems because the chilled water pipe between the chiller and air conditioner is closed-loop.

However, in my opinion, the resulted chiller pipe size should be taken as a reference rather than an absolute because we need to consider the price of chiller pipes and optimize the final chiller pipe size.

How to Read the Friction Loss Chart?

We’ll be using all 4 elements in the friction loss chart to size chiller pipes. Following, I’ll explain each of them and how we’re going to use them.

Friction Loss: How much resistance to the chilled water?

Friction loss is the amount of resistance exerted on the chilled water due to contact with the inner surface of the chiller pipes. In another word, friction loss tells us how much distance the chilled water is not able to travel due to the friction between the chilled water and the inner surface of the chiller pipes.

Friction loss is expressed in feet of water per 100 feet. The unit of measurement for friction loss tells us how many feet of distance is lost for every 100 feet. For instance, a friction loss of 8 ft of water per 100 ft means that the chilled water travels 8 ft lesser for every 100 ft it travels.

Smaller pipes generally have higher friction loss. A high friction loss air conditioning system requires higher pumps head to push the chilled water around and thus, higher pump costs. Contrarily, a low friction loss air conditioning system requires bigger chiller pipes and thus, higher pipe cost. Therefore, we need to strive for a balance point.

“A recirculating system is sized to provide a reasonable balance between increased pumping horsepower due to high friction loss and increased piping first cost due to large pipe sizes. In large air conditioning applications, this balance point is often taken as a maximum friction rate of 10 ft of water per 100 ft of equivalent pipe length.”

Carrier Air Conditioning System, Since 1915

Carrier recommended the friction loss not more than 10 ft of water per 100 ft. I practice using not more than 8 ft of friction loss when sizing chiller pipes.

Flow: How much chilled water flowing inside the chiller pipe?

Flow or chilled water flow rate is the amount of water volume required to travel inside chiller pipes. Flow is expressed in gallon per minute (gpm). It is not hard to understand that pipes need to be sized based on water flow rate.

Every air conditioner has a required chilled water flow rate for its rated cooling capacity. Generally, the lower the chilled water flow rate, the lower the cooling capacity. Thus, we need to size the chiller pipes based on the amount of chilled water required for each air conditioner. The required chilled water flow rate usually can be found in the specification of chilled water air conditioners.

When it comes to sizing for the chiller pipe header, we simply add all the associated air conditioner chilled water flow rates and use the chart again to find the corresponded pipe size.

Velocity: How fast is the chilled water moving inside the chiller pipe?

Velocity is the velocity of the chilled water when traveling inside chiller pipes. Velocity is expressed in feet per second (fps). We need to consider how fast the chilled water moves inside chiller pipes. The faster the chilled water travels inside chiller pipes, the quicker the erosion on the chiller pipes and thus, the shorter the lifespan of the chiller pipes.

Water velocity vs operation hours by Carrier

The above table shows the maximum water velocity versus operation hours. The faster the chilled water move, the shorter the lifespan of the chiller pipe. I practice using not more than 10 fps for the velocity of chilled water.

Pipe Size: What is the resulted chilled water pipe size?

The resulted pipe size is expressed in inches. The pipe sizes indicated in the chart represent the actual pipe sizes that we can buy from chiller pipe suppliers. Chiller pipes have standardized sizes. There are no odd sizes such as 30mm, 60mm and 70mm unless custom made.

Unit Conversion Table for Chiller Pipes Sizing

Some people may prefer other units of measurement. Here is a conversion table for your quick reference:

MetricPrimary UnitSecondary Unit
Friction Loss3.28 feet1 meter
Flow15.85 gpm1 l/s
Flow4.4 gpm1 m3/hr
Velocity3.28 fps1 m/s
Velocity1 fps60 fpm
Pipe Size 1 inch25.4 mm
Pipe unit conversion table

Sizing Chiller Pipes Using a Friction Loss Chart

I suggest you print out the friction loss chart to ease the sizing process. In the following, I’ll provide step by step guide on how I size chiller pipes using the friction loss chart:

1. Fix the Friction Loss of the Chilled Water

  • The design criteria for the friction loss is not more than 8 ft.
  • Highlight the friction loss axis at 8 ft.

2. Limit the Velocity of the Chilled Water

  • The design criteria for the velocity is not more than 10 ft.
  • Highlight the velocity axis at 10 ft.

3. Find the Chilled Water Flow Requirement

  • Find the water flow rate of an air conditioner from its specification table.
  • For this example, I’ll use FWMH6A0(Z)V1 with a water flow rate of 4.8 gpm.
  • USgpm and gpm are the same.

4. Determine the Chiller Pipe Size

  • Pull the horizontal line for the flow at 4.8 gpm (blue line) and find the pipe size within the design criteria.
  • For this example, I get a 3/4″ pipe size (pink line). I check both the friction loss and velocity which are 5.5 ft and 2.8 fps respectively.
  • Both the friction loss and velocity are well within the design criteria. Thus, a 3/4″ pipe size is suitable.

5. Optimize the Chiller Pipe Size

  • Remember to always optimize the pipe size. Try a smaller pipe size in an effort to lower the pipe cost.
  • For example, if I use a 1/2″ pipe size, I got the friction loss and velocity of 22 ft and 5 fps respectively.
  • The friction loss is out of the design criteria and thus, a 1/2″ pipe size is not suitable.
  • Therefore, the final chiller pipe size is still 3/4″ for chilled water at a flow rate of 4.8 gpm.

Don’t Forget the Velocity when Sizing Big Pipes

Most of the time, friction loss is the primary factor when sizing chiller pipes because small pipes are more common. Hence, we often forget that starts from around 400 gpm, the velocity becomes the primary factor. Therefore, many people made the mistake including myself.

For example, when sizing chiller pipes for 2,000 gpm flow of chilled water, if we just take the pipe size nearest to the friction loss, the resulted pipe size is not suitable due to high velocity as shown in Result A. On the other hand, Result B stays within the design criteria and thus, it is a more suitable pipe size.

Be Flexible with the Chiller Pipe Size

Sometimes, you may get into a situation where there are two choices or the resulted pipe size is very close. In such cases, you often need to decide between the performance, reliability and cost.

The above chart is an example of such a situation. For instance, if you are sizing a chiller pipe for 1,000 gpm flow of chilled water, you’ll get an 8″ pipe size with both the friction loss and velocity well under the design criteria. On the other hand, you may opt for a 6″ pipe size with the velocity just a little over 10 fps.

If you ask me, I probably will go for a 6″ pipe size, especially when the velocity is just 1 fps more than the design criteria which is 10 fps, considering the cost.

Takeaways

As a general rule, the cost of chiller pipes increase exponentially with the size due to not just material but insulation, jacketing, labor and logistic. One size bigger can be many times harder to install.

Another thing to consider is the pipe length. If the chiller pipe length is relatively short and your pump has a surplus pump head, you may increase the allowable friction loss from 8 ft to 10 ft or more. Similarly, if the chiller pipe is very long, you may want to bring down the friction loss from 8 ft to 6 ft or less to ensure the chilled water can reach the furthest air conditioner.

If you are done with pipe sizing, you might wanna check out my post on how to calculate valve pressure drop where I also included a calculator for it.

Design Engineer Starter Pack

Many junior engineers often don’t get enough support from their seniors, managers and bosses. Back when I was a fresh graduate, I had no idea what I was doing. I wish someone had given me guides especially on design work.

Hence, I started to work on some gsheet/excel calculators, diagrams and charts and then, I packaged them together to create the Design Engineer Starter Pack (click to view details) to help Junior Design Engineers with their HVAC design work.

I think it will be great if you have it. So, I encourage you to check it out.

Yu Chang Zhen

Yu was working in the air conditioning industry for the past 7 years, covering from design to installation and maintenance. Yu wish to share all the things he learned with the people around the world.

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