14 Rules for Improving Engine Cooling System Capability in High-Performance Automobiles
It’s not unusual for automobile enthusiasts to want to increase the power of the engine in their automobiles and many aftermarket options are available to them to accomplish this. Increasing the engine horsepower then presents the problem of making sure that other components of the vehicle, such as the drive train and the cooling system, can handle the increased engine power.
Small increases in engine power can usually be accommodated by the original drive train and cooling system, since there is usually some safety factor designed in and because the vehicle will not always be driven under the worst conditions or highest temperatures, Larger increases in engine power may require modifications to improve the performance of the other vehicle systems, particularly the cooling system.
There are actually many popular misconceptions regarding the heat transfer performance of an engine cooling radiator. Because many of the more common of these misunderstandings may actually reduce cooling performance rather than improve it, some clarification is required.
Effect on the Cooling System of Increasing Engine Horsepower
It’s helpful to understand that, during operation, internal combustion engines convert the energy of fuel into mechanical work and heat. Approximately one-third of the fuel energy goes into the mechanical work of the moving vehicle, one-third into exhaust heat, and one-third into heat transferred by the engine cooling system to the ambient air.
This means that heat load to the cooling system at rated power (Usually expressed in BTUs per minute) is approximately equal to the rated power of the engine expressed in BTUs per minute (HP X 42.4 = BTU/minute). From this we can see that if an engine is modified to increase its horsepower, the load to the cooling system will also increase. In fact, the heat load to the cooling system will increase by about the same percentage as the increase in engine horsepower. So, if we increase the engine horsepower by 20 percent, we can expect an increase of about 20 percent in the heat load to the cooling system.
The Major Factor Governing Cooling System Heat Transfer
Cooling system heat transfer is governed by a single major factor-the heat load to the cooling system. Under “steady-state” conditions, the heat load to the cooling system (the heat rejected by the engine to the cooling system) will be transferred to the cooling air by the radiator no matter how good or how poor the radiator. So, if both a “poor” radiator and a “good” radiator will both transfer the same heat load to the cooling air, how can we say that one radiator has better heat transfer performance than the other? The answer is that, under “steady-state” conditions, with a “good” radiator in the cooling system, the radiator inlet temperature (Radiator top tank temperature) will stabilize at a lower temperature than a “poor radiator” in place. The “poor radiator may be so poor that its coolant temperature may rise to the boiling point resulting in engine overheating.
The difference between the radiator average core temperature and the temperature of the cooling air is the driving force behind the transfer of heat from the coolant to the cooling air. When an engine starts and is run up to rated load, the coolant begins to heat up. When there is no thermostat in the system, the coolant flows from the engine through the radiator and back to the engine. Initially, the coolant and metal in the engine absorb the heat being produced and continue to do so until the temperature of these parts exceeds the cooling air temperature. At this point, heat transfer to the cooling air commences. The coolant temperature continues to rise until it reaches a temperature at which the difference between the radiator average core temperature and the incoming cooling air is great enough to transfer the entire heat load to the air. This then becomes a “steady-state” condition.
Heat Load to the Cooling System
The heat load to the cooling system is related to the flow through the radiator and the temperature drop through the radiator by the following expression:
Q = M * cp *dT
Where Q is the heat load BTU/min., M is the mass flow rate of the coolant in BTU per pound per degree F, dT is the temperature drop through the radiator in degrees F, and * indicates multiplication. Since a gallon of coolant weighs about 8.3 pounds, we can replace M in the expression by 8.3 times the coolant flow in gallons per minute, or GPM. The resulting expression is as follows:
Q = 8.3 * GPM * cp * dT
Since the specific heat of the coolant is essentially constant and the coolant flow rate
is constant at rated engine speed, the expression tells us something that surprises most people. That is, for a given heat load and coolant flow rate, the coolant temperature drop through the radiator will be constant, and nothing anyone can do to the design of the radiator can change that. Adding rows or fins or face area or whatever will not change the temperature drop through the radiator. As a general rule, cooling systems are designed to operate with a coolant temperature of about 190 degrees F at the radiator inlet and have about a 10 degree F temperature drop through the radiator at rated power and rated coolant flow. This will result in a bottom tank temperature of 180 degrees F. Note that the coolant temperature drop
through the radiator must be specified in degrees F or degrees C, not percent. Taking a percentage of the radiator inlet temperature will yield different results depending on whether the inlet temperature is given in degrees F or degrees C.
Effects of Radiator Design on the Cooling System
A cooling system whose heat load and coolant flow rate results in a 10 degree F coolant temperature drop through the radiator will have that same coolant temperature drop whether the radiator has a very small face area and flat fins or a very large face area and louvered fins. The difference is that the large louvered fin radiator will be more effective than the small radiator at transferring heat to the cooling air, meaning that it can do it with a much lower difference in temperature between the core and cooling air. The small radiator may require such a high difference in temperature between the core and the cooling air and the core that the coolant may reach boiling temperature before the core is able to transfer all of the heat load to the cooling air. While both radiators would have the same coolant temperature drop through the radiator, we would say that the larger radiator had better heat transfer performance if its top tank temperature (Inlet coolant temperature) stabilized at, say, 180 degrees F while the smaller radiator stabilized at 220 degrees F.
Improving an Overheated Cooling System
Armed with this understanding of how a cooling system works what recommendations should we make for a cooling system that is overheating? Suppose we have an engine and cooling system that, in stock condition, produced a rated 200 hp and ran at rated ambient temperature with a top tank temperature of 190 degrees F and a 10 degree F temperature drop through the radiator. Now suppose the engine were modified to produce 240 hp, a 20 percent increase. We would find that at 240 hp the core temperature drop had increased by 20 percent to 12 degrees F and the top tank temperature had increased, let’s say to the point where it was just overheating. Now suppose we take this system and reduce the power to the point where the radiator inlet, or top tank temperature is steady at 190 degrees F. (Guess what? It’ll be producing 200 hp! Funny, how that works). So we check coolant temperature drop and find it is back to 10 degrees F, as we would expect, meaning the average core temperature is 185 degrees F. Now we want to make improvements to the system in order to lower the top tank temperature to the point where we can then go back to 240 hp without the engine overheating.
Coolant Flow Rate
Looking at the previous expression, we can see that slowing the coolant down is the wrong way to go. If the heat load is constant, lowering the flow will increase the temperature drop through the radiator, making the bottom tank, or radiator outlet, temperature less than before. If the bottom tank temperature goes down, the top tank temperature must go up to maintain approximately the same average core temperature so that the heat load may be transferred to the cooling air. At the reduced power setting it would rise above 190 degrees F and at 240 hp the engine would be overheating worse than before. In fact, because the lower flow rate results in lower coolant velocity and less “scrubbing action” in the tubes, the average coolant temperature must rise slightly in order to transfer the heat load from the coolant to the cooling air, making matters even worse.
What would happen if we increase the coolant flow? Will it go through the radiator so fast that there won’t be time for cooling to take place? Not at all, from the expression, we can see that if the heat load is constant, increasing the coolant flow rate will reduce the coolant temperature drop through the radiator, resulting in a higher bottom tank temperature. If the bottom tank temperature is increased, the top tank temperature must go down to maintain approximately the same average core temperature. This is what we were hoping to achieve. With the top tank temperature now less that 190 degrees F at the reduced power point, we can expect that the system will be better able to run at 240 hp without overheating, In fact, because the increased coolant flow rate results in a higher coolant flow velocity and better “scrubbing action” in the tubes, the average coolant temperature decreases slightly while transferring the same heat load to the cooling air, further lowering the top tank temperature, resulting in better cooling performance.
From this we see that increasing the coolant flow rate will result in better heat transfer performance. There are some cautions to be observed in increasing coolant flow rate, however. Going too far may result in aeration and foaming of the coolant, possible damage to the radiator by overpressure, cavitation of the pump, due to excessive pressure drop through the radiator, and erosion of the radiator tubes. The ideal coolant flow rate is one that will provide optimum coolant flow velocity through the radiator tubes in the range of 6 to 8 feet per second. Flow velocities above 10 feet per second should be avoided.
Cooling air becomes heated as it passes through the radiator. It enters the radiator at ambient temperature and exits the radiator at some increased temperature. It is the difference between the average core, or coolant temperature and the average of these two cooling air temperatures that creates the ability of the radiator to transfer heat to the air. The slower the air passes through the radiator, the higher will be its exit temperature and the higher will be the average cooling air temperature. The higher the average cooling air temperature, the less heat will be transferred from the coolant to the air. On the contrary, the faster the air flows through the core, the less it will increase in temperature on its way through, making the exit temperature and the average cooling air temperature lower. This increases the differential between the average core temperature and the average air temperature, increasing the heat transfer. Increasing airflow by speeding up the fan, by providing an improved fan, by providing or improving the fan shroud, by reducing air restrictions in the grille or engine compartment, or by providing recirculation shields to prevent air from bypassing the core, will all improve heat transfer and cooling.
Radiator Face Area
As we have seen, cooling air becomes warmer as it passes through the radiator. Coolant in the back row of a radiator is cooled by warmer cooling air that coolant in the front row of a radiator. Increasing the face area of a radiator exposes more coolant to the coolest ambient cooling air, increasing the radiator heat transfer capability.
Increasing the radiator face area may not be practical in all cased because of space limitations. However, similar improvement may be obtained by relocating any air conditioning condenser, or oil cooler which may be in front of the radiator, thereby exposing more of the face area of the radiator to the coolest ambient cooling air.
Increasing the radiator fin count, or number of fins per inch, provides more surface area for the transfer of heat to the cooling air. However, increasing the fin count increases the restriction of the radiator to cooling airflow. Lower cooling airflows result in lower heat transfer. In every installation there is an optimum combination of fin performance and core restriction that will produce maximum heat transfer. Increasing the core restriction from this optimum point by increasing fin count will reduce the heat transfer performance of the radiator. On the other hand, if the original radiator has a very low fin count, increasing will improve heat transfer. In general, for high performance applications, fin counts from 12 fins per inch to 16 fins per inch are optimum. Increasing the fin count above 16 fins per inch will almost always result in reduced heat transfer performance. Since, as we have seen, in a given installation under “steady-state” conditions the radiator must transfer the given heat load no matter what, the reduced heat transfer performance resulting from an excessively restrictive high fin count must be compensated for by increased coolant temperature, possibly to the point of overheating.
Radiators may be made with plate fins. In this case, the tubes are inserted through stacks of relatively flat fins that have tube holes in them. The tube holes in the fins have collars on them which help to provide the solder or braze bond between the fins and tubes. These collars tend to limit the fin spacing to a maximum of about 13 fins per inch.
Radiators may also be made with serpentine fins. In this case, rows of tube are stacked with layers of corrugated fins. The fins become bonded to the tubes where the tips of the fin convolutions touch the tubes during solder baking or brazing. Soldered plate fin radiators are usually structurally stronger that soldered serpentine radiators and are more expensive to manufacture. Brazed serpentine radiators are usually stronger structurally that nay soldered radiator.
Radiator fins, whether plated or serpentine types, may be louvered or non-louvered. Louvered fins turbulate the air passing through the radiator to increase the “scrubbing action” of the cooling air, providing greatly improved heat transfer with some increase in air restriction. Louvered fins also tend to become clogged with dust and debris more readily than non-louvered fins, but for high performance applications are the only way to go. Non-louvered fins are typically used on farm and construction equipment, operating in dirty environments. Non-louvered fins may be made with patterns of dimples, waves, or bumps in order to provide turbulation without clogging.
Core Depth and Number of Rows of Tubes
As we have discussed, cooling air becomes warmer as it travels through the radiator core. Each successive row of tubes becomes cooled by warmer and warmer cooling air until at some point little or no heat transfer takes place. As was discussed regarding fin count, in every installation there is an optimum combination of fan performance and core restriction that will produce maximum heat transfer performance. Increasing the core restriction from this point by increasing the number of rows of tubes will reduce the heat transfer performance of the radiator. However, if there is a high rate of cooling airflow through the core, adding a row of tubes will probably provide some improvement. In high performance applications with louvered fins, three rows or a maximum of four rows will probably provide best performance. Increasing beyond four rows in a louvered core will provide little or no improvement and may even result in reduced performance.
Adding another row of tubes has other effects. It provides another path for the coolant, resulting in lower coolant flow velocities through the tubes. Optimum coolant flow velocity through the radiator tubes is about 6 to 8 feet per second. If the flow rate becomes low enough, laminar flow occurs, creating a boundary layer of coolant along the walls of the tubes. This boundary layer, or very slowly moving layer of coolant, acts as an insulator and retards heat transfer. Going to a smaller tube size when adding a row of tubes is one way to keep the coolant flow rates up in the tubes to help prevent the formation of a boundary layer. Another way is to use dimpled tubes, which are commonly used in low flow applications.
Contrary to popular opinion, dimpled tubes do not slow the coolant down in order to make it stay in the tubes longer. The dimples increase the length of the coolant flow path by making the coolant twist and turn as it passes through the tube. This actually speeds up the coolant flow along the tube wall, increasing its “scrubbing action,” preventing the formation of a boundary layer, and improving heat transfer. On the other hand, using dimpled tubes when they are not needed can hurt heat transfer performance by increasing tube restriction, which reduces coolant flow and can cause cavitation at the coolant pump.
Water has a higher specific heat than an ethylene glycol or propylene glycol coolant mix. Therefore, it provides the best heat transfer performance in a cooling system. If a cooling system is marginal, that is, it only overheats on the hottest of days, then running with water as a coolant in the summer and an ethylene glycol or propylene glycol coolant solution during the rest of the year will probably solve the problem. Commercial coolant solutions provide cooling, anti-freeze protection, corrosion inhibitors to protect the metals in the cooling system, and a lubricant for the water pump. When running water as a coolant for maximum heat transfer, a product that provides a corrosion inhibitor and water pump lubricant should be added to the water.
In terms of the relative heat transfer performance of ethylene glycol versus propylene glycol coolant bases, they are pretty much equal when mixes according to the manufacturers’ recommendations, usually a 50/50 water to glycol mix. Ethylene glycol coolant solutions provide slightly higher heat transfer performance over propylene glycol solutions at low coolant flow rates.
Aluminum vs. Copper/Brass Radiators
Copper is a better conductor of heat than aluminum. Copper/brass radiators usually have copper fins, but brass tubes (70% copper, 30% zinc). The bond between the fins and the tubes may be made with soldier (A tin/lead alloy, or high-tin alloy) or with a braze material (mostly copper).
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