A refrigeration heat reclaim (RHR) water heating system links two common functions in commercial buildings to reduce purchased energy consumption and achieve cost savings. A refrigeration heat reclaim water heating system harvests heat that would normally be rejected through refrigeration system condensers and applies the heat for water heating. See Figure 1. Refrigeration heat reclaim water heating has the advantages of relatively low cost and simplicity. The primary limitation of refrigeration heat reclaim water heating systems is the fact that heat is available only when the refrigeration system is in operation. However, in many applications heat storage capacity and the operating diversity of heat source equipment remove this concern.

Note: "Refrigeration heat reclaim" refers to recovery of heat from direct expansion vapor compression cooling systems in general, including both food storage refrigeration and air conditioning. It is not limited to food storage freezers and coolers.

See Figure 1. Principle of Refrigeration Heat Reclaim

Principle of Refrigeration Heat Reclaim

De-superheaters are a particular type of refrigeration heat reclaim system that recovers only the more readily available superheat energy from the host system. They can be somewhat simpler than RHR systems that recover heat of condensation. Details are provided on the Operation page.

A typical refrigeration heat reclaim system is shown in Figures 2 and 3. Most installations are designed as preheat systems using a separate storage tank in series with a conventional water heater. The refrigeration system to which the refrigeration heat reclaim system is connected is called the host system.

See Figure 2.- Typical Refrigeration Heat Reclaim System

Typical Refrigeration Heat Reclaim System

A refrigeration heat reclaim device is simply a refrigerant-to-water heat exchanger installed between the host refrigeration system's compressor and condenser. On heat pumps, the heat exchanger is installed between the compressor and the reversing valve. Water is circulated through one side of the heat exchanger and hot refrigerant gas from the compressor is routed through the other side. Heat is transferred from the hot refrigerant gas to the water.

See Figure 3.- Refrigeration Heat Reclaim System Operation on Pressure-Enthalpy Diagram

Pressure-Enthalpy Diagram

Most refrigeration heat reclaim devices are de-superheaters. Superheat refers to heat stored in the refrigerant vapor when it is heated above the temperature at which it evaporates for a given pressure. See Figure 3. Acting as a de-superheater, a heat reclaim device cools the refrigerant only to the saturation point; no condensing takes place in the de-superheater. Under typical conditions a de-superheater can remove about 10 to 30% of the total heat that would have been rejected by the condenser.

A heat reclaim device may also be designed to do condensing rather than just desuperheating. More heat can be extracted, but at a lower temperature. However, most refrigeration heat reclaim equipment manufacturers have intentionally prevented condensing to avoid problems with host equipment operation. Excessive sub-cooling (reduction of liquid refrigerant temperature below the saturation point) in the condenser at low outdoor temperature is the concern. With excessive sub-cooling, problems can occur with low compressor head pressure, improper expansion device operation from inadequate pressure drop, and liquid slugging in the compressor.

Most refrigeration heat reclaim units are designed for retrofit installation. Since installation involves cutting into the sealed refrigerant system, a qualified refrigeration mechanic should do the work. The effect of the installation on any warranties for the refrigeration system should be investigated. Some manufacturers of air conditioners and refrigeration systems place limitations on warranties if heat reclaim systems are installed.


  • Refrigeration, freezer, water cooler, and ice maker compressors with long daily run time that operate throughout the year.
  • Applications on low-temperature refrigeration systems. They release more waste heat per ton of cooling effect than higher-temperature refrigeration systems.
  • Less efficient host systems in general. They provide more heat for recovery than more efficient units.

Possible Applications

Where the addition of a RHR unit may improve the performance of the host machine. For example, the installation of a de-superheater in a Georgia fast food restaurant increased the capacity of the ice machine and eliminated ice runouts during the lunch period.

Applications to Avoid

  • Host systems with low daily run time or seasonal operation.
  • Host systems using capillary tubes rather than expansion valves, usually smaller units.
  • Host systems in poor condition that are likely to fail soon.
  • Very high-efficiency host systems, which have less heat available for recovery.

Effect on Host System Warranty

While most air conditioner and refrigeration equipment manufacturers honor equipment warranties following the installation of refrigeration heat reclaim equipment, certain requirements and conditions may be imposed. Consult with the host system manufacturer prior to installation.


The potential heat output of a refrigeration heat recovery unit is determined by the amount of heat rejected from the host system. Lower-temperature host systems and less efficient host systems provide more heat than higher-temperature systems and more efficient systems.

  • Refrigeration heat recovery from an HCFC-22 air-conditioning system will provide approximately 3000 Btu per ton-hour of host system output.
  • Refrigeration heat recovery from an HFC-134a air-conditioning system will provide approximately 2200 Btu per ton-hour of host system output.

Impact on Refrigeration Device

It is sometimes claimed that refrigeration heat reclaim systems improve the host system efficiency as much as 20%, reduce electric demand, and increase the life of the compressor. These claims are often overstated. While a heat reclaim system can potentially improve compressor life, the degree of improvement has not been quantified. If installation is not done properly, the increased pressure drop in the refrigerant system can result in significant reduction of compressor life.

Manufacturer Links

Addison Products Company
American Energy Products, Division of Trevor- Martin
American Equipment Systems Corp.
Doucette Industries
Edwards Engineering Corp.
Air Excel Service(formerly E-Tech, Division of Crispaire Corporation)
FHP Manufacturing
Graham Manufacturing Co., Inc.
ITT Bell & Gossett
Paul Mueller Company

Energy Conservation Unlimited
311 E. Georgia Avenue
Longwood, FL 32752

Enro Manufacturing, Inc.
6461 Garden Road, Suite 102
Riviera Beach, FL 33404

National Energy Systems
651 Day Hill Road
Windsor, CT 06095

Other Information


ANSI/ARI 470-80 Standard for de-superheater/Water Heaters establishes equipment specifications, procedures for testing and rating, safety provisions, and product labeling requirements for external heat exchanger systems [24].

Refrigerant Venting

Strict regulations now govern the release of CFC refrigerants to the environment. Refrigerant must be recovered and careful, quality installation practices must be followed to eliminate leaks.

Links to Related Topics

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Advanced Technologies
Traditional Resistance
Air-Source HPWH
Pool Heating HP
Multifunction Units
Thermal Storage WH
WH Performance