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Covid-19 Lockdown Projects – Extracting Diesel Heater Exhaust Waste Heat

Since I fitted the new “8kW” diesel heater to the camping power trolley, it has occurred to me that there is a lot of energy in the exhaust gas stream that ordinarily would be wasted into the atmosphere. Since we’re all still on lockdown here in the UK, I figured it would be good to run an experiment to see if it was worth recovering this energy – in the form of heating water.

Heat Exchanger
Heat Exchanger

Some time ago, I stripped an old gas combi boiler, and recovered some parts – most important here the HDW plate heat exchanger. This large chunk of stainless steel is a stack of formed plates, brazed together, that usually would heat Domestic Hot Water. In this instance it’s being repurposed to transfer heat from exhaust gas to water.

Brazed Connections
Brazed Connections

These heat exchangers are mounted in the boiler via a plate with O-Ring seals on, so they don’t really have fittings – just holes in the end plate. Solving this problem was simple – braze on some copper fittings with 55% silver brazing rod. The 22mm is the exhaust side, while the 15mm is the water side.

First Test
First Test

Cobbling together some random hose & fittings, along with a small water pump allowed me to run a first test. At this point there is no lagging at all on the exhaust system from the heater, so it’s going to shed a lot of exhaust heat into the air before it even gets to the heat exchanger. However I was able to get around 600W of heat into 15L of water, heating it up nicely. The heat exchanger is plumbed contra-flow here – exhaust comes in via the stainless tube on the bottom right, and water comes in through the speedfit elbow on the top left.

Lagged Heat Exchanger
Lagged Heat Exchanger

After the temperature of the water tank hit a plateau at around 45°C, I decided to insulate everything the best I could with what I currently have. I’ve wrapped the heat exchanger with some recycled PET insulation here, just to hold the heat inside. I’m not concerned about the exhaust outlet being in contact with the fluff – this system is so effective at pulling the heat out of the exhaust that the gas exiting the far end is totally cold!

Unlagged Exhaust
Unlagged Exhaust

Now it was time to get the exhaust system under the trolley insulated. This is the system removed from the unit entirely. This is constructed from copper pipe, brazed onto standard silencers. Deadening the sound from the unit is important, as this gets used on campsites!

Fibreglass Tape Insulation
Fibreglass Tape Insulation

An hour & some itchiness later, the exhaust is completely covered in fibreglass insulation, secured in place with stainless steel ties.

Exhaust Hanger
Exhaust Hanger

The exhaust originally passed through a close-fitting hole in the frame rail which would obviously not work now due to the thickness of the insulation layer, so this was modified with a grinder. Since there was now no support for this end of the exhaust, a pair of drilled holes & some stainless steel wire form a nice hanger!

With all this insulation in place (including around the tank & pump), the rig is now able to easily hit 65°C within a short time, so there has definitely been an improvement. At this point, it’s clear that waste heat recovery is worthwhile, so I’ll be building a proper rig to capture this energy for reuse!

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Webasto Thermo Top C Burner Mesh Replacement

It recently became rather obvious there was something amiss with the water heater on board nb Tanya Louise – lots of smoke from the exhaust, failed starts, and finally a total refusal to start altogether.

Combustion Chamber
Combustion Chamber

On disassembly, it was clear the burner was the issue – above. The mesh at the back where the fuel inlet enters the burner is completely knackered. The burner in these heaters, like the Eberspachers, is evaporative. Diesel fuel is led into a high-surface area mesh tube, or pad in this case, where it is vaporized to be burned with air from the combustion blower. Initially, this heat is provided by the glow plug, but after the unit has fired, the heat of combustion keeps the process going.

Burner Deposits 1
Burner Deposits 1

As can be seen at left, there’s quite the build-up of solid carbon around the burner, blocking most of the mesh & the air mixing holes in the tube. This was also after I’d removed most of the fouling!

Burner Deposits 2
Burner Deposits 2

 

More deposits are seen on the other side, along with some of the air mixing holes.

 

Inlet Plate
Inlet Plate

Now, the problem is that these burner units are not meant to be refurbished. These units are considered by the manufacturer to be disposable, and are welded together as a result. There’s another issue – I don’t believe that a component costing around £295 in a service kit as DISPOSABLE. There’s nothing wrong with the structure of the burner at all – it’s Stainless Steel, and is in good shape with no heat damage. The only fault is with the mesh being burned out from long use. Luckily, replacement burner meshes are available on eBay from Chinese suppliers, so on with the repair!
One of the welds that needs to be removed can be seen here next to the glow plug well, and there are 3 spots around the rim that are welded in this way. Delicate use of a grinding wheel on the welds allows this to be removed intact.

Burner Tube
Burner Tube

Once the welds have been ground off, the fuel inlet plate with the mesh can be pulled from the back of the burner. It’s a good idea to add some registration marks to both pieces before they’re separated, so they can be put back together in the same orientation – required for both the glow plug wiring, and the fuel inlet tube to line up with the hole in the heater housing. The ring of slots visible around the edge of the tube are the combustion air inlets, and the air is directed through a ring of holes in the combustion chamber, quite similar to a turbine engine combustor.

Old Burner Mesh
Old Burner Mesh

Now I’ve got the back of the burner removed, the clogging is much easier to see. The mesh itself has clearly been subject to very high heat, and is partially burned away, along with most of the surface being clogged up with coal from incomplete combustion. It’s difficult to see here, but the mesh pad is held in place with a large circlip around the edge, all will become clear after cleaning. All the hard carbon needs to be scraped out of the cup, clearing the way for the clip to be pried out of it’s groove.

Cleaned Cup
Cleaned Cup

After a lot of scraping with the sharp end of a small screwdriver, the cup has been relieved of enough carbon to be recognisable again! The fuel inlet tube is in the centre of the backplate, with the circlip groove around the edge. Crimp marks are visible on the top edge of the groove – I think Webasto actually crimps the ring in place after fitting, which does make removal a bit more tricky, but I did manage to get it out intact, even if heat has removed most of the heat treat from the steel – making it soft. Be careful here!

New Mesh Fitted
New Mesh Fitted

Fitting the new mesh is pretty simple. These have a sharp pressed side & a convex side, the convex side must face outwards from the cup. The circlip is visible around the edge of the mesh, with the ends next to the glow plug well. Make sure that the clip is equally spaced around the glow plug  to make sure it doesn’t foul the plug when that’s replaced.

Now comes the issue of reattaching the cup to the back of the burner tube. I didn’t want to re-weld, since the assembly is Stainless Steel & I don’t have a TIG setup at present. I do have some stainless wire for the MIG, but this would also leave me with the issue of future disassembly if the mesh needs replacement again. Brazing is also not possible for the same reason – once brazed, it’s a permanent assembly.

Burner Reassembled
Burner Reassembled

Since there are some tabs that were never welded, I decided to drill & tap M2.5 through these & use 304 stainless screws to hold the components together. This should allow removal in the future if required.

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Afterburner Aftermarket Diesel Heater Controller Build

While I’m pretty happy with the Chinese diesel heater replacement for the old Eberspacher on the trolley, the stock controller leaves much to be desired. While functional, it’s fairly unresponsive, bulky & doesn’t allow external control as the Eberspacher did with it’s simple ON/OFF signal. So after a massive amount of searching on the web, (it wasn’t easy to find, damn SEO!), I discovered a project by a chap in Australia who has reverse engineered the communications protocol of these heaters, & built a fully custom controller. This is based around the ESP32 Wi-Fi microcontroller, and a Bluetooth HC-05 module. Display is by means of a 1.3″ OLED screen.

Bare PCB
Bare PCB

Here’s the bare PCB kindly sent to me by Ray down under to get this project kickstarted. No THT components here apart from headers, everything is minimum 0805 size.

Populated PCB
Populated PCB

Here’s the controller PCB fully populated, with the ESP32 & Bluetooth HC-05 modules on board. There was a slight issue with the 3.3v regulator not matching the pinout of the PCB, so some minor bodge work required there, but the current draw of the unit is so low that the regulator doesn’t get warm, even with the heatsink tab floating in mid-air. I’ll hot-snot this down to avoid any vibration issues. Incedentally, soldering the castellated connections of the modules is a real pain – problems with contacts not wetting first time were an issue here. Use plenty of flux!

The two JST connectors are for the main heater loom, and an external temperature probe that feeds back for the thermostat mode of the controller. Reset & Bootloader buttons are provided on the board for easy firmware loading. There’s also some spare GPIO broken out for other uses, along with the required UART port for firmware & debugging access. The clock is maintained by a DS3231 RTC IC, which oddly enough is expensive on it’s own – buying an Arduino RTC module & using a hot-air pencil to desolder the IC worked out £4 cheaper than buying the IC direct! The RTC is backed up by a lithium coin cell.

The communications interface is taken care of by a couple of single gates in SOT-23 packages, which interfaces the 3v3 ESP32 with the 5v signalling levels of the heater’s control bus. This unit is a little odd for a communications interface – it is standard serial, but at an odd baud rate of 25,000, and instead of separate TX & RX lines, the transmissions are gated for TX & RX down a single wire. I fail to understand the logic of doing this, since wire isn’t expensive & extra components just add complexity!

A couple of build notes on this controller:

  • R4 & R5 are swapped on the silkscreen. Bootloader issues ensued!
  • The blue PCB Bluetooth module doesn’t function correctly with the controller, allowing receive but no transmit. Odd.
  • There are two pinout variations on the 1.3″ OLEDs. This layout requires the GND pin leftmost.
PCB Front
PCB Front

The front of the PCB holds the OLED display panel, and the control button array. Not much else on this side of the board besides the RTC battery switching diodes & some passives.

Glow Plug Heating
Glow Plug Heating

The case to house the PCB is 3D printed, I didn’t bother with the matching buttons as I don’t currently have any flexible filament to print with, so long stem tact switches are used. The controller is running the heater through a cycle here on the Detailed Info screen, where the most comprehensive heater info is displayed. In this stage, the heater’s ECU is warming the glow plug up ready for ignition.

Igniting
Igniting

After the glow plug has heated, the ECU starts the fuel metering pump at it’s lowest rate to get a flame going. The glow plug is still active to vaporise the fuel.

Burner Running - Heatup
Burner Running – Heatup

Once the thermistor on the heat exchanger registers a temperature increase, the ECU detects the burner has lit, and starts increasing the fuelling rate & blower speed.

Warming Up
Warming Up

Once the temperature hits a threshold, around 55°C, the ECU switches off the glow plug & ramps the fuelling rate up to max to warm the heat exchanger to operating temperature. The detailed page displays both the room temperature (left), set temperature & heat exchanger temperature (right).

Heater Running
Heater Running

Once the heat exchanger has reached running temperature, the ECU switches control to the thermostat, in this case the new controller.

Shutdown
Shutdown

When a shutdown is initiated, the heater brings the glow plug back on & reduces the fuelling rate to minimum for a couple of minutes, before stopping fuel flow. The glow plug remains running for a while to burn off any remaining fuel residue.

Cooling Cycle
Cooling Cycle

Finally, the ECU cuts power to the glow plug, and keeps the fan running at medium speed until the heat exchanger cools to below 55°C.