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## Intercoolers – Explained

Engine Performance Parts improve supercharger performance…

I am compiling a guide on how to choose the right engine performance parts to fit your target power needs. Basically I want to take all the guesswork out of tuning and save you some money from doing things over and over again.

When I was researching ‘buying the right intercooler’, I was honestly lost. There are two types of information you will find there:

1-A class of articles engineers write talking about pressure differences, thermal efficiencies, enthalpy and multi variable equations that relate to flow, horsepower, torque, supercharger rpm or anything else we know we can use as input. In our equations. (Usually this science needs to be translated into layman’s terms)

2-The next category is a bunch of random trial and error advice by enthusiasts, press releases and other stuff you find online.

Here’s what we know:

First let’s talk about how an intercooler works. There is some debate as to whether the intercooler is more like a heat sink whose job is to absorb thermal energy from the incoming air to prevent heat from reaching the engine, or more like an intercooler radiator, where air flows into the intercooler. Responsible for extracting heat from the inlet air charge.

The correct answer is both are correct…

Air flowing through the intercooler spends very little time inside the intercooler and slows it down for more thermal exchange (like we do with coolant in a radiator) preventing air from reaching the engine which is a restriction on power. Because the air spends so little time in the intercooler, the intercooler often has multiple compartments, internal ribs, and fins inside it to maximize surface area contact between the intercooler aluminum and the compressed air molecules. In this sense, the overall volume of the intercooler, and the overall surface area of its internal surfaces is like a heat sink that absorbs heat energy from the compressed air. In this respect it makes sense that the bigger our intercooler, the better. Furthermore, it also makes sense that the more intricate and complex the internal pathways of our core are, the more heat we will be able to extract from the charged air. Of course the flipside of this is that very complex internal passages can create turbulence and restrict airflow so ultimately there is a balance in good design between internal complexity and flow capacity.

When we start, the intercooler is cold, and on our first power run, as hot compressed air flows through the intercooler, heat is transferred to our heat sink (which is the intercooler) and cool air is let in. Engine. After the first run, the intercooler is warm; And if we run the second power back to back, the intercooler won’t be able to sink much heat because it’s already somewhat hot. This is where the intercooler comes in, in the form of a radiator, the heat transferred from the air to the intercooler core needs to be removed, either from the air flowing through the air into the air intercooler, or the air into the water by cooling the fluid. intercooler, or even by an ice-water bath for drag racing applications. Without the intercooler collecting the absorbed heat from the compressed air, run after run until the intercooler heats the compressed air to the same temperature. At this point there is no temperature difference between the air and the intercooler core and we can no longer sink any heat.

Some cars have their intercoolers located under the hood of the car (eg Mazda Centia / 626). In this type of installation the intercooler is often a heat sink and is used for a few passes until wet, once wet it must be allowed to cool to hood temperature before it can be effective as an intercooler again. . From this we gather that any intercooler no matter how small, or poorly placed, is better than no intercooler because it can potentially increase horsepower, at least for that first power run.

Now I want you to keep this information in mind when we talk about intercooler dimensions…

There are three main dimensions of an intercooler, height (H), width (W) and depth (D) and based on that there are some physical concepts we want to think about:

**Cross Sectional Area:**

Height x depth = cross section of the intercooler and relates to how well the intercooler flows and whether or not it restricts intake flow. This is the surface area that the compressed air encounters as it travels through the intercooler. Like free-flowing intakes, throttle bodies, and exhausts, if this area is made small it will create flow restrictions and reduce performance.

**width:**

Width = length of intercooler and if you have a single side inlet/outlet intercooler then your intercooler length is effectively 2*W. This is the distance the air must travel through the turbulent and complex intercooler core. The longer this length, the greater the pressure drop across the intercooler so having a very wide intercooler is not advisable as we waste turbocharger compression on the intercooler pressure drop, nor is it advisable to have a single side inlet/outlet. The intercooler is where the air has to travel long distances in the core.

**Front area:**

Width x height = area in front of the intercooler that faces the incoming ambient air A good sized frontal area is needed to ensure the intercooler doesn’t heat up and the running air stream is able to efficiently cool the intercooler (like a radiator. ) to be able to make back to back power runs. . As we expand into this area, we expect the intercooler to have better control at its peak operating temperatures and better repeatability no matter how long we stay on boost (good for stand-up mile runs, for example, or all-day road racing events).

**depth:**

Depth = depth of the intercooler, usually the intercooler is mounted in front of the radiator… if you increase the depth too much (and especially without getting proper air in the airfoil between the intercooler and the intercooler and the radiator) slow down the incoming ambient air enough that your radiator starts to overheat. So increasing D gives us better intercooler performance and more flow capacity (H*D is the cross sectional area mentioned above) but it reduces the engine cooling efficiency so it must be controlled as well.

Last but not least:

**Total Quantity: **

Height x width x depth = total volume of the intercooler, which is an indirect measure of the internal surface area of the intercooler. The larger the volume, the larger the heat exchange surface area, the more heat we can get out of the air in the very short time (100 milliseconds or so the air spends inside the core). Obviously the bigger the volume, the better the cooling and the worse for the pressure drop. Again this number needs to be controlled.

**How do I know if the intercooler I have is good enough? **

Intercooler efficiency can be tested in two ways:

1-Thermal performance

a. Measure the temperature difference between the intercooler inlet air and the intercooler outlet air and use this delta T to compare between the intercoolers you have available. The best intercoolers out there can drop the air temperature over 100*F and bring you to within 20* of the ambient air temperature. If your factory intercooler can already achieve the same results then no need to upgrade.

b. Track your intercooler temperature on long power runs or back to back power runs. The design and placement of the intercooler must be adequate to control the temperature rise over time (60+ mph air hitting the intercooler), if the temperature rise is too steep you need a better ‘radiating’ core. Front area, good air guides and air foils, and good placement with high pressure air in front and low pressure air in back… we’ll explain more about this later.

2-flow performance

a. Measure the flow through the intercooler core at 28″ of water (standard for most flow meters), or measure the overall intercooler pressure drop at the flow rate required by your target horsepower. If the intercooler is in the car, measure the difference. Pressure in your intercooler at peak hp figures.

The best intercoolers have a pressure drop of less than 1psi (typically 0.5 to 0.9psi) at peak boost and horsepower. If your intercooler is within these power figures there may be no need to upgrade.

Now getting back to selecting the best size intercooler for your application, I would have a hard time figuring out the exact math on how to optimize your intercooler size, and then I would have to translate that math into ‘car terms’ of power. , inlet air temps, supercharger outlet temps, pressure ratio and boost pressure… etc.

Here is another solution; One thing engineers like to do is plot statistical data on a chart and find some trends to deal with this kind of problem…

I found 30 different intercoolers online with flow tests (CFM), or Dyno tests (HP) or both, and we know it takes about 1.5 CFM of air to produce 1 HP (depending on density) so I connected both sets. of both data to produce the following graphs for flow tested OEM intercoolers and aftermarket ‘engineered’ intercoolers:

**Flow in CFM vs Cross Sectional Area Trend:**

Flow (CFM) = 11.63 * Cross Sectional Area (square inches) – 12.84

This is a plot of flow in CFM (vertical) versus cross sectional area (square inches) for the 30 cores I had data on. As you can see there is a linear relationship between flow and area which is expected. We can then use this as a guideline to figure out (for a given depth D) of available cores, what is the minimum height of our intercooler to achieve good flow performance.

One thing to note here is that these flow measurements were taken at 28″ water pressure or 1psi. As we know from supercharger theory, the higher the boost pressure (and the higher the pressure ratio) the more compressed the air. At 15psi air is 0psi. (or 1psi) the amount of boost is actually half of its volume. So to make 700hp (1050 CFM) @ 15psi (for example in a 3.5 liter 6 cylinder) only 42 square inches of cross sectional area is required (because the air is at half its original size) while 700hp (1050 CFM) @ 3psi (for example on a 7.0 liter 8 cylinder) may require a large 91 square inches of cross sectional area. So make sure you factor in your pressure ratio before choosing your cross sectional area.

**Here is my second trend:**

**Horsepower (hp) = 0.533 * Intercooler volume (cubic inches) + 50.17**

This is a plot of horsepower (vertical) vs. total core volume (cubic inches) for 30 cores for which I had data. As you can see there is a linear relationship between horsepower and volume which is expected. The more horsepower we want to make, the more air we need to eat. There is more air mass; Mass carries more energy (compared to smaller mass at the same temperature) and thus we need to sink that energy into our intercooler.

I think between these two charts it’s now possible to go back to my ‘twin-charged’ Toyota Celica:

I want to make a peak of 320hp @ 20 psi. That equals 480 CFM @ 2.36 pressure ratio.

Starting with the standard 3″ deep intercooler core, let me figure out my other 2 dimensions:

Minimum cross area = ((480/2.36) + 12.84) /11.63 = 18 square inches = D*H

Intercooler height = 18 / 3 = 6″

Total volume = (320 – 50.17)/0.533 = 506 cubic inches.

Intercooler Width = 506/18 = 28″

So my ideal core size seems to be 28″ X 6″ X 3″ which is a pretty reasonable size front mount intercooler.

Now 28″ is a reasonable intercooler width for pressure drop. If this figure is too large I would go back and use a 3.5″ deep core for example. Likewise, if the height of my intercooler doesn’t fit 6″ behind my bumper I can go back and increase the depth a bit and redo the calculations.

Pressure drop across the intercooler is really important for tracking a supercharged car because unlike a turbocharger, we can’t increase boost pressure with a boost controller alone, we’re limited with superchargers in the gearing available on the supercharger pulley. So wasting any of this boost is really bad for performance. This is why undersizing the intercooler to choke off the engine or making it bigger to create a larger pressure drop is really necessary.

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