Refrigeration Networks

Gallery opened 18 Apr 2018

Updated: 23 Oct 2022

German refrig illustration added
Distributing cold under the streets Back to Home PageBack to The Museum

Refrigeration may not be a glamourous area of technology but it is of vital economic importance. On the large scale it means frozen food can be transported around the world; on the small scale it means we don't have to go shopping for perishable food every other day.

There have been networks for distributing power by compressed air, and by high-pressure water. The time has been distributed by compressed air in Paris and in Vienna. However the distribution of cold around a town is something rarely discussed. Nonetheless it happened.


The pipeline system of the St Louis Automatic Supply Co was begun in 1890 and afterward gradually extended. It consisted of three lines of wrought-iron piping, inside a conduit of vitrified pipe. The pipes were "of extra-strong wrought iron, carefully put together with special fittings made of steel, and with carefully packed joints, so that leakage is rendered absolutely impossible." One devoutly hopes so.

Left: St Louis Automatic Supply Co refrigeration pipeline under construction

These networks used the same three-pipe solution (to a three-pipe problem, Watson) as the Kansas City network. One pipe supplied liquid ammonia, the second returned gaseous ammonia to the refrigerating plant, and the third was a vacuum pipe so that for ammonia could be pumped out of refrigerating establishments or isolated pipe sections that required maintenance, and returned to the plant.

Here the larger gaseous ammonia return pipe is on the left, and reference to the conduit diagram below shows that the smaller supply and vacuum pipes are one above the other on the right.

Pipes were run in semi-circular vitrified pipe conduits with manholes at intervals. Automatic stop-valves (like the ball valves used in water gauges) were installed at suitable points to minimise ammonia loss on the case of a severe leak.

Left: St Louis Automatic Supply Co: 1894

The pipe at top right of the three is probably the high-pressure liquid ammonia pipe, as it appears to have more elaborate joints.

The larger pipe at left is the gaseous ammonia return pipe.

Therefore by elimination the small pipe at lower right must be the vacuum pipe.

There also appear to be two electrical cables running through the conduit; their purpose is unknown.

All info from Ice & Refrigeration March 1894


All info on this network comes from COLD STORAGE AND ICE TRADE JOURNAL, September 1907

The Merchants' Refrigerating Company was organized by J E Brady, its president and manager, in 1903, together with six other produce dealers. A plot of ground at 550 and 552 Walnut street was bought and Warehouse A erected there. At the same time the warehouse was being planned Brady became convinced that a street pipe refrigerating system which would bring all the conveniences of a cold store to the very door of every produce dealer in that section of Kansas City would be a great success. There were many difficulties to overcome, but finally the pipes were laid and-the service inaugurated. It was an instant success, for not only the produce dealers along the route of the pipe line, which was about a mile in extent,but the hotels, florists, druggists and other business men using large quantities of ice in the main business section of the city, demanded that the service be extended to their establishments.

Warehouse A was built of brick, four stories high, and contained ten rooms, with a total storage capacity of 400.000 cubic feet. It was equipped with two 75 ton Wolf Linde type ammonia compression refrigerating-machines, powered by steam engines fed by boilers fired with crude oil on the 'Roop & Johnson' system.

Above: The Kansas City refrigeration network in 1907. A= Warehouse A, B= Warehouse B, C= Central Power Plant (top right)

The demand for refrigeration increased, and in autumn 1906 work was begun on Warehouse B and the Central Power Plant, both on West Third street, directly opposite each other. The location chosen for the new works was in the heart of the produce business district. The growth of demand had been so rapid that a Central Power Station as well as Warehouse B was needed. The Central power station was separate from the new Warehouse B but connected to it by a passageway under the street. Central power station contained all the machinery for both Warehouse B and the distributing pipeline.

Refrigeration was distributed in the form of liquid ammonia under pressure in a first pipe; assuming it worked on a normal ammonia cycle, the pressure here would have been 150 to 170 psi. When the pressure was released in a throttling valve, the ammonia vapourised and became very cold due to the latent heat of vapourisation. The vapour was then returned to the central station in a second pipe. There was a third pipe used for pumping ammonia out of refrigerating establishments or isolated pipe sections that required maintenance.

Note that all the pipes were at ambient temperature, the cold not being produced until the ammonia had reached its destination; there was thus no need for insulation or lagging.

Left: Kansas City refrigeration manhole in 1907.

Showing the three pipes used and the valves for isolating sections of the network. Pipes were run in split-tile conduits with manholes at every street intersection. Expansion joints were placed in every second manhole.

The main vapour line running into the central power station was 8 inches in diameter, increasing from 4 inches at the far end of the line. To avoid connections in the middle of a block, a 2-inch lateral pipe was run along the curb from each manhole, and this lateral was tapped to furnish service to various customers. Thus there were no connections in the main pipeline.

Left: Merchants' Refrigerating Company Central Power Plant: 1907.

The ammonia condensers were on the top floor of the building. They consisted of 24 sections of 2 inch pipe, each twenty pipes high and twenty feet, cooled by water flowing over them. The overflow water returned by gravity to a Worthington surface condenser of 3,000 square feet capacity, and was sent to the top of a “Stocker” cooling tower by means of a pair of “Worthington” single stage turbine pumps, each having a capacity of 1,650 gallons per minute and belted direct to two Chuse Engine & Manufacturing Company’s engines.

The water left the steam condenser at a temperature of about 135 degrees F, and leaves the cooling tower a little below atmospheric temperature.

Left: Merchants' Refrigerating Company Central Power Plant: 1907.

The article states that the plant was equipped with two "75 ton Wolf Linde" type ammonia compression refrigerating machines. They were built by the Fred W. Wolf Company, of Chicago, Ill. There were two units of 175 tons daily refrigerating capacity, each machine having two 15 x 30 inch double acting cylinders.

The two steam engines were made by the H N Strait Manufacturing Company, of Kansas City.

Left: Merchants' Refrigerating Company Warehouse A plant: 1907.

One of the steam engines. The four access plates on the side of the cylnder indicate it has Corliss rotary valves. A flyball governor can be seen just to the left of the flywheel.

Left: Merchants' Refrigerating Company Warehouse A plant: 1907.

Presumably these are the pumps that sent the liquid ammonia on its outward journey. We have here two electrically-driven pumps, with two stages of spur gear reduction between the electric motors and the pump crankshafts. Two connecting rods can be seen, showing that the pump cylinders were arranged vertically below the crankshafts. On the right are two rheostats for motor control. Just above them, electric wires can be seen clamped to the wall by ceramic blocks. It is not clear if the wires are insulated or not.

Given that ammonia will burn or explode when its proportion in air is in the region of 16 - 26% the proximity of all that electricity looks doubtful.

The pipe on the left appears to be covered in ice, which is hard to understand as both the go and return lines are said to be at ambient temperature.

On account of the large amount of ammonia required to operate the street line and the consequent great fluctuation, two large ammonia receivers were installed, each 20 inches in diameter and 15 feet high.

In 1907, the Kansas City network was said in the COLD STORAGE AND ICE TRADE JOURNAL article to have been in successful operation for four years, which seems to indicate there were no unfortunate accidents that filled the streets with choking clouds of ammonia.

When I first heard of these refrigerating networks, I have to say my first thought was- running high-pressure ammonia pipes under the city streets? What could possibly go wrong?

However, I have to say that searching for 'ammonia accidents', while bringing up plenty of contemporary disasters, has not so far found anything at this sort of date.

Above: German Refrigerating company plant & warehouses

It is not currently known if this a generic refigeration system or a particular installation. I have not translated the German text. There is an ice-making plant midway up the buiding to the right. Unfortunately it is not quite possible to read the labels on the various tanks in the left building, except for the two large ones at centre marked "Distillater I" and "Distillater II".

See the original article here.

Source: Kultur & Technik Zeitschrift des Deutschen Museums. 3/1991

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