Many times we will have a customer call in and request a chiller quote from us. When we ask the customer what size chiller he or she needs, the answer is occasionally, “I think a 10 ton chiller?” (We use “10 ton” as an example only). The customer has an idea of what size unit they are replacing but isn’t really sure how that “value” is calculated or derived.

We have many chiller options, so we hope to help clarify some of the uncertainty with chiller tonnage calculation in this post.

At the bottom of the post, we demonstrate how to accurately calculate process chiller loads with an example of a real life application.

The Difference Between Nominal Tons & Actual Tonnage

One of the biggest misnomers is that a ton of cooling is simply a ton of cooling – no matter what the operating conditions. In theory, yes, this is true. But in real-world conditions, a customer’s view of a ton of refrigeration process cooling is much different.

The actual tonnage for a (nominal) “10-ton” chiller can vary from four tons up to 12 tons based on those pesky design conditions.

how to calculate heat loads for a chiller

You see “nominal tons” are typically calculated at ARI conditions, which are 44°F leaving water temperature, 54°F entering water temperature, and 95°F ambient temperature.

What’s that? You say you use 30% ethylene glycol and operate at 35°F, leaving fluid temperature? Well, now the “nominal tons” are no longer in the same ballpark as “actual tons”. Using the earlier “10 tons” example, a nominal ten-ton chiller at ARI conditions may only produce 6-7 tons with the conditions just mentioned.

Both the glycol and the lower fluid temperature cause the chiller to be less efficient and the output must be derated.

The Difference Between Compressor HP and Tonnage Output

Another common error is referring to the chiller’s compressor HP as being equivalent to the tonnage output. So in other words, a 10HP chiller equals 10 tons of capacity. (Some manufacturers base their unit size/model on the compressor HP).

The problem is that this is only true in a perfect world and we don’t live in a perfect world.

[Hopefully, at this point, you aren’t feeling like this guy.]

difference between compressor hp and tonnage output

The Equation for Calculating a Heat Load

The truth is the equation for calculating a heat load remains the same no matter what the conditions. It’s the conditions that change.:

Q = m x C x ΔT

Q = Heat Load (BTU/hr)

m = Mass of fluid being cooled

C = Specific heat of fluid (BTU/lb-°F)

ΔT = Change in fluid temperature

Since we know that there are 8.33 lbs in each gallon of water and 60 minutes in an hour, we can convert the “m” value to GPM or gallon per minute (of water). That factor is 499.8. With that, our equation now looks like this:

Q = GPM x C x ΔT x 499.8

Q = Heat Load (BTU/hr)

GPM = Water flow in gallons per minute

C = Specific heat of fluid (BTU/lb-°F)

ΔT = Change in fluid temperature

499.8 = Constant converting lbs to GPM

Further clarifying this to incorporate fluids other than water, the equation changes even more:

Q = GPM x SG x C x ΔT x 499.8

Q = Heat Load (BTU/hr)

GPM = Fluid flow in gallons per minute

SG = Fluid Specific Gravity

C = Specific heat of fluid (BTU/lb-°F)

ΔT = Change in fluid temperature

499.8 = Constant converting lbs to GPM

How to Calculate Chiller Tonnage – Formula

The final step to convert your answer into tons of chiller capacity is to divide your result, Q (BTUs per hour), by 12,000 (the number of BTUs in one ton of cooling capacity). This will give you, in tons per hour, the chiller capacity that is needed to handle the process heat load.

Calculate tons of cooling capacity equation: Tons = BTU/hr, ÷ 12,000


As a rule of thumb, you need to know at least three of these values in order to calculate the load: Flow rate (& fluid type), Inlet temperature, outlet temperature, and heat load or tonnage required. Going back to our example of a “10 ton” chiller requirement, we will provide some more solid information: Flow = 20gpm; ΔT = 10°F; Fluid is 30% ethylene glycol; Leaving fluid requested at 35°F — Our equation will look like this:

Q = 20gpm x 1.06 (SG) x 0.87BTU/lb-°F x 10°F x 499.8min-lb/gal-hr

Q = 92,183 BTU/hr

Q = 92,183 BTU/hr ÷ (12,000 BTU/ton)

Q = 7.68 tons

So in this case, the correct selection would be our STACT11S (11HP) air cooled scroll process chiller. This unit will produce just under 8 tons at design. There would not be much of a safety factor at these conditions, but it will still handle the duty. Hopefully this helps to clear up some of the confusion in choosing a type of chiller system. Thanks for reading. Still looking for help on how to best calculate process chiller loads? Check out our technical library or contact Smart Family of Cooling Products today!

STACT9S scroll chiller

Contact Us For Chiller Capacity Help

Smart Family of Cooling Products knows how to calculate chiller tonnage to get you the right size. Talk to one of our experts or contact us to get started on your next project!