Variable Displacement Compressor - How it Works

Updated on February 18, 2014

Unlike the old Fixed Displacement Compressor (FDC), the Variable Displacement Compressor (VDC) automatically varies its pumping capacity to meet air-conditioning demands. When the car’s cabin temperature is high, it increases its refrigeration capacity until the desired temperature is reached. Once the desired temperature is reached it automatically reduces its capacity to maintain the desired temperature.

With a VDC there is no jerking of the engine brought about by the switching on and off of the compressor clutch (as in FDC). In fact, some VDCs have no clutch at all. This results to a very smooth operation and improvement in fuel consumption.

Two Types of Variable Displacement Compressor (Fig. 1a and Fig. 1b)

There are two commonly used types of VDCs – the Internally Controlled Variable Displacement Compressor (ICVDC) and the Externally Controlled VDC (ECVDC). Fig. 1a shows an ICVDC and Fig. 1b shows an ECVDC. They have basically the same internal structure. They differ only on the manner the Displacement Control Valve is actuated. In an ICVDC the control valve is actuated by the refrigerant pressure at the suction chamber of the compressor by means of a bellows or diaphragm. In an ECVDC, actuation of the control valve is done by the engine’s ECU or by an external electronic module by means of a solenoid actuator. Note the wiring harness of the solenoid actuator (Fig. 1b). The solenoid is inside the valve.

Externally Controlled Variable Displacement Compressors (ECVDC) have far better control of the piston displacement, and hence the temperature, compared to ICVDC. This makes the clutch entirely unnecessary in ECVDC, as shown in Fig. 1b.

The Internal Structure of a Variable Displacement Compressor (VDC) (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2 shows the internal components of a VDC.

Internally Controlled Variable Displacement Compressor (ICVDC) - Uncharged And Not Running (Fig. 3)

When the compressor is not charged with refrigerant, the swash plate is held at the minimum-angle position by the spring on the shaft (Fig. 3). The bellows of the Displacement Control Valve (DCV) is at expanded condition, closing the low side port while opening the high side port.

ICVDC Charged But Not Running (Fig. 4)

When the system is charged and the compressor is not running the pressure in all chambers of the compressor is the same. This pressure causes the bellows of the DCV to contract, opening the low side port, while closing the high pressure port. See Fig. 4.

ICVDC Charged and Running, Reaching Its Maximum Displacement (Fig. 5)

The swash plate’s slightly slanted position creates a small displacement at the compression chamber of the compressor (Fig. 4). When the compressor runs , the swash plate which rotate with the shaft wobbles a little. This wobbling action causes the pistons to move back and forth at a short stroke.

On each suction stroke of the pistons, a small volume of refrigerant is sucked into the compression chamber through the suction reed valve, which is then pumped out into the discharge chamber through the discharge reed valve on each compression stroke of the pistons. This increases the pressure at the discharge chamber of the compressor, while reducing the pressure at the suction chamber. Since the low-side port of the Displacement Control Valve (DCV) is open at this stage, the same reduced pressure is present at the control chamber.

The refrigerant pressure at the control chamber and the spring around the shaft exert a combined force (F2) at the back of each piston. As pumping continues, there comes a time (and this won’t be long) when the force at the back of each piston (F2) is lesser than the force exerted on the head of each piston (F1) by the refrigerant in the compression chamber.

By the time F1 is greater that F2, the pistons opposite the pivot are pushed to the left by the resultant force (F1 minus F2). This Increases the swash plate angle and of course, the piston displacement. In effect, more refrigerant is sucked from the suction chamber and pumped out into the discharge chamber. This increases further the pressure at the discharge chamber and decreases the pressure at the suction chamber. And since the low-side port of the control valve is still open at this stage, the pressure at the control chamber is also reduced. This increases the resultant force on the piston head (F1 minus F2), which in effect increases the swash plate angle and the piston displacement.

This increase in capacity (displacement) continues until the swash plate is at the maximum angle position. In this case, the compressor reaches its maximum capacity.

ICVDC Adjusts To Its Minimum Displacement (Fig. 6)

As the compressor continues to run at maximum capacity (displacement), the cabin temperature will continue to decrease until the desired temperature is reached. At this stage the low-side pressure (suction chamber pressure) is low enough to cause the billows of the DCV to expand, closing the low-side port and opening the high-side port of the DCV (Fig. 6). This channels the high pressure refrigerant to the control chamber. At this stage the force at the back of the pistons (F2) is greater than the force at the head of the pistons (F1). This decreases the piston displacement.

Fuel Efficiency

In actual operation, when the air-conditioning system has stabilized and the desired temperature is reached, the piston displacement is neither maximum nor minimum. It is at a dispacement just enough to maintain a stable cabin temperature. The displacement will increase only when there is a demand for it, like when the door is opened, but will return to its stable condition once the temperature is stabilized.

The larger the displacement, the harder it is to turn the compressor shaft and the more engine power is needed. Correspondingly, the smaller the displacement, the lesser engine power is needed. Lesser engine power requirement means lesser fuel consumption. And since the compressor's displacement is not maximum at normal condition, lesser engine power is needed. Hence, lower fuel consumption.

A Problem Commonly Encountered With Internally Controlled Variable Displacement Compressors (ICVDC)

A problem we encountered with ICVDCs is the loss of cooling as the engine is revved up. At idle cooling is just right. Using a manifold gage, you will notice that as the engine is revved up the pressure at the low side starts to rise and that of the high side starts to decrease. It is as if the clutch has disengage, but it has not.

It is very likely that the compressor has still enough pumping capacity. It may just be that the compressor prematurely decreases its displacement (capacity) resulting in the loss of cooling as the engine is revved up. There may be a number of reasons why this is so, but one thing is sure… the Displacement Control Valve prematurely closes the low side port, at the same time opening the high side port as the engine is revved up. We’ve successfully implemented a solution to this problem, and if you would like to know how we did it please see my other hub titled “Adjusting an Internally Controlled Variable Displacement Compressor or Converting It to Function as a Fixed Displacement Compressor”.

See you there.


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    • profile image

      Zeyar 15 months ago

      Hi, I have a car that service manual says it uses variable displacement compressor SD7V16, however on the used car i bought the compressor is SE7H13 which i learnt is not a variable displacement type. The compressor does not have intermittently on-off cycle too, which i guess the previous owner changed it. Car's service manual says it uses ECU's electronic pulse to control displacement. So, Is it possible that previous owner could have just plugged in the current compressor without modifications? If i change it back to SD7V16, will it work just fine?

    • profile image

      Joe 17 months ago

      Hi. 2006 BMW650i Clutchless AC compressor won't pressurize. Disconnected Electronic Control Valve harness and tested it to read 18ohms. DC supply reads 5volts then goes up to 14volts shortly after engine start while connected. Minor rattle seems to be coming from the compressor when voltage shifts from 5V to 14V as if it's trying to engage but nothing happens. I'm suspecting either the compressor or its Electronic Control Valve to have failed. What do you think? Any other possibilities causing the AC not to work?

      BTW I already replaced the pressure sensor and vacuumed it and recharged it with r134a before I started suspecting the compressor itself.

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      Ron 19 months ago

      is there a replacement icdvc valve for a mercedes benz as the compressor itself seems fine

    • profile image

      Dr Haroon 20 months ago

      Hello. My car ac keeps on tripping. Its a toyota corolla 2013 and has a ICVD (densto tse14c) i believe. It just does it by itself .... trips for a couple of minutes or maybe more but when its working it cools like frozen ice.

      Somebody said the compressor has carbon particles and needs to be replaced. I dont think thats the issue .... is i the control valve and ECU issue ? im really confused as this is the 2nd compressor which I just installed (new).

    • Rhino Guerrero profile image

      Victor Mangubat 2 years ago from Philippines

      Hi Dave,

      If your Avensis has an Internally-Controlled Variable Displacement (ICVD) compressor, it is very likely that it has a clutch. Without the clutch, it would be difficult to enable and disable the compressor when the aircon system is turned on or off. Moreover, most Engine Management Systems disables the compressor when the engine is overloaded and without the clutch this is impossible to implement.

      Clutchless compressors are those that are Externally Controlled, where total control of the compressor is done by the ECU via the Control Valve.

      With regards to the 'tick over', there are a number of possible causes. One thing I can suggest is to check if your car has a window type of refrigerant pressure sensor, the one that triggers the turning off of the compressor when the pressure is low and when the pressure is high. It could be possible that the sensor is sensing a high pressure due to overcharging or insufficient cooling.

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      Dave Webster 2 years ago

      I have a Toyota Avensis with a Variable Displacement compressor, the system works OK and is topped up, but at tick over the compressor constantly loads and unloads together with the condenser cooling van every 10 seconds approx. If there is no clutch why should it do this?