Aircraft Fuel Heaters and Ice Prevention

Turbine powered aircraft operate at high altitude where the temperature is very low. As the fuel in the fuel tanks cools, water in the fuel condenses and freezes. It may form ice crystals in the tank or as the fuel/water solution slows and contacts the cool filter element on its way through fuel filter to the engine(s). The formation of ice on the filter element blocks the flow of fuel through the filter. A valve in the filter unit bypasses unfiltered fuel when this occurs. Fuel heaters are used to warm the fuel so that ice does not form. These heat exchanger units also heat the fuel sufficiently to melt any ice that has already formed.

Aircraft Fuel Heaters and Ice Prevention
Figure 1. A simple, gravity-feed fuel system on a Robinson helicopter

The most common types of fuel heaters are air/fuel heaters and oil/fuel heaters. An air/fuel heater uses warm compressor bleed air to heat the fuel. An oil/fuel exchanger heats the fuel with hot engine oil. This latter type is often referred to as a fuel-cooled oil cooler (FCOC). [Figure 1]

Fuel heaters often operate intermittently as needed. A switch in the cockpit can direct the hot air or oil through the unit or block it. The flight crew uses the information supplied by the filter bypass indicating lights and fuel temperature gauge [Figure 2] to know when to heat the fuel. Fuel heaters can also be automatic.

Aircraft Fuel Heaters and Ice Prevention
Figure 2. A Boeing 737 cockpit fuel panel showing illuminated valve position indicators and fuel filter bypass lights. The fuel temperature in tank No.1 is also indicated

A built-in thermostatic device opens or closes a valve that permits the hot air or hot oil to flow into the unit to cool the fuel. [Figure 3]

Aircraft Fuel Heaters and Ice Prevention
Figure 3. An air-fuel heat exchanger uses engine compressor bleed air to warm the fuel on many turbine engine powered aircraft

Note that some aircraft have a hydraulic fluid cooler in one of the aircraft fuel tanks. The fluid helps warm the fuel as it cools in this type of full-time heat exchanger.

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