Air conditioners make hot weather bearable.

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How Air Conditioners Work

The first modern air conditioning system was developed in 1902 by a young electrical engineer named Willis Haviland Carrier. It was designed to solve a humidity problem at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. Paper stock at the plant would sometimes absorb moisture from the warm summer air, making it difficult to apply the layered inking techniques of the time. Carrier treated the air inside the building by blowing it across chilled pipes. The air cooled as it passed across the cold pipes, and since cool air can't carry as much moisture as warm air, the process reduced the humidity in the plant and stabilized the moisture content of the paper. Reducing the humidity also had the side benefit of lowering the air temperature -- and a new technology was born.

Carrier realized he'd developed something with far-reaching potential, and it wasn't long before air-conditioning systems started popping up in theaters and stores, making the long, hot summer months much more comfortable [source: Time].

The actual process air conditioners use to reduce the ambient air temperature in a room is based on a very simple scientific principle. The rest is achieved with the application of a few clever mechanical techniques. Actually, an air conditioner is very similar to another appliance in your home -- the refrigerator. Air conditioners don't have the exterior housing a refrigerator relies on to insulate its cold box. Instead, the walls in your home keep cold air in and hot air out.

Let's move on to the next page where we'll discover what happens to all that hot air when you use your air conditioner.

Cool the Green Way

The chemical composition of modern refrigerant compounds has changed over the last few decades as a result of environmental concerns and international treaty agreements like the Montreal Protocol. Older refrigerant formulas containing chlorine atoms that had the potential to damage the ozone layer have slowly been phased out in favor of more environmentally friendly coolants [source: EPA].

Air-conditioning Basics

Air conditioners use refrigeration to chill indoor air, taking advantage of a remarkable physical law: When a liquid converts to a gas (in a process called phase conversion), it absorbs heat. Air conditioners exploit this feature of phase conversion by forcing special chemical compounds to evaporate and condense over and over again in a closed system of coils.

The compounds involved are refrigerants that have properties enabling them to change at relatively low temperatures. Air conditioners also contain fans that move warm interior air over these cold, refrigerant-filled coils. In fact, central air conditioners have a whole system of ducts designed to funnel air to and from these serpentine, air-chilling coils.

When hot air flows over the cold, low-pressure evaporator coils, the refrigerant inside absorbs heat as it changes from a liquid to a gaseous state. To keep cooling efficiently, the air conditioner has to convert the refrigerant gas back to a liquid again. To do that, a compressor puts the gas under high pressure, a process that creates unwanted heat. All the extra heat created by compressing the gas is then evacuated to the outdoors with the help of a second set of coils called condenser coils, and a second fan. As the gas cools, it changes back to a liquid, and the process starts all over again. Think of it as an endless, elegant cycle: liquid refrigerant, phase conversion to a gas/ heat absorption, compression and phase transition back to a liquid again.

It's easy to see that there are two distinct things going on in an air conditioner. Refrigerant is chilling the indoor air, and the resulting gas is being continually compressed and cooled for conversion back to a liquid again. On the next page, we'll look at how the different parts of an air conditioner work to make all that possible.

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The Parts of an Air Conditioner

Let's get some housekeeping topics out of the way before we tackle the unique components that make up a standard air conditioner. The biggest job an air conditioner has to do is to cool the indoor air. That's not all it does, though. Air conditioners monitor and regulate the air temperature via a thermostat. They also have an onboard filter that removes airborne particulates from the circulating air. Air conditioners function as dehumidifiers. Because temperature is a key component of relative humidity, reducing the temperature of a volume of humid air causes it to release a portion of its moisture. That's why there are drains and moisture-collecting pans near or attached to air conditioners, and why air conditioners discharge water when they operate on humid days.

Still, the major parts of an air conditioner manage refrigerant and move air in two directions: indoors and outside:

  • Evaporator - Receives the liquid refrigerant
  • Condenser - Facilitates heat transfer
  • Expansion valve - regulates refrigerant flow into the evaporator
  • Compressor - A pump that pressurizes refrigerant

The cold side of an air conditioner contains the evaporator and a fan that blows air over the chilled coils and into the room. The hot side contains the compressor, condenser and another fan to vent hot air coming off the compressed refrigerant to the outdoors. In between the two sets of coils, there's an expansion valve. It regulates the amount of compressed liquid refrigerant moving into the evaporator. Once in the evaporator, the refrigerant experiences a pressure drop, expands and changes back into a gas. The compressor is actually a large electric pump that pressurizes the refrigerant gas as part of the process of turning it back into a liquid. There are some additional sensors, timers and valves, but the evaporator, compressor, condenser and expansion valve are the main components of an air conditioner.

Although this is a conventional setup for an air conditioner, there are a couple of variations you should know about. Window air conditioners have all these components mounted into a relatively small metal box that installs into a window opening. The hot air vents from the back of the unit, while the condenser coils and a fan cool and re-circulate indoor air. Bigger air conditioners work a little differently: Central air conditioners share a control thermostat with a home's heating system, and the compressor and condenser, the hot side of the unit, isn't even in the house. It's in a separate all-weather housing outdoors. In very large buildings, like hotels and hospitals, the exterior condensing unit is often mounted somewhere on the roof.

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Window and Split-system AC Units

A window air conditioner unit implements a complete air conditioner in a small space. The units are made small enough to fit into a standard window frame. You close the window down on the unit, plug it in and turn it on to get cool air. If you take the cover off of an unplugged window unit, you'll find that it contains:

  • A compressor
  • An expansion valve
  • A hot coil (on the outside)
  • A chilled coil (on the inside)
  • Two fans
  • A control unit

The fans blow air over the coils to improve their ability to dissipate heat (to the outside air) and cold (to the room being cooled).

When you get into larger air-conditioning applications, its time to start looking at split-system units. A split-system air conditioner splits the hot side from the cold side of the system, as in the diagram below.

The cold side, consisting of the expansion valve and the cold coil, is generally placed into a furnace or some other air handler. The air handler blows air through the coil and routes the air throughout the building using a series of ducts. The hot side, known as the condensing unit, lives outside the building.

The unit consists of a long, spiral coil shaped like a cylinder. Inside the coil is a fan, to blow air through the coil, along with a weather-resistant compressor and some control logic. This approach has evolved over the years because it's low-cost, and also because it normally results in reduced noise inside the house (at the expense of increased noise outside the house). Other than the fact that the hot and cold sides are split apart and the capacity is higher (making the coils and compressor larger), there's no difference between a split-system and a window air conditioner.

In warehouses, large business offices, malls, big department stores and other sizeable buildings, the condensing unit normally lives on the roof and can be quite massive. Alternatively, there may be many smaller units on the roof, each attached inside to a small air handler that cools a specific zone in the building.

In larger buildings and particularly in multi-story buildings, the split-system approach begins to run into problems. Either running the pipe between the condenser and the air handler exceeds distance limitations (runs that are too long start to cause lubrication difficulties in the compressor), or the amount of duct work and the length of ducts becomes unmanageable. At this point, it's time to think about a chilled-water system.

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Chilled-water and Cooling-tower AC Units

Although standard air conditioners are very popular, they can use a lot of energy and generate quite a bit of heat. For large installations like office buildings, air handling and conditioning is sometimes managed a little differently.

Some systems use water as part of the cooling process. The two most well-known are chilled water systems and cooling tower air conditioners.

  • Chilled water systems - In a chilled-water system, the entire air conditioner is installed on the roof or behind the building. It cools water to between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 and 7.2 degrees Celsius). The chilled water is then piped throughout the building and connected to air handlers. This can be a versatile system where the water pipes work like the evaporator coils in a standard air conditioner. If it's well-insulated, there's no practical distance limitation to the length of a chilled-water pipe.
  • Cooling tower technology - In all of the air conditioning systems we've described so far, air is used to dissipate heat from the compressor coils. In some large systems, a cooling tower is used instead. The tower creates a stream of cold water that runs through a heat exchanger, cooling the hot condenser coils. The tower blows air through a stream of water causing some of it to evaporate, and the evaporation cools the water stream. One of the disadvantages of this type of system is that water has to be added regularly to make up for liquid lost through evaporation. The actual amount of cooling that an air conditioning system gets from a cooling tower depends on the relative humidity of the air and the barometric pressure.

Because of rising electrical costs and environmental concerns, some other air cooling methods are being explored, too. One is off-peak or ice-cooling technology. An off-peak cooling system uses ice frozen during the evening hours to chill interior air during the hottest part of the day. Although the system does use energy, the largest energy drain is when community demand for power is at its lowest. Energy is less expensive during off-peak hours, and the lowered consumption during peak times eases the demand on the power grid.

Another option is geo-thermal heating. It varies, but at around 6 feet (1.8 meters) underground, the earth's temperature ranges from 45 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (7.2 to 23.8 degrees Celsius). The basic idea behind geo-thermal cooling is to use this constant temperature as a heat or cold source instead of using electricity to generate heat or cold. The most common type of geo-thermal unit for the home is a closed-loop system. Polyethylene pipes filled with a liquid mixture are buried underground. During the winter, the fluid collects heat from the earth and carries it through the system and into the building. During the summer, the system reverses itself to cool the building by pulling heat through the pipes to deposit it underground [source: Geo Heating].

For real energy efficiency, solar powered air conditioners are also making their debut. There may still be some kinks to work out, but around 5 percent of all electricity consumed in the U.S. is used to power air conditioning of one type or another, so there's a big market for energy-friendly air conditioning options [source: ACEEE].

The Heat Behind Humidity

Humans use perspiration to stay cool, and a relative humidity of around 45 percent is just about perfect to sweat. Very humid conditions are so uncomfortable because the air becomes saturated with moisture, and all that nice, cooling sweat can't evaporate. It has no place to go. Just think of that shiny glow as your body's personal AC -- when it isn't too humid out [source: HSW].

BTU and EER

Most air conditioners have their capacity rated in British thermal units (Btu). A Btu is the amount of heat necessary to raise the temperature of 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of water one degree Fahrenheit (0.56 degrees Celsius). One Btu equals 1,055 joules. In heating and cooling terms, one ton equals 12,000 Btu.

A typical window air conditioner might be rated at 10,000 Btu. For comparison, a typical 2,000-square-foot (185.8 square meters) house might have a 5-ton (60,000-Btu) air conditioning system, implying that you might need perhaps 30 Btu per square foot. These are rough estimates. To size an air conditioner accurately for your specific application, you should contact an HVAC contractor.

The energy efficiency rating (EER) of an air conditioner is its Btu rating over its wattage. As an example, if a 10,000-Btu air conditioner consumes 1,200 watts, its EER is 8.3 (10,000 Btu/1,200 watts). Obviously, you would like the EER to be as high as possible, but normally a higher EER is accompanied by a higher price.

Let's say you have a choice between two 10,000-Btu units. One has an EER of 8.3 and consumes 1,200 watts, and the other has an EER of 10 and consumes 1,000 watts. Let's also say that the price difference is $100. To determine the payback period on the more expensive unit, you need to know approximately how many hours per year you will be operating the air conditioner and how much a kilowatt-hour (kWh) costs in your area.

Assuming you plan to use the air conditioner six hours a day for four months of the year, at a cost of $0.10/kWh. The difference in energy consumption between the two units is 200 watts. This means that every five hours the less expensive unit will consume one additional kWh (or $0.10) more than the more expensive unit.

Let's do the math: With roughly 30 days in a month, you're operating the air conditioner:

4 months x 30 days per month x 6 hours per day = 720 hours

[(720 hours x 200 watts) / (1000 watts/kilowatt)] x $0.10/kilowatt hours = $14.40

The more expensive air conditioning unit costs $100 more to purchase but less money to operate. In our example, it'll take seven years for the higher priced unit to break even.

Passive Cooling

Some people go to the extreme and get rid of their AC units entirely. Passive cooling is the greenest of trends and a great way to save money. Passive cooling revolves around the concept of removing warm air from your home using the interaction between the house and its surroundings. There are several ways to block and remove heat, including shading through landscaping, using a dark exterior paint, installing a radiant barrier in the roof rafters and good old- fashioned insulation. Another way is through thermal siphoning, the process of removing heat through controlled airflow. Opening the lower windows on the breezy side of your house and the upper windows on the opposite side creates a vacuum that draws out the hot air. Ceiling fans and roof vents are other ways to direct heat out at low cost [source: Earth Easy].

Energy Efficient Cooling Systems

Because of the rising costs of electricity and a growing trend to "go green," more people are turning to alternative cooling methods to spare their pocketbooks and the environment. Big businesses are even jumping on board in an effort to improve their public image and lower their overhead.

Ice cooling systems are one way that businesses are combating high electricity costs during the summer. Ice cooling is as simple as it sounds. Large tanks of water freeze into ice at night, when energy demands are lower. The next day, a system much like a conventional air conditioner pumps the cool air from the ice into the building. Ice cooling saves money, cuts pollution, eases the strain on the power grid and can be used alongside traditional systems. The downside of ice cooling is that the systems are expensive to install and require a lot of space. Even with the high startup costs, more than 3,000 systems are in use worldwide [source: CNN]. You can read more about ice cooling in Are Ice Blocks Better than Air Conditioning?

An ice cooling system is a great way to save money and conserve energy, but its price tag and space requirements limit it to large buildings. One way that homeowners can save on energy costs is by installing geo-thermal heating and cooling systems, also known as ground source heat pumps (GSHP). The Environmental Protection Agency recently named geo-thermal units "the most energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive of all space conditioning systems" [source: EPA].

Although it varies, at six feet underground the Earth's temperatures range from 45 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The basic principle behind geo-thermal cooling is to use this constant temperature as a heat source instead of generating heat with electricity.

The most common type of geo-thermal unit for homes is the closed-loop system. Polyethylene pipes are buried under the ground, either vertically like a well or horizontally in three- to six-foot trenches. They can also be buried under ponds. Water or an anti-freeze/water mixture is pumped through the pipes. During the winter, the fluid collects heat from the earth and carries it through the system and into the building. During the summer, the system reverses itself to cool the building by pulling heat from the building, carrying it through the system and placing it in the ground [source: Geo Heating].

Homeowners can save 30 to 50 percent on their cooling bills by replacing their traditional HVAC systems with ground source heat pumps. The initial costs can be up to 30 percent more, but that money can be recouped in three to five years, and most states offer financial purchase incentives. Another benefit is that the system lasts longer than traditional units because it's protected from the elements and immune to theft [source: Geo Exchange].

You can learn more about air conditioners and related topics on the next page.

How Air Conditioners Work: Lots More Information

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More Great Links

Sources

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