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How does Air Conditioning actually Work?

While most of us take cool air in our homes for granted, have you ever wanted to find out exactly how your AC system makes cold air when it’s hot outside? Here’s your chance to find out.

For those of us in the south, air-conditioning is more than a convenience.

In fact, some might argue that a properly functioning A/C unit is really the only reason that certain regions of the country are even inhabitable year-round.

When temperatures get hot, people start turning on their air-conditioning units to make their houses more comfortable. For some people – particularly the elderly – not having cooling in their homes can actually be life threatening.

Have you ever wondered exactly how you’re a/c unit can turn hot outside air into cool refreshing air? Let’s find out.

Refrigeration Basics

Air conditioners work on refrigeration. In fact, according to Energy Quest, it’s perfectly acceptable to think of your air conditioner and your refrigerator as basically the same type of device.

The only difference is the amount of space that those devices are responsible for cooling.

In the case of a refrigerator, the cooling system only has to worry about the small volume of air inside your refrigerator, which is closed off from the outer atmosphere by a sealed door.

Your home A/C unit is really quite a bit more impressive. It refrigerates your entire house, which is quite a feat. If your air conditioner is properly maintained and modern, it can cool your house very efficiently and for quite affordable rates.

It’s All in the Exchange

An air conditioner consists of three basic parts

  • A condenser
  • A compressor; and
  • An evaporator

If you’ve ever had your air conditioner serviced, the service technician has probably worked on one of these parts, as a failure in any one of them will make your system function poorly or not at all.

When all of these parts – and the other parts involved in the air conditioner – function together, a chemical is utilized to take the heat out of the air and to transfer that heat outside of the building. In fact, if you walk outside and put your hand in front of the external part of an air-conditioning unit, you’ll usually feel warm air coming out of it.

Air-conditioners convert liquids into a gas. During this process, that liquid can absorb heat. The way that an air conditioner works is by utilizing chemicals that can be evaporated and condensed back into a liquid and, during that process, using the heat absorbing potential to literally take the heat out of the air in the room.

The hot interior airing your home is blown over refrigeration coils by fans. This sucks the heat out of the air and, because re-compressing the refrigerant creates heat, the hot air has to be blown out of the house. Essentially, the exchange between liquid and gas allows heat to be removed from the interior air in a home and, because refrigerants can do this over and over again, what is set up is basically an endless cycle that keeps cold air pumped into your home and hot air pumping out.


The Parts

Going back to those parts, How Stuff Works  does a good example of breaking down the various parts and how they work. You may have had them serviced by a technician. Your evaporator is the part that actually takes in the liquid refrigerant. The condenser allows heat to be transferred, cooling off the air. The expansion valve is the part that actually gets the refrigerant back into the evaporator and the compressor pressurizes that refrigerant, turning it back into a liquid.

Get all of these parts working in concert and you end up with a cool house, even in the hottest weather. Keeping these systems properly maintained is the only way to ensure that they will function correctly and that you get the greatest possible benefit – and lowest cost – out of using your air conditioner.

Image Credit: Home.HowStuffWorks.com