Air Conditioning Explained

Air conditioning and refrigeration are provided through the removal of heat. Heat can be removed through radiation, convection, and by heat pump systems through a process called the refrigeration cycle. Refrigeration conduction media such as water, air, ice, and chemicals are referred to as refrigerants.

An air conditioning system, or a standalone air conditioner, provides cooling, ventilation, and humidity control for all or part of a house or building.

The refrigeration cycle uses four essential elements to create a cooling effect. The system refrigerant starts its cycle in a gaseous state. The compressor pumps the refrigerant gas up to a high pressure and temperature. From there it enters a heat exchanger (sometimes called a "condensing coil" or condenser) where it loses energy (heat) to the outside. In the process the refrigerant condenses into a liquid. The liquid refrigerant is returned indoors to another heat exchanger ("evaporating coil" or evaporator). A metering device allows the liquid to flow in at a low pressure at the proper rate. As the liquid refrigerant evaporates it absorbs energy (heat) from the inside air, returns to the compressor, and repeats the cycle. In the process heat is absorbed from indoors and transferred outdoors, resulting in cooling of the building.

In variable climates, the system may include a reversing valve that automatically switches from heating in winter to cooling in summer. By reversing the flow of refrigerant, the heat pump refrigeration cycle is changed from cooling to heating or vice versa. This allows a residence or facility to be heated and cooled by a single piece of equipment, by the same means, and with the same hardware.

Central, 'all-air' air conditioning systems (or package systems) with a combined outdoor condenser/evaporator unit are often installed in modern residences, offices, and public buildings, but are difficult to retrofit (install in a building that was not designed to receive it) because of the bulky air ducts required to carry the needed air to heat or cool an area. The duct system must be carefully maintained to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria such as legionella in the ducts.

An alternative to central systems is the use of separate indoor and outdoor coils in split systems. These systems, although most often seen in residential applications, are gaining popularity in small commercial buildings. The evaporator coil is connected to a remote condenser unit using refrigerant piping between an indoor and outdoor unit instead of ducting air directly from the outdoor unit. Indoor units with directional vents mount onto walls, suspend from ceilings, or fit into the ceiling. Other indoor units mount inside the ceiling cavity, so that short lengths of duct handle air from the indoor unit to vents or diffusers around the room or rooms.

Dehumidification in an air conditioning system is provided by the evaporator. Since the evaporator operates at a temperature below dew point, moisture in the air condenses on the evaporator coil tubes. This moisture is collected at the bottom of the evaporator in a pan and removed by piping to a central drain or onto the ground outside. A dehumidifier is an air-conditioner-like device that controls the humidity of a room or building. It is often employed in basements which have a higher relative humidity because of their lower temperature (and propensity for damp floors and walls). In food retailing establishments, large open chiller cabinets are highly effective at dehumidifying the internal air. Conversely, a humidifier increases the humidity of a building.

Air-conditioned buildings often have sealed windows, because open windows would work against an HVAC system intended to maintain constant indoor air conditions.

All modern air conditioning systems, down to small "window" package units, are equipped with internal air filters. These are generally of a lightweight gauzy material, and must be replaced as conditions warrant (some models may be washable). For example, a building in a high-dust environment, or a home with furry pets, will need to have the filters changed more often than buildings without these dirt loads. Failure to replace these filters as needed will contribute to a lower heat-exchange rate, resulting in wasted energy, shortened equipment life, and higher energy bills; low air flow can result in "iced-up" or "iced-over" evaporator coils, which can completely stop air flow. Additionally, very dirty or plugged filters can cause overheating during a heating cycle, and can result in damage to the system or even fire.

It is important to keep in mind that because an air conditioner moves heat between the indoor coil and the outdoor coil, both must be kept just as clean. This means that, in addition to replacing the air filter at the evaporator coil, it is also necessary to regularly clean the condenser coil. Failure to keep the condenser clean will eventually result in harm to the compressor, because the condenser coil is responsible for discharging both the indoor heat (as picked up by the evaporator) and the heat generated by the electric motor driving the compressor.

Outside, "fresh" air is generally drawn into the system by a vent into the indoor heat exchanger section, creating positive air pressure. The percentage of return air made up of fresh air can usually be manipulated by adjusting the opening of this vent.


We would have no hesitation in recommending you or your team
Chris Gibbard, Tingdene Group of Companies

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