An air conditioner is an appliance, system, or mechanism designed to extract heat from an area via a refrigeration cycle. In construction, a complete system of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning is referred to as "HVAC." Its purpose, in a building or an automobile, is to provide comfort during either hot or cold weather.
In the refrigeration cycle, a heat pump transfers heat from a lower-temperature heat source into a higher-temperature heat sink. Heat would naturally flow in the opposite direction. This is the most common type of air conditioning. A refrigerator works in much the same way, as it pumps the heat out of the interior into the room in which it stands.
This cycle takes advantage of the way phase changes work, where latent heat is released at a constant temperature during a liquid/gas phase change, and where varying the pressure of a pure substance also varies its condensation/boiling point.
The most common refrigeration cycle uses an electric motor to drive a compressor. In an automobile, the compressor is driven by a belt over a pulley, the belt being driven by the engine's crankshaft (similar to the driving of the pulleys for the alternator, power steering, etc.). Whether in a car or building, both use electric fan motors for air circulation. Since evaporation occurs when heat is absorbed, and condensation occurs when heat is released, air conditioners use a compressor to cause pressure changes between two compartments, and actively condense and pump a refrigerant around. A refrigerant is pumped into the cooled compartment (the evaporator coil), where the low pressure causes the refrigerant to evaporate into a vapor, taking heat with it. In the other compartment (the condenser), the refrigerant vapor is compressed and forced through another heat exchange coil, condensing into a liquid, rejecting the heat previously absorbed from the cooled space.
Air conditioning equipment usually reduces the humidity of the air processed by the system. The relatively cold (below the dew point) evaporator coil condenses water vapor from the processed air, much like a cold drink will condense water on the outside of a glass. The water is drained, removing water vapor from the cooled space and thereby lowering its relative humidity. Since humans perspire to provide natural cooling by the evaporation of perspiration from the skin, drier air (up to a point) improves the comfort provided. The comfort air conditioner is designed to create a 40% to 60% relative humidity in the occupied space. In food retail establishments, large, open chiller cabinets act as highly effective dehumidifiers.
Some air conditioning units dry the air without cooling it. These work like a normal air conditioner, except that a heat exchanger is placed between the intake and exhaust. In combination with convection fans, they achieve a similar level of comfort as an air cooler in humid tropical climates, but only consume about one-third the energy. They are also preferred by those who find the draft created by air coolers uncomfortable.
"Freon" is a trade name for a family of haloalkane refrigerants manufactured by DuPont and other companies. These refrigerants were commonly used due to their superior stability and safety properties. Unfortunately, evidence has accumulated that these chlorine-bearing refrigerants reach the upper atmosphere when they escape. Once the refrigerant reaches the stratosphere, UV radiation from the Sun cleaves the chlorine-carbon bond, yielding a chlorine radical. These chlorine atoms catalyze the breakdown of ozone into diatomic oxygen, depleting the ozone layer that shields the Earth's surface from strong UV radiation. Each chlorine radical remains active as a catalyst unless it binds with another chlorine radical, forming a stable molecule and breaking the chain reaction. CFC refrigerants in common but decreasing usage include R-11 and R-12. Newer and more environmentally-safe refrigerants such as HCFCs (R-22, used in most homes today) and HFCs (R-134a, used in most cars) have replaced most CFC use. HCFCs in turn are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol and replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) such as R-410A, which lack chlorine.
Many traditional air conditioners in homes or other buildings are single rectangular units used to cool all or a portion of an apartment, house, or other building. Hotels frequently use PTAC systems, which combine heating and air conditioning into the same unit. Air conditioner units need to have access to the space they are cooling (the inside) and a heat sink; normally outside air is used to cool the condenser section. For this reason, single unit air conditioners are placed in windows or through openings in a wall made for the air conditioner; the latter type includes portable air conditioners.
Window and through-wall units have vents on both the inside and outside, so inside air to be cooled can be blown in and out by a fan in the unit, and outside air can also be blown in and out by another fan to act as the heat sink. The controls are on the inside.
A large house or building may have several such units. Should virtually every room be cooled with its own air conditioning unit, most of the day, it would be less expensive to use central air conditioning, though that may not be physically possible.
In very dry climates, evaporative coolers (or "swamp coolers") are popular for improving comfort during hot weather. This type of cooler is the dominant cooler used in Iran, which has the largest number of these units of any country in the world, causing some to referring to these units as "Persian coolers. An evaporative cooler is a device that draws outside air through a wet pad, such as a large sponge soaked with water. The sensible heat of the incoming air, as measured by a dry bulb thermometer, is reduced. The total heat (sensible heat plus latent heat) of the entering air is unchanged. Some of the sensible heat of the entering air is converted to latent heat by the evaporation of water in the wet cooler pads. If the entering air is dry enough, the results can be quite comfortable. These coolers cost less and are mechanically simple to understand and maintain.
There is a related, more complex process called absorptive refrigeration which uses heat to produce cooling. In one instance, a three-stage absorptive cooler first dehumidifies the air with a spray of salt water or brine. The brine osmotically absorbs water vapor from the air. The second stage sprays water in the air, cooling the air by evaporation. Finally, to control the humidity, the air passes through another brine spray. The brine is reconcentrated by distillation. This system is used in some hospitals because, with filtering, a sufficiently hot regenerative distillation removes airborne pathogens.
Some buildings use gas turbines to generate electricity. The exhaust gases of these turbines are hot enough to drive an absorptive chiller that produces cold water. The cold water is then run through radiators in air ducts for hydronic cooling. The dual use of the energy, for both electricity generation and cooling, makes this technology attractive when regional utility and fuel prices are right. Producing heat, power, and cooling in one system is known as trigeneration.
Central air conditioning, commonly referred to as central air (U.S.) or air-con (UK), is an air conditioning system which uses ducts to distribute cooled and/or dehumidified air to more than one room, or uses pipes to distribute chilled water to heat exchangers in more than one room, and which is not plugged into a standard electrical outlet.
With a typical split system, the condenser and compressor are located in an outdoor unit; the evaporator is mounted in the air handler unit. With a package system, all components are located in a single outdoor unit that may be located on the ground or roof.
Central air conditioning performs like a regular air conditioner but has several added benefits:
Thermostats control the operation of HVAC systems, turning on the heating or cooling systems to bring the building to the set temperature. Typically the heating and cooling systems have separate control systems (even though they may share a thermostat) so that the temperature is only controlled "one-way." That is, in cold weather, a building that is too hot will not be cooled by the thermostat. Thermostats may also be incorporated into facility energy management systems in which the power utility customer may control the overall energy expenditure. In addition, a growing number of power utilities have made available a device which, when professionally installed, will control or limit the power to an HVAC system during peak use times in order to avoid necessitating the use of rolling blackouts. The customer is given a credit of some sort in exchange, so it is often to the advantage of the consumer to buy the most efficient thermostat possible.
Air conditioner equipment power in the U.S. is often described in terms of "tons of refrigeration." A "ton of refrigeration" is defined as the cooling power of one short ton (2000 pounds or 907 kilograms) of ice melting in a 24-hour period. This is equal to 12,000 BTU per hour, or 3517 watts. Residential central air systems are usually from 1 to 5 tons (3 to 20 kilowatts (kW)) in capacity.
The use of electric/compressive air conditioning puts a major demand on the electrical power grid in warm weather, when most units are operating under heavy load. In the aftermath of the 2003 North America blackout locals were asked to keep their air conditioning off. During peak demand, additional power plants must often be brought online, usually expensive peaker plants. A 1995 meta-analysis of various utility studies concluded that the average air conditioner wasted 40% of the input energy. This energy is lost in the form of heat, which must be pumped out. There is a huge opportunity to reduce the need for new power plants and to conserve energy.
For residential homes, some countries set minimum requirements for energy efficiency. In the United States, the efficiency of air conditioners is often (but not always) rated by the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER). The higher the SEER rating, the more energy efficient is the air conditioner. The SEER rating is the BTU of cooling output during its normal annual usage divided by the total electric energy input in watt hours (W·h) during the same period.
For example, a 5000 BTU/h air-conditioning unit, with a SEER of 10, operating for a total of 1000 hours during an annual cooling season (i.e., 8 hours per day for 125 days) would provide an annual total cooling output of:
which, for a SEER of 10, would be an annual electrical energy usage of:
and that is equivalent to an average power usage during the cooling season of:
SEER is related to the coefficient of performance (COP) commonly used in thermodynamics and also to the Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER). The EER is the efficiency rating for the equipment at a particular pair of external and internal temperatures, while SEER is calculated over a whole range of external temperatures (i.e., the temperature distribution for the geographical location of the SEER test). SEER is unusual in that it is composed of an Imperial unit divided by an SI unit. The COP is a ratio with the same metric units of energy (joules) in both the numerator and denominator. They cancel out, leaving a dimensionless quantity. Formulas for the approximate conversion between SEER and EER or COP are available from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company:
From equation (2) above, a SEER of 13 is equivalent to a COP of 3.43, which means that 3.43 units of heat energy are pumped per unit of work energy.
Today, it is rare to see systems rated below SEER 9 in the United States, since older units are being replaced with higher-efficiency units. The United States now requires that residential systems manufactured in 2006 have a minimum SEER rating of 13 (although window-box systems are exempt from this law, so their SEER is still around 10). Substantial energy savings can be obtained from more efficient systems. For example by upgrading from SEER 9 to SEER 13, the power consumption is reduced by 30% (equal to 1 - 9/13). It is claimed that this can result in an energy savings valued at up to US$300 per year (depending on the usage rate and the cost of electricity). In many cases, the lifetime energy savings are likely to surpass the higher initial cost of a high-efficiency unit.
As an example, the annual cost of electric power consumed by a 72,000 BTU/h air conditioning unit operating for 1000 hours per year with a SEER rating of 10 and a power cost of $0.08 per kilowatt hour (kW·h) may be calculated as follows:
A common misconception is that the SEER rating system also applies to heating systems. However, SEER ratings only apply to air conditioning.
Air conditioners (for cooling) and heat pumps (for heating) both work similarly in that heat is transferred or "pumped" from a cooler heat source to a warmer "heat sink". Air conditioners and heat pumps usually operate most effectively at temperatures around 10 to 13 degrees Celsius (°C) (50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit (°F)). A balance point is reached when the heat source temperature falls below about 4 °C (40 °F), and the system is not able to pull any more heat from the heat source (this point varies from heat pump to heat pump). Similarly, when the heat sink temperature rises to about 49 °C (120 °F), the system will operate less effectively, and will not be able to "push" out any more heat. Geothermal heat pumps do not have this problem of reaching a balance point because they use the ground as a heat source/heat sink and the ground's thermal inertia prevents it from becoming too cold or too warm when moving heat from or to it. The ground's temperature does not vary nearly as much over a year as that of the air above it.
Domestic air conditioning is most prevalent and ubiquitous in developed Asian nations and territories, such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong—especially in the latter two due to most of the population living in small high-rise flats. In these areas, with high summer temperatures and a high standard of living, air conditioning is considered a necessity and not a luxury. Japanese-made domestic air conditioners are usually window or split types, the latter being more modern and expensive. Air conditioning is also increasing in popularity with the rising standard of living in tropical Asian nations such as Thailand, India, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In Indonesia, an air-conditioning unit is considered a must in every home due to the high temperature.
In the United States, home air conditioning is most prevalent in the South/Southwest and on the East Coast, areas in which it has reached the ubiquity it enjoys in East Asia. Central air systems are most common in the United States, and are virtually standard in all new dwellings in most states.
In Europe, home air conditioning is generally less common in part due to higher energy costs and moderate summer temperatures. Some European countries like Switzerland even forbid installation without permission, as these devices use lots of energy and are considered environmentally unfriendly. Southern European countries such as Greece, on the other hand, have seen a wide proliferation of home air-conditioning units in recent years. The lack of air conditioning in residences, residential care homes, and medical facilities was identified as a contributing factor to the estimated 35,000 deaths—mostly in Germany, France and Italy—left in the wake of the 2003 heat wave.
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