air-conditioning-workLet’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 athermostat. 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:

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).

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.

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.

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].

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