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How air conditioners work: a guide

How air conditioners work may be a puzzle for you, yet it is based on a centuries old concept.

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How air conditioners work is no mystery, just science. Photo by Patrick Hoesly on Flickr.Great air conditioning is a necessity for many for comfortable living in hot weather. How air conditioners work may be a puzzle for you, yet it is based on a centuries old concept.

Air conditioners take advantage of one principle of thermodynamics: When a liquid converts to a gas, it absorbs heat. This is called "phase dynamics," and it's not a new idea.

In fact, the first air conditioners were found in ancient Egypt, where wealthy citizens and nobles had slaves fan large clay jars of water to create a primitive swamp cooler. The evaporating water cooled the entire room to a comfortable temperature.

Modern air conditioners work more efficiently and don't require slave labor. Instead, these devices use refrigerants in sealed tubes. The refrigerants are pumped through condensers and evaporate and condense over and over, thus cooling the tube. Warmer air is forced through a complex duct system to pass over the condensers, where it cools before exiting the air conditioner and entering either a larger duct system or the room to be cooled. 

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Because of its setup, window AC units are usually not as effective as central air conditioners. In central air conditioner systems, this cooled air is then forced through cooling ducts throughout the entire house.

How central air works most efficiently is through using well-designed home cooling ducts for air delivery. By traveling the shortest possible distance from a central HVAC system, a good central air system minimizes loss of coolness and maximizes the force of circulating air.

Window units, on the other hand, have smaller refrigerant tubes with less space for air passage. In most cases, window unit air conditioners are inefficient for cooling more than a single room each, though they are often very efficient for a single room.

While window air conditioner prices are more attractive, the loss of efficiency means you pay more for electricity to cool your home. When you install a central AC, your home cooling costs generally go down.

The right contractor will understand clearly how air conditioners work. Ask contractors for an air conditioner estimate for several different types of air conditioners for your home, and ask about the pros and cons of each type. Talk about how you plan to use your air conditioner, and also ensure that your existing central heating ductwork is up to the job of central air conditioning.

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Once you've narrowed down precisely what kind of air conditioning you want to use in your home, make sure you get a good and binding warranty. Get a warranty not just for the air conditioning unit, but also for any ductwork and insulation the contractor does during the install.

Air conditioning has come a long way over the last several thousand years, but it all works on the simple principle of evaporation cooling. Now that you understand how air conditioners work, use Reply! to help you locate the best contractors for installing the most efficient air conditioning system for your home.

 Get your 4 free cooling estimates!

Photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via Compfight CC.