How Does an Air Conditioner Work?

It’s easy to tell when summer arrives. The temperature rises, the Sun shines brightly, and we start to sweat. While many people enjoy the warmer weather, they don’t like sweating all day long. That’s when air conditioning comes to the rescue, providing us with cool air to beat the heat. But have you ever wondered how air conditioning actually works?

Air conditioning is an essential part of modern life, making our homes and workplaces more comfortable. In fact, about 87 percent of homes in the United States use some form of air conditioning, according to the Energy Information Administration. But air conditioners don’t just magically create cool breezes by blowing air across polar ice crystals. They rely on scientific principles to function.

Although air conditioners come in various sizes and shapes, they all operate in a similar manner. Instead of pumping cold air into the house, air conditioners extract heat from the indoor environment. They use special chemicals called refrigerants, which can quickly switch between liquid and gas states.

Refrigerants absorb heat from inside the house and transport it outside, creating a cooling effect. The two most commonly used refrigerants today are R-22 and R-410A, also known as hydrochlorofluorocarbons or HCFCs.

An air conditioner consists of three main components: the evaporator, the compressor, and the condenser. The evaporator is located inside the house, while the compressor and condenser are typically found in the outdoor unit.

Inside the house, fans blow air across the evaporator. Warm air is drawn in from the ceiling and passes over the evaporator coils, where the cold refrigerant absorbs heat from the air. The cooled air is then distributed through air ducts by fans, cooling the entire house in the process.

As the refrigerant absorbs heat, it changes from a liquid to a gas. The vaporized refrigerant moves to the compressor, which increases its temperature and pressure.

The pressurized vapor then flows through the condenser. Here, the heat is released, causing the refrigerant to condense back into a liquid form. Most air conditioner condensers have closely packed metal fins that help dissipate heat efficiently.

The cooled liquid refrigerant is then cycled back inside the house to the evaporator, and the process repeats. This cycle continues until the desired temperature set by the homeowner on the thermostat is reached.

Try It Out

Wasn’t today’s Wonder of the Day super cool? Find a cool place to check out the following activities with a friend or family member:

How does an air conditioner work?

Have you ever wondered how an air conditioner works? Instead of magic or a special crystal, modern air conditioners rely on science. Take a moment to learn about the science behind air conditioners.

If you’re feeling creative, try coming up with an alternative explanation for how an air conditioner works. Write a story about it and share it with someone. Compare your imaginative explanation to the real scientific reasons and see which one they prefer.

Testing an air conditioner

Do you have an air conditioner at home or in your family vehicle? Here’s an experiment you can try. Find the nearest air conditioning unit and grab a thermometer or another temperature-measuring device. Start by taking a reading of the current air temperature. Then, turn on the air conditioner to its maximum setting and observe how quickly the temperature decreases. Does it continue to fall at a steady rate? See if you can achieve the lowest temperature possible with the air conditioner. If you can, try conducting the same experiment with a friend using their house or vehicle. Compare the results and analyze why they may be similar or different.

Make your own air conditioner

Feeling up for a challenge? Try making your own homemade air conditioner! Look up how-to videos online for three different homemade air conditioner projects. Choose one that interests you and gather an adult friend or family member to help you build it. Who knows, with your homemade air conditioner, you might even save money on your cooling bill this summer!

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