Of course these things only break when you use them - which, of course, is precisely when you need them. It's been hot, humid, and generally miserable all week. It is 90-100F during the day and it "cools off" to 80 at night.
To a mechanical ignoramus like me, I know one thing: it's busted. Other more enlightened souls may care about how this magic box called the Air Conditioner (AC) works.
From How Stuff Works:
Most people think that air conditioners lower the temperature in their homes simply by pumping cool air in. What's really happening is the warm air from your house is being removed and cycled back in as cooler air. This cycle continues until your thermostat reaches the desired temperature.
An air conditioner is basically a refrigerator without the insulated box. It uses the evaporation of a refrigerant, like Freon, to provide cooling. The mechanics of the Freon evaporation cycle are the same in a refrigerator as in an air conditioner. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, the term Freon is generically "used for any of various nonflammable fluorocarbons used as refrigerants and as propellants for aerosols."
This is how the evaporation cycle in an air conditioner works (See How Refrigerators Work for complete details on this cycle):
- The compressor compresses cool Freon gas, causing it to become hot, high-pressure Freon gas (red in the diagram above).
- This hot gas runs through a set of coils so it can dissipate its heat, and it condenses into a liquid.
- The Freon liquid runs through an expansion valve, and in the process it evaporates to become cold, low-pressure Freon gas (light blue in the diagram above).
- This cold gas runs through a set of coils that allow the gas to absorb heat and cool down the air inside the building.
Mixed in with the Freon is a small amount of lightweight oil. This oil lubricates the compressor.
Air conditioners help clean your home's air as well. Most indoor units have filters that catch dust, pollen, mold spores and other allergens as well as smoke and everyday dirt found in the air. Most air conditioners also function as dehumidifiers. They take excess water from the air and use it to help cool the unit before getting rid of the water through a hose to the outside. Other units use the condensed moisture to improve efficiency by routing the cooled water back into the system to be reused.
So this is the general concept involved in air conditioning. In the next section, we'll take a look at window and split-system units.
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).
When you get into larger air-conditioning applications, its time to start looking at split-system units. A split-system air conditioner splits the hot side from the cold side of the system, as in the diagram below.
The cold side, consisting of the expansion valve and the cold coil, is generally placed into a furnace or some other air handler. The air handler blows air through the coil and routes the air throughout the building using a series of ducts. The hot side, known as the condensing unit, lives outside the building.
The unit consists of a long, spiral coil shaped like a cylinder. Inside the coil is a fan, to blow air through the coil, along with a weather-resistant compressor and some control logic. This approach has evolved over the years because it's low-cost, and also because it normally results in reduced noise inside the house (at the expense of increased noise outside the house). Other than the fact that the hot and cold sides are split apart and the capacity is higher (making the coils and compressor larger), there's no difference between a split-system and a window air conditioner.
In warehouses, large business offices, malls, big department stores and other sizeable buildings, the condensing unit normally lives on the roof and can be quite massive. Alternatively, there may be many smaller units on the roof, each attached inside to a small air handler that cools a specific zone in the building.