Air conditioning

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Air conditioning condenser units outside a building
Window mounted air conditioner for single room use
Ceiling mounted cassette AC

Air conditioning, often abbreviated as A/C or AC, is the process of removing heat and controlling the humidity of air in an enclosed space to achieve a more comfortable interior environment by use of powered "air conditioners" or a variety of other methods, including passive cooling and ventilative cooling. Air conditioning is a member of a family of systems and techniques that provide heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).

Air conditioners, which typically use vapor-compression refrigeration, range in size from small units used within vehicles or single rooms to massive units that can cool large buildings.[1][2] Air source heat pumps, which can be used for heating as well as cooling, are becoming increasingly common in cooler climates.

According to the IEA, as of 2018, 1.6 billion air conditioning units were installed, which accounted for an estimated 20% of energy usage in buildings globally with the number expected to grow to 5.6 billion by 2050.[3] The United Nations called for the technology to be made more sustainable to mitigate climate change using techniques including passive cooling, evaporative cooling, selective shading, windcatchers and better thermal insulation. CFC and HCFC refrigerants such as R-12 and R-22, respectively, used within air conditioners have caused damage to the ozone layer, and HFC refrigerants such as R-410a and R-404a, which were designed to replace CFCs and HCFCs, are instead exacerbating climate change. Both issues happen due to venting of refrigerant to the atmosphere, such as during repairs. HFO refrigerants, used in some if not most new equipment, solve both issues with an ozone damage potential (ODP) of zero and a much lower global warming potential (GWP) in the single or double digits vs. the three or four digits of HFCs.


Air-conditioning dates back to prehistory. Ancient Egyptian buildings used a wide variety of passive air-conditioning techniques.[4] These became widespread from the Iberian Peninsula through North Africa, the Middle East, and Northern India.[5] Similar techniques were developed in hot climates elsewhere.[further explanation needed]

Passive techniques remained widespread until the 20th century, when they fell out of fashion, replaced by powered A/C. Using information from engineering studies of traditional buildings, passive techniques are being revived and modified for 21st-century architectural designs.[6][5]

An array of air conditioners outside a commercial office building

Air conditioners allow the building indoor environment to remain relatively constant largely independent of changes in external weather conditions and internal heat loads. They also allow deep plan buildings to be created and have allowed people to live comfortably in hotter parts of the world.[citation needed]


Preceding discoveries[edit]

In 1558, Giambattista della Porta described a method of chilling ice to temperatures far below its freezing point by mixing it with potassium nitrate (then called "nitre") in his popular science book Natural Magic.[7][8][9] In 1620, Cornelis Drebbel demonstrated "Turning Summer into Winter" for James I of England, chilling part of the Great Hall of Westminster Abbey with an apparatus of troughs and vats.[10] Drebbel's contemporary Francis Bacon, like della Porta a believer in science communication, may not have been present at the demonstration, but in a book published later the same year, he described it as "experiment of artificial freezing" and said that "Nitre (or rather its spirit) is very cold, and hence nitre or salt when added to snow or ice intensifies the cold of the latter, the nitre by adding to its own cold, but the salt by supplying activity to the cold of the snow."[7]

In 1758, Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley, a chemistry professor at University of Cambridge, conducted an experiment to explore the principle of evaporation as a means to rapidly cool an object. Franklin and Hadley confirmed that the evaporation of highly volatile liquids (such as alcohol and ether) could be used to drive down the temperature of an object past the freezing point of water. They conducted their experiment with the bulb of a mercury-in-glass thermometer as their object and with a bellows used to speed up the evaporation. They lowered the temperature of the thermometer bulb down to −14 °C (7 °F) while the ambient temperature was 18 °C (64 °F). Franklin noted that soon after they passed the freezing point of water 0 °C (32 °F), a thin film of ice formed on the surface of the thermometer's bulb and that the ice mass was about 6 mm (14 in) thick when they stopped the experiment upon reaching −14 °C (7 °F). Franklin concluded: "From this experiment one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer's day."[11]

The 19th century included a number of developments in compression technology. In 1820, English scientist and inventor Michael Faraday discovered that compressing and liquefying ammonia could chill air when the liquefied ammonia was allowed to evaporate.[12] In 1842, Florida physician John Gorrie used compressor technology to create ice, which he used to cool air for his patients in his hospital in Apalachicola, Florida. He hoped to eventually use his ice-making machine to regulate the temperature of buildings[12][13] and envisioned centralized air conditioning that could cool entire cities. Gorrie was granted a patent in 1851, but following the death of his main backer he was not able to realise his invention.[14] In 1851, James Harrison created the first mechanical ice-making machine in Geelong, Australia, and was granted a patent for an ether vapor-compression refrigeration system in 1855 that produced three tons of ice per day.[15] In 1860, Harrison established a second ice company and later entered the debate over how to compete against the American advantage of ice-refrigerated beef sales to the United Kingdom.[15]

First A/C devices[edit]

Willis Carrier, who is credited with building the first modern electrical air conditioning unit

Electricity made development of effective units possible. In 1901, American inventor Willis H. Carrier built what is considered the first modern electrical air conditioning unit.[16][17][18][19] In 1902, he installed his first air-conditioning system, in the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company in Brooklyn, New York;[20] his invention controlled both the temperature and also the humidity which helped maintain consistent paper dimensions and ink alignment at the printing plant. Later, together with six other employees, Carrier formed The Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America, a business that in 2020 employed 53,000 employees and was valued at $18.6 billion.[21][22]

In 1906, Stuart W. Cramer of Charlotte, North Carolina was exploring ways to add moisture to the air in his textile mill. Cramer coined the term "air conditioning," using it in a patent claim he filed that year as analogous to "water conditioning", then a well-known process for making textiles easier to process. He combined moisture with ventilation to "condition" and change the air in the factories, controlling the humidity so necessary in textile plants. Willis Carrier adopted the term and incorporated it into the name of his company.[23]

Domestic air conditioning soon took off. In 1914, the first domestic air conditioning was installed in Minneapolis in the home of Charles Gilbert Gates. It is however possible that the huge device (c. 7 x 6 x 20 ft) was never used, as the house remained uninhabited[12][24] (Gates had already died in October 1913).

In 1931, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman developed what would become the most common type of individual room air conditioner: one designed to sit on a window ledge. The units went on sale in 1932 at a considerable price (the equivalent of $120,000 to $600,000 in today's money.)[12] A year later the first air conditioning systems for cars were offered for sale.[25] Chrysler Motors introduced the first practical semi-portable air conditioning unit in 1935,[26] and Packard became the first automobile manufacturer to offer an air conditioning unit in its cars in 1939.[27]

Further development[edit]

Innovations in the latter half of the 20th century allowed for much more ubiquitous air conditioner use. In 1945, Robert Sherman of Lynn, Massachusetts invented a portable, in-window air conditioner that cooled, heated, humidified, dehumidified, and filtered the air.[28] By the late 1960s, most newly built residential homes in the United States had central air conditioning. Box air conditioning units during this time also became less expensive, which resulted in greater population growth in the states of Florida and Arizona.[citation needed]

As international development has increased wealth across countries, global use of air conditioners has increased. By 2018, an estimated 1.6 billion air conditioning units were installed worldwide,[29] with the International Energy Agency expecting this number to grow to 5.6 billion units by 2050.[3] Between 1995 and 2004, the proportion of urban households in China with air conditioners increased from 8% to 70%.[30] As of 2015, nearly 100 million homes, or about 87% of US households, had air conditioning systems.[31] In 2019, it was estimated that 90% of new single-family homes constructed in the USA included air conditioning (ranging from 99% in the South to 62% in the West).[32][33]

Types of air conditioner[edit]

Mini-split and multi-split systems[edit]

Evaporator, indoor unit, or terminal, side of a ductless split-type air conditioner

Ductless systems (often mini-split, though there are now ducted mini split) typically supply conditioned and heated air to a single or a few rooms of a building, without ducts and in a decentralized manner.[34] Multi-zone or multi-split systems are a common application of ductless systems and allow up to eight rooms (zones or locations) to be conditioned independently from each other, each with its own indoor unit and simultaneously from a single outdoor unit. The main problem with multi-split systems is the length of the refrigerant lines for connecting the external unit to the internal ones.[citation needed] Though the same challenge exists for central ACs.

The first mini-split systems were sold in 1954–1968 by Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba in Japan, where its development was motivated by the small size of homes.[35][36][37] Multi-zone ductless systems were invented by Daikin in 1973, and variable refrigerant flow systems (which can be thought of as larger multi-split systems) were also invented by Daikin in 1982. Both were first sold in Japan.[38] Variable refrigerant flow systems when compared with central plant cooling from an air handler, eliminate the need for large cool air ducts, air handlers, and chillers; instead cool refrigerant is transported through much smaller pipes to the indoor units in the spaces to be conditioned, thus allowing for less space above dropped ceilings and a lower structural impact, while also allowing for more individual and independent temperature control of spaces, and the outdoor and indoor units can be spread across the building.[39] Variable refrigerant flow indoor units can also be turned off individually in unused spaces.[citation needed]

Ducted central systems[edit]

Split-system central air conditioners consist of two heat exchangers, an outside unit (the condenser) from which heat is rejected to the environment and an internal heat exchanger (the fan coil unit, air handling unit, or evaporator) with the piped refrigerant being circulated between the two. The FCU is then connected to the spaces to be cooled by ventilation ducts.[40]

Central plant cooling[edit]

Cooling towers used in a central chilled water plant using liquid-cooled chillers

Large central cooling plants may use intermediate coolant such as chilled water pumped into air handlers or fan coil units near or in the spaces to be cooled which then duct or deliver cold air into the spaces to be conditioned, rather than ducting cold air directly to these spaces from the plant, which is not done due to the low density and heat capacity of air which would require impractically large ducts. The chilled water is cooled by chillers in the plant, which use a refrigeration cycle to cool water, often transferring its heat to the atmosphere even in liquid-cooled chillers through the use of cooling towers. Chillers may be air or liquid-cooled.[citation needed]

Portable units[edit]

A portable system has an indoor unit on wheels connected to an outdoor unit via flexible pipes, similar to a permanently fixed installed unit (such as a central air conditioner).[citation needed]

Hose systems, which can be monoblock or air-to-air, are vented to the outside via air ducts. The monoblock type collects the water in a bucket or tray and stops when full. The air-to-air type re-evaporates the water and discharges it through the ducted hose and can run continuously. Such portable units draw indoor air and expel it outdoors through a single duct.[citation needed]

Many portable air conditioners come with heat as well as dehumidification function.[41]

Window unit and packaged terminal[edit]

The packaged terminal air conditioner (PTAC), through-the-wall, and window air conditioners are similar. PTAC systems may be adapted to provide heating in cold weather, either directly by using an electric strip, gas, or other heaters, or by reversing the refrigerant flow to heat the interior and draw heat from the exterior air, converting the air conditioner into a heat pump. They may be installed in a wall opening with the help of a special sleeve on the wall and a custom grill that is flush with the wall and window air conditioners can also be installed in a window, but without a custom grill.[42]

Packaged air conditioner[edit]

Packaged air conditioners (also known as self-contained units)[43][44] are central systems that integrate into a single housing all the components of a split central system, and deliver air, possibly through ducts, to the spaces to be cooled. Depending on their construction they may be outdoors or indoors, on roofs (rooftop units),[45][46] draw the air to be conditioned from inside or outside a building and be water, refrigerant[47] or air-cooled. Often, outdoor units are air-cooled while indoor units are liquid-cooled using a cooling tower.[40][48][49][50][51][52]


Operating principles[edit]

A simple stylized diagram of the refrigeration cycle: 1) condensing coil, 2) expansion valve, 3) evaporator coil, 4) compressor

Cooling in traditional AC systems is accomplished using the vapor-compression cycle, which uses the forced circulation and phase change of a refrigerant between gas and liquid to transfer heat. The vapor-compression cycle can occur within a unitary, or packaged piece of equipment; or within a chiller that is connected to terminal cooling equipment (such as a fan coil unit in an air handler) on its evaporator side and heat rejection equipment such as a cooling tower on its condenser side. An air source heat pump shares many components with an air conditioning system, but includes a reversing valve which allows the unit to be used to heat as well as cool a space.[53]

Air conditioning equipment will reduce the absolute humidity of the air processed by the system if the surface of the evaporator coil is significantly cooler than the dew point of the surrounding air. An air conditioner designed for an occupied space will typically achieve a 30% to 60% relative humidity in the occupied space.[54]

Most modern air-conditioning systems feature a dehumidification cycle during which the compressor runs while the fan is slowed to reduce the evaporator temperature and therefore condense more water. A dehumidifier uses the same refrigeration cycle but incorporates both the evaporator and the condenser into the same air path; the air first passes over the evaporator coil where it is cooled[55] and dehumidified before passes over the condenser coil where it is warmed again before being released back into the room again.[citation needed]

Free cooling can sometimes be selected when the external air happens to be cooler than the internal air and therefore the compressor needs not be used, resulting in high cooling efficiencies for these times. This may also be combined with seasonal thermal energy storage.[56]


Some air conditioning systems have the option to reverse the refrigeration cycle and act as air source heat pump, therefore producing heating instead of cooling in the indoor environment. They are also commonly referred to as "reverse cycle air conditioners". The heat pump is significantly more energy efficient than electric resistance heating, because it moves energy from air or groundwater to the heated space, as well as the heat from purchased electrical energy. When the heat pump is in heating mode, the indoor evaporator coil switches roles and becomes the condenser coil, producing heat. The outdoor condenser unit also switches roles to serve as the evaporator and discharges cold air (colder than the ambient outdoor air).

Air-source heat pumps are more popular in milder winter climates where the temperature is frequently in the range of 4–13 °C (40–55 °F), because heat pumps become inefficient in more extreme cold. This is partly because ice forms on the outdoor unit's heat exchanger coil, which blocks airflow over the coil. To compensate for this, the heat pump system must temporarily switch back into the regular air conditioning mode to switch the outdoor evaporator coil back to being the condenser coil, so that it can heat up and defrost. Some heat pump systems will therefore have a form of electric resistance heating in the indoor air path that is activated only in this mode in order to compensate for the temporary indoor air cooling, which would otherwise be uncomfortable in the winter.

The icing problem becomes much more severe with lower outdoor temperatures, so heat pumps are commonly installed in tandem with a more conventional form of heating, such as an electrical heater, a natural gas, Heating oil or wood-burning fireplace or central heating, which is used instead of the heat pump during harsher winter temperatures. In this case, the heat pump is used efficiently during the milder temperatures, and the system is switched to the conventional heat source when the outdoor temperature is lower.


The coefficient of performance (COP) of a air conditioning system is a ratio of useful heating or cooling provided to work required.[57][58] Higher COPs equate to lower operating costs. The COP usually exceeds 1; however, the exact value is highly dependent on operating conditions, especially absolute temperature and relative temperature between sink and system, and is often graphed or averaged against expected conditions.[59] Air conditioner equipment power in the U.S. is often described in terms of "tons of refrigeration," with each approximately equal to the cooling power of one short ton (2,000 pounds (910 kg) of ice melting in a 24-hour period. The value is equal to 12,000 BTUIT per hour, or 3,517 watts.[60] Residential central air systems are usually from 1 to 5 tons (3.5 to 18 kW) in capacity.[citation needed]

The efficiency of air conditioners is often rated by the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) which is defined by the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute in its 2008 standard AHRI 210/240, Performance Rating of Unitary Air-Conditioning and Air-Source Heat Pump Equipment.[61] A similar standard is the European seasonal energy efficiency ratio (ESEER).[citation needed]


Health effects[edit]

In hot weather, air conditioning can prevent heat stroke, dehydration from excessive perspiration, and other problems related to hyperthermia.[62] Heat waves are the most lethal type of weather phenomenon in developed countries. Air conditioning (including filtration, humidification, cooling and disinfection) can be used to provide a clean, safe, hypoallergenic atmosphere in hospital operating rooms and other environments where proper atmosphere is critical to patient safety and well-being. It is sometimes recommended for home use by people with allergies, especially mold.[citation needed]

Poorly maintained water cooling towers can promote the growth and spread of microorganisms such as Legionella pneumophila, the infectious agent responsible for Legionnaires' disease. As long as the cooling tower is kept clean (usually by means of a chlorine treatment), these health hazards can be avoided or reduced. The state of New York has codified requirements for registration, maintenance, and testing of cooling towers to protect against Legionella.[63]

Environmental impacts[edit]

Refrigerants have caused and continue to cause serious environmental issues, including ozone depletion and climate change, as several countries have not yet ratified the Kigali Amendment to reduce the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons.[64]

Current air conditioning accounts for 20% of energy consumption in buildings globally, and the expected growth of the usage of air conditioning due to climate change and technology uptake will drive significant energy demand growth.[65][66] Alternatives to continual air conditioning include passive cooling, passive solar cooling natural ventilation, operating shades to reduce solar gain, using trees, architectural shades, windows (and using window coatings) to reduce solar gain.[citation needed]

In 2018 the United Nations called for the technology to be made more sustainable to mitigate climate change.[67][68]

Economic effects[edit]

Air conditioning caused various shifts in demography, notably that of the United States starting from the 1970s:

  • The birth rate was lower in the spring than during other seasons until 1970s but this difference then declined over the next 30 years[69]
  • The summer mortality rate, which had been higher in regions subject to a heatwave during the summer, also evened out.[citation needed].
  • The Sun Belt now contains 30% of the total US population when it was inhabited by 24% of Americans at the beginning of the 20th century.[70]

First designed to benefit targeted industries such as the press as well as large factories, the invention quickly spread to public agencies and administrations with studies with claims of increased productivity close to 24% in places equipped with air conditioning.[71]

Other techniques[edit]

Buildings designed with passive air conditioning are generally less expensive to construct and maintain than buildings with conventional HVAC systems with lower energy demands.[72] While tens of air changes per hour, and cooling of tens of degrees, can be achieved with passive methods, site-specific microclimate must be taken into account, complicating building design.[5]

Many techniques can be used to increase comfort and reduce the temperature in buildings. These include evaporative cooling, selective shading, wind, thermal convection, and heat storage.[citation needed]

Passive ventilation[edit]

The ventilation system of a regular earthship.
Dogtrot houses are designed to maximise natural ventilation.
Passive ventilation is the process of supplying air to and removing air from an indoor space without using mechanical systems. It refers to the flow of external air to an indoor space as a result of pressure differences arising from natural forces. There are two types of natural ventilation occurring in buildings: wind driven ventilation and buoyancy-driven ventilation. Wind driven ventilation arises from the different pressures created by wind around a building or structure, and openings being formed on the perimeter which then permit flow through the building. Buoyancy-driven ventilation occurs as a result of the directional buoyancy force that results from temperature differences between the interior and exterior.[73] Since the internal heat gains which create temperature differences between the interior and exterior are created by natural processes, including the heat from people, and wind effects are variable, naturally ventilated buildings are sometimes called "breathing buildings".

Passive cooling[edit]

A traditional Iranian solar cooling design using a wind tower

Passive cooling is a building design approach that focuses on heat gain control and heat dissipation in a building in order to improve the indoor thermal comfort with low or no energy consumption.[74][75] This approach works either by preventing heat from entering the interior (heat gain prevention) or by removing heat from the building (natural cooling).[76]

Natural cooling utilizes on-site energy, available from the natural environment, combined with the architectural design of building components (e.g. building envelope), rather than mechanical systems to dissipate heat.[77] Therefore, natural cooling depends not only on the architectural design of the building but on how the site's natural resources are used as heat sinks (i.e. everything that absorbs or dissipates heat). Examples of on-site heat sinks are the upper atmosphere (night sky), the outdoor air (wind), and the earth/soil.

Passive cooling is an important tool for design of buildings for climate change adaptation – reducing dependency on energy-intensive air conditioning in warming environments.[78][79]
A pair of short windcatchers or malqaf used in traditional architecture; wind is forced down on the windward side and leaves on the leeward side (cross-ventilation). In the absence of wind, the circulation can be driven with evaporative cooling in the inlet (which is also designed to catch dust). In the center, a shuksheika (roof lantern vent), used to shade the qa'a below while allowing hot air rise out of it (stack effect).[4]


Hand fans have existed since prehistory. Large human-powered fans built into buildings include the punkah.

The 2nd-century Chinese inventor Ding Huan of the Han Dynasty invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven wheels 3 m (10 ft) in diameter and manually powered by prisoners.[80]: 99, 151, 233  In 747, Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–762) of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) had the Cool Hall (Liang Dian 涼殿) built in the imperial palace, which the Tang Yulin describes as having water-powered fan wheels for air conditioning as well as rising jet streams of water from fountains. During the subsequent Song Dynasty (960–1279), written sources mentioned the air conditioning rotary fan as even more widely used.[80]: 134, 151 

Thermal buffering[edit]

In areas which are cold at night or in winter, heat storage is used. Heat may be stored in earth or masonry; air is drawn past the masonry to heat or cool it.[6]

In areas which are below freezing at night in winter, snow and ice can be collected and stored in ice houses for later use in cooling.[6] This technique is over 3,700 years old in the Middle East.[81] Harvesting outdoor ice during winter and transporting and storing for use in summer was practiced by wealthy Europeans in the early 1600s,[7] and became popular in Europe and the Americas towards the end of the 1600s.[82] This practice was replaced by mechanical compression-cycle ice-making machines (see below).

Evaporative cooling[edit]

An evaporative cooler

In dry, hot climates, the evaporative cooling effect may be used by placing water at the air intake, such that the draft draws air over water and then into the house. For this reason, it is sometimes said that the fountain, in the architecture of hot, arid climates, is like the fireplace in the architecture of cold climates.[4] Evaporative cooling also makes the air more humid, which can be beneficial in a dry desert climate.[83]

Evaporative coolers tend to feel as if they are not working during times of high humidity, when there is not much dry air with which the coolers can work to make the air as cool as possible for dwelling occupants. Unlike other types of air conditioners, evaporative coolers rely on the outside air to be channeled through cooler pads that cool the air before it reaches the inside of a house through its air duct system; this cooled outside air must be allowed to push the warmer air within the house out through an exhaust opening such as an open door or window.[84]

See also[edit]


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