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HVAC Questions: How Do Refrigerants Work in My Air Conditioner?

Posted Wednesday, Dec 16, 2020 by Altierus

Did you use your air conditioner more often this summer? It wouldn’t be a surprise if you did: the summer of 2020 was the hottest on record for the Northern Hemisphere.[i] While you stood in front of your A/C cooling off, you may also have wondered how that wonderful machine works. 

The answer is refrigerants. Refrigerants are chemical compounds that are circulated through air conditioners and refrigeration units to absorb heat from the air. In this article, we’ll give a basic explanation of how refrigerants are used in HVAC/R (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration) systems to help keep things cool.

What Are Refrigerants?

Refrigerants are substances that can go from gas to liquid and back again efficiently. Refrigerants also need to be non-corrosive to mechanical parts, non-toxic to people, and non-flammable (unlikely to catch fire). Refrigerants are used in machines ranging from portable A/C units for homes to industrial warehouse refrigeration systems. Refrigerants need to be stored, handled, and recycled by experts.

How Do Refrigerants Help Cool My House?

Heat always moves from a warm place to a cool place. Your A/C unit pulls warm air from your house through a fan. This fan blows the air from your house over copper coils inside the air conditioner which have cold liquid refrigerant pumping through them. The cold refrigerant absorbs the heat from the air and becomes a warm mixture of liquid gas as it moves outside your house.

Once the warm refrigerant is outside your house, it flows through a compressor which heats it up to boiling point. By heating the refrigerant to boiling, the compressor ensures that even if it is 110°F outside your house, the air will still absorb the heat from the refrigerant. 

When the refrigerant becomes a hot gas, it is pushed through a condenser so the heat can flow out of it into the outside air. As the outside air absorbs the heat, the refrigerant cools down and becomes a warm liquid again. The refrigerant then passes through an expansion valve, a device which causes it to expand and become cold again as it flows back inside your house to start the process over again.

Where Else Are Refrigerants Used?

Refrigerants aren’t just found in residential A/C systems. They also play an important role in commercial and industry settings. Foodservice businesses, supermarkets, and hospitals all require large refrigeration systems to keep food and medicines stored at safe temperatures. Many industrial processes, including food and beverage production, metal processing, pharmaceutical or chemical manufacturing, and even large data centers require large cooling systems that use refrigerants.[ii]

Why Do HVAC Technicians Need Training to Handle Refrigerants?

Some refrigerants are harmful to the environment or to people. For example, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were a refrigerant invented in the late 1930s.[iii] By the 1970s, scientists became aware that CFCs harmed the environment: they increased pollution close to the ground and depleted the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

While CFCs refrigerants aren’t harmful inside a sealed HVAC system, they can cause problems if the machines that use them leak.[iv] HVAC technicians who work with refrigerant systems need to understand how to safely handle and dispose of these chemicals.

Newer refrigerants developed to replace CFCs seem to have less impact on the atmosphere, but they can still be flammable.[v] That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency requires HVAC refrigeration technicians to be trained and certified.

How Do I Train for an HVAC/R Career?

If you enjoyed this article and you like working with your hands, you may be interested in training for a career in HVAC. At Altierus Career College, we offer a nine-month HVAC technician diploma at our three campus locations that is HVAC Excellence Accredited by the Esco Group, an independent organization that ensures training programs meet industry standards.

We also offer a nine-month HVAC refrigeration technician diploma. Students in this program prepare to earn EPA 608 Universal Certification for refrigerant handling. We also offer students the option to earn both HVAC qualifications in 12 months.

In our HVAC programs, students learn the essential math and science concepts behind HVAC systems. They study safety regulations, learn to read blueprints, and get hands-on training in our HVAC labs working with the tools and equipment found on the job. They graduate with the skills necessary to pursue entry-level roles in the industry and launch their careers.

Learn more about our HVAC training programs today!

Additional References:


[i] https://www.noaa.gov/news/northern-hemisphere-just-had-its-hottest-summer-on-record

[ii] https://www.araner.com/blog/industrial-refrigeration-applications-district-cooling/

[iii] https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/hats/publictn/elkins/cfcs.html

[iv] https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air/chlorofluorocarbons-cfcs-and-hydrofluorocarbons-hfcs

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrofluoroolefin

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