Car Air Conditioners How Do They Work? Explained By the Pros

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How does a car air conditioner work?

Would you like to know how your vehicle’s air conditioner works? The system
looks complicated, but it’s really quite simple. Once you know how it delivers cold air you will be better informed
when problems occur and how to fix them, or understand more on what a garage is telling you when having it repaired.

Your heater and air conditioner (HVAC) have three jobs, cool the interior of
the car down, heat the interior up and defrost the windshield. All three modes
work together as a climate control system. This system is controlled by a main
computer which sits in the dash and also houses the controls for the mode and
temperature settings.

The computer gives commands to the compressor to start pressurizing the
refrigerant along with the
blend door actuators
to direct air flow from the floor, mid and
defrost vents. It also
controls blower
fan speed. Actuators also control air temperature by mixing the
hot air
from the heater and the cold air from the A/C.

When you turn the system on a voltage supply is given to the climate
controller, blower motor fan and the compressor clutch or internal valve. These components then begin to operate connected through a climate control
wiring harness fuse and
relay.

How Does It Work?

Let’s start with the refrigerant (r134a) inside the system. This particular
refrigerant was specifically created for the automotive industry sometime in the
late 1980’s which is slightly different than home or industrial refrigerant
applications. Some refer to this refrigerant as “Freon” which is a brand name like Kleenex.

This part fluid, part gas is held under pressure inside the system. When the system is not running
the refrigerant remains a gas under low pressure, about 70 psi. The optimum property
of this gas is its ability to go from a hot gas when it’s compressed (250 psi at
about 180° F or 82° C), and when cooled in the condenser located in front of the
radiator it transforms into a warm high pressure liquid which is then is released
through an expansion valve or orifice tube (small hole). The high pressure liquid
instantly transforms to a low pressure gas vapor (35 psi at 32° F or 0° C) which
creates the coldness inside the evaporator in which case the blower motor passes
air through it and into the ventilation system and into the interior of the car.

This entire action is basically a high pressure liquid, then
released into a low pressure gas. If you take a can of hair spray and then release
the product along with the propellant the can will get cold. This is the exact same
chemical reaction used by the air conditioner the only exception is the gas is recovered
inside the evaporator and then recycled into the system.

The evaporator core looks like a small
squat radiator which is located inside the vehicle. Once the refrigerant has spent
its cold charge it is gathered into the low side hose and onto the compressor
where its once again processed.

The diagram below shows the entire system and refrigerant flow (high pressure
in red, and low pressure in blue). These systems are closed (sealed) which continuously
re-circulates the refrigerant. A receiver dryer or an accumulator is used to
filter and remove moister from the refrigerant to help prevent the system from
being damaged by rust or corrosion.

The refrigerant is transferred from one component to another by using hoses or
tubes. This would be the high side and low side pressure hoses. The high side hose connects
the compressor to the condenser, from the condenser to the expansion valve or orifice
tube which are both located in front of the evaporator. The low side low connects
the evaporator back to the compressor. The expansion valve or orifice tube do basically
the same job, the system will have one or the other. An expansion valve can vary
its size due to temperature whereas an orifice tube is a fixed size.

Air Conditioner Components

The AC system has four basic parts: A compressor,
which is powered by the engine using the serpentine belt
and has a low side port that is connected to the evaporator along with a high
pressure side port which is connected to the condenser using rubber hoses. The compressor is the main mechanical part of the system with internal
workings that must be lubricated by peg oil (synthetic).

The compressor is fitted with a clutch that is activated when the system is
switched on. The internal parts of the compressor start to turn via the engine
power and pressurizing the refrigerant.

On hybrid engines the compressor is electrically powered. A hybrid and electric vehicle’s
compressor is powered by the vehicle’s battery pack not the gasoline engine. A small
electric motor is fitted inside of the compressor which pressurizes the
refrigerant. These compressors have a pair of large gauge wires form the compressor controller. Check out the picture
below:

A condenser is located in front of the engine radiator and cools the
refrigerant from the compressor before it heads to the evaporator located inside
the vehicle. Some condensers are designed with a receiver dryer attached which acts
as a refrigerant cleaner and moisture remover which helps the system last longer.
Some systems will have an accumulator that does the same job, each car
maker is a little bit different, but do the same operation.

Some air conditioner systems have a separate fan for the condenser instead of
the radiator cooling fan, or they will have an additional fan to help the
radiator fan cool the refrigerant. These fans are controlled by the climate
control computer which gives a command to the control relay to power the fan on.
When these fans fail the system will not cool as well.

The condenser below is placed right in front of the engine’s radiator so it can get air drawn
through it much like the radiator by the engine cooling fan.

The evaporator is where the coldness is created using an expansion valve or
orifice tube which is like a small hole and is where the high pressure liquid is
released into the evaporator.

Air conditioner hoses are used to transfer refrigerant to from various
components and is a popular place to
find leaks.

High and low side service ports are

used to add Freon and
vacuum down and recharge and the system. These ports are usually located on
each hose but can be on the compressor or accumulator as well.

You might also be interested in:

  • Adding Freon to my air conditioner

  • How to replace my air conditioner compressor

  • Finding an AC leak on my car

  • My air conditioner is not working

  • How can I vacuum down and recharge my air conditioner

  • My
    air vents aren’t working right
  • Climate
    control questions and answers

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