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Understanding your Refrigeration System

Your refrigeration system – the heat transfer principle

Refrigeration is one of the most widely misunderstood topics amongst the DIYer community yet we have a slew of articles and explanations covering this subject. So what makes it so difficult to understand?



Many articles written by specialists rely on the reader’s own understanding of the fundamentals and the refrigeration cycle, even its most rudimentary form can go over one’s head if by design we leave out the basics. As an example, explaining power dissipation in a circuit would be near impossible if the reader did not have a firm grasp of Ohm’s Law.

Refrigeration System - Einstein and Szilard
Einstein/Szilard Refrigerator (Illustration/annotations by P. Brandon Malloy)

In refrigeration we need to understand that first and foremost by compressing a gas there will be heat generated. Compressing a bicycle tyre pump into your hand is a really great example. By releasing this pressure suddenly the gas cools down.

Fluids used in a refrigeration plant, called the refrigerant, boils at a much lower temperature than water at the same pressure. E.g. water boils at 100 degrees C (212F), the refrigerant may boil at 4 to 10 degrees C (40F~50F).

A refrigeration system works on the heat transfer principle – cold to warm, warm to cold. Evaporated (fluid to gas) and condensed (gas to fluid). Taking warm air from inside and dumping it outside. Simple and reliable. But just what makes it tick?

The refrigeration system has five basic parts:

  1. The compressor,
  2. the condenser (outside),
  3. the metering device, an expansion valve,
  4. the evaporator (inside),
  5. the thermostat.

The first four all form part of a closed loop. The thermostat is a temperature controlled switch.

The heart of the refrigeration system: The compressor



At the heart of the system is the compressor which forces the refrigerant into the condenser coils which are usually outside the building – the higher pressure (called the high side) causes the refrigerant temperature to rise to between 40 and 50 degrees C (120F~140F) before reaching the condenser. As the refrigerant passes through the condenser coils a fan passes the cooler outside air over these same coils – heat transfer takes place, cooling the refrigerant causing the refrigerant to condense and become cooler. The compressed warm refrigerant then passes through the expansion valve releasing pressure to become colder still before passing through the (low side) evaporator coils which then absorbs heat, cooling down the area in which the evaporator unit is placed before being sucked back into the compressor to process the next cycle. This closed loop system therefore collects heat inside and dissipates this heat outside. Both air-conditioners and domestic refrigerators use the same principle.


Refrigerants are used based on their boiling temperatures. They cannot be mixed. Different applications use different refrigerant. Certain refrigerants, such as Freon R-22 is gradually been phased out and in some countries illegal to sell (or buy). R-410A is now one of the replacement types for R-22. To purchase refrigerant you will need to be a licenced refrigerant engineer, installer or technician.

The BTU in your refrigeration system

The BTU or British Thermal Unit is the amount of energy needed to raise or lower the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit at one Atmospheric pressure and is equal to about 1055 Joules of energy. The BTU is used in metric countries as well. As a unit of power 1000BTU/Hr is equal to 273.071W.  12 000BTU/Hr is therefore equal to about 3.5kW. Now you know why air conditioners are expensive to run.

Easy Maintenance to your air conditioner or refrigerator

One of the most common causes of failure to your refrigeration system is by NOT cleaning the evaporator or condenser coils at least once per year (radiator fins). This causes the compressor to work harder than it should. Another cause of premature failure of an a/c system is running the air conditioner at settings which would be impossible to achieve or leaving the doors or windows open in a conventional system (not water evaporators, which work best when well ventilated for humidity reasons). On a hot day it is not uncommon to find users setting the air-conditioner to the lowest possible setting – sometimes to as low as 16 degrees C (60F). An under spec’d air-con is another cause for premature failure – often even the installers get it wrong.

Do not transport your domestic refrigerator on it’s side unless you plan to leave it for at least 24 hours before plugging in and switching on.There are numerous reasons for this, one being to allow the refrigerant to settle.

Modern trends

Modern refrigeration techniques have mainly involved changes to the refrigerant and producing higher efficiency systems to cut down on running costs. Although the principles remain the same, inverter driven compressors have become more common today as technology has improved, the modern variable speed compressor no longer goes through a stop/start process which although costing more, lowers operating costs. The refrigeration system therefore still relies on tried and trusted techniques rather than a complete metamorphosis.

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2 Replies to “Understanding your Refrigeration System”

  1. Your article is short and sweet – however the technology used to dry air, humidifying or cooling air down has evolved to such an extent that huge inroads have been made especially in lowering operating costs. My company manufactures air conditioning systems to suit the users needs from small home owners to industrial strength. Nothing has become more apparent than the huge doses of power needed to run some of these monster units – water evaporative techniques have been used for eons but it is only now that science is looking into heat pumps to also generate energy, besides lowering temperatures in summer and increasing it during summer. With many companies now manufacturing axial and centrifugal compressors ‘cheaply’ to compress H2O into it’s gaseous state, refrigeration systems may in time become cheaper and less costly to run.Safer to.

    As a manufacturer it is absolutely a must to stay up to date and ensure that state of the art systems are incorporated but this is only part of the story. With emphasis placed on global warming our average house is still designed (mostly) with too much emphasis on natural light during summer periods and too little on energy conservation – a delicate balance. In many instances the air conditioner installation is of secondary importance. Just as solar heated water is now become regulatory in many regions for new homes built we need to ensure that new homes are built with energy conservation being of primary importance – not an afterthought. Homes should be designed around the environment and not the environment designed around the home.

    Although a high performance system in an environment which pushes the efficiency to it’s limits is everyone’s dream, maintenance is a very important factor – user safety, total cost of ownership and now, in particular, unwanted emission plays a very important role in the installation and of course, lifetime running costs.

    Unfortunately home insulation can be a costly business. Sometimes the cheapest and best insulation proves to be a firefighter’s worst nightmare and the best of course, fire retard material can be very expensive. When doing energy audits I always find out the latest regulations pertaining to that particular region – often the home owner is not aware that his home improvement is illegal, not only that, downright dangerous. The good news, for home cooling often the water evaporative system is the total solution – cheap, healthy and with low maintenance costs. For heating, ensure that you have enough humidity – warm dry air is a killer.

    Lastly, as a home owner (or commercial property) see the installation as an investment. Make sure that the installation is done by an accredited installer whom gives solid advice – remember the 80/20 rule, 80% of them are bullshitters.

    References: A good read is Kolzumbal’s award winning air conditioning system using desiccant at

  2. @Brunswick
    Your points are strong – I’d like to add to your environmental issues.
    Last year I received a contract to service /maintain water evaporative systems to fairly old buildings situated near the sea, west coast Australia. The owner was a consortium of property owners whom had the installations done between 5 and 8 years prior based on energy costs. All the units were corroded to hell and gone and had to be replaced. The ‘galvanized’ fittings and ducting was made out of plain sheet metal (yep, non-gavanized), painted but very well put together.

    When making installations of this type – trust me I found them to work pretty well even with a fair humidity content – make sure they get their fair share of maintenance at least twice a year.

    Sea air is a killer. Even standard air conditioners have a maximum lifespan of about five years before the aluminum corrodes, the outer casings housing compressor and condenser fall to pieces. Buy a well known make – I found mostly Panasonic units still in excellent condition (after 10 years!) and well I hate to say it, LG and Samsung as well. Keep well clear of an unknown brand – these units get landed at cheaper than 100 Aussie dollars and are absolute crap. The parts move, they work and they work well for the duration of the1 to 2 year warranty but they are designed for a market where you are inland where cheap and thin materials suffice. Not sea air. Water evaporators are worse, the high humidity can fuse with the salt air and if the components are not stainless steel turn into shit within a month or two. Aqua Breeze make solid units – I have been installing them for the last five years but if the filters are not examined on seasonal change you are looking for trouble. The trouble starts with the ducting then – make sure you have crew of capable people and do the ducting yourself. Cutting corners in this industry can make or break you – most companies (as the one mentioned above) are trusting you to do an installation which will last a minimum of ten years, not two.

    I am an advocate of evaporative systems , they are cheap to maintain if the original installation was a solid one, the filters do what they are advertised to do – if you use the proper ones and I have never had a comeback. In time they will become even more cost effective. Their reliability is exceptional – only if you maintain the system regularly.

    The pitfalls: Watch your installation, know the environment and be prepared to pay for expertise. In the long run – you will save money.

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