air conditioning, mechanical process for controlling the humidity, temperature, cleanliness, and circulation of air in buildings and rooms. Indoor air is conditioned and regulated to maintain the temperature-humidity ratio that is most comfortable and healthful. In the process, dust, soot, and pollen are filtered out, and the air may be sterilized, as is sometimes done in hospitals and public places.
Most air-conditioning units operate by ducting air across the colder, heat-absorbing side of a refrigeration apparatus and directing it back into the air-conditioned space (see refrigeration). The refrigeration apparatus is controlled by some form of thermostat. In water-cooled air-conditioning units, the waste heat is carried away by a flow of water. For recirculation in water-cooled units, a cooling tower is used. This apparatus maintains a constant level of water in the system and replaces water lost by evaporation. The development of small self-contained systems has greatly expanded the use of air conditioning in homes. A portable or window-mounted air conditioner is usually adequate for one room.
Often domestic heating systems are converted to provide complete air conditioning for a home. Usually, this is done by combining a heating device and a cooling device in one unit. In regions where the outside temperature does not fall too low, heat pumps have become popular. A heat pump is a reversible device that does mechanical work to extract heat from a cooler place and deliver heat to a warmer place. The heat delivered to the warmer place is, approximately, the sum of the original heat and the work done. Greater temperature differences between the warm and cold regions require greater amounts of work. In warm weather the heat pump acts like a traditional air conditioner, removing heat from the indoors and delivering heat to the outdoors. In cool weather, it removes heat from the outdoors and delivers heat to the indoors. The efficiency of a heat pump as a heating device depends upon the outdoor temperature. At 50°F (10°C) a heat pump is more efficient than a traditional heating system. Below 32°F (0°C) it is less efficient and requires augmenting with conventional heaters.
In the construction of office buildings in the United States, air-conditioning systems are commonly included as integral parts of the structure. First used c.1900 in the textile industry, air conditioning found little use outside factories until the late 1920s. It is of great importance in chemical, pharmaceutical, and other industrial plants where air contamination, humidity, and temperature affect manufacturing processes.
See D. Abrams, Low Energy Cooling (1988); S. Aglow, Electronic HVAC Controls Simplified (1988).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.