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Automotive Air Conditioning – How It Works, Common Problems and How to Avoid Them
Until recently, air conditioning was considered an expensive optional extra, fitted only to the very top of the range cars and not really necessary for our temperate climate. These days, it fits all but the most basic models and its benefits are enjoyed by most of us, the most obvious being that it gives us nice, cool air on hot summer days.
However, this is not its most useful feature. It has the added ability to dry the air in the cabin and this reduces the tendency for the windows to steam up on wet days, keeping you more awake and alert on long journeys.
So, how does it work? Well, without going too deep into the physics of matter, it uses the principle that to change the state of matter from a liquid to a gas to a liquid again, it takes away matter and gives it energy in form. the heat
For a substance, and we’ll use water as an example, to change from a liquid to a gas, it takes a lot of heat energy to make that transformation.
When you step out of the shower, even on a hot day, you feel cold. Because the water on your body absorbs heat energy from your skin and turns it into gas and evaporates. The air conditioning system does the same and I will try to explain the working of the system very briefly.
A compressor does exactly what its name suggests and compresses the refrigerant gas. Compressing a gas increases its temperature and also has the effect of raising the boiling point. It flows to a condenser where the hot, compressed gas condenses into a hot liquid and releases heat as it changes state.
The condenser is the front part of the car that looks like another radiator. It then flows through the restrictor and the pressure drops dramatically on the other side of the restrictor.
It then flows to the evaporator where the low pressure liquid is then vaporized into a gas. As it changes back to gaseous state, it picks up heat from its surroundings. The air coming into your car’s heater system passes through the evaporator and in doing so removes the heat through the cold evaporator, giving you nice cool air in the cabin.
Now, because the evaporator is cooler and the air flowing over it is hotter, water condenses on the surface. It’s like when you get a nice, cold beer out of the fridge, the bottle gets wet instantly and you have to put it on a coaster to avoid getting marks on your polished table. This is where the system dries the air in the cabin, removing moisture from the air that passes through the evaporator, as I described earlier, and why you see water dripping from under your car when you park it.
That’s air conditioning in a nutshell, but it doesn’t end there. To keep your air conditioning running efficiently, some regular maintenance is necessary.
The refrigerant circuit contains a certain amount of special oil that is carried around the system by the refrigerant gas. This is polyglycol oil, commonly known as PAG oil, and as well as lubricating the moving parts of the compressor, it keeps all the seals between the pipe-work and components moist. Refrigerant gas molecules are very small, and if the air conditioner is turned off for any length of time, the oil will flow back to a lower point, the seals will dry out and shrink to a certain extent, and a small amount of refrigerant gas may be lost. This reduces the efficiency and hence the cooling capacity of the system and the re-gas required.
All automotive air conditioning systems use some type of pollen filter in the heater system. Not only does this help clean the air entering the cabin, it also helps keep the evaporator free of debris and leaves. This usually takes the form of a paper element-type filter that must be replaced at the manufacturer’s recommended intervals.
Finally, since vaping is always wet as I mentioned earlier, it’s not uncommon for bacteria to start building up on moist surfaces, resulting in a rather strong smell. This can be prevented by regular use of an anti-bacterial agent applied to the heater system which keeps the air conditioning components in the cabin clinically clean.
I hope this clears up the fog surrounding the operation of your vehicle’s air conditioning system and gives you more of an idea of the maintenance it needs. Remember that all staff working on air conditioning in the UK must have a nationally recognized qualification, so make sure those you trust with your vehicle are qualified to do the work.
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