How Cars Work: Heat and A/C
by Kevin Schappell
Not only do we depend on our cars to get us where we want to go, we also depend on them to get us there without discomfort. We expect the heater to keep us warm when it's cold outside, and the air conditioning system to keep us cool when it's hot.
We get heat from the heater core, sort of a secondary radiator, which is part of the car's cooling system. We get air conditioning from the car's elaborate air conditioning system.
Despite its relatively small size, the cooling system has to deal with an enormous amount of heat to protect the engine from friction and the heat of combustion. The cooling system has to remove about 6,000 BTU of heat per minute. This is a lot more heat than we need to heat a large home in cold weather. It's good to know that some of this heat can be put to the useful purpose of keeping us warm.
Air conditioning makes driving much more comfortable in hot weather. Your car's air conditioner cleans and dehumidifies (removes excess moisture), the outside air entering your car. It also has the task of keeping the air at the temperature you select. These are all big jobs. How do our cars keep our "riding environment" the way we like it?
Most people think the air conditioning system's job is to add "cold" air to the interior of the car. Actually, there is no such thing as "cold," just an absence of heat, or less heat than our bodies are comfortable with. The job of the air conditioning system is really to "remove" the heat that makes us uncomfortable, and return the air to the car's interior in a "un-heated" condition. Air conditioning, or cooling, is really a process of removing heat from an object (like air).
A compressor circulates a liquid refrigerant called Refrigerant-12 (we tend to call it "Freon," a trade name, the way we call copy machines "Xerox" machines). The compressor moves the Refrigerant-12 from an evaporator, through a condenser and expansion valve, right back to the evaporator. The evaporator is right in front of a fan that pulls the hot, humid air out of the car's interior. The refrigerant makes the hot air's moisture condense into drops of water, removing the heat from the air. Once the water is removed, the "cool" air is sent back into the car's interior. Aaaaaah! Much better. Newer cars have R-134 as the refrigerant, but work in the same way as R-12.
Sometimes we worry when we catch our car making a water puddle on the ground, but are relieved to discover that it's only water dripping from the air conditioning system's condenser (no color, no smell, and it dries!).
Note: Refrigerant is extremely dangerous. Many special precautions must be taken when it is present. It can freeze whatever it contacts (including your eyes), it is heavier than air and can suffocate you, and it produces a poisonous gas when it comes in contact with an open flame.
- From time to time the A/C system needs to be recharged to bring it back up to maximum efficiency. Sometimes a leak may cause loss of refrigerant and will need to be fixed before refilling. It's difficult to tell if a leak is present without specific test equipment so let it up to a professional.
- Corrosion will cause the heater core (secondary radiator) to leak. This will manifest itself by leaving steam into the passenger compartment and fogging your windows. You will know there is a leak by the sweet smell coming from your vents. Unfortunately changing the heater core is usually not the easier job in the world as engineers tend to squeeze them into some pretty tight spaces under the dash.
Kevin maintains http://www.autoeducation.com where he gives advice on car maintenance, buying, selling, insurance, and financing. A mechanical engineer and car guy, Kevin has decided to spend his online time helping others learn about automobiles.
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