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History of Air Conditioning

Feb. 04, 2024
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We take the air conditioner for granted, but imagine what life would be like without it.

Once considered a luxury, this invention is now an essential, allowing us to cool homes, businesses, hospitals, data centers, laboratories and other buildings vital to our economy and daily lives. In fact, air temperature is so important to us that 48 percent of all energy consumption in American homes is a result of cooling and heating, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Like most important breakthroughs, modern commercial and residential air conditioning technology is a result of a series of advancements by scientists and inventors who challenged themselves to come up with creative solutions to problems of the day. Scroll through our interactive timeline above and read on to learn about some of the key milestones in air conditioning history.

The Evils of High Temperatures

In the 1840s, physician and inventor Dr. John Gorrie of Florida proposed the idea of cooling cities to relieve residents of "the evils of high temperatures." Gorrie believed that cooling was the key to avoiding diseases like malaria and making patients more comfortable, but his rudimentary system for cooling hospital rooms required ice to be shipped to Florida from frozen lakes and streams in the northern United States. 

To get around this expensive logistical challenge, Gorrie began experimenting with the concept of artificial cooling. He designed a machine that created ice using a compressor powered by a horse, water, wind-driven sails or steam and was granted a patent for it in 1851. Although Gorrie was unsuccessful at bringing his patented technology to the marketplace -- primarily due to the death of his chief financial backer -- his invention laid the foundation for modern air conditioning and refrigeration. 

Wrinkled Pages, Revolutionary Solution

The idea of artificial cooling went stagnant for several years until engineer Willis Carrier took a job that would result in the invention of the first modern electrical air conditioning unit. While working for the Buffalo Forge Company in 1902, Carrier was tasked with solving a humidity problem that was causing magazine pages to wrinkle at Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn.

Through a series of experiments, Carrier designed a system that controlled humidity using cooling coils and secured a patent for his "Apparatus for Treating Air,” which could either humidify (by heating water) or dehumidify (by cooling water) air. As he continued testing and refining his technology, he also devised and patented an automatic control system for regulating the humidity and temperature of air in textile mills.

It wasn't long before Carrier realized that humidity control and air conditioning could benefit many other industries, and he eventually broke off from Buffalo Forge, forming Carrier Engineering Corporation with six other engineers.

Public Buildings Get Cool

At the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, organizers used mechanical refrigeration to cool the Missouri State Building. The system used 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute to cool the 1,000-seat auditorium, the rotunda and other rooms within the Missouri State Building. It marked the first time the American public was exposed to the concept of comfort cooling. A big breakthrough in comfort cooling technology came in the 1920s, when Americans flocked to movie theaters to watch Hollywood stars on the silver screen.  

Early cooling systems for public theaters were essentially heating systems modified with refrigeration equipment that distributed cold air through floor vents, resulting in hot, muggy conditions at upper levels and much colder temperatures at lower levels, where patrons sometimes resorted to wrapping their feet with newspapers to stay warm. In 1922, Carrier Engineering Corporation installed the first well-designed cooling system for theaters at Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles, which pumped cool air through higher vents for better humidity control and comfort throughout the building.

In May 1922 at Rivoli Theater in New York, Carrier publicly debuted a new type of system that used a centrifugal chiller, which had fewer moving parts and compressor stages than existing units. The breakthrough system increased the reliability and lowered the cost of large-scale air conditioners, greatly expanding their use throughout the country.

Bringing Cooling Home

Despite advancements in cooling technologies, these systems were too large and expensive for homes. Building off refrigeration technology, Frigidaire introduced a new split-system room cooler to the marketplace in 1929 that was small enough for home use and shaped like a radio cabinet. However, the system was heavy, expensive and required a separate, remotely controlled condensing unit. General Electric's Frank Faust improved on this design, developing a self-contained room cooler, and General Electric ended up producing 32 similar prototypes from 1930 to 1931.

Around this same time, Thomas Midgley, Albert Henne and Robert McNary of General Motors synthesized chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) coolants, which became the world's first non-flammable refrigerating fluids, substantially improving the safety of air conditioners. However, the chemicals would be linked to ozone depletion decades later and were eventually phased out by governments all across the globe after the Montreal Protocol in the 1990s. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which don't destroy the ozone, gain popularity but are eventually linked to climate change. Recent breakthrough research by the Energy Department's Building Techologies Office and Oak Ridge National Laboratory is resulting in new refrigerants and technologies that are less harmful to the planet. 

Home cooling systems got smaller after H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman filed a patent for an air conditioning unit that could be placed on a window ledge. The units hit the market in 1932 but were not widely purchased due to their high cost.

Engineer Henry Galson went on to develop a more compact, inexpensive version of the window air conditioner and set up production lines for several manufacturers. By 1947, 43,000 of these systems were sold -- and, for the first time, homeowners could enjoy air conditioning without having to make expensive upgrades.

By the late 1960s, most new homes had central air conditioning, and window air conditioners were more affordable than ever, fueling population growth in hot-weather states like Arizona and Florida. Air conditioning is now in nearly 100 million American homes, representing 87 percent of all households, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Efficiency Standards Drive Improvements

As air conditioning use soared in the 1970s, the energy crisis hit. In response, lawmakers passed laws to reduce energy consumption across the board, setting the stage for the Energy Department’s Appliance and Equipment Standards Program, which establishes a single federal energy efficiency standard for air conditioner manufacturers rather than a patchwork of state-by-state standards.  

Since 1992, the Energy Department has issued conservation standards for manufacturers of residential central air conditioners and heat pumps. The initial standard is expected to net about $29 billion in energy bill savings from 1993 to 2023. The standard passed in 2006 is anticipated to result in around $70 billion in energy bill savings from 2006 to 2035 and avoid more than 369 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of about 72 million cars.

The program has already driven huge efficiency improvements in new air conditioning technology that has helped consumers save energy and money. In fact, new air conditioners today use about 50 percent less energy than they did in 1990.

The Future of Air Conditioning

In addition to appliance standards, the Energy Department’s Emerging Technologies Program within the Building Technologies Office supports applied research and development that makes air conditioning more efficient and sustainable.

Right now, the program is working on the next big thing in air conditioning: non-vapor compression technology, which doesn't use HFCs that harm the environment, ushering in a new era of cooling. It’s estimated that non-vapor compression technologies could reduce energy consumption by 50 percent.

Learn more about the Energy Department’s efforts to improve the energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of air conditioning technologies.

MORE ON AIR CONDITIONING

Having your home at the right temperature at any time of the year is not the easiest of tasks, but it’s something we all try to achieve. During the summer especially, your home can easily become unbearably warm and sometimes, opening windows and doors simply don’t provide enough relief.

Home air conditioning is slowly becoming a popular choice for UK homes after not being overly common here for a number of years. If your home tends to become overly hot in the summer, then you may want to consider home ac units.

What is air conditioning? What are the different types? How much does air conditioning cost? In this guide, we’ll explain how your home could benefit from an air conditioning system and how we can help you to choose your ideal A/C unit.

What is air conditioning?

Air conditioning (often referred to as AC, A/C or air con) is a system used to cool down the temperature in an inside space by removing the existing heat and moisture from the room.

Essentially, they work by taking warm air into a system and dispersing cold air, but there is much more to this process.

During the home air conditioning process, a fluid (normally water or air) is cooled by the evaporation of another fluid, called the refrigerant. Your air conditioner quickly converts gas into a liquid and back again using chemicals that remove the warm air from inside your home. It then gets disposed of outside. In simple terms, an air conditioning system controls the temperature, humidity and air quality in indoor spaces.

While the basic concept behind air conditioning has been around since the ancient Egyptian times, the very first modern air conditioning unit was invented back in 1902 by Willis Carrier in response to an air quality problem by a New York publishing company.

The invention not only controls the temperature, but also the humidity of a space, cooling the air by flowing it over cold coils, allowing them to control the moisture in the air. Shortly after, air conditioning was introduced to cars and also to improve home comfort. Over the years, the sales of air conditioning units increased dramatically as a result of consumer needs.

What is manual air conditioning?

Manual air conditioning gives you the control to turn your unit on and off whenever you feel the need. There is no waiting around for the air conditioning to kick in as they’re not controlled by a thermostat.

If you’d prefer your air conditioning system to be automatic with little input needed from you, then you’ll need an automatic air conditioning system. This will ensure your system will turn on when you set it to, so you don’t need to worry about revisiting the controls each day.

How much is air conditioning?

Air conditioning systems can vary in price, as with any other appliance you buy. A cheap air conditioning unit can range from around £500 to £1000, with more expensive models setting you back around £6000 or more. For a more accurate, personalised quote for which air conditioning system will be ideal for your home, use our ‘Find an A/C System’ tool. It’s easy to use and will give you recommendations in two minutes.

Types of air conditioning.

There are many different types of air conditioning units, and which one you choose will depend entirely on your individual needs. For example, how large the area is, how much heat is generated in that particular area and which type of controls you need. Having the right type for your needs is essential to keep your energy consumption under control and keeping your space at a bearable temperature. Here are the main types:

Wall-mounted, split unit air conditioning system

The split system air conditioner consists of both an outside and an inside unit. The outside unit is installed on or near the exterior wall of the room you’re looking to cool, and houses the compressor, condenser coil, and expansion coil. The indoor unit sits on the wall and contains the cooling coil and an air filter. Both units are connected with wires and tubing.

A great option for homes, split systems are very quiet as the compressor and fan are located in the outside unit and allow for multiple indoor units that are connected to a single outdoor box.

Packaged air conditioner

While traditionally, an air conditioning system is comprised of two parts; an outdoor condenser and an indoor air handler, in a packaged air conditioner unit, all of the parts are enclosed in a single box, usually located on the outside wall or roof of a building.

Packaged air conditioning systems have a higher cooling or heating capacity, making them ideal for use in larger houses or commercial buildings. They work by installing the single component and connecting the system to ducts laid throughout various rooms. By using electricity as its power source, the unit circulates the refrigerant through the coils. Warm air is then pulled in by a fan and passes over the cold evaporator coil, cooling it. The cool air is then pushed through the ducts into the building.

Central air conditioning system

Central air conditioning systems are generally used to cool large homes or buildings such as gyms or offices. These central systems are the most common type of air cooling systems as they are quick and efficient at cooling down larger areas.

The system works from a cooling compressor, which is located outside. Much like other air conditioners, a coil filled with refrigerant is used to cool the air, which is then blown out by a fan and circulated throughout the building with the use of ducts located on the walls or floors. If there is warm air in a room, the ducts will register the heat and the air will then be transported back to the air conditioner to be pushed outside.

Other types of AC systems

These types of air conditioning systems aren’t as popular in the UK but are definitely worth a mention:

Window air conditioner

These air conditioners are installed at a window and is used to cool a single room or space. They’re ideal for homes where people tend to occupy one room at a time. A window air conditioning system is a standalone, self-contained unit, where all of the components sit inside a single box.

The window air conditioner is relatively cheap to purchase and operate and is also very compact. These devices are installed along the lower half of the window and pull hot air from the room and push it outside, blowing cold air into the space to cool it down.

Portable air conditioning unit

This small air conditioning unit does what it says on the tin. It’s a mobile unit that doesn’t require permanent installation. They’re easy to install and work by removing the heat from the air in your room from a small exhaust. This unit can be moved from room to room to wherever needs the most attention.

What is air conditioning? Allow us to help you further.

You’ll probably need a helping hand when it comes to choosing the right air conditioning unit for your home. Here at BOXT, we can not only help you to identify the best system for you, but we’ll also install it for you too.

If you need more information about the right air conditioning system for you, start a conversation with one of our engineers using the live chat feature on our website. If you wish to enquire about our air conditioning installation services, give us a call so we can assist you further: 0800 193 7777.

History of Air Conditioning

What is Air Conditioning? Home AC Systems Explained...

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