There are a few occasions when you might be wondering whether your air conditioning uses gas or electricity. Perhaps the unit has stopped functioning, and you’re not sure what type of professional to call. Perhaps you are looking at your utility bill and trying to figure out why it’s higher than you expect. Maybe you think you might smell gas and are trying to figure out why. (Note: if you smell gas in your home, leave the building and call your utility company from a safe distance or a neighbor’s house.)
In one way, the answer to this question is very simple: all air conditioners run on electricity. In another way, however, the answer is very complicated because people don’t always mean the same thing when they say “air conditioning.”
First, let’s talk a little bit about how an air conditioner works. An air conditioner takes advantage of the properties of certain chemicals, called refrigerants, that can easily condense and evaporate with changes in pressure. These changes allow the liquid to change temperature, dropping in one part of the cycle to absorb heat from the room you’re cooling, then getting hotter to radiate off the heat it’s absorbed.
Here’s how it works in detail. A compressor pressurizes the refrigerant. The increase in pressure turns the refrigerant into a dense gas packed with heat. The heat radiates away from the condenser coils, and this causes the gas to condense into a liquid. The liquid then passes through an expansion valve that drops the liquid’s pressure. When this happens, the temperature of the liquid drops, too. This makes cold coils. A fan blows air over these coils, and the air cools. The refrigerant warms and evaporates. It enters the compressor, and the cycle starts again.
All the components in this air conditioner are powered by electricity. There are no gas-powered air conditioner units.
Despite what we said above, if you do an Internet search on this question, you will find websites and articles that talk about “gas-powered air conditioning.” This isn’t a contradiction of what we’ve said above – the only gas involved in an air conditioner is the refrigerant, which isn’t a power source. Instead, it creates confusion about what we mean when we say air conditioning.
In general, when people talk about an air conditioner or an AC unit, they are referring to the kind of heat exchange system using a refrigerant that we talked about above. However, sometimes people use the term “air conditioning” in a more general way.
“Air conditioning” could mean any technique for making the air more comfortable for us. This could be cooling hot air with an air conditioner, or it could be warming cold air with a furnace. A furnace usually refers to a unit that combusts gas or fuel oil to heat air in your home, though it could also have electric heat coils. This air is then forced through ducts to reach other parts of the house. This means that while there are no gas-powered air conditioners, you could talk about gas-powered air conditioning and still be accurate.
Another way that the terms get confused is when we talk about “central air,” “central air conditioning,” or “central AC.” Often, central air just refers to the kind of forced-air heating with a furnace we talked about above. Central air might be powered by electricity, gas, and/or fuel oil. This is also sometimes called “central heat,” to be more precise.
On the other hand, when people refer to central air conditioning or central AC, they are talking about a refrigerant system where the air is cooled in a central location, then pushed through the house using the same ducts as the heating system. You can see how it’s very easy for a person to abbreviate central air conditioning to central air, creating confusion between central heating and cooling systems.
Another possible source of confusion is when people talk about “recharging” the gas in an AC unit. This can make people think that the AC unit is powered by the gas. However, recharging the gas just refers to making sure the AC unit has enough refrigerant to adequately cool what it’s supposed to cool.
Modern AC units are supposed to be sealed so the gas can’t escape. The gas is toxic, and it’s bad for the environment, so we want to keep it contained. Not only that, but a gas recharge can be expensive. If an AC unit needs a recharge, it will also need repairs to stop the leak. In some cases, this might mean it’s time to replace the AC unit altogether.
Unlike an AC unit, evaporative coolers do not use refrigerant gases. Instead, they function simply by evaporating water, which takes heat from the air. This is more efficient because it doesn’t require a power-consuming compressor; all it needs to work effectively is an efficient pump and a fan.
It also means that evaporative coolers don’t contain toxic gases. There’s no worry about the gas leaking out and either harming you or leading to environmental damage. There’s also no concern about what to do with gas when the evaporative cooler needs to be replaced.
Since 1990, Portacool has been making evaporative coolers at our Center, Texas manufacturing facility. Now our coolers are sold in all 50 states and 54 countries around the world. We have become a recognized leader in the industry, which means we’ve studied all cooling options available, including air conditioning.