Across much of the United States, this summer has been one of the hottest summers on record! Thankfully, most of us are able to retreat into air-conditioned homes and buildings and enjoy cool, refreshing temperatures when the sun is at full blaze.

But how many of us have stopped to think about what goes into making air conditioning systems work, much less the history of how air conditioning has evolved to what it is today?

This article will discuss how residential and commercial air conditioning has evolved over the last several decades, and how new technologies have given us the miracle of cold air on a hot day!

The Evolution of Air Conditioning

In 1758, the concept of air conditioning prompted the famous American inventor and politician Benjamin Franklin to create experiments combining evaporation with alcohol to achieve freezing air temperatures. While these chemistry experiments weren’t very efficient or effective at scale, they influenced other inventors to experiment with methods for making air colder and distributable in an efficient way.

The Big Breakthrough: Carrier

About 150 years after Ben Franklin’s experiments with alcohol and evaporation, Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first modern air conditioner in 1902. His device pushed air through coils filled with cold water, which cooled the surrounding air while reducing moisture in a room to control humidity. Then, 31 years later, in 1933, the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America created an air conditioning unit using a belt-controlled condenser unit and blower, mechanical control parts, and an evaporating coil. This air conditioning process set the standard for how to make homes and businesses cool during hot days, and demand skyrocketed.

Paving the Way for Modern A/C

Today’s air conditioning systems use the same fundamental principles as Carrier’s 1933 technologies, but they incorporate new advances in things like vapor compression, diagnostic controls, sensors, more efficient materials, and efficient energy processes. Even Carrier itself uses much more advanced technology today, with items like a 2-stage scrolling compressor for better performance.

1970s

While the original Carrier unit hit the market in 1933, it wasn’t until the 1970s that central air conditioning was widely utilized in most commercial buildings in larger metropolitan areas, as well as adopted by many households. By this time, energy usage for air conditioners wasn’t nearly as efficient as it is today, but the sensitivity to energy consumption was not as much of a cultural issue. New air conditioning manufacturers began to emerge as demand across the United States increased.

1980s

About 60 percent of U.S. homes during the 1980s did not yet have air conditioning, but greater manufacturing and demand was turning the tide. The US government began to implement stricter requirements around energy consumption, and air conditioning manufacturers adjusted by making units that were more efficient and durable. However, newer air conditioning units at this time only had a lifespan of around 10 years, approximately half of the average lifespan of air conditioning units manufactured in the late 1990s and more recently.

1990s

By the 1990s, more than 60% of U.S. residences had air conditioning, although the units at this time were approximately 50% less energy efficient than they are today. Newer units built in the late 1990s used more durable and reliable materials, significantly increasing their lifespans. Many air conditioning systems implemented in the late 1990s across residences and buildings in the US are still in use today in 2022.

2000s

Energy efficiency became even more of a core item for HVAC manufacturers. During the 2000s, R410a replaced previous coolants as the most environmentally friendly coolant available, helping to reduce energy consumption by 30% since 1993. As energy efficiency improved, better technology and materials improved average cycle speed and equipment reliability as well as cost, and by 2007, 86% of American homes utilized air conditioning.

Air Conditioning Today

The U.S. Department of Energy began to pursue research into non-vapor compression technology, which would mean that HVAC technology wouldn’t need to utilize coolants to cool air. This is becoming more of a reality, and could lead to unprecedented increases in efficiency, equipment durability, and reliability, as units and their delicate components would not have to interact with coolant.

Additionally, newer HVAC units have better Internet of Things integration and chip processors, meaning that diagnostic and preventive maintenance is more electronically controlled and intuitive than ever, leading to longer life and cost savings.

Contact AQM for your next HVAC service appointment or installation!

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