How Air Conditioners Work


Most air conditioners have their capacity rated in British thermal units (Btu). A Btu is the amount of heat necessary to raise the temperature of 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of water one degree Fahrenheit (0.56 degrees Celsius). One Btu equals 1,055 joules. In heating and cooling terms, one ton equals 12,000 Btu.

A typical window air conditioner might be rated at 10,000 Btu. For comparison, a typical 2,000-square-foot (185.8 square meters) house might have a 5-ton (60,000-Btu) air conditioning system, implying that you might need perhaps 30 Btu per square foot. These are rough estimates. To size an air conditioner accurately for your specific application, you should contact an HVAC contractor.


The energy efficiency rating (EER) of an air conditioner is its Btu rating over its wattage. As an example, if a 10,000-Btu air conditioner consumes 1,200 watts, its EER is 8.3 (10,000 Btu/1,200 watts). Obviously, you would like the EER to be as high as possible, but normally a higher EER is accompanied by a higher price.

Let's say you have a choice between two 10,000-Btu units. One has an EER of 8.3 and consumes 1,200 watts, and the other has an EER of 10 and consumes 1,000 watts. Let's also say that the price difference is $100. To determine the payback period on the more expensive unit, you need to know approximately how many hours per year you will be operating the air conditioner and how much a kilowatt-hour (kWh) costs in your area.

Assuming you plan to use the air conditioner six hours a day for four months of the year, at a cost of $0.10/kWh. The difference in energy consumption between the two units is 200 watts. This means that every five hours the less expensive unit will consume one additional kWh (or $0.10) more than the more expensive unit.

Let's do the math: With roughly 30 days in a month, you're operating the air conditioner:

4 months x 30 days per month x 6 hours per day = 720 hours

[(720 hours x 200 watts) / (1000 watts/kilowatt)] x $0.10/kilowatt hours = $14.40

The more expensive air conditioning unit costs $100 more to purchase but less money to operate. In our example, it'll take seven years for the higher priced unit to break even.