The Refrigerator – How does it work?

Michelle Gettle Eng202C – Section 033 October 19, 2011

Scope of Description and Audience
The purpose of this document is to provide the reader with a basic understanding of how a refrigerator functions. The main focus will be on the operation and parts of the cooling system. After reading this document, the audience will be able to understand how the pieces within the operating system of the refrigerator maintain cold temperatures. The intended audience for this document is people that have minimal to no knowledge in thermodynamics or electrical engineering, and they should have a curiosity in how basic appliances work. The audience may also be people who have just bought a new refrigerator and would like to understand how it works. Therefore, this information could be shown in an owner’s manual or in an information packet. This information could be beneficial if a refrigerator is malfunctioning and people would like to know where the problems could possibly be originating from.

Introduction: How Does it Work?
Some people have said little elves live in it and turn the light on when the door is opened. Some people may have thought electricity turns directly into cold air. Others may just have never thought about it or don’t care. But how does this thing really work? The refrigerator is a rectangular, box-shaped appliance that operates off of electrical energy in order to keep foods fresh by chilling or freezing them. The cooling process starts with electricity, which comes from the appliance’s cord plugged into an outlet. That electricity then powers a cycle known as vapor compression, which is shown in a basic format in the diagram to the right.

Fig. 1 Vapor Compression Cycle in a Refrigerator

Refrigeration: Vapor Compression Cycle
A vapor compression cycle circulates a coolant liquid that absorbs surrounding heat and then ejects it out of the system. In turn, this cycle cools the inside of a refrigerator because heat is being taken away. This cycle operates through a series of four pieces connected together – expansion valve, evaporator, compressor, and condenser.

The Expansion Valve
This cycle explanation will begin with the expansion valve, which is shown in the bottom of Figure 1. The purpose of this piece is to control the amount of coolant flow into the next piece, which is the evaporator. Because it controls the flow, the system does not overheat, and the back of a refrigerator will not heat up against a wall. The valve is able to control the flow by using a temperature Figure 2. Expansion Valve sensing bulb filled with gas similar to the gas within the whole system. Referring to Figure 2, the gas inside the bulb expands due to a rise in temperature; then, the diaphragm pushes on the spring and allows more coolant liquid into the system. That liquid then travels to the evaporator.

The Evaporator
The main job of the evaporator is to take the coolant liquid, turn it into a vapor, or gas, and in turn cool the refrigerator. When the coolant enters the evaporator chamber, it is heated up, and begins to change from its liquid state to a gaseous state. This action causes heat to be absorbed from the

Figure 3. Evaporator

refrigerator, which creates the cooling feature of the appliance. As shown in Figure 3, the vapor particles then travel through the evaporator coils, or tubes. If you have ever noticed frost or ice forming on the side or back walls of a freezer, it is because of the evaporation process. These coils are so cold that they form frost on them from the humidity in the air.

The Compressor
Vapor that leaves the evaporator coils then travels to the compressor, which is the motor to the system operated by the electrical energy from a common household outlet. In order to explain it simply, the compressor sucks in the vapors with the movement of a piston, which is just a metal rod that moves back and forth inside of a chamber. When the piston moves down and opens up the chamber area, a vacuum is formed that sucks in the vapor. Now, the gas has gone from a tight area inside a tube to a larger open area, which causes the vapor to be at a low-pressure state. However, the piston is constantly moving as the motor of the compressor is running. So the piston has to move back to its original position and close in the space it just created for the vapor. As it does so, the gas changes from a low-pressure to a high-pressure state and is forced to exit through a separate tube that leads to the condenser.

Figure 4. The Main Role of the Compressor in the Refrigeration Process

The Condenser
This part of the cycle is where the heat can be released from the system. The condenser takes in the high-pressured gas, which is also now very hot because of the squeezing from the piston, through a tube. Luckily, the condenser is made up of a lot of coils (much more than that of the evaporator shown in Figure 3) that allows the heated gas to travel through. Because these coils are so long, the vapor cools rapidly, releasing heat to the surrounding atmosphere. The vapor then changes back into a liquid and can travel through the expansion valve again.

What it looks like in the Kitchen
Even though the vapor compression cycle may technically make sense, how does it all fit and function inside of the refrigerator? The expansion valve is not too large of a device, so it can fit almost anywhere, but is usually placed near the bottom. Because the evaporator is the coldest part of the cycle, it optimally works best located in the freezer area. The compressor can be located at the bottom or back of the refrigerator as long as the condenser coils are directly next to it. Other items are added to Figure 5. Refrigerator the cycle for the refrigerator’s optimum performance. These things include fans, temperature knobs and linings. They are not necessary for the functioning of the cycle, but are preferred for personal use. Figure 5 displays where some of the pieces could be located within a typical refrigerator.

A refrigerator cools the food it contains by the vapor compression cycle. Only four main parts are needed for this process, which includes an expansion valve, an evaporator, a compressor and a condenser. These pieces are connected in a series and operated by electrical energy. This process information can be useful when purchasing a refrigerator and the prospective owner would like to compare energy usage to other refrigerators. The information is also important to understand if a refrigerator is malfunctioning and the owner likes to perform do-it-yourself fixes on items within their home.

Works Cited efrigeration_system.html