How Does AC Work in a Car?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler & Sascha Bos  | 
It's never a good sign when you're blasting the AC but only feel warm air. krisanapong detraphiphat / Getty Images

You probably don't think of your car's air conditioning system very often. But if it broke down, you'd definitely miss the cool air. So, how does AC work in a car?


A Brief History of Car Air Conditioning

Automotive air conditioning has been with us longer than you might think. Packard invented automotive AC all the way back in 1939, and in 1940 it was the first car company to offer factory-installed air conditioning.

Of course, this early system didn't have a thermostat, but it was better than not having anything at all. The idea caught on, and by 1969, more than half of all new cars were sold with air conditioning built in.


Car Air Conditioning and Global Warming

Eventually, it was determined that the refrigerant used for decades in automotive AC, known as R-12, CFC-12, or its brand name Freon, was damaging the ozone layer (it's a chlorofluorocarbon).

It was banned from being manufactured in the United States and an alternative, called R-134a or HFC-134a, was required for all cars manufactured after 1996.

Beginning in 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began phasing in a newer, better-for-the-environment refrigerant known as R-1234yf or HFO-1234yf. According to the EPA, R-1234yf has a global warming potential (GWP) of 4, compared to R-134a's GWP of 1,430.

In 2022, 97 percent of new vehicles in the U.S. used the new refrigerant.


How Does AC Work in a Car?

A car's air conditioning works by manipulating pressure and temperature to move refrigerant between a liquid and gaseous state. The refrigerant enters the evaporator as a liquid, and the heat of the car transforms it into a gas. In its gaseous state, refrigerant can absorb heat.

The refrigerant is pushed out of the car, removing hot air from the vehicle and bringing it back to the compressor, where it is pressurized back into a liquid to start the process over again. There's also a fan outside the evaporator compartment, which blows cool air into the passenger cabin.


Components of A Car AC System

All automotive air conditioning systems are (nearly) closed loops with a high-pressure side and low-pressure side. Starting at the high-pressure side, let's take a look at what happens within each component of a car's air conditioner:

The Compressor

The compressor is a pump driven by a belt attached to the engine's crankshaft. When the refrigerant is drawn into the compressor, it is in a low-pressure gaseous form.


Once the gas is inside the pump, the compressor lives up to its name. The belt drives the pump, which puts the gas under pressure and forces it out to the condenser. Compressors cannot compress liquids, only gasses.

The Condenser

The condenser is basically a radiator, and it serves the same purpose as the one in your home: to radiate heat out of the system. The refrigerant enters the condenser as a pressurized gas from the compressor.

The process of pressurizing the gas and moving it to the condenser creates heat, but air flowing around the twisting tubes of the condenser cool the refrigerant down until it forms a liquid again.

Imagine steam cooling down and condensing back into water, and you've got the idea. The liquid refrigerant is now a high-pressure liquid and nearly ready to cool the car.

The Receiver-Dryer

As it moves out of the condenser, the liquid goes through a little reservoir installed in the line. This receiver-dryer contains desiccants, small granules that attract water.

You've seen packets of desiccants in shoeboxes, where they do the same thing: attract water from the air to keep new shoes fresh and ready for your feet. (They're usually labeled: "Do not eat.")

In the receiver-dryer, they remove any water that has entered the system. If the water is allowed to remain and possibly form ice crystals, it can damage the air conditioning system.

Thermal Expansion Valve (TXV)

Here, the system changes from the high-pressure side to the low-pressure side. If you were to touch this part of the system, you'd feel it change from hot to cold.

The high-pressure liquid refrigerant flows from the receiver-dryer through the expansion valve, where it is allowed to expand. This expansion reduces the pressure on the refrigerant, so it can move into the evaporator.

The valve senses pressure and regulates the flow of refrigerant, which allows the system to operate steadily, but the moving parts of the valve can wear out and sometimes require replacement.

Some vehicles have an orifice tube rather than an expansion valve, but it serves the same purpose in allowing the refrigerant to expand and the pressure to be lowered before the liquid enters the evaporator.

The orifice tube allows refrigerant to flow at a constant rate and has no moving parts, but it can become clogged with debris over time. Systems with an orifice tube automatically turn the AC system on and off to regulate the flow of refrigerant to the evaporator.


This is where the magic happens. While all the other parts of the system are located in the engine compartment, this one is in the cabin, usually above the footwell on the passenger side. It also looks like a radiator, with its coil of tubes and fins, but its job is to absorb heat rather than dissipate it.

Refrigerant enters the evaporator coil as a cold, low-pressure liquid, ideally at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), which is why you don't want any water in the system. The refrigerant doesn't freeze at this temperature, but it does have a very low boiling point.

The heat in the cabin of the car is enough to make the refrigerant in the evaporator boil and become a gas again, just like water turning back to steam. In its gaseous form, refrigerant can absorb a lot of heat.

The gas moves out of the evaporator and out of the passenger compartment of the car, taking the heat with it. A fan blowing over the outside of the evaporator coil blows cool air into the passenger compartment.

The refrigerant in gas form then enters the compressor, where it is pressurized and the whole process starts all over again.

If the system uses an orifice tube, there will be an accumulator between the evaporator and the compressor. An orifice tube sometimes lets too much refrigerant into the evaporator, and it doesn't all boil. Since the compressor cannot compress liquid, only gas, the accumulator traps any excess liquid before it can get into the compressor.

The evaporator also takes humidity out of the air in the car, which helps you feel cool. Water in the air condenses on the evaporator coil, along with dirt and pollen and anything else floating around in the cabin.

When you stop the car and see water dripping underneath, it's probably the water from the AC evaporator and nothing to worry about.


Automotive Air Conditioning FAQ

What are the components of a car air conditioner?
There are three main parts to the system: the compressor, condenser and evaporator.
How much does it cost to fix the air conditioning in your car?
What air conditioning system was banned in the U.S.?
It was determined that the refrigerant used for decades in automotive AC, known as R-12, CFC-12, or its brand name Freon, was damaging the ozone layer (it's a chlorofluorocarbon). It was banned from being manufactured in the United States.
Why is my car air conditioner not blowing cold air?
There are different reasons why your AC might not be working, but Repair Pal says the most common reason is a refrigerant leak.
Which type of AC is used in car?
An R-134a or HFC-134a air conditioner was required for all cars manufactured after 1996.