Evaporative coolers lower the temperature of air using the principle of evaporative cooling, unlike typical air conditioning systems which use vapor-compression refrigeration or absorption refrigerator. Evaporative cooling is the addition of water vapor into air, which causes a lowering of the temperature of the air. The energy needed to evaporate the water is taken from the air in the form of sensible heat, which affects the temperature of the air, and converted into latent heat, the energy present in the water vapor component of the air, whilst the air remains at a constant enthalpy value. This conversion of sensible heat to latent heat is known as an adiabatic process because it occurs at a constant enthalpy value. Evaporative cooling therefore causes a drop in the temperature of air proportional to the sensible heat drop and an increase in humidity proportional to the latent heat gain. Evaporative cooling can be visualized using a psychrometric chart by finding the initial air condition and moving along a line of constant enthalpy toward a state of higher humidity.
California ranch house with evaporative cooler box on roof ridgeline
A simple example of natural evaporative cooling is perspiration, or sweat, secreted by the body, evaporation of which cools the body. The amount of heat transfer depends on the evaporation rate, however for each kilogram of water vaporized 2,257 kJ of energy (about 890 BTU per pound of pure water, at 95 °F (35 °C)) are transferred. The evaporation rate depends on the temperature and humidity of the air, which is why sweat accumulates more on humid days, as it does not evaporate fast enough.
Vapor-compression refrigeration uses evaporative cooling, but the evaporated vapor is within a sealed system, and is then compressed ready to evaporate again, using energy to do so. A simple evaporative cooler's water is evaporated into the environment, and not recovered. In an interior space cooling unit, the evaporated water is introduced into the space along with the now-cooled air; in an evaporative tower the evaporated water is carried off in the airflow exhaust.
Other types of phase-change cooling
A closely related process, sublimation cooling differs from evaporative cooling in that a phase transition from solid to vapor, rather than liquid to vapor occurs.
Sublimation cooling has been observed to operate on a planetary scale on the planetoid Pluto, where it has been called an anti-greenhouse effect.
Another application of a phase change to cooling is the "self-refrigerating" beverage can. A separate compartment inside the can contains a desiccant and a liquid. Just before drinking, a tab is pulled so that the desiccant comes into contact with the liquid and dissolves. As it does so it absorbs an amount of heat energy called the latent heat of fusion. Evaporative cooling works with the phase change of liquid into vapor and the latent heat of vaporization, but the self-cooling can uses a change from solid to liquid, and the latent heat of fusion to achieve the same result.