Most designs take advantage of the fact that water has one of the highest known enthalpy of vaporization (latent heat of vaporization) values of any common substance. Because of this, evaporative coolers use only a fraction of the energy of vapor-compression or absorption air conditioning systems. Unfortunately, except in very dry climates, the single-stage (direct) cooler can increase relative humidity (RH) to a level that makes occupants uncomfortable. Indirect and Two-stage evaporative coolers keep the RH lower.
Direct evaporative cooling (open circuit) is used to lower the temperature and increase the humidity of air by using latent heat of evaporation, changing liquid water to water vapor. In this process, the energy in the air does not change. Warm dry air is changed to cool moist air. The heat of the outside air is used to evaporate water. The RH increases to 70 to 90% which reduces the cooling effect of human perspiration. The moist air has to be continually released to outside or else the air becomes saturated and evaporation stops.
A mechanical direct evaporative cooler unit uses a fan to draw air through a wetted membrane, or pad, which provides a large surface area for the evaporation of water into the air. Water is sprayed at the top of the pad so it can drip down into the membrane and continually keep the membrane saturated. Any excess water that drips out from the bottom of the membrane is collected in a pan and recirculated to the top. Single stage direct evaporative coolers are typically small in size as it only consists of the membrane, water pump, and centrifugal fan. The mineral content of the municipal water supply will cause scaling on the membrane, which will lead to clogging over the life of the membrane. Depending on this mineral content and the evaporation rate, regular cleaning and maintenance is required to ensure optimal performance. Generally, supply air from the single-stage evaporative cooler will need to be exhausted directly (one-through flow) because the high humidity of the supply air. Few design solutions have been conceived to utilize the energy in the air like directing the exhaust air through two sheets of double glazed windows, thus reducing the solar energy absorbed through the glazing.Compared to energy required to achieve the equivalent cooling load with a compressor, single stage evaporative coolers consume less energy.
Passive direct evaporative cooling can occur anywhere that the evaporatively cooled water can cool a space without the assist of a fan. This can be achieved through use of fountains or more architectural designs such as the evaporative downdraft cooling tower, also called a “passive cooling tower”. The passive cooling tower design allows outside air to flow in through the top of a tower that is constructed within or next to the building. The outside air comes in contact with water inside the tower either through a wetted membrane or a mister. As water evaporates in the outside air, the air becomes cooler and less buoyant and creates a downward flow in the tower. At the bottom of the tower, an outlet allows the cooler air into the interior. Similar to mechanical evaporative coolers, towers can be an attractive low-energy solution for hot and dry climate as they only require a water pump to raise water to the top of the tower. Energy savings from using a passive direct evaporating cooling strategy depends on the climate and heat load. For arid climates with a great wet bulb depression, cooling towers can provide enough cooling during summer design conditions to be net zero. For example, a 371 m² (4,000 ft²) retail store in Tucson, Arizona with a sensible heat gain of 29.3 kJ/h (100,000 Btu/h) can be cooled entirely by two passive cooling towers providing 11890 m³/h (7,000 cfm) each.
For the Zion National Park Visitor’s Center, which uses two passive cooling towers, the cooling energy intensity was 14.5 MJ/m² (1.28 kBtu/ft;), which was 77% less than a typical building in the western United States that uses 62.5 MJ/m² (5.5 kBtu/ft²). A study of field performance results in Kuwait revealed that power requirements for an evaporative cooler are approximately 75% less than the power requirements for a conventional packaged unit air-conditioner.