What is the difference between refrigeration and air conditioning in a house?

Air conditioners (or HVAC) and refrigerators both reduce heat. Both types of devices cool things down. Electricity is often used in both cases to do this. Let’s take a further look at the differences between the two.

What is refrigeration?

Refrigeration is a man-made type of cooling in an enclosed environment, wherein the temperature is maintained much below the ambient temperature. The temperature of the area can even go below 0 degrees Fahrenheit which is the freezing point of water. Refrigeration is extremely important in household devices like refrigerators as well as industrial refrigerators to keep food products cool in a mass.

Refrigeration can be done by mechanical, magnetism, heat, electricity, laser, or any other means. In layman’s terms, refrigeration makes the environment in a fridge or freezer below the temperature outside of the fridge.

How does refrigeration work?

Refrigeration is meant to cool a closeted space which might be small in cases like a household or industrial refrigerators. It might even be used to refrigerate big areas like cold storage in warehouses. Modern refrigerators use R 134a Tetrafluoroethane (Chemical formula HFC-134a) which are also known as F gases. It contains hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon and is safe for the ozone layer.

During refrigeration, the F gas converts from a liquid form to a gaseous form and cools the space. A compressor increases the pressure in the refrigerator or the cold storage along with the temperature and the gas is again liquefied. The coolant is passed through a condenser and the entire process continues.

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What is air conditioning?

Air conditioners remove the heat by controlling the humidity making an environment comfortable for the inhabitants of the home or office building. Air conditioners are often abbreviated as AC or A/C.

ACs use the vaporcompression refrigeration technique to complete the process of cooling.

This is known as air-conditioning wherein the temperature is bearable for human beings and it hovers between 18 degrees Celsius to about 27 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, the water does not freeze. Air conditioning was invented to keep humans comfortable. It does not have anything to do with the food industry where large freezers are used to keep food items in a refrigerated condition.

Air conditioners are capable of cooling smaller units like a car, bus, truck, SUV, small room, etc. Modern technologies have made it possible to cool big areas like malls and supermarkets which are not always enclosed spaces. There are entrance doors through which people keep coming and going and all the air can not be contained inside the enclosed space.  

Air conditioners are quite complex. We have outlined some troubleshooting steps here.

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How does air conditioning work?

Air conditioning uses a similar principle as that of refrigeration; however, the coolant is already built into the air conditioning system. It makes the air temperature ambient for the inhabitants but does not go below the freezing point of water.

Air conditioners are fitted with fans and ducts to throw out the hot air and it regulates humidity to make the environment pleasant in the building. Air conditioners also use coolant made of the same kind of F gases as refrigerators do.

CFC and HCFC refrigerants which were used in older air conditioners were depleting the ozone layer. CFCs were Chlorofluorocarbons which used to be a mixture of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon.

HCFCs were a mixture of hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine, and carbon and they too were not eco-friendly. Both had chlorine which is harmful to the environment and was depleting the ozone layer.

Difference between refrigeration and air conditioning

The key differences between air-conditioning and refrigeration are as follows-

1.    Refrigeration keeps the icy air inside the unit where the refrigeration is taking place. Air-conditioning pushes the air away, and hence to date, there are window mount air-conditioners available in the market. These types of ACs circulate the hot air out and hence are mounted outside the apartment or office building.

2.    Refrigeration uses only coolants for the cooling process. Air conditioning uses coolant and the air from the atmosphere outside to regulate the temperature and humidity.

3.    Refrigeration is used to keep food, plasma, and such items safe and usable for days together. Air conditioning is meant for living human beings and other animals that become uncomfortable when the temperature rises.

4.    Refrigeration handles cooling, solidifying, and freezing and thus maintaining the temperature below the freezing point of water. Air conditioning handles the process of cooling and removing the moisture from the air. It operates at a much higher temperature of about 18 degrees Celsius and above.

Photo by José Andrés Pacheco Cortes from Pexels

While there is some overlap between the two, we can clearly state that there are some differences. Air conditioning uses air and coolant whereas fridges only use coolant. This is a key element as it affects how both of these appliances woek.


Air conditioners cannot replace refrigerators and vice-versa. Even though air conditioners control humidity, they cannot keep the food safe for a longer duration. We need to keep the uncooked and cooked food below 0 Degree Celsius to stop the microorganisms to be active.

Even in refrigerators, food cannot be kept safe for very long periods. Hence there is shelf life that is mentioned in any food item as there is a natural process of decaying that takes place even if it is kept under refrigeration.

Split AC systems can take up a lot of space.

This article was meant for people who are trying to understand the terms from a technical standpoint. Otherwise, in our daily lives, we come across the terms refrigeration and air-conditioning and we do understand the basic meaning of it. Now since the summer months are coming up, we are definitely going to need both of them at home, at workplaces, and in recreational areas that we visit. 

Refrigeration and air conditioning use the same principles. Both transport a cooling fluid to lower the temperature in a room or area.

If you want to learn more about the history of air conditioners, you can check this article.