Working of Refrigerator : The basics

April 8, 2014

Refrigeration technology is commonly used in domestic and industrial applications. This article gives a detailed and logical introduction to the workings of refrigerators using the vapor compression cycle.

The basic principle of refrigerator

The basic principle of refrigeration is simple. You simply pass a colder liquid continuously around the object that is to be cooled. This will take heat from the object. In the example shown, a cold liquid is passed over an apple, which is to be cooled. Due to the temperature difference, the apple loses heat to the refrigerant liquid. The refrigerant in turn is heated due to heat absorption from the apple.

Fig: 1 Basic principle of refrigeration is illustrated in this figure

It is clear that, if we can produce cold liquid refrigerant continuously, we can achieve continuous refrigeration. This simple fact forms the core of the refrigeration technology. We will next see how this is achieved.

Components of refrigerator and working

An inside view of a refrigerator is shown.

Fig: 2 An inside view of a refrigerator

It has 4 main components: compressor, condenser, evaporator, and throttling device. Of these components, the throttling device is the one that is responsible for the production of the cold liquid. So we will first analyze the throttling device in a detailed way and move on to the other components.

Throttling device

The throttling device obstructs the flow of liquid; cold liquid is produced with the help of this device. In this case, the throttling device is a capillary tube. The capillary tube has an approximate length of 2 m and an inside diameter of around 0.6 mm, so it offers considerable resistance to the flow.

Fig:3 A Capillary tube: This results in sudden drop in pressure and temperature

For effective throttling at the inlet, the refrigerant should be a high-pressure liquid. The throttling device restricts the flow, which causes a tremendous pressure drop. Due to the drop in pressure, the boiling point of the refrigerant is lowered, and it starts to evaporate. The heat required for evaporation comes from the refrigerant itself, so it loses heat, and its temperature drops. If you check the temperature across the throttling device, you will notice this drop.

It is wrong to say that the throttling is a process. We know only the end points of throttling, that is, the states before and after throttling. We don’t know the states in between, since this is a highly irreversible change. So it would be correct to call throttling a phenomenon rather than a process.

Evaporator - heat absorption process

The next phase is simple: this cold liquid is passed over the body that has to be cooled. As a result, the refrigerant absorbs the heat. During the heat absorption process, the refrigerant further evaporates and transforms into pure vapor. A proper heat exchanger is required to carry the cold refrigerant over the body. This heat exchanger is known as an evaporator.

Fig: 4 Cold liquid is passed through a heat exchanger know as evaporator for absorbing heat from the refrigerator

So we have produced the required refrigeration effect. If we can return this low-pressure vapor refrigerant to the state before the throttling process (that is the high-pressure liquid state), we will be able to repeat this process. So first step, let’s raise the pressure.

Use of Compressor

A compressor is introduced for this purpose. The compressor will raise the pressure back to its initial level. But since it is compressing gas, along with pressure, temperature will also be increased. This is unavoidable.

Fig: 5 A compressor is used to raise pressure of the refrigerant

Now the refrigerant is a high-pressure vapor. To convert it to the liquid state, we must introduce another heat exchanger.

Use of Condenser

This heat exchanger is fitted outside the refrigerator, and the refrigerant temperature is higher than atmospheric temperature. So heat will dissipate to the surroundings. The vapor will be condensed to liquid, and the temperature will return to a normal level.

Fig: 6 Condenser heat exchanger is fitted outside the refrigerator so it will reject heat to the surroundings

So the refrigerant is back to its initial state again: a high-pressure liquid. We can repeat this cycle over and over for continuous refrigeration. This cycle is known as the vapor compression cycle. Refrigeration technology based on the vapor compression cycle is the most commonly used one in domestic and industrial applications.

Refrigerator components

You can find more details on refrigerator components here. Evaporators and condensers have fins attached to them. The fins increase the surface area available for convective heat transfer and thus will significantly enhance heat transfer.

Fig.7 Fins attached to the condenser and evaporator

Since the evaporator is cooling the surrounding air, it is common that water will condense on it, forming frost. The frost will act as an insulator between the evaporator heat exchanger and the surrounding air. Thus it will reduce the effectiveness of the heat removal process. Frequent removal of frost is required to enhance the heat transfer. An automatic defrosting mechanism is employed in all modern refrigerators.

Details of compressor

Apart from raising the pressure, the compressor also helps maintain the flow in the refrigerant circuit. Usually, a hermetically sealed reciprocating type compressor is used for this purpose. You might have noticed that, your household refrigerator consumes a lots of electricity compared to the other devices. In a vapor compression cycle, we have to compress the gas; compressing the gas and raising pressure is a highly energy intensive affair. This is the reason why the refrigerator based on the vapor compression refrigeration technology consumes a lot of electricity.

Coefficient of performance

The heat and power transfer happening in a vapor compression refrigeration circuit is shown below.

Fig: 8 Energy interaction happening in a refrigeration system

A simple energy balance of the system yields the following relationship.


It is often required to evaluate performance of a refrigerator or compare between different refrigeration technologies. A term called Coefficient of Performance (C.O.P) helps in doing this. To understand this term completely, we need to know what is the input and output of a refrigeration system. What we need from a refrigerator is the cooling effect. Or QABSORBED is the output of a refrigeration cycle. Input to the refrigerator is the power given to the compressor. So the term C.O.P can easily be defined as output by input and is expressed as follows.



This article is written by Sabin Mathew, an IIT Delhi postgraduate in mechanical engineering. Sabin is passionate about understanding the physics behind complex technologies and explaining them in simple words. He is the founder of Learn Engineering educational platform. To know more about the author check this link