Water Chillers: An Essential Cooling Solution

Water chillers, also known as chilled water systems, are crucial components in the HVACR industry. These refrigeration systems utilize water as a secondary refrigerant to provide cooling for larger and more complex applications. In this article, we will delve into the world of water chillers, exploring their working principle, types, and design considerations.

What is a Water Chiller?

A water chiller is a refrigeration system that uses water as a secondary refrigerant. It plays a vital role in applications such as district cooling, centralized air conditioning, hydroponics, food and beverage processing, pharmaceuticals, cold storage, machining, plastic processing, and more. These versatile systems offer reliable and efficient cooling solutions for a wide range of industries.

Machine Tool Chillers

Working Principle of Water Chillers

Water chillers operate using two main loops: the refrigeration loop and the chilled water loop. The refrigeration loop is responsible for providing cooling, while the chilled water loop distributes the cold water to consumer units. Heat transfer is the key process involved in these systems.

One of the common working principles used in water chillers is the vapor compression cycle. This cycle involves changing the phase of a refrigerant from liquid to gas and vice versa using heat exchangers, compressors, and expansion valves. The cycle consists of four essential stages: compression, condensation, expansion, and evaporation.

The Vapor Compression Cycle

The refrigeration loop works by compressing the vaporized refrigerant, which then undergoes condensation to release heat. Afterward, it goes through the expansion process, which reduces both pressure and temperature. Finally, the refrigerant evaporates by absorbing heat from the cooling medium. This sequence repeats to maintain a continuous cooling process.

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Vapor Compression Refrigeration Cycle Schematic

Types of Water Chillers

Water chillers can be classified based on their condenser type, compressor, and driver unit. According to the condenser type, there are air-cooled water chillers and water-cooled water chillers. Air-cooled chillers use air as the condensing medium, while water-cooled chillers utilize water for this purpose.

Air-cooled Water Chiller

Air-cooled water chillers employ condensers designed to exchange heat from the refrigerant to ambient air. They incorporate finned coils to maximize heat transfer, and fans facilitate the airflow over the coils. These chillers are cost-effective and require no additional infrastructure.

Air-cooled Water Chillers

Water-cooled Water Chiller

Water-cooled water chillers, as the name suggests, use water as both the condensing and cooling medium. A separate cooling tower is employed to cool the water that circulates through the condenser. These chillers are commonly used in large industrial plants where a cooling water supply is readily available, offering higher efficiency compared to air-cooled types.

Water-cooled Water Chillers

Compressor Types

Water chillers can also be categorized based on the type of compressor they use. Centrifugal, screw, scroll, and reciprocating compressors are commonly employed in these systems, each with its distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Centrifugal Water Chiller

Centrifugal water chillers utilize a centrifugal-type compressor that increases the pressure of the gas by converting its kinetic energy into potential energy. These chillers are suitable for high cooling loads and offer higher operating efficiencies at peak loads.

Centrifugal Compressor Water Chillers

Screw Water Chiller

Screw water chillers use screw compressors to provide mechanical work for the vapor compression cycle. These compressors utilize two helical screws to trap and progressively decrease the volume of the refrigerant, resulting in compression. Screw water chillers are known for their high partial-load efficiency and suitability for varying cooling load demands.

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Rotary Screw Compressor Water Chiller

Scroll Water Chiller

Scroll water chillers employ scroll compressors, which consist of two co-wound spirals that move eccentrically relative to each other. These compressors progressively decrease the volume of the refrigerant by transporting it towards the center of the scrolls. Scroll chillers are commonly used in small cooling load applications and offer comparable efficiencies to screw types.

Scroll Compressor Water Chillers

Reciprocating Water Chiller

Reciprocating water chillers utilize reciprocating pistons or plungers for refrigerant compression. These compressors produce compression but are becoming obsolete due to their noisy operation, poor reliability, and short service life. However, they still find use in certain applications due to their affordability.

Design Considerations

Designing water chiller systems involves various factors, such as determining the cooling load and capacity, chilled water supply temperature and flow rate, cooling capacity control, multiple chiller configurations, and compressor driver choices. Another crucial consideration is the design of the pump and piping system used for chilled water distribution.

Chilled Water Piping

By carefully evaluating these aspects, engineers can ensure the efficient and reliable operation of water chiller systems. Cooling load calculations, air parameter evaluations, and pump and piping design play a crucial role in achieving the desired cooling efficiency.


Water chillers are indispensable components in the HVACR industry, offering efficient cooling solutions for a wide range of applications. By understanding their working principle, types, and design considerations, engineers can make informed decisions when selecting and designing water chiller systems.

For more information on water chillers and their applications, visit the Ames Farm Center.