Both air conditioning and industrial refrigeration have a common objective, cooling some substance. Both types of systems are constructed of common hardware—compressors, heat exchangers, fans, pumps, pipe, duct, and controls. The predominant working fluids are air, water, and refrigerants. A refrigeration system is an integral part of both systems.
While much is shared by both fields, there are enough differences in the systems, components, design practices, and business methods to justify separate treatment of industrial refrigeration. By almost every standard, the size of the comfort air conditioning industry dominates over industrial refrigeration, including the number of units sold and installed, gross monetary sales, and the number of engineers and technicians employed. Nevertheless, industrial refrigeration is a lively business of significant size, provides many technical challenges to its practitioners, and serves a crucial role in industry and society.
While there is always a danger in isolating one’s area of technical activity and thus losing the input from related fields, industrial refrigeration should not be considered a branch of comfort air conditioning. Industrial refrigeration is characterized by special rather than standard jobs, and the fraction of total cost devoted to engineering and design usually is higher than with air conditioning. Many problems can occur in the lower temperatures typical of industrial refrigeration plants that do not occur in the usual comfort air conditioning temperatures. The refrigeration plant for an air conditioning system is usually a factory-assembled package ready for connection to electrical, water, and air services. In industrial refrigeration, built-up systems are more common than complete packages because of the great variety of installations.
Another distinguishing feature is that industrial refrigeration systems usually consist of parallel compressors, condensers, and evaporators in contrast to packages with one of each of these components serving a comfort air conditioning assignment. When an industrial refrigeration plant is expanded, it is usually done by installing an additional compressor, condenser, and/or evaporator.
Another comparison is that air conditioning systems are usually characterized by duct networks carrying air and piping networks carrying water. Industrial refrigeration systems only occasionally employ air duct networks, but commonly incorporate extensive refrigerant distribution networks.