Types of Chiller Plants and How They Work


Chiller plants are an essential component of any commercial, industrial or residential building. They are responsible for maintaining a comfortable and cool temperature in the building by removing heat from the air through a refrigeration cycle. But did you know that there are different types of chiller plants? In this article, we will discuss the various types of chiller plants.

 In the intricate dance of climate control within modern buildings, the chiller plant is the unassuming, yet vital, star player. For HVAC professionals, facility managers, and engineers, understanding the nuanced workings of various chiller plant models can mean the difference between an efficient system and one that stagnates under the pressure of poor design and maintenance.

Chiller plants, with their circular cascade of cooling, are pivotal to maintaining comfortable and stable temperatures, especially in large-scale environments such as hospitals, data centers, and commercial high-rises. But what do we mean when we say 'chiller plant'? It's more than the name suggests. It's a network of systems designed to remove heat from interior spaces, transporting it to the great outdoors, and repeating this cycle tirelessly.

Contained within a chiller plant are several key types of chillers, each with its own set of advantages, applications, and engineering marvels. This comprehensive guide will give you a thorough understanding of the different chillers employed in various chiller plants and how they function to keep our environments cool, even as the world heats up.

Types of Chiller Plants

First, it's essential to grasp that chiller plants come in different configurations, depending on the scale and specific requirements of a building. The most common types include air-cooled, water-cooled, and condenserless chiller plants, but within these broad categories, several kinds of chillers do the heavy lifting.

1. Absorption Chillers

Perhaps the most intriguing type of chiller within the plant, the absorption chiller, doesn't rely on traditional mechanical compression. Instead, it uses heat to drive the cooling process, making it highly efficient and particularly useful in scenarios where waste heat is abundant or where electricity is costly.

Working Principle

An absorption chiller has four main stages: evaporation, absorption, desorption, and condensation. The process begins with a refrigerant, typically water, evaporating at low pressure and temperature. The vapor is absorbed into a solution of water and lithium bromide, and then heat is applied to separate the water vapor (cooling process) and return the lithium bromide to the absorber.

The desorber stage releases the refrigerant from the lithium bromide solution at high temperature, and the vapor is then condensed, which returns it to its liquid state. Lastly, the high-pressure liquid flows back to the evaporator, completing the cycle.

Applications in HVAC Systems

Due to their need for hot heat sources, absorption chillers are frequently employed in cogeneration (or combined heat and power) systems, making them ideal for large residential complexes and district cooling. Additionally, they are often found where low electrical generation is available or in environments sensitive to electrical noise or vibrations, such as in hospitals or laboratories.

2. Centrifugal Chillers

Centrifugal chillers are workhorses of large commercial and industrial buildings, utilizing the kinetic energy from a high-speed impeller to cool large volumes of water.

Operational Mechanism

Centrifugal chillers function around the principle that when a liquid is forced through a space, pressure decreases and velocity increases, causing a decrease in the liquid's temperature. The chiller uses a rotating impeller to accomplish this, spinning at a high speed within a stationary diffuser. The liquid's speed and pressure increase, effectively churning and cooling the water, which is then circulated through the building's cooling coils.

Efficiency and Scalability

This type of chiller is popular for its energy efficiency and scalability. Centrifugal chillers are designed to work over a wide range of cooling capacities, making them adaptable to the changing needs of a dynamic system. They are also highly reliable when properly maintained, which is critical in high-demand environments where system downtime can be costly.

3. Reciprocating Chillers

The 'veterans' among chillers, reciprocating systems have been in use for well over a century, offering a robust and straightforward approach to cooling.

Functionality and Design

Reciprocating chillers, analogous to an engine in many respects, work by compressing a refrigerant to a high pressure, then allowing it to expand across an orifice, which leads to cooling. This expansion also causes a drop in pressure, returning the refrigerant to its initial state, allowing the cycle to start again. Reciprocating chillers are highly versatile and can use a variety of refrigerants, making them useful in a broad range of applications.

Pros and Cons in Various Settings

While reciprocating chillers can be more cost-effective at smaller scales, their efficiency can decrease for very large systems when compared to more modern chiller types like centrifugal. Additionally, they tend to be noisier and produce more vibration, which needs to be taken into account in their installation and use.

How Chiller Plants Work

The Cooling Cycle Explanation

Chillers work on a simple yet effective thermodynamic principle. By circulating a heat-absorbing, or "chilled," fluid through the chiller, the heat energy is drawn out and transferred away to the condenser, thus cooling the fluid. The fluid—be it air, water, or refrigerant—absorbs heat from the building's interior, lowering its temperature, and then the cycle starts anew.

Key Components and Their Roles

A chiller plant is a complex system with several main components, and understanding how each one functions is crucial to comprehending the overall operation. The evaporator is where the refrigerant absorbs heat and evaporates; the compressor raises the refrigerant's pressure and temperature as a vapor; the condenser removes heat from the refrigerant, turning it back into a liquid; and the expansion device (like an expansion valve) controls the flow of the refrigerant and its pressure as it passes from the evaporator to the condenser.

Benefits of Different Chiller Types

Energy Efficiency

Each chiller type presents different energy efficiencies. While reciprocating chillers might be more cost-effective to install and operate at smaller scales, larger centrifugal chillers can offer savings due to their ability to operate more efficiently when scaled up to meet increased demand.


The initial cost, maintenance, and operational expenses associated with each type of chiller can vary significantly. Centrifugal chillers, for instance, often require more extensive maintenance due to the complexity of their designs, but this can be offset by lower operating costs and a longer life span.

Environmental Impact

With the global focus on sustainability, the environmental impact of HVAC systems, especially the refrigerants used in chillers, is of increasing concern. Absorption chillers, for example, are known for their use of water as a refrigerant, which is both non-toxic and non-ozone-depleting. Conversely, centrifugal and reciprocating chillers might use refrigerants with greater environmental footprints, but newer models are designed with a focus on reducing this impact.


In conclusion, chiller plants come in various configurations, tailored to the specific needs of different environments. Each type of chiller brings its own set of benefits and challenges, making them more or less suitable for different applications. By having a grasp of the types of chiller plants and how they work, professionals in the HVAC industry can make informed decisions that lead to enhanced energy efficiency, cost savings, and a positive environmental impact. Understanding the nuanced workings of chillers is much more than an academic exercise—it's the key to creating comfortable, sustainable spaces in our rapidly evolving world.