Short #52 – Enthalpy (Podcast)

In this short podcast, Bryan dives into enthalpy. He explains what it is and how we see it at work in the HVAC/R systems we service daily.

Enthalpy is a fancy word for the total heat energy within a substance. Don't confuse it with entropy, which is the disorganization of energy in a system. We measure enthalpy in energy per mass unit, such as BTUs per pound. Enthalpy combines both the sensible and latent heat capacity; for example, it may represent the energy that it takes to evaporate the water contained in the air. (Water vapor is always present in the air, not just at boiling. Evaporation also occurs at many temperatures below the boiling point.) So, the more water vapor in the air, the more enthalpy there is.

Believe it or not, water vapor is less dense than dry air. So, we can't equate thermal mass to density. Air with a heavy concentration of water vapor has lots of latent heat trapped inside the water vapor. However, we won't recognize that heat until that water vapor condenses to a liquid at the dew point, such as on a cold evaporator coil. Relative humidity measures the moisture in the air as a ratio. An RH value of 100% indicates that the air is at saturation. That is also the point when the dry-bulb and wet-bulb temperatures will be the same.

Overall, we don't care very much about enthalpy values on their own; in HVAC work, we want to calculate changes in enthalpy across parts of the system. We care about changes over the coil, such as drops over the cooling coil. Psychrometers come in handy when you are trying to look for trends in the enthalpy content of the system.

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