Industrial processes generate a significant amount of heat which must be dissipated to avoid damage to sensitive equipment and protect finished products. A well-established method of monitoring and regulating temperatures at optimal levels involves the use of chiller systems which can either be water or air-cooled. This article will highlight the differences between a water-cooled chiller vs. air-cooled chiller system.

Air-cooled Chiller vs. Water-cooled Chiller

Although both air-cooled chillers and water-cooled chillers function to remove unwanted heat from manufacturing processes, they differ in many ways. Deciding which chiller type best suits your industrial application depends on several factors, such as:

  • Chiller condenser mechanisms
  • Water cooling vs. air cooling cost differences
  • Chiller capacity ranges
  • Environmental and location considerations
  • Operational and aesthetic differences

Air-cooled Condenser vs. Water-cooled Condenser

There are distinct differences between the condenser of an air-cooled chiller and a water-cooled chiller. Air-cooled chillers are equipped with condensers that utilize ambient air to reduce refrigerant temperatures. Fans force the air over tubing containing refrigerant and therefore eliminate heat from it. The cooled refrigerant used in chillers can then be circulated through the industrial process to achieve a cooling effect.

By contrast, water-cooled chillers take advantage of the high heat capacity of water to facilitate refrigerant chilling. The typical coolant used in water-cooled systems is a mixture of water and chiller glycol, which is circulated in a sealed network of tubing. Cooling occurs when the chilled refrigerant is passed through a heat exchanger that interfaces with the industrial process. Warmed coolant is then returned to a cooling tower or refrigeration unit, eliminating acquired heat in preparation for another cooling cycle.

However, these aren’t the only differences in air cooling vs. liquid cooling.


Another critical factor to note in comparing air-cooled and water-cooled chillers is the cost of purchase, installation, and maintenance.

Initial Costs

By their design and operation, air-cooled chillers appear costlier at face value when compared to water-cooled units. To begin with, air-cooled systems will feature installation costs for air ducts, fans, and thermoregulation controls. Does this mean that liquid cooling is better than air cooling? Not necessarily. There are more expenses to factor in.

Operating Costs

Additionally, air-cooled chiller systems consume more energy to power the fans that facilitate their cooling effect, translating into higher electrical bills.

On the other hand, even though water-cooled chillers cost less to set up, they generally have more long-term operational costs as most of these chiller types will need to have cooling towers installed.

Maintenance Costs

Also, water-cooled chiller operating costs can rise significantly after factoring in chiller maintenance expenses like water quality testing, the mandatory treatment of water, and refrigeration system operating costs.

Unlike air chillers, water chillers require cooling towers, resulting in costly maintenance demands: condenser-tube cleaning, freeze protection, water treatment, and tower mechanical maintenance. In addition, regular maintenance will help you achieve optimum chiller safety in the workplace.

Capacity Range

Is water cooling better than air cooling when it comes to size? Air-cooled chillers come in sizes ranging from 7.5 – 500 tons. Meanwhile, water-cooled chillers offer a higher cooling capacity of 10 – 4,000 tons. 


The planned location of a chiller unit is another crucial point to consider when deciding on an industrial chiller. Again, depending on site plans, there are pros and cons to opting for air-cooled or water-cooled chillers.

Indoor Locations

Both air-cooled and water-cooled chiller variants can be installed in an indoor location. However, additional space considerations must be made for air-cooled chillers. This is because air-cooled chillers require access to enough ambient air to function correctly.

Situating an air-cooled chiller in a poorly ventilated indoor space will hamper its cooling abilities and reduce efficiency. By comparison, water chillers can be installed in areas with minimal ventilation as their cooling towers can be placed on the building’s exterior.

Outdoor Locations

Opting for an air-cooled chiller in an outdoor setting is advantageous as there is unlimited access to a high flow of the ambient air required to facilitate coolant chilling. Consequently, water-cooled chiller systems are seldom situated in an outdoor location.

Environments with Elevated Temperature 

Water-cooled chillers are the best choice for industrial areas with high thermal outputs. However, air-cooled units will perform poorly in environments with elevated temperatures as the chillers and cooling towers will struggle to dissipate the heat held within the coolant tubing.

Locations with Poor Water Supply 

The choice in situations where there is a poor water supply is easy. An air-cooled chiller is the best choice in such cases as long as it is installed in an adequately ventilated area. Therefore, available water can be channeled into other production processes where it is indispensable.

Environmental Regulations

When choosing a chiller system, local or regional regulations on industrial effluents are a critical issue to address. In this regard, an air-cooled chiller is more advantageous as there is no concern about releasing waste materials into the environment.

Wastewater from open-loop water-cooled chillers will require treatment before being released into natural water bodies, implying additional costs for operators. Fortunately, all of the water-cooled units at Cold Shot Chillers are closed-loop chiller systems that are very environmentally friendly.

Equipment Longevity

Water-cooled chilling systems have a lifespan of about 20 – 30 years. On the other hand, air-cooled units typically last 15 – 20 years.

The reason for this difference is that water-cooled chillers are usually installed inside and operate at lower condenser pressures, and outdoor air-cooled chillers operate at higher condenser pressures. Either way, proper commercial chiller repair can extend the life of your equipment, so don’t neglect it!

Chiller Efficiency

Which process is more efficient: water cooling or air cooling? By comparison, water-cooled chillers are more efficient than air-cooled variants. Air-cooled chiller efficiency is dependent on the temperature of the ambient air being used in its cooling system. The higher the circulating cooling air temperature, the less efficiently an air-cooled chiller will perform.

Overall, more energy will be expended to repeatedly pump air through the chiller heat exchanger to achieve the desired coolant temperatures.

Comparably, water-cooled chiller efficiency is much higher as they operate less dependently on ambient environmental air temperatures. In addition, utilizing water cooling towers or refrigeration units will ensure a steady regulation of chiller fluid within an optimal range. Therefore industrial processes using these chillers will be cooled appropriately.

Learn more about how a chiller works.

Noise Level

Is there a difference between an all-air system and an all-water system when it comes to noise output? Yes. Outdoor air-cooled chillers are known to produce higher noise levels via chiller condenser fans. However, low-noise options are available with a sound-proof design and reduced fan rotation speed. This results in significantly lower sound pressure levels.

Contact Cold Shot Chillers for Air-cooled Chillers and Water-cooled Chillers

There are many aspects to consider when deciding between an air cooling vs. liquid cooling chiller system. When in doubt, you should consult with an expert and discuss your specific application and situation.

At Cold Shot Chillers, we provide a wide range of air-cooled and water-cooled industrial chiller units to cater to all your industrial and commercial process cooling needs. 

To learn more about how we can assist the cooling needs of your particular process, please contact us online today!