I saw this thing advertised on TV. Then, the same evening, I was shopping in Asda and saw it on display. I am an idiot for things like this, and bought it on impulse so I could test whether it worked or not.
As a chemist, I know full well that if you want to cool a large space down effectively you’re going to need something that uses a special refrigerant. And from a practical perspective – where people are going to be in that space, and you need to cool for long periods – that is going to mean some sort of motor-driven compressor, a closed radiator filled with the refrigerant, and a big fan. Oh, and an exhaust pipe through the wall to get rid of the heat removed from the air, and a collection bucket for the moisture it takes out, because a proper air conditioner dehumidifies the air it cools.
Anyone who has used a normal fan will know that you only feel “cooler” if you’re sweating. That’s because the fan evaporates the sweat, and that has a transient cooling effect. This same evaporative cooling effect can even be used to freeze water – albeit in very small amounts (and if you’re lucky) – when you force diethyl ether (the stuff they used to use as an anaesthetic) to evaporate quickly. The evaporative cooling effect of different liquids varies greatly, and ether will cool down to a very low temperature if you do it properly. However, ether is both highly flammable and toxic, so apart from demonstrating it in the school lab (where I remember it from, along with the massive headache it gave me), it doesn’t have much practical application these days (though early refrigerators used it, which was spectacularly dangerous).
The Chillmax Air uses the evaporative cooling effect of water. The unit consists of a reservoir at the top, which you fill with normal tap water, and this drips down on to a radiator unit which has ten sideways-stacked fibre panels in it through which a fan blows air. The water evaporates from the fibre panels, and the evaporatively cooled air comes out through the front grille. According to the marketing spiel on the TV ad, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re going to get frostbite if you sit too close. I knew this wasn’t going to happen – but I wanted to know just how effective the Chillmax Air was.
When I set it up and turned it on, the first thing I noticed was that the fan is quite powerful, so you get a good flow of air directed at you. The next thing I noticed was that the air did seem a little cooler compared with what my desk fan was blowing at me. It also felt different in another way, which I’ll come to later. But the big question was how much cooler was the exhaust air?
I fired up my trusty data logger and left it in front of my desk fan for 30 minutes for the control data. Then I moved it and suspended it in front of the Chillmax for the same period of time. This is what it recorded (red line is the switch over point).
The ambient temperature where I ran the test was about 26ºC (it rose by about half a degree because I had entered the room, turned on the TV and my PC, and so on). The Chillmax brought this down by about 2.5ºC (the blip at the end is where it had just run out of water and was starting to warm up again).
So, the Chillmax definitely cools the air that passes through it, albeit by a small amount. Let’s work on the assumption that it would be able to get the same 2.5-3.0ºC drop no matter what the ambient temperature was. It’s for you to decide if that’s worth the investment, but be aware that if the ambient temperature is 38ºC, pulling it down to 35ºC still means it’s damned hot.
But there’s a little more to it than that. I mentioned that the exhaust from the Chillmax felt different to what my fan was throwing at me, and not just cooler. If I was going to try and put a word to it, I’d say it felt softer. I knew what it was right from the start, but my data logger really showed what was happening.
This is the data for relative humidity recorded at the same time as the temperature measurement, above (red line is the switch over).
As already explained, the Chillmax works by evaporating water on fibrous panels by forcing air across them. That water has got to go somewhere – so it comes out as a vapour in the cooled air. Well, most of it does. Some of it actually condensed on to my data logger and began to drip during my test. I have since discovered that it also condenses on the front grille and can drip periodically, so you need to be careful if you put it on a shelf with, say, your laptop underneath. This is especially true if you’ve set the grille (which is adjustable) to aim slightly downwards, which you probably would do if it was above eye level. And the fan is powerful enough to project the drips forward when they drop.
The ambient humidity in the room where I did the test was about 43%RH. The Chillmax sent that up to nearly 58%RH. The drop at the end is where the water ran out, and it is likely that it would have settled around 58%RH. And that was why the air from it feels softer – it’s very humid. When you turn the Chillmax on, you can actually see the vapour to begin with in the right light.
It’s this humidity of the cooled air which really brings into question whether the Chillmax is worth the investment. Most people will already know that you can have a hot summer day in the high 20s where it is comfortable and pleasant, and another – perhaps slightly cooler – one which is really sticky and sweaty. That’s because of the humidity, or water vapour in the air.
Air can hold water vapour, and the maximum amount that it can hold varies with the temperature. At low temperatures, air might only be able to hold a few milligrammes of water per kg, but at higher temperatures this can go up to nearly 100g per kg of air. This is generally referred to as the humidity, but the important measurement – and the one people are really meaning- is the relative humidity (RH). This is the amount of water in the air expressed as a percentage of the maximum amount it could hold. When the RH hits 100% (more or less the dew point, though there’s a bit more to it than that) at any temperature, then any additional water will condense out immediately. It’s why your car windscreen fogs up in winter as soon as you get inside because your breath and perspiration causes the dew point to be exceeded. But even at lower RH values you can still get some condensation if there are nuclei which promote it (such as data loggers and the grille on the front of the Chillmax). The main thing, though, is that at higher temperatures, high RH is uncomfortable.
The real problem with evaporative cooling comes with changes of temperature on already very humid days. If it is 30ºC outside and 90%RH, dropping the temperature by 3ºC will send the RH up automatically – possibly hitting the dew point even if no extra water vapour was added. But with the air already containing almost 30g or water per kg at 90% RH, and sending the RH higher by cooling a few degrees, the Chillmax is pumping out another 500g of water during it’s run time – and that’s likely to hit 100%RH immediately. On a hot and sticky day, you’re likely to notice dampness when using the Chillmax because of this. Furthermore, if the RH is increased when it is already high, evaporative cooling from your sweat is less effective, and you could actually feel more uncomfortable even though the air is a few degrees cooler.
Proper air conditioners remove water from the air they cool – so much so that the best ones have humidifiers in them to stop the cooled air from being too dry (in my car, for example, if I have the A/C on the lowest temperature setting my lips start to feel sore because they’re losing moisture). Proper A/C units use a special refrigerant similar to what you get in fridges and freezers, and they cool the air so much that the RH goes beyond the dew point and most of the water condenses out – that’s why you get a pool of water under your car if you stop with the air conditioning turned on in humid weather (or have problems with them icing up if they’re badly drained). It’s also why it is nice and comfy inside an air-conditioned car (apart from your lips) when it’s hot and sweaty outside, even if you have your A/C set at a normal temperature rather than deep-freeze mode most people use. Dry air feels crisp, whereas moist air feels… well, softer. Almost like a sauna if it’s hot enough. The Chillmax does the opposite of normal A/Cs, and adds moisture.
Aesthetically speaking, the Chillmax is a cube – more or less – about 15cm along each side. There are two buttons on the top rear, one which changes the fan speed to one of three settings (or off), with a blue LED for each, and another button that turns the night light on or off. There’s a flap on the top front through which you add the water. The radiator system is a plastic-framed insert which you access by pulling the front grille out. It slots in and out easily. You can’t replace the fibre inserts in the radiator (well, I think you could if you could get hold of them), but you can buy the whole radiator assembly from JML for £15. My only major gripe is the power cable. The jack plug that goes into the Chillmax is quite short and doesn’t go into the socket very far, so it is easy to dislodge it. However, the cable itself is quite long, and the mains plug is a moulded UK type.
JML claims the Chillmax can run for up to 10 hours per fill, but this is undoubtedly on the lowest of the three fan speeds. At top speed, it runs out in less than three hours. To be fair to it, you do still get a noticeable cooling effect on the lowest speed, and since the water lasts longer then, less of it will be getting pumped into the air at any one time, and that might offset what I said about humidity very slightly – but it’s still being pumped out. JML sells the humidification as a positive without relating it to the comfort relationship between temperature and RH, but note what I said above. If you want to cool down in humid weather, it probably isn’t just the temperature that needs to come down, certainly not a mere 3ºC drop, and definitely not if that means pushing high humidity even higher.
Update: I have now tested it in what I considered to be hot and sticky conditions. In actual fact, the only reason it felt hot and sticky was apparently because the temperature in the room was 3ºC higher than when I did it before. It was uncomfortable compared to the last time – the kind of weather that means you’re sweating even when sitting still.
Here’s the temperature log (red line again shows the switch over between desk fan and Chillmax.
The Chillmax still achieved a similar temperature drop to the initial test. However, the air did not actually feel any cooler blowing on my face. If anything, it was more uncomfortable, though this is a subjective comment. The graph for Relative Humidity below explains why.
The ambient RH was similar to last time, but the Chillmax sent it up to about 70%. This is why there was no noticeable improvement in comfort – the small temperature drop was cancelled out by making the air more humid (i.e. sticky). The increase in RH was greater than the last time I measured it, and I can’t immediately explain that, though it may have had something to do with ventilation (there was no wind at all this time, though there was a breeze in the original test, and with the windows open some of the humidity would have been removed).
You might find the Chillmax useful. It’s quite a smart little device – it’s not a Rolls Royce build, but it’s not badly made for what it is – and not that noisy (but you can hear the fan on the top speed). It certainly cools the air. A little, at any rate. Unfortunately, the increase in humidity that goes along with that cooling definitely seems to cancel it out out at higher temperatures.
A final note: the previous model used to be called the “Arctic Air”. I can see why they changed that!
Does it really work?
Well, it does cool the air by a few degrees, but it also sends the humidity up. So if it is already humid and sticky, the cooling effect is completely cancelled out by the extra stickiness. You might get away with that if your windows are open and there’s a through-draught in your house (or personal space), but if it’s also very hot you may not see any benefit at all.
It definitely doesn’t do what you might think it does from those TV ads. It would be fine if it just cooled, but the fact that it also humidifies is the main problem you’re likely to experience.
From my own use of it, I would say that it is a better humidifier than it is a cooler.
Will it cool more if I use ice water?
No. Evaporative coolers are not influenced significantly by the temperature of the water used in them. The temperature of the air that comes out depends on the temperature (and humidity) of the air going in, and the science of evaporation.
Can I use it to cool my PC?
Someone found this article on the search term “jml chillmax air for pc cooling”. If they mean what I think they mean, no, there is absolutely no way you want to be blowing damp air into your PC.
They might have meant powering it from a PC. The mains adapter is rated 5.0V at 1.8A, so assuming the Chillmax does draw 1.8A (and it probably doesn’t, as this is the maximum rating of the adapter) then your PC couldn’t supply that current from a USB port. USB ports are rated at 0.5A or 0.9A depending on the type. Dedicated charging USB ports can handle up to 1.5A, and although that’s a close call (the fan in the Chillmax looks like a computer fan), personally I wouldn’t risk trying to power it from a PC.
Can you get larger versions?
You can certainly get larger evaporative coolers. The working principle is that the larger the surface area of water, and the greater the airflow over that water, then the greater will be the possible drop in temperature at the front end. However, cooling effectiveness is influenced greatly by the RH of the air going in.
If the air is very dry, then a large evaporative cooler might be able to drop inlet air at 30ºC down by as much as 10ºC. However, if the inlet air is very humid, the temperature drop could be as little as 1ºC. In the UK, the realistic temperature drop you could expect on a non-humid day for a large cooler would be around 5-6ºC, but on a sticky day you’d only get about a 3ºC drop.
Suppliers of these devices say that they need good ventilation or extraction, and I would imagine that’s so the humid air can escape. If you’re evaporating more water to get better cooling on larger devices, you’re also producing a lot more water vapour.