More About Car Thermostats

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A thermostat is a component of which senses the temperature of a system so that the system’s temperature is maintained near a desired setpoint. The thermostat does this by switching heating or cooling devices on or off, or regulating the flow of a heat transfer fluid as needed, to maintain the correct temperature. Thermostats are used in any device or system that heats or cools to a setpoint temperature, examples include building heating, central heating, air conditioner, HVAC system, as well as kitchen equipment including ovens and refrigerators and medical and scientific incubators.

A thermostat is often the main control unit for a heating or cooling system, through setting the target temperature. Thermostats can be constructed in many ways and may use a variety of sensors to measure the temperature, commonly a thermistor or bimetallic strip. The output of the sensor then controls the heating or cooling apparatus. A thermostat is most often an instance of a “bang-bang controller” as the heating or cooling equipment interface is not typically controlled in a proportional manner to the difference between actual temperature and the temperature setpoint. Instead, the heating or cooling equipment runs at full capacity until the set temperature is reached, then shuts off. Increasing the difference between the thermostat setting and the desired temperature therefore does not shorten the time to achieve the desired temperature. A thermostat may have a maximum switching frequency, or switch heating and cooling equipment on and off at temperatures either side of the setpoint. This reduces the risk of equipment damage from frequent switching.

The term thermostat is derived from the Greek words θερμός thermos, “hot” and στατός statos, “standing, stationary”.

Perhaps the most common example of purely mechanical thermostat technology in use today is the internal combustion engine cooling system thermostat, used to maintain the engine near its optimum operating temperature by regulating the flow of coolant to an air-cooled radiator. This type of thermostat operates using a sealed chamber containing a wax pellet that melts and expands at a set temperature. The expansion of the chamber operates a rod which opens a valve when the operating temperature is exceeded. The operating temperature is determined by the composition of the wax. Once the operating temperature is reached, the thermostat progressively increases or decreases its opening in response to temperature changes, dynamically balancing the coolant recirculation flow and coolant flow to the radiator to maintain the engine temperature in the optimum range.

On many automobile engines, including all Chrysler Group and General Motors products, the thermostat does not restrict flow to the heater core. The passenger side tank of the radiator is used as a bypass to the thermostat, flowing through the heater core. This prevents formation of steam pockets before the thermostat opens, and allows the heater to function before the thermostat opens. Another benefit is that there is still some flow through the radiator if the thermostat fails.


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