Initially, choosing a chiller may not seem like a hugely important decision. You may assume that any chiller will get the job done, and that there is no need to spend significant amounts of time debating the merits of one chiller versus another. While it’s true that all chillers perform the same essential function, there are more points to consider beyond a chiller’s basic ability to cool. To truly achieve maximum efficiency and satisfaction, you’ll want to take the time to choose the perfect chiller for your building or process.

To really be able to pick the perfect chiller, you’ll first have to know what criteria you should be looking for, and what types of questions you should be asking. For example, you’ll want to ask things like, “What size chiller do I need?” and “What are my chiller options based on load?” among others.

We want to help you find the best chiller for your operation and building. To help you figure out which type of chiller is the right choice for you, we’ve put together this guide on how to choose a chiller. We’ll talk about the different types of chillers available, the different sizes, chiller maintenance and much more. By the time you’re done reading here, you’ll have all the basic knowledge you’ll need to go out and shop for chillers with confidence.

Portable vs. Central Chillers

When it comes to choosing chillers, there are many different categories that you might split different machines into. To help you find the best chiller for your intended application, it can be helpful to divide the options into these different categories and look at the merits of each different type of chiller. By doing this, you can see what one kind of chiller might offer you compared to what the alternative models might offer, and get a feel for which features are the most important to you and which ones aren’t as crucial.

One of the several different ways you can break chillers into groups is by dividing them into portable or central chillers. Let’s look at what these different types of models look like, and the various pros and cons of each.

1. Portable Chillers

As the name suggests, these machines are slightly smaller and can easily be moved from one location to another. They’re not necessarily permanently installed in one spot, making it possible to uproot and re-install someplace else.

A portable chiller is often used to cool one specific machine, whereas a central chiller would be used to cool an entire building or whole production line. This means that a portable chiller is more practical in situations where you only have a few machines that need to be cooled, as you can purchase chillers for each machine individually, which is much less practical when you have many machines.

However, keep in mind that while a central chiller can cool a whole floor, it can only do it at one temperature. A portable chiller, on the other hand, can cool each individual machine at an individualized and specific temperature. Also, if your machines require precise cooling, this is an application where portable coolers would be extremely useful.

A few of the other variables to consider when it comes to portable chillers include:

  • Floor Space: In many plants and processing floors, floor space is of the utmost importance. You need all the room you can get, and the goal is usually to have as few unnecessary items cluttering up your floor space as you can get. Portable chillers, however, often need to be placed on the floor and usually ought to be placed right next to the process where you need the chilling the most. This can be a good thing because it effectively creates cooling where you need it, but it also means you’re losing valuable space where you could place other equipment.
  • Noise Level: This is something that will differ with every different machine. Because a portable machine will be located right next to the workspace, the noise levels tend to be louder with portable chillers. However, if this is a significant concern in your facilities, you can always look into specific chillers that are designed to keep noise levels down or have the unit designed for outdoor installation. This means that noise levels aren’t as intense a concern as they might otherwise be.
  • Performance: In many cases, portable chillers tend to have more accurate performances than their central counterparts. While a central chiller often can only provide one set temperature, portable models are usually more variable and customizable, making it easy to achieve a model that provides a stable and accurate temperature that is the perfect fit for the machine you’re trying to cool.

  • Cost: There’s no denying that portable chillers usually cost more upfront than central chillers. However, think twice before you immediately decide against buying a portable chiller. Purchasing a portable chiller allows you to only pay for exactly what you need at this particular moment. This means that if your plans ever change, you didn’t also spend money on equipment and cooling capacity you don’t need, as might be the case with a central chiller.

2. Central Chillers

Unlike portable chillers, once central process cooling equipment is installed, it usually stays put. They might be installed in the equipment room, or even outside. They work to cool the entire floor or even the entire building. They work at one single temperature and work to bring their entire area of effect to the same level of coolness.

A central chiller is appropriate for situations where you have large numbers of machines that all need cooling. In instances where it would be impractical to buy individual chillers for every single machine, a central chiller can do the job for all of the machines at once. A central chiller is also most appropriate for situations where every machine needs to be cooled to the same temperature, or where precision and specificity of cooling is not extremely important.

A few of the other variables to consider when looking at central chillers are as follows.

    • Floor Space: If floor space is of the essence in your operation, then you’ll be glad to know that central chillers don’t usually take up valuable space. They are rarely located on the work floor itself and instead are often found outside or in an equipment space. This allows you maximum efficiency out on the floor, as you don’t have to worry about planning around a large chiller sitting right in the middle of your workspace.
    • Noise Levels: By simple virtue of the fact that most central chillers aren’t installed on the main floor, you’re likely to find that the noise levels associated with a central chiller are reasonably low. While they might be just as noisy as a portable chiller, it will be less noticeable because they won’t be right next to you on the work floor.

  • Performance: Central chillers are designed to cool large spaces or process lines all at once. Because of this, they are good at what might be called “brute force.” They very effectively cool the entire area (or process) to their set temperature, but they excel less at nuance and detail. If one machine needs to be cooled more or less, a central chiller will not be able to adjust for this need. It will cool this particular machine just like every other one. If you have machines that all have unique and individual cooling needs, portable chillers might be more appropriate for this work. Note: If many of your machines or spaces, have similar requirements, you can also utilize a central chiller to handle that majority and purchase a portable chiller for any ‘oddball’ applications.
  • Cost: Central chillers tend to cost slightly less than portable chillers, although every case should be evaluated separately because different brands and models will always be designed & priced uniquely. Realize, however, that even though one manufacturer’s central chiller may be less expensive, you will pay for all of the associated equipment, even if there are certain pieces you don’t need or want. Because of this, carefully compare prices, included options and decide which selection will get you the best return for your money.

Water-Cooled vs. Air-Cooled

One of the other major differences you’ll notice between different types of chillers is that there are air-cooled chillers and water-cooled chillers. Both of these types of machines perform the same basic function and will have virtually the same effects. The difference between these two types of machines is the way in which they operate and the method they use to produce a cooling effect on your building and machines.

Because these two styles of machines operate by different methods, there are a few different pros and cons of each style to be aware of. To help you decide which one might be right for you, let’s look at each type of machine separately.

1. Water-Cooled Chillers

A water-cooled chiller uses water to produce a cooling effect on your machinery. A few of the parts that work together to make this happen include the cooling towers, water pumps, chillers and the internal water reservoirs.

Because this system requires (additional) water for the cooling tower to operate, there are a variety of pros and cons to be aware of.


There are a lot of things that make water-cooled chillers great. Just a few of the highlights include:

  • Small Size: On average, these machines tend to be much smaller than air-cooled chillers. This means that they can fit into smaller spaces, they won’t take up as much valuable space on the floor if you’re choosing a portable machine, and they’re also easier to move if they’re a portable model. If your space is tight and you’re concerned about fitting everything you need into it, then a chiller with water systems may be the best option for you.
  • High Efficiency: Water-based chillers are also highly efficient, usually more than their air-cooled counterparts. If you’re looking for maximum cooling for the least amount of energy, you might be interested in a water-cooled chiller.

  • Low Cost: Because water-cooled chillers tend to be both smaller and more efficient, you’ll also find that they cost less, on average. This means that if there are budgetary concerns at play, you can usually rest easy knowing that your water-cooled chiller is often the less expensive option.


Of course, nothing is without its drawbacks. When looking into water-based systems, you should be aware of:

  • High Water Consumption: If your facility is located in a place where water is in short supply, or extremely expensive, you’ll want to be aware that these types of chillers consume large amounts of water. If this is a concern for you, you may want to look into air-cooled chillers.
  • More Required Servicing: Because cooling tower water is being constantly cooled by outside air (exposed to the elements), it gets dirty. This cooling tower water is what is being used to cool your water cooled condenser. (Hopefully, it’s a shell & tube or tube-in-tube condenser for reliability sake). This dirty cooling tower water will inevitably foul your condenser and decrease your unit’s efficiency creating service issues. Condensers should be checked (at minimum) bi-annually.

2. Air-Cooled Chillers

Where water-based chillers rely on cooling towers to create their cooling effect, air-cooled chillers rely on ambient air currents. This means that these machines do not have the easily recognizable cooling towers that you will see with water-based systems, and they do not rely on water as a constant source to chill the surrounding spaces.


A few of the major advantages of using air-cooled chillers are:

  • No Water Reliance: Relying so heavily on water can be a hindrance if you’re in a location where water is scarce. In instances of natural disasters or other time of crises when water is difficult to find, your chillers will be unaffected. Instead of water, your machines simply rely on air and will be less affected by outside incidents and concerns. This isn’t just great for you; it’s also great for the environment, as no water is wasted as a result of your operations.
  • Better Aesthetics: Because these models don’t rely on water, they don’t need to have the cooling towers that are required on water-based models. This leads to better and smoother aesthetics with the air-cooled chillers. If your chillers are going to be in plain sight and it’s imperative to you that they look smooth and polished, you may want to consider air-cooled systems over their water-based counterparts.

  • Low Maintenance Costs: The air-cooled chillers tend to be slightly more low-tech, as they are typically self-contained. There is no additional fluid piping required like there is with water cooled models. And because they’re less complicated, these machines tend to be easier to work on, leading to lower maintenance costs all around.


As you consider buying an air-cooled chiller, be aware of the potential drawbacks that may exist, such as:

  • Higher Costs: These machines tend to be larger on average than the water-based systems, meaning that you may find them to be more expensive as well. Be sure to check individual pricing, as it will always vary across brand and model, but you may find this to be a trend across the board.


Another factor that you’ll want to consider when it comes to choosing central or portable process cooling equipment is the tonnage. In other words, the total chiller capacity. Some chillers only have the capacity to cool very small spaces, while others have a much greater area of effect and are appropriate for cooling much larger spaces.

Chiller options based on load are as follows:

  • Portable: If you’re only looking to chill a small area, then a portable chiller is the correct option for you. These machines are smaller and typically don’t have as high a capacity. Think in the 1 to 20 ton range of cooling capacity.
  • Central: If you’re looking for a chiller performance that can cool large areas and many machines, you’ll be more interested in a central chiller. These machines have a larger capacity and can cool many machines all at once. These are more like 30 to 500+ tons in capacity.

Maintenance and Efficiency

Two of the final variables that you’ll want to be aware of when it comes to chiller evaluation are ease of maintenance and efficiency. While every machine and every brand will be slightly different and unique in this aspect, there are commonalities across the board that it’s worth looking at.

1. Maintenance

Whether your chillers are serving office buildings, processing plants or someplace else altogether, you’ll still need to perform maintenance on them. Ideally, you’ll regularly perform preventative maintenance to prevent problems from occurring that will lead to the entire chiller shutting down. Accidents and mistakes happen, however, and you’ll usually want to choose a chiller that will lead to the smallest amount of lost time, even if the chiller does need to be entirely shut off.

  • Portable: Portable chillers are often easier to access and perform maintenance on, simply because they’re smaller and are usually located directly on the floor, in the open. The negative side of this, however, is that these types of chillers typically don’t have a backup. Once these types of chillers are down for maintenance, you will often have no choice but to wait until it is fixed to get back to work.
  • Central: When it comes to central chillers, they may be slightly more difficult to access, due to their location in a service or equipment room, or even outside. The big plus with this type of chiller, however, is that there will very often be multiple circuits (on the unit) or standby machines that allow you to continue to operate some form of cooling even if one circuit or the main chiller is down.

2. Efficiency

When it comes to the most energy efficient chillers, you may often find that water-cooled chillers are more efficient than air-cooled chillers. This has to do with the way these different machines condense at different temperatures. The lower the temperature a chiller condenses at, the more efficient it will usually be. Because of this, we can see why a water-cooled chiller, which condenses at a low temperature, would be the more energy efficient choice.

If you’re making an active effort to keep energy usage down, or are trying to cut your energy bills, it might be worth looking into the options offered by water-cooled chillers. Remember, however, that these types of machines also consume more water and require more servicing. This makes it something of a trade-off. A water-cooled chiller will help you save energy, but it will have more maintenance cost. When performing your chiller calculations, decide which is more important to you and then move forward from there.

Choose the Right Chiller for Your Application Today

Looking to buy your first chiller? Looking to replace a chiller that’s past its prime? We hope that you’ve been able to gain some helpful information here that can help you understand the wide variety of chillers available to choose from today. As you begin to shop different models and estimate chiller costs, we hope that you’ll be able to better understand all the different factors and variables at play when it comes to choosing the chiller that will be best for you.

If you’re looking for a process cooling manufacturer or seller to buy or rent from, then we hope you’ll consider us here at Smart Family of Cooling Products. When you shop with us, buying isn’t your only option. You can also join the large numbers of people who are increasingly choosing to rent their equipment. This is a fantastic option, especially if you only need the equipment for a short period of time. And because we sell equipment to many of the major rental equipment companies, we can help connect you with the right company to help. Portable chillers, in particular, are experiencing a sharp increase in rental usage. You might find that this is an option that works well for you too.

Here at Smart Family, we offer a wide range of cooling products and chillers including explosion-proof chillers. No matter what specifically you’re looking for, we think you’ll be able to find something that will work for you here. From industrial scroll chillers to low-temperature chillers, we’ve got it all. Browse our full catalog of products today, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any additional questions.