What You Need to Know About Portable Air Conditioners
Portable air conditioners are designed specifically for a single room, and thus are a self-contained cooling system that can be moved from room to room. They are designed to rest on the floor and will typically come with an installation kit that makes setup a breeze. Many even include casters or wheels so you can roll the unit through your house for quick and easy cooling.
Setup Requirements: Each model is different, but you’ll find that the setup of most portable A/C units is really as simple as “plug and play”. Portable air conditioners will remove moisture from the air as they cool it, it is necessary to set up an exhaust to expel the warm air and moisture. Most portable A/C units will include a window kit—a window slider and an exhaust hose—that you can use to blow out the hot air without letting the outside heat leak indoors. Venting your A/C unit is usually a simple matter, as the integrated parts will make it easy to set up the exhaust and fresh air intake via your home’s windows.
Some models, however, are designed to be vented through your walls or even into a drop ceiling. Read the instructions carefully before you purchase the A/C unit so you know how best to set up the specific model in your home.
Moisture Drainage: Though air conditioners aren’t dehumidifiers, they do remove some of the moisture from the air. There are different methods for dealing with this moisture:
- Gravity drains can be built into the A/C unit, allowing you to connect a hose to the unit and a drain pipe for easy elimination of moisture.
- Condensate pumps actually pump the water through the drain hose out your window or into a nearby drain, rather than relying on gravity to do the work for you.
- Manual removal A/C units have built-in containers that will need to be removed and emptied manually. You may have to empty them every 6-8 hours if you live in a high-humidity area.
- Fully self-evaporative models exhaust the moisture alongside the warm air, and you’ll rarely have to deal with collected water. They’re the easiest solution for hassle-free moisture drainage.
Electrical Requirements: Most portable A/C units rely on your standard 115 or 120-Volt plug, and there is no need for special wiring. They are designed to be “plug and play” so you shouldn’t need to do anything more than set up the drainage and exhaust connections and set the machine running.
That being said, it’s important to know that A/C units, even portable ones, do consume a lot of energy. It’s important that you avoid running multiple portable A/C units on the same circuit, or else you might risk overloading it.
Portable vs. Window Air Conditioners
Obviously we’re all familiar with whole-house air conditioners, the type that uses a central cooling system to blast cold air through vents located in every room. But sometimes, when the weather gets really hot, central A/C just isn’t the right solution. Maybe you just want to cool one room in the house or it’s too pricey to run the house-wide A/C—either way, it’s sometimes wiser to run a smaller A/C unit instead of cooling the whole house.
For cooling individual rooms, you’ve got two options: portable A/C units and window A/C units.
Portable Air Conditioners – Portable A/C units are super convenient and easy to move from room to room, thanks to their portable design. Setup takes just a few minutes—open your window, insert the window slider, connect the drainage hose, plug it in, and let it run! When it comes time to cool another room, it’s just as easy to move it around.
Portable A/C units are ideal for homes and apartments that can’t use window units, as dictated by the Homeowners Association. Seeing as there are no units hanging out your window, you’re not violating any regulations.
Moving it around is also MUCH easier than with a window unit. It takes literally 2-3 minutes to unplug, disconnect the window slider, and wheel it into the next room. All you have to do is set it up next to a window and you’re ready to roll!
Window Air Conditioners – Window units are stored outside of your living space, so they take up far less room inside your house. If you live in a small apartment or want to cool a cramped space, a portable A/C will take up a lot more room than you might like. With a window unit hanging out the window, you get all the cool air you need without using up precious floor space.
Window air conditioners are also more energy-efficient than portable air conditioners. They use less energy, have a higher air flow, and deliver more cool air per BTU. You’ll be able to cool larger rooms more quickly with a window unit.
Window units also come with their own built-in drainage and exhaust systems, so there’s no need to worry about setting them up. Simply open the window, install the A/C unit in its place, and plug it in. They’re not easy to move from room to room, but as long as you just need to cool one room, a window unit is the way to go!
Are Portable Air Conditioners Expensive?
This is the question on all our minds!
Aside from the cost of purchasing a portable air conditioner—based on the list above, that will run you anywhere from $350 to $600—there is the cost of running it. Energy consumption can, over the years, end up costing you more than you originally paid for the appliance itself.
To figure out the cost, you first need to figure out the British thermal units (BTUs) of the air conditioner. Take, for example, our #1 Fave, the Whynter ARC-14SH. The portable A/C unit has a large output with 14,000 BTUs, which means it can cover roughly 500 square feet.
A 14,000 BTU unit will consume roughly 4.1 kWh of energy, or 4.1 kiloWatts per hour. Multiply that times 24 hours in a day, and you end up with 98.4 kWh of energy used per day. At 30 days in the average month, that’s 2952 kWh energy used every month.
Now, how to translate this into your energy costs? Simple: multiply that number of kWh by the average cost of energy in your city or state. As an example, the average cost of energy in California is 15.34 cents. Multiply that 15.34 cents by 2952 kWh, and you come out with a cool $452.84. Your 14,000 BTU air conditioning unit will cost you an average of $450 per month!
Let’s be clear: that cost is ONLY the case if you run your portable air conditioning unit 24 hours a day, 30 days in a row. Unless you’re dealing with brutal heat, chances are you’ll only run the A/C unit a few hours a day, and not every day of the week.
But the above formula will help you to figure out how much your A/C unit will consume on an hourly basis, then a daily basis, and finally a monthly basis. You can adjust the calculations according to how many hours in a day and how many days in a month you actually run the A/C, then multiply that by your average kWh cost for your city to get a clear estimate of just how expensive it is to run your portable A/C unit!
How to Buy the Right Portable Air Conditioner
When shopping for a portable air conditioner, there are a few factors to keep in mind:
Cost – This is always a factor to consider. You’ll find that a portable A/C unit can run you anywhere from $150 to $800 (depending on size) for a residential unit, and commercial units can rise as high as $10,000! Basically, the larger and more powerful the A/C unit, the pricier it will be.
Cost is also affected by added features, such as dehumidifiers or heating functions. You may end up spending more if you want a unit with a programmable timer, remote control, or pre-set functions a bit more complex than On/Off buttons.
Energy Consumption – This is almost more important than the actual cost of the unit, simply because your energy use will ultimately wind up costing you more than the unit itself. If you pay a higher price for a more energy-efficient model, you could save a lot of money in the long run.
Always look for the “Energy Star” rating on the appliance, as that means it is designed to be energy-efficient. Read reviews to determine which portable air conditioner is energy-efficient and will help you save on electricity.
Room Size – A unit that’s too small for a room will never be able to fully cool the air, meaning it will be running around the clock. It’s crucial that you find an A/C sized for the room you want to cool.
The square footage of the room will determine the British thermal units (BTUs) required to cool the space. For example, a 300 square foot room will require at least 7,000 BTUs to cool, whereas a 1,400 square foot space will need upwards of 23,000 BTUs.
Compact Appliance has a great chart to help you find the right BTU output per square footage.
However, take note: portable air conditioners are most effective at individual rooms, not whole house cooling.
Let’s say your apartment is 1,200 square feet, but it’s divided into three rooms. Using a 21,000 BTU air conditioner isn’t the most effective way to cool the whole apartment. You’d be better off getting a smaller air conditioner for each of the rooms, or one you can move between the three rooms to cool them off individually.
Size the A/C unit according to the individual room you want to cool, not the total floor space.
Other Room Factors – If the room you want to cool doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight, you may not need as high-capacity a cooling unit as you would for a room that is hit by the sun all day long. Rooms with a lot of through-traffic tend to be hotter, which means they would need a unit with higher cooling capacity than a room with almost no traffic.
Unit Size – This is something to consider if you’re actually looking for portable—an air conditioner you can move from room to room, according to where you’ll be working or sitting in your house. An over-large unit will be efficient at cooling individual rooms, but may be too heavy to move around. Conversely, a smaller, easily portable unit might not have the power to cool larger rooms.
Think about the size of the room first, but the size of the unit second, always according to how much you plan to move it around.
Ventilation – The ventilation option of the A/C unit is a factor to consider as well. Most portable A/C units are designed to vent out of your windows, which means you will need to set them up close to the window. There are two basic A/C unit ventilation options:
- Dual hose, which uses one hose for the hot air intake and another for the exhaust. This makes the A/C unit more energy-efficient, and it will cool your room faster. However, it may have a higher initial price tag.
- Single hose, which uses just one hose for both the intake and the exhaust. This reduces energy efficiency, so even though it’s cheaper initially, the long-term costs will be higher.
Dual hose units are a better investment because they offer better ventilation and more energy efficiency. They will also cool your rooms faster, so they will require less run time to do their job.
Condensate – Air conditioners will always generate a bit of moisture, perhaps even enough to drip or leak if there is no output for the condensation. Portable units tend to use one of three methods to deal with condensation:
- Drip air conditioners use an internal bucket to collect the water. They will need to be emptied manually every few hours.
- Partial drip air conditioners use an exhaust hose, but contain a built-in drip pan to collect water. Most of the condensation will go out the exhaust hose, but you’ll still need to check the drip pan regularly to prevent it from overflowing.
- No-drip air conditioners pump all of the moisture out of the exhaust hose, releasing it into the air. There is no need to empty pans or buckets, thus making it hassle-free.
Noise – Noise is a big factor, especially if you’re running the A/C unit in your bedroom at night, your home office during work hours, or your living room while watching TV.
Usually, the A/C unit will make no more than “background noise”, but some units can get pretty loud. When shopping around for an A/C, check the decibel (db) rating to see how noisy it is.
Features – There are a number of useful features that make operating your A/C unit and keeping your house cool a whole lot easier:
- Auto-drain system to turn liquid condensation into exhaust
- Heat and A/C combo, which makes your unit double as a heater in the winter
- Programmable thermostat to set your desired temperature and let the unit run on its own
- Dehumidifier to remove excess moisture from the air—great for high humidity environments!
- Remote control to adjust the temperature and settings without having to get up
These are added “bonuses” that definitely make the units more user-friendly. Consider which, if any, of these features you definitely want in your unit.
How Long Should a Portable Air Conditioner Take to Work?
If you’re dealing with prime summer heat, you may find that every minute spent in that swelter can make a huge difference! So of course you’ll want to know how long you’ll need to wait before things cool down enough that you’re comfortable.
Central air conditioning units—obviously the most powerful type of A/C—can usually drop the temperate of your entire home within just a few hours. However, you should often feel relief within 5 to 10 minutes of the A/C kicking in as it starts cooling off your house.
With portable air conditioners, however, the results are a bit different. You’re only cooling one room (a compact space) so the A/C unit doesn’t have to worry about heat zones or whole-house temperatures. It’s dedicated cooling that works much more quickly, but won’t deliver the long-lasting results of a whole-house A/C.
An individual unit can cool a small room (10 x 10 feet) in about 20 minutes, with your ideal temperature reached in an hour or so. However, the moment you open the door, heat from the outside will waft in, forcing your unit to kick back on to keep things cool. When you move the portable A/C to the new room, it will have to start cooling all over again.