Portable air conditioners comparison & buying guide

Models & pricing at Appliances Online. Canstar Blue’s Terms and Conditions apply.

Models & pricing at Appliances Online. Canstar Blue's Terms and Conditions apply.

Portable air conditioners are small-scale air conditioning units which can be moved to wherever is most convenient in your home, whenever you wish. Depending on the method of operation, they can either be completely free-standing or connected to the exterior of the building via flexible pipes.

Still in the research phase? We’ve rated some of the best air conditioner brands to help in your search.

What are some advantages and disadvantages?

Portable air conditioners are the perfect solution for anyone whose cooling requirements are infrequent or temporary. This could mean a person who only wants to cool a single room at a time, or renters who only require a temporary solution. Portable air conditioners are much cheaper to buy than a full-sized air conditioner, and are (unsurprisingly) much easier to store and move. Conversely, their small size means they lack the power and features of larger and more expensive systems. Additionally, they can be quite inefficient if they’re used to cool a large space.

How much does it cost to run a portable air conditioner?

Air conditioning units are usually rated either by their power requirement in kW (kilowatts) or – less commonly – the amount of heat energy they dissipate, measured in BTU (British Thermal Units). Many of the units we found online had an energy output of 3.52 to 6 kW.176994903

A study conducted in the early 2000’s noted that evaporative portable coolers only cost two cents an hour to run, or approximately $6.50 a month. Despite how long ago this study was, it goes to show how relatively cheap it can be to run portable units such as these.

Keep in mind, however, portable air conditioners lose much of their effectiveness when heating larger areas. Specifically, the amount of power you need in a portable air conditioner depends on how much heat needs to be dissipated from the room in question; this itself depends on several factors such as room size, window size, insulation, humidity, etc. There are several online calculators that can help you discern how powerful an air conditioner you’ll need, such as this one from FairAir.

Features to consider

Whilst portable air conditioners are generally quite sparse in features compared to larger models, there are still several useful functions that you should look out for:

  • Wheels: It could hardly be considered a ‘portable’ air conditioner if it couldn’t be easily moved! That’s why many models sport wheels, to ensure the task of moving the appliance is an easy one.
  • Dehumidifier: Many evaporative air conditioners have a dehumidifier function to reduce the humidity of the cool air. Dryer air feels more comfortable and provides greater cooling.
  • Timer: Another useful feature is a timer control which allows you to set the unit to operate for a certain time or at a certain time of day, which can save you time and energy costs.
  • Noise control: All air conditioners have some inherent vibration and noise, but more expensive models can have extra damping and insulation to reduce this.
  • Dual condenser: Some models sport multiple condensers, to more effectively dissipate heat. Potentially, this could mean greater cooling power, but could also mean a more expensive running cost.
  • Window kits: You’ll need to run a hose or piping from your unit out the window to vent all the hot air from the room. A window kit will streamline this process.

How much do portable air conditioners cost?

Most models are priced between $500-$800, which whilst being a significant investment, is much cheaper than buying and installing a full-size air conditioning system. Some of the manufacturers of portable air conditioners include Atlantic, Delonghi, Dimplex, LG and Omega.

The above information should be entirely sufficient to help you pick a portable air conditioner for your home. However, if you want to be as well-informed as you can be, you’ll also want to know how these air conditioners work.

How do they work?

Portable air conditioners tend to come in two varieties. The first is refrigeration cycle air conditioners, which use a standard refrigeration cycle system employed by most large air conditioners. The essential principle is that heat in the building is transferred to a refrigerant gas (usually just plain old air for household air conditioners), which is circulated out of the building to a condenser where the excess heat is dumped. The now cool refrigerant then circulates back into the building to repeat the cycle. The unit needs to be connected to the outside of the building in order to dump waste heat, and this is usually done using a flexible hose that allows the unit to move around.

The second variety is evaporative cooling air conditioners. These models pump air from outside through a screen which is partially saturated with water, and this absorbs the unwanted heat from the air. This cool air is then either pumped directly into the building to cool it, or is used indirectly to cool the condenser of a refrigeration system described above.

The main advantage of an evaporative cooling unit is that it’s (apparently) much cheaper to run than a refrigeration cycle unit. Furthermore, evaporative portable air conditioners require no connecting pipes to circulate air, making them truly portable unlike refrigeration cycle models. However, the use of water as the cooling mechanism has two disadvantages. Firstly, the humidity of the cooled air is increased as it passes through the filter, which can be uncomfortable and less useful in humid climates where the outside air is already moist.

For this reason, evaporative cooling is best suited to hotter, drier climates. Secondly, these coolers require a steady supply of water in order to operate, which is more susceptible to environmental conditions such a drought or extreme temperatures than a simple power supply.

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