Portable or split system air conditioning: the pros and cons

If you’re sitting with your pits sweating in the grips of summer like many of us, then you may be salivating at the thought of buying an air conditioner. A lot of Australians stuck with ceiling fans pine for something better to keep them cool in the summer months, and for a lot of people split-system air conditioning is the gold standard for countering the heat. But installing a split-system is no easy (or cheap) task, meaning some households may look to a portable air conditioner as the next best thing. But is it?

That’s a little trickier to determine. It’s not a black and white answer at the best of times; what works for one family may not work for you. So it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of each air conditioning type to figure out which one is best for you and your budget.

Split System or Portable Air Conditioners: Which is better?

It’s the bout we haven’t seen since Muhammed Ali took on Sonny Liston. Okay, maybe we’re exaggerating a little, but choosing which type of air conditioner to part money with can leave you feeling a little punch-drunk. From the dizzying white lights of the appliance store, you’d be forgiven for just going in and buying whatever ‘seems’ good on the day, but first let’s consider the case for each air conditioner.

aircon comparison split systemThe case for portable air conditioners:

As the name suggests, portable air conditioners benefit from mainly being… portable. Many portable air conditioners stand under a metre tall and are on castor wheels so you can easily wheel them between rooms and place them discretely in the corner. The units work by drawing indoor air and expelling it through a single duct. Adding to that, in the colder months they are also particularly handy as many have a heat function as well. Many more can also dehumidify, which can add noticeable comfort to the room – no longer will sweat linger!

However, with all these purported benefits, portable air conditioners do come with some baggage. Unit cost in relation to the ability of the air conditioner can be a bit disappointing. Often portable air conditioners cost anywhere from $500 up to and above $1000. Their power levels on the other hand are often only around 2kW, which is significantly less than other air conditioning systems. Often portable air cons are only suitable for smaller rooms around 20m².

Additionally, portable air conditioners are oftentimes not particularly energy efficient in relation to their size. A 2kw unit could easily cost around 50c an hour to run, which could get pricey in the summer months; add to that their limitations in cooling larger rooms and you might have an expensive disappointment on your hands. Portable air conditioners are best kept for easy and convenient cooling in smaller rooms.

The surprising cost of air conditioning

The case for split system air conditioners: 

This type of air conditioner is probably the most popular, and has surged in popularity in recent years. There are two main parts to a split system air conditioner (as the name suggests) – an outside condenser and an inside evaporator. The evaporator is the thing you see on the wall in many homes; the evaporator emits the air you want in your home (be it warm or cool), and the condenser emits the air you don’t want outside. These air cons are popular Australia-wide, and for good reason.

Split system air conditioners are popular because of how effective and relatively easy they are to install. For example, with a ducted air conditioner, significant infrastructure is required if retrofitting one to your home. Split systems on the other hand can often be installed in a day. Their power levels are also quite beefy for their size; expect anywhere from 3kw to around 9kw for the most premium models. Most are easily controlled by a remote, and from a convenience and comfort perspective, split systems are hard to beat. Often you can time them for when you get home, so you’ll never be sweating or shivering for too long.

aircon comparison ducted airHowever, there are a few drawbacks to split systems amongst all these benefits. One of the most obvious disadvantages is the total unit cost. These units are often anywhere in the range from $500, up to and over $2000 – easily. Add to that installation costs from a licensed technician – you cannot DIY installation of these. On installation, choosing an optimal location for one can also be hard; do you install it in the main bedroom and let the kids suffer, or do you install it in the large living room where it might be harder for it to work optimally? The lack of flexibility here can mean house members missing out on the benefits.

Another drawback is the power consumption. If you’re in a share house, then expect whingeing from other housemates come bill time if there’s one in your room, and they don’t get to use it. You might be able to see where they’re coming from; like portable air conditioners, split systems can easily cost 50c an hour or more to run; this cost can be mitigated somewhat by using ceiling fans in lieu. Overall split system air conditioners are one of the more popular and effective ways to cool or heat your home, but you’ll have to decide whether the cost to benefit ratio is worth it.

The Pros and Cons of Split System and Portable Air Conditioners

If you’re still sweating over which air conditioner to buy, then consider this quick rundown on the pros and cons of each type.

Pros Cons
Split System AC ·       More energy efficient than portable systems in relation to size

·       Can run in near silence

·       Can handle larger spaces

·       Doesn’t take up any floor space

·       Can be expensive to buy, run and install

·       Ongoing maintenance required

·       A permanent, inflexible cooling/heating solution

·       Outside condenser can be ugly and large

Portable AC ·       Often cheaper unit cost

·       Easy to buy, lift, transport home and round the house

·       Can be stored when not in use

·       Can be heavy for their size – 20kg or more!

·       Can be noisy for their size

·       In relation to their size, efficiency and power often lack

·       Floor space is taken up

Which air conditioner is right for me?

Choosing an air conditioner is not exactly a cakewalk. There are many factors to consider, but the main take away might be that you’ll need to assess your own wants and needs before going out and buying one at random. You’ll have to consider things like;

  • Your budget (include power use, approximate maintenance and installation costs into this)
  • Your cooling needs and the size of the room
  • Whether you’re renting, owning or want a permanent cooling solution or a flexible one. If you’re renting, then installing a split system is probably not allowed – so that answers your question.

Once you’ve answered these questions, then you might well be on your path to air conditioned enlightenment. Remember to stay cool, and think about this before summer kicks off.

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