Evaporative Cooling or Air Conditioning: What should I get?

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There are a few essentials many Aussies need to survive the heat, like deodorant and a stash of ice cream for emergencies. But no summer staple is more important than the appliance you’ll use to cool down the room.

A popular option is the split system air conditioner, one of several types of air conditioners on the market. But this is often compared with the evaporative cooler, a generally much cheaper alternative to the traditional air con. But which is better? Here are some key things to keep in mind when shopping for the best cooling appliance for your home.

What’s the difference between air conditioning and evaporative cooling?

Evaporative coolers and refrigerant air conditioners use different processes to cool down the home. While evaporative coolers evaporate water to help take the heat off, a refrigerant split system uses a refrigerant gas to cool down the home as well as two compartments that replace the hot air inside the room with cooler air from outside.

While the running costs for a refrigerant air conditioner are much more expensive, evaporative cooling is not suitable for those in high humidity areas.

How do split system air conditioners work?

refrigerant split system air conditioner compared evaporative cooler

A refrigerant split system contains two separate units – indoor and outdoor. These parts work together to replace the hot air inside the home with cooler from outside, and uses refrigerant gas to further cool down the room to reach a more comfortable temperature much quicker.

A reverse cycle air conditioner is a similar alternative which still uses the same process using inside and outdoor components, except it has a condenser added to the inside unit. Refrigerant split system air conditioners and reverse are conditioners are both said to be pretty compact, quiet and efficient to operate. But this is only worth considering if you need a heating unit as it can both cool down and warm up a room.

How do evaporative coolers work?

evaporative coolers vs refrigerant split system air conditioners compared

Evaporative coolers can also have an indoor and outdoor unit. In this case, the outdoor unit is installed on the roof to collect the air and distribute it through wet cooling pads, which are then cooled by evaporation. The cold air is then released into the home through the indoor unit.

But that’s generally where the similarities end because the biggest difference between these two types of appliances is that evaporative cooling cools the air through evaporating water. An evaporative cooler comes with a fan and a wet cooling pad which the fan uses to gather warm air inside the appliance, before sending to the soaked water pads to be cooled.

evaporative cooling air conditioning compared guide

Is evaporative cooling better than air conditioning?

Should you get an evaporative cooler or a split system air conditioner? Here are a few factors to think about.

Climate

Evaporative coolers aren’t for everyone, according to air con manufacturers like Toshiba. The brand says that while refrigerant air conditioners will usually suit any climate, especially humid areas, evaporative coolers don’t work as well in high humidity environments like Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Instead, they’re better built for less humid areas such as Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

Type of space

If the idea of settling on the couch with the air con on, curtains closed, ready for a Netflix binge sounds worse than experiencing the real-life steamy action happening outside, evaporative coolers may be the way to go. An evaporative cooling system is said to work more effectively with open doors and windows because it allows the air to spread freely, compared to a sealed environment required by refrigerated split system air conditioners.

This is all apparently because unlike a traditional air conditioner, an evaporative cooler adds humidity to the air. So, using an evaporative cooler in a sealed space means it won’t be able to receive any of the dry, fresh air from outside. Instead, the level of humidity will continue to build up and eventually cause your home to feel a little clammy.

Maintenance

To minimise the amount of dust mites, bacteria and other allergens, as well as ensure your appliance continues to operate effectively, you’ll need to perform some maintenance checks. If you get an evaporative cooler, you will need to get your cooling pads serviced. Alternatively, the filters inside air conditioners must be cleaned (or replaced if necessary) to ensure the air can be effectively recirculated.

refrigerant split system air conditioner evaporative cooler price

Is evaporative cooling cheaper than air conditioning?

Yes, almost always. But cheaper isn’t always better. It really comes down to weighing up the pros and cons of each, such as purchase price and running costs, versus convenience and effectiveness, detailed below.

Upfront price

In terms of upfront price, split system air conditioners tend to have a larger price tag. This can be seen with Kogan’s selection of evaporative coolers which typically retail between $39 and $199, while its selection of split system air conditioners can take you back anywhere between $799 and $1,799.

Brands like Honeywell can bring the price difference closer with more expensive evaporative coolers selling for just over $500, keeping in mind that some split air conditioners like the Rinnai 2.5kG Reverse Cycle Split System Inverter Air Conditioner are available for less than $700. But it’s likely your wallet will still sweat a lot less with evaporative coolers usually costing between $100 and $200.

Running costs

When it comes to price, the main difference between an evaporative cooler and a refrigerant split system all comes down to running cost. If you’re worried about long-term costs of running your appliance, or thinking about replacing your current unit and want to reduce your power bill, it’s worth buying a model with a higher energy rating. Keep in mind that a higher rating doesn’t necessarily mean paying for a more expensive model.

To help you compare the running costs, we’ve looked at the different annual energy costs for an evaporative cooler and a split system air conditioner in various sized rooms.

The yearly energy usage costs for portable evaporative coolers and ducted evaporative coolers detailed below are taken from Sustainability Victoria, which provides an example of how much you might pay depending on what type of appliance you use. This amount is then compared to split system air conditioners. Keep in mind these prices don’t take into account the additional water usage costs for evaporative coolers, although it’s clear refrigerant air conditioners are still significantly more expensive to use.

Small room

evaporative cooling air conditioning energy cost comparison

For a small room, you’ll generally need an air conditioner with anywhere between 2.5kW and 3kW capacity. So, compared to a refrigerant air conditioner with either a low or high energy efficiency rating, this is how an evaporative cooler in a 12m2 could impact your power bill:

  • Portable evaporative cooler: $5 annual energy cost
  • Split system air conditioner with a 2.5-star energy rating: $35 annual energy cost
  • Split system air conditioner with 5-star energy rating: $10 annual energy cost

House

best evaporative cooler air conditioner compare house energy cost

For central cooling, you will need a refrigerant air conditioner with at least an 8kW capacity. So, the yearly energy usage costs to use the following appliances in a small house which measures 100m2 could look like this:

  • Portable evaporative cooler: $5 annual energy cost
  • Split system air conditioner (2.5-star energy rating): $35 annual energy cost
  • Split system air conditioner (6-star energy rating): $10 annual energy cost

If you live in a medium sized house which requires an appliance to cool down an area that measures 160m2, you could save just less than $200 by using a standard ducted evaporative cooler instead of a refrigerative air conditioner. If you opt for a ducted inverter evaporative cooler, you can save even more. Considering that an air conditioner usually retails for much more, it may be worth thinking about using evaporative cooling.

  • Ducted evaporative cooling: $65 annual energy cost
  • Ducted evaporative cooling (inverter): $50 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning in the bedroom and living room (1.5-star energy rating): $255 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning which only operates in the living room (3.5-star energy rating): $125 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning in the bedroom and living room (1.5-star energy rating): $235 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning which only operates in the living room (3.5-star energy rating): $110 annual energy cost

In a large house which requires cooling for a space measuring 220m2, you could save more than $200 by buying a standard ducted evaporative cooler instead of a refrigerant air con.

  • Ducted evaporative cooling: $80 annual energy cost
  • Ducted evaporative cooling (inverter): $65 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning in the bedroom and living room (1.5-star energy rating): $315 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning which only operates in the living room (3.5-star energy rating): $170 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning in the bedroom and living room (1.5-star energy rating): $285 annual energy cost
  • Ducted refrigerative air conditioning which only operates in the living room (3.5-star energy rating): $150 annual energy cost

Check Air Conditioner Prices at Appliances Online^

Should I get an air conditioner or an evaporative cooler?

Whether you should buy a split system air conditioner or an evaporative cooler all depends on what you need for your home. But don’t forget to consider things like the climate condition of where you live, and whether your home can provide the right environment for effective airflow.

Plus, the amount you’ll spend ultimately depends on a variety of factors. These include cooling capacity, whether you want a heating function and need to instead purchase a reverse cycle air conditioner, and specific features such as dehumidifying technology. The energy rating of a particular model can also make a difference.

Air Conditioner Reviews & Ratings

Source: Prices taken from respective retailers, Appliance Online and The Good Guys, correct as of February 2020.

Picture credits: Fizkes / Shutterstock.com, Suti Stock Photo / Shutterstock.com, Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock.com, archideaphoto / Shutterstock.com, 3Dphoto / Shutterstock.com

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