When ranking portable air conditioners, it is important to keep in mind the uses they are designed for and the common complaints. First, these are not meant to replace a central air conditioning system or even a mounted window or wall unit. They are meant to cool a smaller area with the ability to travel from room to room as needed. So, for example, a room that is used during the day may be cooled and then the unit moved into a bedroom for nighttime use.
Further, all portable air conditioners will need venting to the outside. This can be accomplished with either a single or a double hose. Double hoses are less convenient, but they allow quicker and more efficient cooling than single hose models. This is because with two hoses, one can be used for exhausting hot air and the other for drawing in fresh air. A final consideration (outside of price) is how the unit is drained. All true air conditioners will develop condensation as they cool and dehumidify the air – this water has to be removed somehow.
Prices vary within brands depending on BTU/h. A typical room will need about 9,000 BTU/h and although portable units go higher than this, the prices become prohibitive. Prices also go up with features and most are not really needed with a portable unit. For instance, multiple fan and temperature settings – with a portable, the assumption is that someone will be in the room and settings can be changed to fit comfort level.
Unlike window air conditioners, portables do not automatically include a dehumidifier option (although they all pull some moisture from the air) they are also not ranked reliably with the Energy Star/SEER rating – the standards have not been set for portable units. This means the cost of operation isn’t readily available so prices reflect initial outlay and not usage costs.
Finally, reliability is directly related to price. A unit that fails to perform, even at a wonderfully low price, is as bad as not having anything at all. Warranty and repair costs then become an issue.
Two units manufactured by this company rank highly. Both are 9,000 BTU/h models, the less expensive (at $270) doesn’t have a dehumidifier built in and the costlier version ($350) does. The more expensive version also moves more air (277 CFM vs. 217 CFM). Each comes with a one-year warranty. The models are WA9020E and WA1010M. Reviews can be seen here1.
These units are sold at Target stores and online. The major complaint about them is that they are louder than expected – this may be an issue for light sleepers. These units do not have automatic drain capability.
Whynter dual hose
At higher BTU/h ranges (larger rooms, quicker cooling) it makes sense to buy a dual hose unit. They are both more efficient and quieter. They are able to cool more quickly because the exhaust doesn’t use the same hose as the intake. Whynter makes a 12,000 BTU/h model2 (the ARC 12SD) that produces minimal water – in fact, part of its efficiency comes from reusing water as an additional evaporative coolant (when the unit is not in dehumidifying mode).
The dual hose model runs around $500. It comes with a one-year full warranty and a three-year compressor warranty. While this was the best overall value, it does suffer from noise, running at 58dB when the fan and compressor are both operating.
Because noise is a relevant factor for some consumers, the Sharp CV-10NH is worth mentioning. It’s a 10,000 BTU model that isn’t cheap at $500, but runs at 38dB3. This is a single hose model that also functions as a dehumidifier. Condensate water is discharged out of the vent hose – a great convenience if the unit is going to be operated unsupervised (other units will shut down when the water storage tank is full to prevent overflow). The crucial thing is whether the $200 dollars in additional cost is worth the convenience and noise reduction you get (compared to the Sunpentown base model).
The best overall buy (not cheapest) is the dual hose, Soleus Air LX-1404. At as low as $450, this unit acts both as a heater (12,000 BTU/h) for winter use and as an air conditioner (14,000 BTU/h) in the summer. It uses additional evaporative cooling to reduce condensation and can be set as a dehumidifier. You can even use it as both a heater and air conditioner as temperatures swing from daytime highs to nighttime lows with the programmable thermostat. It runs an acceptable 46dB in either mode.
Complaints occur with water build up in humid environments, a fact of life with portable air conditioners unless they have a built in drain hose and pump. Reviews can be found here5.
Overall, a good portable air conditioner can be found in any price range above about $250 with prices then matched to features and whether or not background noise is a significant issue.
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