Portable Air Conditioner Reviews and Tips
Portable Air Conditioner Reviews and Tips from ACboy. What can we expect from a free-standing portable? These units are quite popular these days. They are relatively cheap, require virtually no install and do not require ducting. Just plug and go. With all of this built in convenience, expectations should be tempered. While we shouldn't expect a portable a/c unit to cool large living spaces or multiple rooms, it should be able to make a single room cooler.
A true portable air conditioner would be free to move anywhere in a building without regard to venting. The only products that meet these criteria aren’t actually air conditioners at all, but evaporative coolers. The difference? An air conditioner removes unwanted moisture from the air as it cools (hence the “conditioner” aspect) while an evaporative cooler puts moisture into the air while it cools.1 You might want to read ACboy's take on the mythical ventless portable air conditioner.
Evaporative coolers are truly portable, requiring only a power supply to run a fan and an internal pump. However, because they do not use air conditioning principles (coolant compression and hot air exhaust) they are limited to dry climates, small areas and will not reduce air temperatures more than a few degrees. They still find use in conditions where there is low humidity and they are very inexpensive – Kmart sells a unit for less than $100. The most popular brand is Sunpentown, and these are rated highly.2
True air conditioners
Any true air conditioner will have to have a connection outside of the building. This is because heat has to be “dumped” somewhere other than the area being cooled. Even portable air conditioners have this limitation and because they are designed to be moved around, they use hoses (one or two) to vent hot air out a window or wall opening.
Other than exhausting hot air (and drawing in fresh air), portable air conditioners also vary in how they handle condensation. Because they remove moisture from the air in the same way any cold surface will collect water droplets, water can build up in the unit. Units that offer a dehumidifier function generate even more water. This has to be removed, either manually by emptying a catch basin or it can be drained away through a hose. Units have wheels, so they are portable, but if you’ve been keeping track there are up to four connections that will have to be made – these are not “standalone” units. They have one or two hoses to handle air, a power supply connection and may have a hose to drain water.
Prices range from a low of $300 dollars to a high of over a thousand. Pricing is largely dependent on features – dual hoses for air exhaust cost more but also cool better. Dual hoses also do not create a negative air pressure in the room, outside air replaces exhausted air. A pump for water drainage adds to the cost. After these basic considerations, cost is driven by the size of the fan and condenser unit. This translates into higher prices for larger cooling capacity air conditioners.3 There is also a premium placed on better known brands, sometimes justified by reliability and warranty, sometimes not.
At the low end of pricing is the Sunpentown line. These are single hose units in the 7,000 to 9,000 BTU range. They are appropriate for a small room (10 ft by 10ft or less) with a low cooling demand. They are less efficient but acceptable for a small bedroom or a mobile home. They are surprisingly heavy, as are all portable air conditioners and weigh 70 pounds or more.
Complaints mention a short exhaust hose (5 feet) and the inability to cool to expectations. The best application for these units is in small areas where focused cooling is the object. For instance, contractors who have to work in attics may bring one to cut down on the otherwise sweltering conditions, temporarily exhausting to a lower floor. They can also be used for people who may be stationary (as in a medical condition) to keep just them cool without having to cool an entire house. Units are available at Target or Kmart in the $300 price range.4 The next price break includes units with dehumidifier functions, dual hoses and greater cooling capacity. Expect to pay about $500 for a unit with 12,000 to 13,000 BTU capability. In this price range, units will offer remote control and specialty filters for air purification. Units are more powerful with stronger fans and these may be noisy if the case is not well insulated. Greater capacity also means greater water build up, so an automatic drain feature is recommended.
Brands in this range include Frigidaire, Friedrich, Arctic King and Soleus. Units are available with free shipping through online purchase and at local air conditioning businesses. At the higher price ranges, Sharp and American Comfort come with good reviews. Price here is driven by the ability to cool larger areas (14,000 BTU), reliability and a more stylish look. A reasonable cut-off for a portable air conditioner is 14K BTU because the hoses needed to exhaust a greater load would be too large to merit the term “portable.” Maytag does make an 18,000 BTU “monster” but it is essentially a window air conditioner that sits on the floor with large, three-foot long hoses extending directly out through a window.5
In general, first time buyers should carefully consider getting the largest capacity portable air conditioner that will meet their needs. A sizing chart can be used with a couple of adjustments.6 If the room is sunny, move up one step on the chart and do the same if quick cooling is a consideration. The rule of thumb is that a larger unit can always be used in a smaller room, but not the other way round. Particular attention should be paid to hose length and water drainage.
Most portables will use a regular power supply, but some larger units may require a 220 volt outlet – make sure you check. Filters are an added expense with washable filters a cost savings. Weight may be an issue if the unit will be moved up or down stairs or if a senior is expected to move the air conditioner. For more expensive units warranties for the compressor are a good choice, especially if repairs (or replacement) can be handled locally. This is one advantage of buying at a dealer instead of over the net.
Finally, one additional use for portable air conditioners deserves a mention. For homeowners who already have an air conditioning system, they sometimes find they can realize substantial savings by turning the house thermostat down and use a portable to provide additional cooling where needed. This also applies to garages or storage rooms that can be closed off from the house system and only cooled when they will be occupied.