Do Portable Air Conditioners Work? (2024 Guide)
Typical Cost Range: $250 – $700
We have connected over 4,716 people with a local contractor in the last 30 days
A portable air conditioner is an efficient and cost-effective way to cool a room during the hot summer months. It works by pulling warm air from the room, cooling it, and then releasing the cooled air back into the room.
Although not a replacement for a traditional climate control system, portable air conditioners can help cool a room that seems to stay sticky no matter how hard you run the AC. In this guide, we at the This Old House Reviews Team explain how portable air conditioners work and discuss their pros and cons.
Use our expert research to learn more about your project
Enter your ZIP code and tell us about your home
Match with local experts who can meet your needs
How Portable Air Conditioners Work
A portable air conditioner unit differs from a ductless mini-split, a common alternative to traditional central air. A ductless mini-split has an outdoor component and an evaporative cooler that relies on fans and water pumps. It works by using negative pressure airflow. That means the unit draws in hot air from the room, cools it down with a compressor and condenser coil, and releases the cooled air back into the room.
A portable air conditioner’s main components are the compressor, condenser coils, evaporator coil, fan, and exhaust hose. The compressor compresses the system’s refrigerant gas, converting it into a high-pressure vapor. The condenser coils cool this vapor and turn it into liquid. The liquid passes through the evaporator coil, where heat is transferred from the warm room air to the cool liquid. Finally, the fan blows the now-cool air out into the room.
The exhaust hose is usually connected to the back of the portable air conditioner and vents out through a window, wall, or drop ceiling. The hose releases the removed hot air back outside.
Single Hose vs. Dual Hose
Single-hose portable air conditioners use one hose to draw and expel air in and outside. Dual-hose portable air conditioners have two hoses. The first hose draws fresh air from outside the room, while the second expels air from inside the room. This helps reduce the unit’s energy usage and creates a more comfortable environment.
Single-hose units are generally cheaper and quieter than other models, but may not be as efficient as dual-hose units, especially in larger spaces. Dual-hose portable air conditioners can usually cool a room more quickly and evenly.
Portable Air Conditioners vs. Other Air Conditioners
Homeowners looking for air conditioning have three main unit options: portable, window, or central AC. Let’s break them down.
Portable air conditioners can easily be moved from room to room and require no permanent installation. They’re typically smaller and more affordable than window or central AC units, and can provide sufficient cooling for single rooms or small apartments. Portable air conditioning units can also be used in homes with neighborhood restrictions or windows too small for window units.
Window units are similar to portable air conditioners in that they require a window in order to vent hot air outside. The difference is that window units are large, bulky, and often require the user to drill into the wall or window frame for installation. They also cannot be easily moved around, making them an inconvenient choice for those who want to take their cooling unit with them if they move.
Central air conditioning systems cost more than portable air conditioners and window units, but they’re more powerful and efficient. These systems cool an entire house at once using a series of ducts and vents that allow the cold air to reach every room. This is helpful for larger homes with multiple levels, but may not be necessary for a small apartment or single-level home.
Portable Air Conditioner Efficiency
Look out for two energy-related acronyms when shopping for a portable air conditioner unit: BTUs and EER.
Energy use is rated in BTUs, or British Thermal Units, which measures heat transfer in a defined space. For air conditioners, BTUs rate the amount of energy needed to cool a specific space. The higher the BTU rating, the more space the unit can effectively cool.
Single-hose portable AC units typically have a lower energy-efficiency rating than dual-hose models even though they require less energy overall. Dual-hose units are more efficient and can cool a larger space, but typically cost more.
Portable Air Conditioner Costs
The exact cost of a portable air conditioner depends on the size, power, and model you choose. Prices vary by retailer and depend partly on whether you buy through Amazon or a brick-and-mortar store.
Generally, expect to spend $250–$700 for a portable air conditioner. Smaller units are usually less expensive than larger ones, and units with higher BTUs often cost more than less powerful air conditioners. Costs to run the unit range between $0.07 and $0.20 per hour—about twice the price of running a similar-sized window unit.
Let’s take a look at the best portable air conditioners’ average prices, ranked by BTU rating.
|Portable AC Size
Pros and Cons of Portable Air Conditioners
Portable air conditioners are popular, efficient, and cooling, but are they worth it? Here are their top benefits and drawbacks.
- Mobility: Portable air conditioners are designed to move easily from room to room as needed. Homeowners can cool down a specific area without investing in a permanent installation.
- Low cost: Portable air conditioners are much cheaper than traditional central air conditioner systems.
- Easy installation: Unlike other AC systems, portable air conditioners are installed quickly and with minimal effort.
- Year-round operation: Some portable units are versatile, so you may be able to use it as an air conditioner, heater, or dehumidifier depending on what you need.
- Controlled by phone: Some air conditioner brands sell portable air conditioners with Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats that you can monitor and control from anywhere using a mobile app.
- Limited coverage: Due to their size, portable air conditioners can only cool about one room at a time and can’t cover larger areas.
- Noisy operation: Portable air conditioners can be quite noisy. They may not be the best choice if you want an efficient cooling system that won’t keep you up at night.
- Vents: Like any air conditioning system, portable air conditioners require proper ventilation to work correctly. Check your windows for any blockages before installing your unit.
- Maintenance: Portable air conditioners require regular maintenance and air duct cleaning to ensure they’re working correctly and efficiently.
- Cost: Portable air conditioners are often more expensive to operate than other similarly sized air conditioner types because they use more electricity.
Do portable air conditioners work well? That depends on what you need from your unit. Portable air conditioners are a great option for cooling a single room or smaller space. They’re cost-effective, easy to install, and require no permanent installation.
However, portable air conditioners are not a replacement for a central air conditioning system or HVAC unit, as they can’t cool an entire home. Portable AC units can also be more expensive to run than traditional systems and don’t provide the same level of cooling capacity for larger spaces.
It’s important to consider all the factors before deciding if a portable air conditioner is the best fit for your home.
FAQ About Portable Air Conditioners
Can a portable AC unit cool a large room?
A big portable AC unit can potentially cool a large room. Consider that it takes about 8,000 BTUs to cool down 350 square feet. That’s about the power of a small portable air conditioner. A larger room needs at least a 10,000-BTU unit to cool down effectively.
Do all portable air conditioners have to be vented out of a window?
All portable air conditioners do not have to be vented out of a window. As self-contained systems, portable air conditioners can be transported from one room to the next, but they still require a window, roof, or wall opening to be effective.
Do portable air conditioners use a lot of electricity?
Yes, portable air conditioners use a lot of electricity. The power consumption of an 8,000 BTU portable unit (150 square feet of cooling power) with a standard EER is comparable to a 24-hour microwave.
Are window AC units better than portable air conditioners?
Window and portable air conditioners are both designed to cool small rooms, but their performance is not equal. A window AC generally cools large living spaces better and is more energy-efficient and affordable. A portable AC is easier to install than a window unit, and is more convenient if you live in a neighborhood with an HOA.
To share feedback or ask a question about this article, send a note to our Reviews Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.