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Portable air conditioner

Do Portable Air Conditioners Work? (2024 Guide)

Typical Cost Range: $250 – $700

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Author Image Written by Brenda Woods Updated 05/01/2024

A portable air conditioner is a freestanding AC unit with wheels that can be moved between rooms. These systems function much in the same way as window units, but they use a mini-duct or hose to funnel warm air and moisture out the window.

Although not a replacement for a traditional climate control system, portable air conditioners can help cool a room that seems to stay hot and sticky. In our guide, we explain how portable air conditioners work and discuss their pros and cons.

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Typical Cost Range: $250 – $700
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Installation costs for common air conditioning units range from $500–$2,500.

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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.

For an overview of the portable air conditioner choices available to you, check out the video below:


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 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.

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: 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: 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: 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. 
All air conditioners remove water vapor from indoor air, so they double as dehumidifiers to an extent. Some portable air conditioners go one step further and include a “dry mode” that slows down the fan, allowing the condensed vapor to sit longer and further dry out the air. 
The dehumidification process uses a condenser coil to collect and remove moisture from the air as it passes through the unit. This lowers your home’s overall humidity level, making it feel cooler and reducing the need to run the AC for long stretches.
Dehumidification is especially beneficial if you’re living in a hot, humid climate because it helps keep your indoor environment cooler and more comfortable. However, no portable air conditioner is as effective as an actual dehumidifier.
Even if you have central AC, you may find that certain spots or rooms need extra cooling or circulation. Portable air conditioners can effectively supplement your existing AC system by providing extra support in those areas.
These units provide targeted cooling to specific areas or smaller spaces, such as a bedroom, while the central AC cools the entire house. Combining your existing central AC with a portable air conditioner helps you keep every room in your house comfortable and well-ventilated. 
If you live in a neighborhood regulated by a homeowners’ association (HOA), you may encounter restrictions against AC units hanging out of windows. Portable air conditioners are an excellent alternative because they don’t require any window installation or alteration.
Many people worry about losing natural light when installing a window-unit air conditioner. This isn’t an issue for portable air conditioners. You can easily move them around the room to maximize natural light without sacrificing comfort. 
If you don’t have central air but your windows are too small for a window AC unit, a portable air conditioner may work for you. Portable air conditioners don’t necessarily need a window to vent. You can use a door, roof, or other opening to release warm air.
Even if you do vent your portable ac through a window, these models typically take up minimal space. They come with adjustable side and top panels that securely seal any size window frame. These adjustable panels ensure a well-fitted window unit without any large gaps around the top or sides.

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. 

The U.S. Department of Energy created EER, which stands for energy efficiency ratio. It measures the efficiency of an air conditioner working at an outdoor temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. An 8.2 rating is above average, and higher ratings mean more energy efficiency.

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 $150–$500 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. To run a portable air conditioning unit with a wattage of 1,100, it would cost about $0.16 per hour—about twice the price of running a similar-sized window unit.

Let’s take a look at the average prices of portable air conditioners, ranked by BTU rating.

Portable AC SizeAverage Cost

8,000 BTUs

$160–$540

9,000 BTUs

$190–$700

10,000 BTUs

$1805–$1,060

11,000 BTUs

$350–$600

12,000 BTUs

$250–$1,000


Our Conclusion

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. Before buying a portable air conditioner, do your research on room size and power requirements to ensure it’s the right choice for your home. 

Get Estimates from HVAC Experts in Your Area
Typical Cost Range: $250 – $700

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. Portable AC units use twice as much energy as comparable window AC units.

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.

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