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    Portable Air Conditioning Units: What You Should Know

    Portable Air Conditioner sitting by a window

    Portable air conditioners can help you improve the airflow into specific rooms of your home. In addition, they're a great way to improve your comfort level whenever you need to cool off. But you might be suprised to know that there's more to buying a portable air conditioner than meets the eye. 

    Whether you have an HVAC system that doesn't disperse air evenly throughout your home, or you don't have a central system at all, this guide will help you find the right portable air conditioner for you and your home.

    What Exactly is a Portable Air Conditioner?


    In most cases, air conditioning units are out of sight. They're built into the confines of our home and pump air through the same ventilation system our heater uses. But there are actually three different types of air conditioning units available:

    • Whole house central air conditioners
    • Window mounted air conditioners
    • Portable air conditioners

    This article will focus primarily on portable air conditioners. So just what is a portable air conditioner? Well, they are a self-contained unit that's ideal for cooling a single room.

    In most cases they sit on the floor near a window or door, and often have wheels which allows them to be easily moved from one room to another. And since they are easy to set-up, they have become a popular alternative to window mounted units.

    Portable AC Unit with Wheels
     

    Portable Air Conditioner vs. Central Air Conditioning 

    A central air conditioning unit cools the air at a central location and then blows it through the home's ductwork throughout the house.

    Not every home heating system has central air installed. Many systems have the ability to add AC, but may have chosen against it, or maybe, the AC compressor is in need of repair.

    Whatever the reason, you may be trying to decide between purchasing a portable air conditioning unit or adding AC to your central heating system. Let's take a close look at how the two compare.

    How Do the Costs Compare?

    As a general rule, portable air conditioning units are less expensive to install than an entire central unit. In 2018, the average cost of a central AC unit was $5,000. However, you can pick up a portable air conditioner for around $500.

    With that said, there are a few other cost considerations. If you plan to sell your home in the near future, a central AC unit will improve the home's value.

    However, one huge advantage of a portable unit is that it can be relocated to another home or apartment. Where ever you move, it can go with you.

    Pros

    Many people enjoy that a portable AC unit is portable. It can be in your living room during the day, and your bedroom at night. They're also great in a home gym or workout space where you need a little extra cool air flow.

    However, central AC units provide value by delivering a constant flow of air throughout your home, keeping your entire house cool instead of just one room.

    Cons

    Portable air conditioning units are excellent for a single room or a small apartment, but they simply don't have enough power to keep larger spaces cool without the use of multiple units.

    Although both units require attention, central AC systems should be professionally checked in the Spring in preparatation for the hottest months of the year.

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    Choosing the Best Unit for Your Home

    Both portable AC and central air have their advantages and disadvantages. If you're trying to decide which system is the best fit for your situation, here are a few helpful points to consider:

    •  
      A central air conditioning unit is better suited for a larger home. Where a portable air conditioning unit works better in a smaller space.
    • Multiple portable air conditioning units could be an option if installing a central air conditioning unit is out of your budget.
    • If you'll need to use three of more portable air conditioning units to cool a room or large space, your best option is to install a central air conditioning unit.
    • When it comes to maintenance and repairs, you'll spend far less time and money with a portable air conditioning unit.
    Checking a list on a clipboard

    How to Buy a Portable Air Conditioner

    There's a few things you should keep in mind when it comes to purchasing a portable air conditioning unit. Among the most important is finding the right size for your room.

    Selecting the Right Size

    Manufacturers size portable air conditioners using BTU's (British Thermal Units). As a general rule, a higher BTU rating means a more powerful unit. In other words, a portable AC unit with a high BTU rating will be able to cover more square footage than one with a lower rating.

    Finding a system that's the right size for your space is important. A system that's too small will increase your utility bills since it won't be able to adequately cool the room. A system that is too large will require you to spend more than necessary on your initial purchase.

    Determining Your Room Size

    The right size for you is determined by the square footage of the room. To determine the room's square footage, measure the length and width of the room and round the numbers up or down ( 25' 2" becomes 25, but 25' 6" is 26").

    Next Multiply the length of the room by the width, your answer is the square footage of the room. (22" x 20" = 440 square feet).

    In this example, we'd need to purchase a portable AC unit to cover 440 square feet.

    Determining Your BTU Requirement

    Now that we've determined your room's square footage, it's time to find out how many BTU's are necessary to cool the space. This chart will give you the answer.

    Square Footage of Room

    Required BTU

    up to 350 sq. ft.

    8000 BTU

    350 to 400 sq. ft.

    9,000 BTU

    400 to 450 sq. ft.

    10,000 BTU

    450 to 550 sq. ft.

    12,000 BTU

    550 to 700 sq. ft.

    14,000 BTU


    Don't want to do the math? Use this rule of thumb guideline:
    •  
      Smaller rooms need an AC that can pump out 7,000 to 10,000 BTUs. Think of offices, small bedrooms, and other places that are around 400 square feet.
    •  
       
      Medium-sized rooms need a more powerful portable air conditioning unit. You'll want to find one that can pump out 11,000  to 14,000 BTUs. Think of living rooms and larger bedrooms.
    •  
      Large-sized rooms require the most powerful kind of portable air conditioning unit. You'll want to find one that can pump out more than 14,000 BTUs. Think of large facility rooms, event rooms, and small warehouses for reference.

    Proper Venting 

    All air conditioning units require venting, including portable units. These systems need to be vented either through a window, door, or a wall in order extract the hot air outside. This is done by connecting an exhaust hose to the unit. 

     
     

    Best Practice: Keep your exhaust hose as straight as possible, and although you can shorten the hose, it should never be lengthened.

    The exhaust hose will vent the hot air and moisture outside. A venting kit is typically included, but if it isn't, or you want something different, they are reasonably priced and can be purchased separately. You can even find a kit that'll allow you to vent through a glass door and still use the door!

     
    Window Kit Vent Kit, Window Seal for Portable Air Conditioner, Plastic AC Vent Kit for Sliding Glass Doors and Windows, Adjustable Length Panels for Exhaust Hose, Window Slide Kit Plate Panel

    This vent kit works with with both windows and sliding glass doors.

    Condensation and Draining

    During the cooling process, moisture is removed from the air and condensate is formed. Some portable air conditioners are designed to evaporate the moisture themselves, and others use a hose to direct the moisture towards a drain.

    Some systems collect the condensate in a pan which will need to be emptied on a regular basis to prevent it from overflowing.

    Whichever draining system you select, be sure to check regularly  that its properly working to prevent mold build-up and/or water damage to your floors and surrounding area.

    Set-up

    Since portable air conditioners are self-contained, they're very easy to set-up. Once unpacked from the box, you pretty much just need to plug them into an electrical outlet and attach the vent.

    They should be positioned near a window to ensure that the warm air is moved outside. An exhaust vent kit, which is often included, seals the hose in place and prevents the warm outside air from flowing into your room.

    In addition, your portable AC unit should be placed where the electrical cord can reach the electrical outlet without the use of an extension cord.

    Air Conditioner Unit in Window
     

    Types of Portable Air Conditioning Units 

    Portable air conditioning units come in a variety of types, and not surprisingly, each type has its own set of pros and cons. Let's take a closer look at the three most common models available on the market:

    Windowless Units

    When most people think of portable air conditioning units they think of windowless units. They are portable and since they sit on the floor, they don't require mounting.

    While many HVAC experts will argue that these units are less efficient, they can help you improve the airflow of a specific room. And, they are incredibly easy to install and able to blend into the aesthetic of your room.

    The unit will need to be positioned near a window or door so the hot air and moisture can be expelled outside through a vent hose, which is almost always included.

    Windowless systems are a good choice if you own a central air conditioning unit as they can help improve the air flow in a specific room. They are also a good choice if you don't have central air because they can help you cool your most frequently used room during a hot day.

    Many users  appreciate that these units can help remove odors from inside your home. This is especially helpful if someone in your family is a smoker; you have pets; or there are other odor-causing issues.

    When comparing portable air conditioning units, a windowless model is the most cost-effective. But they do take longer to cool down a room. In fact, when compared to other windowed units, they could take twice as long!

    Since a portable AC removes the moisture from warm air in order to cool the air (which is why it must be vented), these units are better suited for humid areas, such as the Eastern United States where humidity levels can become quite high.

     
    JHS 10,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner, 3-in-1 Floor AC Unit with 2 Fan Speeds, Remote Control and Digital LED Display, Cover up to 300 Sq. Ft.

    This windowless air conditioning unit has 10,000 BTU's of cooling capacity, removes odors, and also is a humidifier.


    Evaporativ​​​​e Air Cooler

    Although, technically not considered to be a true air conditioner, an evaporative air cooler is incredibly effective,  economically friendly and very energy efficient.

    These unique systems are also called ventless air conditioners and swamp coolers. They're similar to a windowless unit since they are self-contained, easy to install, and can be moved from one room to another. 

    However, an evaporative system works differently than other air conditioning units. To begin with, they don't use a hose for ventilation, and because you won't need to position it near a window and install a venting hose kit, they're actually more "portable" than a windowless AC system!

    In addition, evaporative systems cool the room differently. Located within the unit is a tank of water, and as it evaporates, the warm air is cooled. A fan then moves the cool air from the unit into the surrounding area and cools the room.

    However, one thing to keep in mind is that the cooling process of an evaporative system actually adds moisture back into the air. In order to avoid a humid room, it's important to provide the unit with a constant supply of fresh air. This can be done by opening a door or window.

    Evaportive systems are a good fit for homes that are located in a dray climate, such as the Western US. 

    How to Properly Size a Ventless System

    Evaporative systems use a calculation called Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM) to measure the necessary air flow. It's not a perfect system, but it's also not as critical to get it right with ventless units as it is with AC systems that are sized by BTU's. 

    When shopping for a evaporative system look for the maximum square footage the unit can cover, this is the most important factor. Then check the CFM rating, as a general rule of thumb, the higher the rating the quicker it'll cool your room.

     
     
    Honeywell 525-729CFM Portable Evaporative Cooler, Fan & Humidifier with Ice Compartment & Remote, CL30XC, Gray

    This evaporative air cooler comes with a remote control, a carbon dust air filter, a detachable tank, and even an ice compartment!


    Window Mounted

    A window mounted AC unit is more efficient than a windowless or evaporative system. They improve the airflow of your room in much the same way that a central air conditioner works, and they're less expensive to run, especially if you only want to cool one room.

    Window mounted units are portible in the sense that you can remove them if you move to a new home. However, where you choose to install it will most likely be where it operates. You won't be moving it from room-to-room throughout the day.

    It's also a good idea to contact a professional to help you install it, especially if you're not sure of what you're doing. Window mounted systems tend to be more expensive, particularly when you take into account installation.

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    Many owners don't mind the added installation struggles and lack of portability in order to have an air conditioning unit that can provide a stronger air cycle. And since the unit is mounted outside, there's no need to install an exhaust vent or lose interior space within your room.

     
     
     
     
    LG LW8016ER 8,000 BTU 115V Window-Mounted AIR Conditioner with Remote Control

    This consumer favorite window mounted AC unit comes in 7 different BTU sizes, so you'll be able to find the right one for your room.


    Red FAQ blocks

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Is a Portable Air Conditioning Unit Easy to Use?

    From installation to general day-to-day use, a portable air conditioning unit is very easy. The majority of the features are automated and require very little set-up, and combined with sensors that detect room temperature and when to cycle its airflow, many people choose to use their portable AC over their central system. 

    Are Portable AC Units Noisy?

    Portable air conditioners have a long list of advantages, but they do tend to be noisy. When you're shopping for a system check the decibel (dB) rating. Most units fall into the 60 to 70 dB range.

    A normal conversation is 60 dB, and although this isn't bad, you should consider when and where you'll be using your system. If it will be in the family room where you'll be watching television, it probably won't bother you too much. However, if you're trying to fall asleep it might be a huge nuisance.

    We recommend finding a portable AC unit that meets your cooling requirements, and next look for the quietist unit within that group size. Shop for the bells-and-whistles after you've determined the other two items, not before.

     
     
     
     
    Whynter Elite ARC-122DS 12,000 BTU Dual Hose Portable Air Conditioner, Dehumidifier, Fan with Activated Carbon Filter plus Storage bag for Rooms up to 400 sq ft

    This portable AC unit by Whynter runs below 52 dB. One of the lowest we could find!

    Are Portable Air Conditioning Units Energy-Efficient?

    Yes and No. Most homes will see a reduction in their utility bill when using a portable air conditioner vs. their central air. This is because central air cools your entire house, even the rooms you're not using.

    A portable air conditioner will cool only the room in which it's located. In most cases, this is the room you're most often in. The other rooms of your house are not cooled and energy is not wasted.

    But when it comes to energy efficiency, in general, a portable AC unit is not as efficient as a window-mounted unit or a central air system. Although, purchasing an ENERGY STAR model won't change this fact, it will ensure that you're unit meets the strict critera of energy efficiency.

     

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