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Home Appliances: Is a Portable Air Conditioner Worth It?

If you live somewhere without air conditioning, summer can be brutal, and if you live somewhere you can’t install a ducted or more permanent aircon unit you might think you’re out of options. Cue the portable air conditioner. While other air conditioning units require installation, a technician or HVAC specialist, and can cost thousands of dollars, portable air conditioners can be a potential budget-friendly alternative for renters, people who frequently move, or for a smaller-sized living space. Are portable AC units a good option, though? Decide for yourself by reading more below.


How do portable air conditioners work?

The basic principle of a portable air conditioner is very simple and similar to how refrigerators work. Hot and humid air is drawn in from the room, inside the portable air conditioner. The hot air inside the unit is cooled down through the use of copper pipes which circulate refrigerant. During this stage, moisture is also drawn out of the air and condensed onto the copper pipes, dehumidifying the cooled air. The refrigerant turns from a fluid into gas as it heats up in the coils. After the hot air is cooled, the moisture condensed, and the refrigerant becomes a gas, three things happen:

  1. The cool air is vented back into the room
  2. The condensed moisture (now a liquid) is gathered and either drained outside through a hose or into a bucket for manual removal
  3. The heated refrigerant gas is compressed back into a liquid, and the heat released from this process is vented out of an exhaust pipe through a window to the outside

And then the whole process starts again.

Types of portable air conditioners

There are two types of portable air conditioners: single-hose or double-hose AC units. However, if you’re looking for a heating system as well, there are reverse-cycle portable air conditioners available.

Single-hose portable air conditioning unit

Single-hose AC units are the most common portable air conditioners. As their name suggests, they have a single hose installed through a window or wall to vent the hot air outside. Basically, they take the hot air out of a room, and send it out. Unlike dual-hose AC units, a single-hose unit doesn’t replace the air it takes from a room, leading to a slight depressurization. While you, personally, won’t feel the effects of the low pressure, hot air from other rooms might get sucked into the room you’re trying to cool which could increase your energy consumption and decrease energy efficiency.

Double-hose portable air conditioning unit

Unlike a single-hose portable AC unit, a double-hose unit works with two hoses. One to bring in fresh air from the outside and the other to vent the hot indoor air, out. Double-hose air conditioners are less common, more difficult to install, and more expensive, but they limit the low air pressure problem of single-hose AC units, which makes them more energy efficient, and they bring fresh air into the room.

Reverse-cycle portable air conditioner

Some portable air conditioners can also heat your room when it’s cold. This is called a reverse-cycle air conditioner. Unlike a traditional portable AC unit, which takes the hot air from the inside and sends it out, this can also take the warm air from the outside and send it into your cold room. Reverse-cycle air conditioners can be great for small apartments where you might not have the space for separate heating and cooling systems, and can be a more economical form of heating than other methods, particularly for small spaces.

Dehumidifying with a portable air conditioner

All portable air conditioners are also dehumidifiers, as a byproduct of the air cooling down is removing moisture as well. However, this condensed moisture needs to go somewhere. When it comes to dehumidifying, most portable AC units come in one of three types:

 Self-evaporation: The condensed water is sent outside via the exhausted vent with the hot air. This is the best, and easiest, type of dehumidifying system for an AC unit, and most modern units come with this system.

 Gravity-drain: The water is collected and gravity pulls it down and out of the AC unit and onto the floor, near a drain. You can add an optional condensate pump which, rather than bring the water down, draws it up so it can be pumped outside a window or into a sink.

 Bucket: Older AC units probably have this water collection system, where the water is collected in a bucket which you have to remember to empty. If you don’t remember to empty it, then it overflows, so it isn’t recommended.

Should I get a portable air conditioner?

If you don’t have air conditioning, you might be considering a portable AC unit to make the summers more bearable. However, is this a worthwhile investment? To make a long story short, not usually. Portable air conditioners are not nearly as efficient as other systems, and are often quite large and noisy. Portable air conditioners, however, can be an ideal option for renters or those who only need it for a small room or space. Portable AC units are, as the name implies, portable. There is minimal setup required, and they don’t require ductwork or more permanent installation like other air conditioning systems. They can also, with little effort, be moved between rooms, so you can use them to only cool the room you are in.

Pros and cons of a portable AC unit
Advantages of a portable air conditioner Disadvantages of a portable air conditioner
  • Easy setup, and no ductwork required (good for renters)
  • Portable, and can be moved to different rooms or spaces
  • Cheaper to buy than other air conditioning units
  • Large and noisier than other types of air conditioners
  • Energy inefficient, particularly large spaces on very hot days
  • Require a window to be installed
  • Water output might be tricky, depending on the system

If you are considering a portable air conditioner, however, you will need to look at different factors to make sure you’re getting the best system you can.

What size portable air conditioner do I need?

No matter the type of air conditioner, or heater, you want it is important to buy the right size. Too-small or too-large portable air conditioners can be costly and ineffective. Buy too big an AC unit and it’ll constantly be cycling between on and off, leading to an inefficient cooling process and a clammy, humid room. On the other hand, buying too small of a portable air conditioner and it’ll be on all the time while not actually cooling the room. Basically, size is one of the most important factors when it comes to choosing a portable air conditioner.

When choosing the correct-size air conditioner, you first need to measure your room. It’s best to measure in the largest room you intend to use the unit in since you can always lower the settings for smaller spaces. After figuring out your room size, you can choose the right AC capacity based on the total number of square meters.

Portable AC unit size chart
Room size Portable air conditioner size (kilowatts)*
Less than 20sqm 2-2.5kW
20-30sqm 2.6-3.5kW
30-40sqm 3.5-4.2kW
40-50sqm 4.2-5.6kW

*Some air conditioners are measured in British thermal units (BTU). While not common in Australia, 1kW=3412.1416331 Btu/hour

How much does a portable air conditioner cost to buy?

Portable AC units are relatively inexpensive for a basic model, but can easily cost over $1,000 depending on the features, size, and energy efficiency. On the lower end of the budget, you can find a basic, good quality portable air conditioner for $300 for a room under 20sqm. If you’re looking for a more powerful unit, you find models starting anywhere from $500 to $1,400 for the biggest-capacity units on the market.

Choosing an energy efficient portable AC unit

Prior to 1 April 2020, single-hose portable AC units weren’t subject to energy efficiency regulations as they were not efficient enough. Double-hose AC units, however, have been under Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) and labelling requirements since 2013. Now, all portable AC units must meet MEPS and be labelled with the Zoned Energy Rating Label (ZERL).

The ZERL shows the seasonal efficiency rating for three distinct climate zones. Basically, it shows how well an air conditioner will work for a hot climate, an average climate, and a cold climate. Like the Energy Star Label for other typical home appliances, the ZERL displays up to a maximum of 10 stars for heating and cooling. The more energy efficient a portable air conditioner is, the more stars it will have. Portable air conditioners are among the most inefficient air conditioning systems available, so higher efficient models will cost more to purchase.

How much does portable air conditioning cost to run?

The cost of running your portable air conditioner really depends on a number of factors including the capacity, temperature setting, and how often it’s used, as well as your own energy tariff and rates. However, when compared to a split-system or ducted aircon unit, Origin Energy states that you could be spending between $70 and $200 more per year on energy costs using a portable air conditioner. While portable air conditioners might be cheaper upfront than their ducted and split-system counterparts, consider what you might save with a different type of system, especially if you’ll be frequently using your AC.

How to install a portable aircon unit

All portable air conditioners need to be vented outside, usually through a window. Most portable aircon units come with a window kit, which usually comes with a sealing plate, exhaust pipe, nozzle, and attachment. The actual installation process is relatively simple, and without the need for ductwork or other permanent fixtures, makes it a great choice for renters or those who move frequently.

  1. Open your window and fit the sealing plate into the window gap, and adjust the length so the plate fits the entire length (if the window slides up from the bottom) or height (if the window slides across) of the window.
  2. Bolt or screw the sealing plate so it stays the length you choose, and shut the window
  3. Attach the exhaust pipe to the back of the air conditioner using the attachment piece
  4. Attach the exhaust pipe nozzle to the other end of the exhaust pipe
  5. Insert the exhaust pipe through the window sealing plate and enjoy your new air conditioner

Sometimes, your window might be larger than the window kit you were given with your portable air conditioner. While it’s best to get a window kit that fits your window, after doing some research about proper sizes, you can always make a makeshift extension using plywood, plexiglass, or another material. However, it is best to research first and find a window kit that is meant for the size of your window.

Hinged window kits? Some portable air conditioners come with hinged window kits but, if yours does not, there are after-market window kits available to purchase

Portable air conditioner FAQ

Do all portable air conditioners need to be vented?

Technically no, but venting out the hot air through a window is most recommended. There are some DIY methods of running the exhaust through a dryer vent, or a sliding door, or a hole in the wall, but these are not recommended and can lead to energy inefficiency, or even a dangerous situation, if not done properly.

How much does it cost to rent a portable air conditioner?

If you don’t want to make the commitment to purchasing a portable air conditioner, or you need a quick fix to cool your home if your current AC died, it is possible to rent a portable aircon unit. Renting a portable AC unit isn’t recommended as a long-term solution, as the cost of renting will greatly outweigh the upfront cost to purchase your own. Depending on the size, model, efficiency, and where you rent from, portable air conditioning rentals could cost anywhere from under $100 per week, up to $350 or more per week with delivery and setup.

How to clean a portable air conditioner

In order to keep your portable aircon unit working as efficiently as possible, for a long as possible, regular maintenance is required. Dust can build up in the unit, and is often the cause of inefficient cooling. Thankfully, you don’t need to remember much when cleaning your portable aircon unit:

  • Clean or replace the filter: Your portable AC unit will have a filter to reduce airborne particles. If it’s washable, rinse it in warm water with a mild detergent and let dry. If it’s a disposable filter, replace them regularly, usually every two weeks, or once a month.
  • Clean the exterior: Every few weeks wipe down the exterior with a soft, damp, cloth. This will help increase the air volume.

 

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