Do Portable Air Conditioners Work? (2024)

By Ross Bentley Updated February 6, 2024

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Portable air conditioning units claim to offer the same cooling power as a window AC unit without requiring permanent installation or completely blocking the window. While portable AC units aren’t as powerful or efficient as most other air conditioners, they’re the only practical choice in some homes. We’ll break down how these air conditioners work, how they compare to other cooling systems, and what you can expect in terms of efficiency and maintenance.

 


 

How Do Portable Air Conditioners Work?

Portable air conditioners work similarly to other AC systems and have similar components. There are two main types of portable systems—single-hose and double-hose—and they circulate air differently. Both types have tubing that must be attached to an open window and need to be set up 5 to 7 feet away from walls to maintain proper airflow. Here’s the difference in how these two types work.

Single-Hose Air Conditioners

Single-hose units pull air from the room they’re installed in to create cool air. The motor inside the unit funnels room-temperature air over evaporator coils, which pulls heat from the air and turns it into refrigerant. The cool air is then blown back out into the room, while the heated refrigerant is sent to the condenser coils in the compressor to be cooled back down. The condenser coils vent this heat through a single exhaust hose that’s connected to a nearby window. Self-evaporative units also vent excess humidity through the hose.

Single-hose air conditioners are typically the least expensive of the two types, but they’re also the least efficient and take longer to cool down a room. That’s because the system uses the room air it just cooled to also cool down the condenser coils. Essentially, it’s constantly undoing a bit of the work it just did. The intake also creates negative pressure that can pull in warm air from other rooms, slowing cooling. Single-hose units are better suited to small rooms and modest budgets.

Dual-Hose Air Conditioners

A dual-hose air conditioner works similarly to a single-hose unit with one key difference: It has separate hoses for air intake and exhaust. Instead of using indoor air to cool down the condenser’s heated refrigerant, it brings in outdoor air. Dual-hose units tend to cost more, but they’re more efficient and cool larger spaces more effectively.

 


 

Portable Air Conditioners vs. Other Air Conditioning Options

Most homeowners want to know how portable AC units compare to other types of air conditioning systems. In general, a portable AC is less powerful and efficient, but it has some benefits that other HVAC units don’t. Here are some direct comparisons.

Central Air Conditioner

Central air conditioning, which uses a large central unit to cool air and send it through a building-wide duct network, is the most powerful residential cooling system. Installing central AC is often the best choice for homes in year-round hot climates, but it’s also the most expensive cooling system to buy, install, and run. It’s even more expensive and disruptive to install if your home doesn’t already have ductwork.

If you only need air conditioning during the occasional heat wave, a portable air conditioner is a more practical choice. Though it’s far less powerful and only cools one room at a time, it’s more cost-effective and versatile. Most homeowners with portable AC units live in climates where central air conditioning isn’t necessary.

Ductless Mini-Split

Mini-split systems can cool multiple rooms throughout a home without ductwork. These systems require mounting an air handler on the wall, floor, or ceiling of each room you want to cool. Not everyone likes the look of these air handlers, but they’re much easier to retrofit to older buildings than ductwork. That said, they have the same drawbacks of central AC systems: They’re expensive to install and run. If you’re considering a ductless mini-split, you probably need more cooling power than a portable unit can provide.

Window Air Conditioner

Portable AC units are most comparable to window air conditioners since both are packaged units meant to cool a single room. By most metrics, window AC units come out on top: They’re more powerful, less expensive, and more energy efficient than portable air conditioners. They don’t take up floor space, and they’re quieter to run. They may even be lighter and easier to install, particularly if they come as part of window kits meant for do-it-yourself (DIY) installation.

However, portable AC units do have some advantages over window units. First, the hoses take up less window space. Second, they can be stored away when not in use, which is more difficult to do with a window unit. Lastly, they can be used in places like apartments and rental units where installing a window AC unit may not be permitted. Portable air conditioners fall short in many other ways, but they’re your best bet if you can’t install a window unit.

Heat Pump

Heat pumps are whole-home cooling systems that displace heat instead of creating cold air. These systems push heat outdoors in summer and pull it indoors in winter. Though they’ve traditionally been more effective in mild climates, recent technological advancements are making heat pumps a viable alternative to central AC or ductless mini-splits. They work much better in large spaces than a portable AC unit.

Evaporative Cooler

Evaporative coolers, also known as swamp coolers, work differently than air conditioners. They blow air over a damp fiber pad, and as the moisture from the pad evaporates into the air, the air becomes cooler. Evaporative coolers are much less expensive to buy and run than air conditioners, and they use 60% to 80% less electricity. However, they won’t work in humid climates where the air is already saturated with water vapor.

 


 

How Much Does a Portable Air Conditioner Cost?

According to Fixr, portable air conditioners cost $250 to $1,800. Where a unit falls within that range depends on its type and cooling capacity, which is measured in British thermal units (BTU). An air conditioner’s BTU rating refers to the amount of heat it can remove from the air. Portable AC units have an output of 3,000 to 50,000 BTU, but the most common sizes are 6,000 to 18,000 BTU.

It’s worth noting that the U.S. Department of Energy recently changed the way cooling efficiency is measured, specifically for portable air conditioners. By 2025, all portable AC units will need a SACC (seasonally adjusted cooling capacity) BTU rating. The change hasn’t fully happened yet, so many units are currently being sold with both a BTU rating and a SACC BTU rating. The SACC BTU number is more accurate.

Here are the SACC BTU ratings to look for based on your room’s square footage:

Square FootageSACC BTU Rating

100–200

6,000–8,000

300–400

10,000–12,000

500–600

14,000–16,000

700+

18,000+

 


 

Portable Air Conditioner Features

Portable AC units may come with a number of features, including the following:

 


 

Portable Air Conditioner Maintenance

Portable AC units require some maintenance, though you should be able to do most of it yourself. As with any air conditioner, you have to replace or clean the air filters as recommended by the manufacturer. You may need to empty the water collection bucket or tray frequently, especially if you live in a humid climate. If you store the unit when it’s not in use, put it back in its case or cover it with a tarp to prevent dust from getting in.

 


 

Portable Air Conditioner Efficiency

While the SACC BTU rating is a measure of an air conditioner’s cooling power, the CEER (combined energy efficiency ratio) rating measures efficiency. Finalized in 2020, the CEER rating is a new standard that takes into account SACC, standby energy usage, and other factors to provide a numerical rating. Most portable AC units fall into the range of 6 to 10. The higher the rating, the more efficient the machine.

Portable ACs have low efficiency ratings compared to other air conditioners. Window units typically have a CEER of 10 to 15. Central AC, heat pumps, and mini-split systems use a slightly different efficiency rating called SEER2, which typically ranges from 13 to 21. When in doubt, look for the Energy Star symbol to find the most efficient air conditioning systems.

 


 

Our Recommendation

Although window AC units are preferable for most single-room cooling, a portable air conditioner is a good alternative if you can’t install a window unit. Be sure you pick a SACC BTU rating that’s appropriate for the room size and take care to clean and maintain your new AC unit. The best portable air conditioners have a dual-hose system for bringing in fresh air and noise-reducing features for quieter operation. Examine all your options for cooling systems before making a choice.

 


 

Portable Air Conditioner FAQ

What are the disadvantages of a portable air conditioner?

The main disadvantage of portable air conditioners is that they aren’t as effective at cooling a room as window AC units. Because all of the machinery is located indoors, these units can also be loud and quite heavy. Finally, they can be difficult to move from room to room even if they have wheels.

Do all portable air conditioners have to be vented out a window?

Yes, portable air conditioners need access to a window for ventilation. Air conditioners work by venting hot air away from the space you’re trying to cool. So-called “ventless air conditioners” are actually evaporative or swamp coolers, which only work in dry climates.

Is a portable air conditioner worth it?

If you can install a different type of air conditioning system in your home, such as a window AC unit, it’s preferable to a portable air conditioner. If you have no other options, portable AC units cool down a room more effectively than a fan, particularly in humid climates.

Should I buy a portable air conditioner?

If you live in a rental unit where you can’t install a window air conditioner, or if you don’t want to block the majority of your window space, a portable AC unit will fit your needs. But if you can install a window AC unit, it will usually be more effective.