What do you wish you'd known when buying a portable air conditioner?
June 2, 2013 8:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm buying a portable air conditioner for our second-floor apartment. All our windows have openings at the bottom that are of the 2 panel slider variety, and no window unit will fit. Since I've never bought such a thing and I'm not very handy, I could use a few tips, especially concerning the feasibility of moving it from room to room every day.

The plan is to have it in the living room in the day (225 sq feet), and the bedroom at night (150 sq feet). We'll close the bedroom door at night, but would prefer to have the living room door open.

Things I don't know:

- How portable is this, really? Is it feasible to move it every night and every morning?

- How easy is it to block off part of the window for the hose? My biggest concern is that it'll be a huge pain to fit the window kit thingy into each window, etc. Any tips on managing this would be greatly appreciated. I think my ideal would be to have a hose hook-up in each window all summer, so I can just roll the unit from room to room and plug it in, not move the window thing every day. But we also like light, and don't want a huge board in each window.

- I read that 6,000 BTUs should cool our larger room, but also that portable AC units are slightly less efficient, so estimate up. Other sources say "don't pay for cooling you don't need!" How many BTUs should I go for to be on the safe side, and what would be overkill?

- Is it worth shelling out for a bucketless model? Any perils of that design? I can imagine that emptying the bucket gets tiresome, and that if I plan to roll the thing from room to room, it might spill.

- Any brands to get, brands to avoid? Reputable review sites?

- Other factors I haven't mentioned that I should know about?

Thanks!
posted by Beardman to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pretty much all the portable air conditioners are made in the same handful of factories in China so there is little reason to choose one brand or another. We have one and it works fine. You could certainly move it every morning but it'd be a pain.

They have air conditioners made for slider (casement) windows. One such. Cost for two of those would be a bit more than one portable, but it would make your life much easier.
posted by kindall at 9:00 AM on June 2, 2013


The one I have is wheeled with both a flexible hose and window connection kit. About as portable as it gets.

But the damn thing is really bulky and top heavy. Rolling it is an exercise in "Oh God don't fall on my toes don't fall on my toes don't fall..." Definitely made for a situation where you move it only twice a year -- beginning of summer, end of summer, and that's that.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:29 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


  • How portable is this, really? Is it feasible to move it every night and every morning?
  • Pretty portable, you will get water slosh when rolling it, best to empty the bucket before moving it about. I wouldn't suggest lifting it too often. And if you have hard wood floors get some of those felt furniture sliders.
  • How easy is it to block off part of the window for the hose? My biggest concern is that it'll be a huge pain to fit the window kit thingy into each window, etc. Any tips on managing this would be greatly appreciated. I think my ideal would be to have a hose hook-up in each window all summer, so I can just roll the unit from room to room and plug it in, not move the window thing every day. But we also like light, and don't want a huge board in each window.
  • Yes you should have a window hookup in each room you will roll this AC into, The amount of window obstruction will vary depending on the diameter of the exhaust hose. The results won't be pretty, but it will keep you cool.
  • I read that 6,000 BTUs should cool our larger room, but also that portable AC units are slightly less efficient, so estimate up. Other sources say "don't pay for cooling you don't need!" How many BTUs should I go for to be on the safe side, and what would be overkill?
  • I've always used online calculators for this, like this one. This is a back of the napkin style of calculation, 6,000 seems a little low for the room, but I guess it depends on how cold you want to make the area (or how hot it gets).
  • Is it worth shelling out for a bucketless model? Any perils of that design? I can imagine that emptying the bucket gets tiresome, and that if I plan to roll the thing from room to room, it might spill.
  • Figure out where the water is going: a bucket will need to be emptied (do NOT forget), and a bucket-less will need a place for a hose (you'll need egress for the hose) and there is a pump to maintain.
  • Any brands to get, brands to avoid? Reputable review sites?
  • I completely agree with kindall's comment above. Unless you are willing to buy an industrial style AC, there is probably very little difference between the units. Get something with a warranty and you should be good to go.
  • Other factors I haven't mentioned that I should know about?
  • I would look for one with a remote control and/or a remote temperature sensor, sometimes you'll get lucky and find that the remote is a sensor as well. Place the sensor near where you are in the room and you'll have a better experience. Source: Me. I used to run a server room with a West facing window, and was only cooled by portable HVAC units ...

posted by tarpin at 9:58 AM on June 2, 2013


I don't know if it is true for all portable A/C units, but the outlet hose for mine is the exact same size as that for a clothes dryer. This lets you customize your outlet solutions easily. For moving it room to room, you can install a dryer vent (probably not a good idea in an apartment you don't own) in each room in a corner or under the window or where ever the best location is for the A/C for the hot air out.

You could also cut a piece of plywood and install the vent in that for each window, even insulate it for maximum effectiveness. You would get a much tighter seal around the window opening and you wouldn't have to mess around with each window as you move it, just unhook the A/C outlet hose from your custom window vent mount.
posted by bartonlong at 10:43 AM on June 2, 2013


In my experience, these aren't very portable in everyday use. Think about it: you have to install it to the window, or to a tube that runs air to a vent if you're lucky enough to live in a building that was built with these in mind (That's rare, but I lived in one).

These things are noisy and they generate heat.

In the end, I returned the portable AC unit I bought at home depot because it created almost as much heat as it cooled.
posted by 2oh1 at 10:44 AM on June 2, 2013


I have one. I keep it in the BR. Moving it around is kind of a PITA. The wheels like to steer sideways a bit when I'm trying to move forward. I would give ease of portability a 7 on a 1-10 scale where 1 is easy.

I just use fans in the rest of the house.

It IS noisy, but I've gotten used to it. Boy does it keep the BR cool!
posted by michellenoel at 11:33 AM on June 2, 2013


The things we learned from buying a portable AC unit:

1. They are not portable at ALL. It took a lot of improvising to get it just right in the oddly-sized window. I think it involved duct tape, styrofoam and a piece of wood. I can't imagine how we would have wheeled it from room to room without it being a HUGE hassle.

2. They vent A TON of water. Far, far more than the little water tray could handle. The first night we used it, the floor was flooded with air conditioner water. We ended up putting it in a large-ish Tupperware tote on top of a milk crate. And the tote would be half-full of water by morning.

3. They take a long time to cool off a room. I'd come home from work around 5:30, turn it on, and by about 11 PM, the room would be cooled down to a frosty 78-80 degrees.

Portable AC units pretty much suck. We didn't really have a choice because we had a room with extremely tiny windows (more like portholes, than windows) that got a lot of sunlight during the day, so it was unbearably hot. The ac unit made it just barely livable.
posted by Aquifer at 11:35 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not totally sure what you mean when you say you'll move it from the living room to the bedroom every day. We have a portable A/C unit in our living room, in a window next to the bedroom, and we have it pointing into the living room during the day and roll it into the bedroom at night. If that's what you're planning, then that is really really easy - I have not had any of the wheel problems that other people describe. It's a little heavy to push, I guess, but I mean, it's on wheels. It isn't that hard.

If you're planning to take the whole thing out and move it to a different window every day, then...don't do that. That would be awful.

We usually station a fan on top of the unit, and that helps circulate the cool air. Our unit cools our 100 square foot bedroom really well, and our 160 square foot living room...less well. But it's better than nothing. (Also, we haven't had water problems with ours. We've had it for three years and I don't think I've ever emptied anything.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2013


Yeah, to clarify, I was envisioning attaching it to different windows daily--a living room window in the day, and then detaching it and connecting it to the bedroom window at night. The rooms aren't sufficiently close together to allow me to keep it connected to one window and just point it in or the other direction.

But the consensus, I take it, is that this would be horrible? I.e. that 'portable' just means 'you could roll it around a room while connected to the same window, but not easily around the house'?
posted by Beardman at 1:01 PM on June 2, 2013


A portable air conditioner is portable only in the same sense that early portable computers were portable: it has a handle and/or wheels.
posted by kindall at 1:24 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Timely! I finally broke down and ordered one yesterday (it hasn't Arrived From The Internet yet). Thanks to the recent FPP, the Wirecutter was one of the places I looked at for reviews. Even though he talks about in-window A/C units for most of the piece, it's worth a read for the brand-agnostic advice about things like figuring out how many BTUs you need.

But with these models, 'portable' mostly means you can take it with you when you move.
posted by ceribus peribus at 1:25 PM on June 2, 2013


I've owned like four of these. Currently, my mom is using the most recent one. Lets see...

* The 5-6k BTU ones are like, turbo garbage. I've never seen one that didnt seem like it was striving for the Olympic gold medal in being a piece of junk. I'd never, ever buy one again

* get an evaporative one. They still have water trays, but it only needs to be drained like... Twice a season instead of every day.

* moving it every day will cause the window bracket and hose mounts and stuff to fall apart, even on the "quality" ones like Sharp's. That plan is fairly unrealistic. I'll also nth that I've never set one up that didn't involve a lot of jimmying to get the bracket in the window perfectly, if not like full on fabricating a sheet of plexi or something. Id rather get two cheap ones off of Craigslist than one i planned to move.

* I will never, ever buy another chinatech type brandless one again after owning a sharp, and briefly using a maytag. Buy one with a brand you recognize FOR SURE. There is a difference, and its noticeable. As an example the good ones have filters on the radiator for the "hot" side that vents out the window. The crap ones don't, and clog over time in an almost uncleanable fashion.

* similar to the above about the low BTU ones being crap, absolutely get a bigger one than you think you need. I'd much rather have too much cooling than be going :| while it was 88 degrees in my room and the thing was switched on "high"(been there, of course)

* go to Costco and see what they're pushing. They always have two deals it seems on these, a cheap one and an expensive one. The cheap one will probably be around 9k btus and a recognizable brand. Just buy that(or two!) and don't worry about it. They dont sell junk. The one I had from there had excellent wheels that never cocked up too. It also generated no heat in the room it was running in(which can happen in the crap ones, as mentioned above)

* really though, to jackhammer it in, moving it from window to window is a shit idea. Don't try to do that, you couldn't pay me to try and do that.
posted by emptythought at 1:27 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Caveat: too much cooling means not enough dehumidification. Cold and clammy is NOT comfortable. Not enough cooling means warmer air, but drier air. The way to figure out the right amount is to figure out what the highest heat load is, and then buy one that matches that. You'll be a little warm on the very hottest days, but you won't be clammy on the vast majority of not so warm days.

One important thing about cooling capacity: remember, it doesn't have to cool just the air in the room off, but all the stuff too. A large empty room is way easier to cool than a smaller, fuller room. It's about mass more than volume. If you have a wall that gets afternoon sunlight, it's going to radiate heat at you most of the evening.

Also, if you have a lot of electronics, your heat load will be higher. Every watt the things consume will go into your room and affect how much cooling will be necessary. I went on vacation for a week and all that was left on was a computer and a refrigerator. My house was over 100 deg f when I got home. At 10pm.

What I would consider in your case is figuring out a window to put a $99 window unit into, and use the larger portable one for a room where you don't want the window blocked up all summer.
posted by gjc at 2:40 PM on June 2, 2013


The BTU guides say to count the number of people who will be spending all their time in the room when the A/C is on, and add another 400-600 BTU for each extra person besides you. Don't forget to count always-on computers, plasma TVs and LCD TVs/monitors as extra people too.
posted by ceribus peribus at 3:05 PM on June 2, 2013


My limited experience with these (emergency back-up in a server room, which is exactly as awful an idea as you'd imagine) was that they are a pain in the ass and wet. Just so much water to deal with.

We have casement windows all through the house, and in 2 years I still haven't committed to buying an A/C unit of either kind because the portables are so unimpressive and the casement units are so expensive and unwieldy. Both will require some craft skills to create a window insert (you can buy expanding inserts, but they're all pretty flimsy plastic and I don't think they'd provide much insulation). For sheer cooling power and self-drainage, I think a window unit is probably the better way to go.

There are how-tos online for building a support structure to put a cheaper non-sideways unit into a casement window, but your landlord would probably have a number of feelings about that, none of them good.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:23 PM on June 2, 2013


By far the most important thing when shopping for a portable air conditioner is to get a "two-hose" model. Two-hose models have one hose bringing outside air in to pass over the hot condenser coils, and another hose to blow that air back outside. By contrast, one-hose models draw in precious indoor cooled air across the hot condenser coils and blow it out the window, which drastically decreases the cooling power and efficiency of the unit.

I would never recommend any single-hose unit, but dual-hose units can work quite nicely, and I strongly recommend you get one even if it is harder to source.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 5:20 PM on June 2, 2013


Very much seconding what Juffo-Wup said about getting a two-hose unit. (It may be one hose which concentric pipes.) My son had bought a one-hose unit that did not work well until I converted it to a two-hose device. Then it worked well.
posted by mbarryf at 7:50 AM on June 3, 2013


Portable AC's are horrible, loud, inefficient, and generally suck. I tried one in my room a few summers ago and it was terrible.

I ended up knocking together something like this out of 2x4's and some foam insulation board. It is not pretty but it works exactly as well as a normal window unit.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:22 AM on June 3, 2013


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