What would happen if I used a portable air conditioner in my car?
July 14, 2008 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Is this possible? Or just dumb? What would happen if we used one of those new, small, portable air-conditioners in a car on a temporary basis?

We are from Canada heading through the Nevada desert in a small car and I am seriously wondering if it is possible to use one of those new portable air conditioners to keep us cool. We could run it off of the cigarette lighter and strap it into the back seat.
I have looked into those boat and trailer types that run a fan over ice and they get terrible reviews.
I don't have any experience with AC - we don't have it in our home either. (When it gets hot in the summer we suffer/cope and sleep in the basement)- so I don't know how it works. They seem to have to vent outside for some reason... I can see that...

What do you think?
posted by Toto_tot to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

The cigarette lighter will not provide anywhere near enough power to run a conventional portable AC unit. You could run a thermoelectric cooler, strapping it into a window so the hot side is outdoors, but thermoelectrics don't get very cold. I'd be amazed if you noticed it.

There are 12V DC air conditioners for marine use, but they need something like 48 amps. Short answer: no, not without rewiring your car.

It should be pretty dry, so perhaps those evaporative coolers will be sufficient after all? (Note they're >$300.)
posted by aramaic at 8:43 AM on July 14, 2008

Thirding that logistics and power issues should probably rule out the portable-AC idea.

Instead of cooling the whole car, what if you just focused on cooling your bodies? Evaporative neck/wrist wraps like these or these might be of some help, especially if you brought along a small cooler of ice water for periodic rechargings.
posted by Bardolph at 8:54 AM on July 14, 2008

When you go to Nevada in the summer, you are going to be hot. When you visit Nevada without AC in your car, you will be so much hotter that you can imagine.

For the cost of one of those AC units (that won't work in your car) you could rent a car. I'm pretty sure that you can't find a rental car in Nevada without AC.

A giant cooler in the back seat (that largest that will fit) filled with ice and a a couple 12 volt box fans (get these from an RV supply company) sitting over the lid (which you cut vents into) will help a bit. Sure, ice costs money, but not that much. And you can keep you beverages and snacks cold at the same time. Buckle that cooler in though. And remember to drain the cooler when it's mostly water or a quick stop will soak you and your car.

Or, you could just rent a car with AC. Some rentals might even offer gas mileage that's significantly better than your car - which will help offset the cost even more.
posted by terpia at 9:04 AM on July 14, 2008

Yeah, rent a car with A/C. You'll be absolutely miserable driving through most all of the Southern US, Nevada especially. It might even be a health risk.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:08 AM on July 14, 2008

Does your car not have ac at all? Or are you attempting this contraption as an added boost for the 125 degree heat. Because it does get that hot and if you're traveling through that region you would be definitely endangering yourself and your passengers. Do not do this. Rent a car.
posted by zpousman at 9:49 AM on July 14, 2008

The cigarette lighter will not provide anywhere near enough power to run a conventional portable AC unit.

Maybe if you added a portable generator? Okay, maybe not.

A/C or no, those shades that you unfold and prop up in your windshield do help. A road map works in a pinch.

You could spend your days sleeping at air-conditioned motels and do all your driving at night.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:54 AM on July 14, 2008

The reason there's a vent outside on a/c units is that the heat that the unit is removing from the air has to go *somewhere*. Just so you know.

If you're dead-set on taking *your* car out to the desert (Burning man?), take a cooler of ice. And lots of water. Wear as little as possible, oversize clothing if you can so it can air out. Wet bandannas on your neck and your wrists (where there's a lot of blood vessels near the surface) will help. Fans will help. But you're gonna sweat. Period - so take some extra deodorant, and revel in the dry heat.

I took a trip to Utah, in the hottest week of 1996, in a small overcrowded car with an overweight fellow and no a/c (it died in Texas). We wore shorts, sandals, and ice water. We survived on beef jerky, the salt in which helps you retain water.
posted by notsnot at 11:07 AM on July 14, 2008

Any portable AC unit weak enough to run off the car's power will be too weak to do anything for you. We've already been over 110 this year, and once monsoon season is over it's just going to get hotter.

Heck, my truck's built-in AC can barely cope when it gets really hot.

One thing I've noticed, though, is that heavily tinting your windows makes a huge difference. Any competent llantera should have a guy out back who can do a sedan for about $150 or less. Once whatever cooling solution you do use doesn't have to compete with the absolutely brutal sun it will be a lot easier to keep the interior cool.

Or, for an even easier solution - just rent a car.
posted by krisak at 12:33 PM on July 14, 2008

And on a side note... If your car is setup for Canada, it probably has a pretty high antifreeze/water ratio. That can cause overheating problems in some cars down here in summer. So be careful, take it easy on the passes, and bring a cell phone and a lot of water.
posted by krisak at 12:44 PM on July 14, 2008

I don´t know anything about portable air conditioners or about how you would use one in your car. I´ve never seen a portable air conditioner. A link to this portable a/c of which you speak might be nice, as it might actually be something else.

I have seen portable swamp/evaporative coolers though. If you put water or ice inside of it, it´s not an a/c unit, it´s a swamp cooler. I have a car model that I built. It´s certainly possible to have one in your car, and it would be reasonable to expect that it would keep your car about 15 degrees cooler than it otherwise would be (which may still be hotter than the outside air), provided that you have a light colored car with tinted windows and are in an area with low humidity.

A swamp/evaporative cooler needs to have a way for humid air to escape if it´s going to result in anything other than making you feel like you are in a hot, muggy swamp. Home models achieve this by relying on the user to open several windows in the house and drawing outside air through the unit. In your car, you will need to have a window open or all the vents on in your car on.

Instead of a portable swamp cooler, you can achieve a similar cooling effect by spritzing yourself with water continuously, or with a ¨Misty Mate¨ that you fill with water and pressurize with the built-in hand pump, which then sprays a continuous mist of water. Protect personal items in your car from getting wet and take care that water doesn´t spray in the driver´s face.

These methods have helped keep me cool in places with 126 degree temperatures. I live where it regularly gets over 100 degrees. I doubt it gets that hot where you live even when you ¨suffer¨. You are going to the desert, it´s hot there, and you can die. If you are ¨suffering¨ with the heat in Canada you will at best be suffering far far more than you are used with the sorts of cooling setups I have described.

I don´t think you would have asked this question if you are familiar with desert travel. I think you will be a lot happier and have a much better trip if you rent a car with a/c and carry several gallons of water each with you in case of emergency. Bring sunscreen and hats too.
posted by yohko at 1:22 PM on July 14, 2008

Okay - now I'm really scared. I've often driven through the Okanagan in the 38C heat and survived but now I'm freaked out. "Dangerous and could die..." I know that my parents took us to Disneyland through Nevada with no AC in the 1970's... We're going for 3 weeks so renting a car would certainly inflate the budget substantially... But I don't want anyone to get hurt or die.

Our car is a small 2002 Toyota Echo which is in the shop getting tuned up - so there's no chance that it will break down and we're travelling in a little convoy with my brother in his van that has AC.

I guess I have to seriously rethink this.
posted by Toto_tot at 2:46 PM on July 14, 2008

Nobody is going to get hurt or die unless you act like total morons.
  1. Drink lots and lots of water.
  2. Know the symptoms and first-aid treatments for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
  3. Use sunscreen.
  4. Don't be an idiot.
If you can do those four things, you'll survive unscathed. The only problem is that you'll be very hot and often uncomfortable.

Remember, there's nothing wrong with driving in your underwear if it feels cooler. Don't forget the sunscreen.
posted by terpia at 3:45 PM on July 14, 2008

For what it's worth I often drive in mid-summer with no AC. Partly because it saves fuel, partly because my truck's AC is kind of weak, and partly because I just like to pretend I've acclimated. Terpia is correct - you're not likely to die unless you really try. Keep in mind that this area was populated prior to the invention of air conditioning.

Of course, try to keep out of Death Valley and the Las Vegas valley - those are about the two hottest places. DV because it's DV. LV because everything is paved and there's no way to rid the city of waste heat.

Since you say desert, I'll assume you're talking about the southern portions? You can always go around if you don't mind taking a bit more time. The Owen's River Valley (395) may be cooler this time of year.

Regardless, with no AC in the southern parts of the state, expect to sweat a lot. Drink lots and make sure you have enough salt. It's not going to be comfortable unless you really like heat, but you'll make it just fine.

If you're cruising through the high desert areas (Reno, etc), the heat really isn't that bad. They freak out when it gets to 100F there.

Just watch out for monsoon season (right now, and in August also sometimes). That's when it gets humid and you start feeling like you're in Florida. If you do make it down to the LV valley, e-mail me and I'll buy you a couple bags of ice.
posted by krisak at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2008

Well I didn´t know you would have another vehicle with a/c along. A few times I have gotten quite sick from the heat and it can be bad if there is no where you can cool off, but you will have the option of switching people into the van if anyone is having trouble. I think it will work out ok.
posted by yohko at 4:37 PM on July 14, 2008

I'm surprised that nobody has brought this up yet:

Since you were obviously willing to consider investing a certain amount of money anyway, have you considered getting your windows tinted?
I live in Oklahoma, and it really seems to help keep my car cool in the summer (especially since it's usually parked outside in the sun).
It would also help prevent sunburn.

You could probably get it done for less that $100.
And i think i've seen some removable/reusable DIY products before, which would probably be a lot cheaper. If you get something that's easily removed, then it doesnt matter if you do a poor job installing it (and you would probably want to remove it anyway, since you live in Canada)
posted by itheearl at 5:13 PM on July 14, 2008

Thanks everyone. Today I have learned how A/C works and about Nevada!
posted by Toto_tot at 5:14 PM on July 14, 2008

something like this:
posted by itheearl at 5:19 PM on July 14, 2008

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