Although thousands of homes and families across the US have central air conditioning that doesn’t require a room-specific cooling unit, thousands more do not – and that’s where portable air conditioner units come into play.
They may not be as efficient or effective as window AC units. Still, for those rooms where window units simply aren’t an option – whether it’s due to limited window types, lack of space, HOA rules, or other restrictions – portable units are often better than nothing at all. At the very least, they can circulate air, take away some damage-causing moisture and humidity in a room, and make it feel more comfortable.
That said, there is a spectrum of quality and performance when it comes to portable units that make one thing clear: you get what you pay for. And when you’re dealing with small appliances like this, it’s often worth taking the time and effort upfront to make sure you’re getting something ideal for you and the room you wish to cool.
In the rest of this article, we’ll cover the various types and styles on the market, review some basics of portable AC units, and teach you how to choose one based on your needs. This includes focusing on what to look for in specific types of units, like finding ones that are small enough for limited space or quiet enough for a nursery. Whatever your needs may be, you’ll be able to find the unit that’s right for you in this guide to portable ACs.
How Do Portable AC Units Work?
With window AC units, the unit pumps in cool air and takes out warm air that is then distributed outside. Because the main unit is outside, the unit’s components and processes don’t affect the temperature of the room. Central AC Units are also efficient but work on a larger scale.
With portable units, however, everything is inside the room, including the unit and its functions. This means that as much as you can cool the room, it will be at least somewhat heated by the processes constantly going on within the air conditioner, which is in the room being cooled.
This may seem like a minor difference, but it’s enough to make window air conditioners significantly more efficient than portable ones. Still, if you have to use a portable unit, you should find one with a higher efficiency rating and above-average overall reviews. Several brands have a better reputation for manufacturing efficient units than others, and there are always new models coming out each year that may or may not be an improvement on the last.
One other thing to consider with these units is the idea of portability: although you can move them, you’re more likely to keep them in one place simply because most units in this category still weigh between 40 and 80 pounds. So while you can scoot the AC from room to room as needed, most units end up becoming somewhat stationary due to their size and the fact that they still need to be hooked up to a window to vent out warm air.
The US Department of Energy offers standards on portable AC equipment and parts, as well as definitions of what these portable units entail exactly. They also provide information on choosing a room air conditioner and why it’s best to find a unit that matches the size of your room.
Of course, you’ll also consider other elements, like the amount of direct sun your room gets, but in general, you’ll want to stick to a portable unit that’s rated to cool the relative size of your room. A unit that’s too small won’t cool the room quick enough, and a unit that’s too large will cool the room down before enough moisture is removed from the room, which means it can feel sticky and clammy – more humid – than a properly sized unit would allow.
Choosing the Right Sized Unit?
“Based on size alone, an air conditioner generally needs 20 Btu for each square foot of living space,” says the US Department of Energy.
“Other important factors to consider when selecting an air conditioner are room height, local climate, shading, and window size.”
Most units that we’ve reviewed rate anywhere from 5,000 BTUs to 14,000 BTUs or more. Generally speaking, those in the 8k to 12k BTU range are enough for most rooms, but smaller rooms may only need a 5k unit, and larger living rooms and such may require a 14,000 unit.
In most cases, we’ve found that you can get an efficient 8k to 12k unit that still cools the room effectively without wasting too much energy, though again, this ranges from model to model.
The Smallest Portable Air Conditioners
Because portable units are inside the space they cool, many users like to focus on finding the smallest possible units – that still work well. You can get a small AC that doesn’t take up much room, but also doesn’t cool down the air as well as a larger unit.
In this case, then, it’s important to balance size and performance, and if you’re looking for the best, most effective small units, you’ll want to look at the size of your room and how much cooling power you really need.
We review some of the top small portable air conditioners and recommend models based on your needs and the size of your rooms being cooled.
Our Favorite Small Portable AC
If small is what you’re after for your portable air conditioning needs, the Honeywell MO08CESWK is the unit to keep your eye on. This portable AC is a compact 3-in-1 unit ideal for rooms between 250 and 350 square feet. The feature that makes it the best small portable AC is probably its built-in dehumidifier, which works to remove up to 44 pints of moisture per day while simultaneously keeping you cool and comfortable.
Even with a relatively low 8000 Btu rating, the Honeywell is reliable and strong – as long as you don’t overdo it by using it in more than 350 square feet. There are other small options worth considering, though, like the BPACT08WT by Black + Decker and the EdgeStar Ultra Compact unit if you’re especially limited on space.
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The Quietest Portable Air Conditioners
Aside from space, one of the most important considerations people make when buying a portable unit is the sound level.
Although nearly all appliances give off some level of sound because of their components and processes, with portable air conditioners, there’s a decent enough range of sound levels. Measured in decibels – these ratings help find a quiet unit if you’re a light sleeper or if the unit will be used in an office or nursery where you’ll want to keep noise to a minimum.
We review some of the best options for quiet portable air conditioners and recommend those based on the decibel level, cooling performance, and other factors.
Our Favourite Quiet Portable AC
Keeping noise output and decibel ratings in mind, the best quiet portable AC unit in our experience is the Haier HPC12XCR. The Haier unit is a 12000 Btu unit, but from the sounds of it, you’d think it was more like 8K Btus. Either way, you can count on the HPC12XCR to keep you and your 450-square-foot room cool while not exceeding 50 decibels.
Another good option for quiet portable units is the SereneLife SLPAC8, especially if you’re not needing a higher 12K Btu rating and could benefit from 10000 Btus instead. Then there’s the Honeywell HL09CESWK, another 10000 Btu portable AC that’s both stylish and effective.
Car or Truck Portable Air Conditioners
It’s normal to assume that staying cool in the home is the top priority for consumers, but some of us spend just as much time in our vehicles as we do in our living rooms. Even if your commute to and from work is a short one, there’s no need to go without cooling comfort, especially thanks to portable ACs that are meant specifically for use in a vehicle.
The best portable AC units for cars and trucks can either help to supplement your vehicle’s current AC system, or it can substitute it all together. Believe it or not, some vehicles these days still don’t have functioning air conditioning, but all is not lost if that’s the case.
Buying a portable car/truck unit that’s compatible with a 12-volt vehicle power supply or an AC adapter and can cool an area of up to 200 square feet should do the trick. Some portable car ACs even have a rechargeable battery system, so you don’t need a power supply at all to stay cool while you drive.
Our Favorite Car/Truck AC
When it comes to cooling your vehicle, the best of the best is the MightyKool K2, followed closely by the Zero Breeze Mark 2 and then the Arctic Cove MBF0181. The reason we like the MightyKool K2 the best is because the company’s selling point is simple. This product is meant solely for the purpose of cooling people or pets in campers, sleepers, boats, tents, or vehicles for both comfort and safety purposes.
The K2 isn’t overly powerful, so if you’re willing to spend more, the next option would be the Mark 2. It can cool down a space by up to 30 degrees, which is about twice as much as the K2’s cooling performance.
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Battery Powered Air Conditioners for Camping
It’s normal to assume that in order to stay cool while camping, you need to have immediate access to a power supply. Thanks to battery-powered portable ACs that run on precharged power, that’s not the case. Whether you’re staying in a tent, camper van, or RV, investing in a portable AC for camping will let you enjoy the great outdoors, even in extreme heat.
Using portable units powered by battery means that there’s no need to drain your vehicle’s battery or bring along a generator for your next camping excursion. Out of all the different cooling options for camping – like tent-friendly window units or spot coolers – portable ACs that run on 12V batteries are the easiest to set up and the best for small tents and personal use. The only thing to keep in mind is that they usually need to be filled with ice or water to operate, and the max cooling area is around 200 square feet.
Our Favorite AC for Tents
We already mentioned the Zero Breeze Mark 2 as a great choice for cooling your vehicle, but it’s also the best option for keeping your campsite cool. Its portable design is small enough to tuck nicely in the corner of your tent or camper van, and you’ve got the option to run it on an AC adapter or battery.
On a fully-charged battery pack, the Mark 2 can run nonstop for 6 hours, but the best part of all is that it can easily handle space of up to 200 square feet. You’ll notice it’s most efficient in an area of 50-60 square feet, but if you’ve got a larger space, no sweat (literally).
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Portable Air Conditioners for a Garage
While some people never step foot in their garage, others use the garage space for extra storage, as a workshop, or even as a man cave to get in some much-need quiet time. However you choose to use your garage, keeping it cool is best done with a portable AC.
Unfortunately, it’s common for garages to overheat due to poor insulation, radiant heat, insufficient ventilation, and lighting that has high heat output.
Since many garages have their windows on the front side of the house, a bulky window unit is usually out of the question. Portable ACs for the garage are a better choice since you won’t have to worry about the eyesore window unit taking away from your home’s aesthetics.
To find the right unit for your garage, the first thing to think about is size vs. space. Garages come in all shapes and sizes, so you’ll want to keep that BTU rating in mind in order to choose a unit with sufficient cooling power. To give you a better idea of sizing, a 14000 Btu unit can handle between 550 and 700 square feet, which should be plenty considering the average garage space is between 160 and 380 square feet.
Our Favorite Garage AC
If you’re interested in a portable unit for the garage instead of a less convenient wall-mounted or window-mounted unit, go with the hOmelabs Portable AC. This 14000 Btu unit is suitable for garages big and small and just requires a 115v power source to operate. It has a removable washable filter, so you’re not left buying new filters every month.
Setting up the hOmelabs unit takes about 10 minutes since you’ll have to install the included exhaust hose for venting purposes. Still, once it’s up and running, you’ll wonder why you never thought to add a portable AC to your garage before.
Dual Hose Portable Air Conditioners
Portable dual hose ACs aren’t as convenient to set up since you’ll be dealing with 2 hoses, but they do offer a major advantage over the alternative single-hose configuration. With the dual hose design, one hose is solely for exhausting hot air from the room while the other is the intake hose. This makes it more efficient at cooling since there’s no mingling of exhaust and intake air.
With a dual-hose unit, another benefit is that there’s much less risk of overworking the motor or compressor. On top of that, the cooling time is slashed down since the air entering the room is already colder, meaning it doesn’t take as long to cool the room to the desired temperature.
It’s easy to assume that setting up a unit with 2 hoses instead of 1 will be a lot more intricate, but it usually only takes a few minutes more, and most manufacturers include all the extra pieces you’ll need. Just be aware that dual systems are more money on average than single-hose units. However, that’s quickly made up for considering the level of performance and the higher efficiency (which will actually save you on cost in the long run).
Our Favorite Dual Hose AC
There are a few extra things to think about when buying a dual-hose portable unit, like installation requirements and ease of setup. With those considerations in mind, as well as price, performance, and overall look, the top pick for the best dual hose AC is the Whynter ARC-14S. This model runs on 14000 Btus and has an impressive airflow efficiency rating of 253 CFM.
Best of all, the ARC-14S features an energy efficiency rating of 11.3, which means it doesn’t cost much to operate. So don’t let the price tag scare you off; you’re bound to save overtime on energy bills when you compare this to the standard 9 or 10 EER of single-hose units.
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Portable Air Conditioners with Heat
While you might feel inclined to purchase separate units for your heating and cooling needs, there’s no need. Thanks to the best portable AC and heater combos, you can stay comfortable whether it’s blazing hot or blizzardy cold outside. Whether hot or cold, there’s no question on how you’ll be able to maintain the optimal room temp with a cooling and heating combo.
Aside from the convenience, there are many benefits to choosing a portable AC with heating functionality, like cost savings from not needing to make 2 separate investments and the ability to use the unit as needed, where needed. Because they offer dual functionality, the price of these units tends to be higher, although these units are definitely worth it considering you won’t have to purchase an additional space heater.
Since the heating feature requires more power, some of these units require a dedicated circuit. You always want to make sure to look at the power requirements closely before buying a cooling-heating portable AC, as well as the other normal things like BTUs, coverage area, price, and warranty.
Our Favorite AC & Heater Combo
The SereneLife 10,000 Portable AC + 9000 BTU Heater is the perfect example of an AC heater combo that’s worth every penny. It’s been reviewed and rated to handle rooms up to 350 square feet, but many reviewers claim that it works efficiently in as much as 500 square feet.
Switching between hot and cold is easy with the SereneLife unit, so even if you leave the AC on for a little bit too long and just need a quick blast of heat, just use the remote and control panel to find your temperature sweet spot.
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Ventless Portable Air Conditioners
An AC that’s described as “non-vented” is one that has no messy hoses required for cooling. Instead of a venting system, they use the power of ice and water to cool things down and work by pulling in ambient air through the back or bottom of the unit. Once the pressure is built with that air, the unit then draws the air over a tray of cold water or ice and expels it through the top or front, leaving the room cooler than when it started.
This type of portable AC operates similarly to a fan, but thanks to the addition of cold water/ice, it takes cooling to another level that a traditional fan can’t reach. The other nice thing about a ventless unit is that you don’t have to worry about exhausting anything to the outside since it’s not drawing heat from the air.
Ventless AC units aren’t for everyone, but they are a great portable supplemental cooling solution to help drop a small space’s temperature by a few degrees. However, if you’ve got some extreme cooling to do, you’ll probably want to stick with a more powerful vented unit instead.
Our Favourite Ventless AC
The Honeywell 525 is the top ventless AC worth considering, and not just because it hails from the reputable Honeywell brand. Not only is the 525 compact and portable, but it’s also pretty powerful compared to most ventless models on the market. It’s got an airflow rating between 525 and 729 CFM and a cooling area of 320 square feet.
If you’re looking for a ventless portable unit for a smaller room, the Briza Air Cooler is another one worth considering. This model is more appropriate for rooms up to 100 square feet, and a smaller coverage area also means less power consumption than the Honeywell 525.
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Windowless Portable Air Conditioners
The best windowless AC units are the ideal solution if you’re trying to cool a windowless room or you just aren’t sold on the idea of a window unit or other type of difficult-to-install AC for one reason or another.
This type of AC generally works to cool the surrounding air by drawing it in, using an internal compressor to cool it, and then pushing it back out with the help of a fan. Mini-splits are another type of windowless AC to consider, but the portable type is much more convenient when it comes to installation and ease of use, not to mention allows you to move it around the home with ease.
The only drawback worth mentioning about windowless air conditioning is that it’s lower on efficiency, mainly because it’s completely self-contained. On top of that, they take longer on average to cool a room than window units, so they’re not the best option for large spaces or extreme heat.
Our Favorite AC for Windowless Rooms
If you’ve decided that a windowless AC is right for you, the best portable choice is the Black + Decker BPACT08WT. It’s small with a low 5000 BTU rating (8000 according to the older standards), but don’t let that fool you.
Even with its compact design, the BPACT08WT can quickly cool down a 250-square-foot room, and the bucketless drain system means that you never have to worry about manually emptying the dehumidified water again (that’s right, it also serves as a mini dehumidifier).
A second solid option for larger windowless rooms is the unit from hOmelabs. This portable AC has a much higher 14K BTU, so it’s more ideal for rooms between 450 and 600 square feet.
However, because of the higher Btu, the energy consumption is also higher, so you can expect to see spikes in energy bills with continued use.
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Other Rooms Where Portability Is Needed
So far, we’ve covered many different environments that can benefit from a portable unit – garage, tent, small room, car, truck – but the need for a small compact AC isn’t limited to these spaces.
The portable feature means that this AC type is ultra-versatile and can be used in just about any small to medium-sized space, all without undergoing a lengthy installation process.
To give you a better idea of where portability can really make a difference in your air conditioning needs, here are a few more rooms that can benefit from a portable unit:
- Outdoor Dog House:
A dog house AC ensures that your pet stays safe and comfortable, even throughout the hot summer months.
- Grow Room:
A portable grow room air conditioner is a necessary investment for any indoor gardener who wants their plants to thrive. Not only can a portable AC help a grow room to stay at the ideal temperature, but it also keeps humidity levels in check.
- Dorm Room:
A lot of universities don’t put as much money as they should into student living, and that could mean that your dorm room’s AC system isn’t up to snuff (if you even have one at all). A portable air conditioner for the dorm room is the key to staying cool while in school.
- Server Room:
Any computer equipment is prone to overheating, including servers. That overheating can cause irreversible damage, disrupting business operation as well as day-to-day computer needs, but the good news is that an AC for a server room can help prevent that from happening.
Popular Brands of Portable Room ACs
Brand reputation says a lot about a portable unit, so it goes without saying that you shouldn’t make your purchase on a whim from a company that you’ve never heard of. Even when you cut the under-the-radar brands out of the equation, there are still many reputable names to consider, like:
All of these brands have made a name for themselves over the years, and they all produce portable units worth considering. You can check out each brand’s reputation and range of products in our in-depth portable AC brand reviews listed above.
As you can see from all the different cooling applications covered here, portable ACs are extremely versatile. It doesn’t matter if you need to cool down your living room, bedroom, garage, camping tent, dog house, dorm room, grow room, or car. Opting for a portable cooling solution has a lot of benefits.
To help make the right choice, you’ll need to consider factors like the unit’s BTU rating, coverage area, installation process, EER, and performance features, and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect portable AC.
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