Portable Air Conditioner Vs. Air Cooler – When Each is Best

There are quite a few ways you can make the air around you cooler and more comfortable. There are many types of air conditioners and even air coolers for you to choose from. But which one is better? Which one will work the best for you?

Portable air conditioners and air coolers work to accomplish the same thing. However, they work best in different areas and climates. Portable air conditioners work best in areas with high humidity. At the same time, air coolers work in areas where the weather is much drier. The overall effectiveness of each of these devices depends on how humid it is where you live.

As you continue to read this article, you will find out all of the information about portable air conditioners and air coolers, including how they work, where they work best, and which one is better for you.

How Do Portable Air Conditioners Work?

Portable air conditioners work precisely as the central cooling system you have attached to your home, just much more compact. They work by sucking in hot air from the room around them.

The hot air is then moved around inside the AC unit through the condenser, cooling the air. The cooled air is then pushed back into the room, and any excess hot air and moisture are then pushed out of ventilation hoses that you connect to a window. 

The primary purpose of a portable air conditioner is to suck in hot air from a room, cool what it can, and expel the rest outside. This process mainly works because of 3 main components. Those components being; a compressor, some refrigerant, and a few fans.

The fans work first to draw in the hot and humid air into the AC unit from inside the room where it is placed. The hot air is then cycled through the compressor, which uses some coils and the refrigerant to cool down the air that touches the coils by condensing the water vapor in the air.

The coils allow the machine to dehumidify some of the air; the excess water is then collected and is removed in one of 2 ways.

  1. A drip tray needs to be emptied or
  2. Through a self-evaporation system that vents the water vapor outside.

Most portable air conditioners come with a ventilation tube or two that will need to be connected to a window to expel excess hot air that it produces.

While portable air conditioners can indeed work without proper ventilation, this will reduce their cooling effectiveness. The extra hot air is released around the device, making it more difficult to suck in hot air with sufficient water vapor.

Cleaning A Portable Air Conditioner

This entire process hinges on the compressor and the refrigerant. If the coils the refrigerant is pushed through get too dirty, it drastically reduces the effectiveness of the cooling process. Dirty coils have another effect on your portable air conditioner.

It causes the compressor to work harder, leading to overheating and eventually cause it to stop working entirely. That being said, cleaning your portable air conditioner after about every month of being used is key to keeping it working well.

  • Step 1: Furthermore, the air filter inside of your portable air conditioner will need to be cleaned every two weeks of use. The process is relatively simple, though.

    Remove the air filter and wash it with warm water and some dish detergent to clean it of dirt, dust, and debris. Then let it sit to dry out completely before putting it back into the unit. 
  • Step 2: You will also need to wipe down and clean the air vents on your portable air conditioner. Just take a damp washcloth and wipe down the vents, cleaning them from dirt and dust buildup.
  • Step 3: Along with this, if you do not have a self evaporating system, you will need to drain the drip pan where the condensed water vapor collects. You will typically do this once a week. However, be sure to check the drip pan every day to be safe.

How Do Portable Air Coolers Work?

Air coolers work to achieve the same outcome as air conditioners, cool down a room, and make it more comfortable. However, the process in which it works to achieve that outcome is vastly different.

Air conditioners work to remove water from the air by cooling the air and turning the gaseous water vapor into liquid water, and air coolers work to push air through water to cool it drastically.

Air coolers work because of a few main components: a few fans, padding, and water. Fans suck in hot air from the room you placed it in; that hot air is then pushed through some padding soaked in water.

As the air passes through this water-soaked padding, it is drastically cooled up to 20 degrees. This process is very similar to jumping into a pool or splashing water onto yourself on a hot day. 

Cleaning A Portable Air Cooler

Air coolers require just as much maintenance as air conditioners to work correctly. The cleaning process of air coolers requires you to empty, clean, and refill the water storage compartment at the bottom of the air cooler with cold tap water every week. This is because the entire cooling process is based on the use of water to cool the air. 

Furthermore, after every month of use, the air cooler should go through a complete cleaning process.

  • Step 1: Run a cleaning cycle with a cleaning tablet in the water tank. This will help clean the tubes that transfer the water from the tank to the padding of gunk and mineral buildup.
  • Step 2: Then, you will need to check the pad itself for any damages or excess debris. If the padding is damaged, it will need to be replaced. If the padding is very dirty, it will also need to be replaced.

    However, if the padding is not too dirty, you can wipe away some of the dirt and debris on the padding, and you can reuse it for a bit longer.
  • Step 3: Refill the tank with cold tap water, and you are good to go.
  • Step 4: When it comes time to store your air cooler, you will need to rerun the previous cleaning step. However, do not refill the tank with water; instead, clean the tank to rid it of mineral buildup and debris.
  • Step 5: Lastly, you will need to replace the padding after the cleaning cycle is finished and run your air cooler on fan mode to dry out the device’s interior before you finally store it.

Portable Air Conditioner Vs. Portable Air Cooler

Because each of these devices works in different ways with water, they must be used in areas with completely different climates to work effectively. 


Air conditioners work to cool the air, so they suck it mainly by cooling down the water vapor into liquid water. Therefore, these are best used in areas with high humidity.

Whereas air coolers work to cycle hot air through water, this essentially adds moisture to the atmosphere. That being said, air coolers work best in areas with much drier climates. 

The humidity in the air where you live is critical in determining which cooling systems you should go with. For instance, air coolers work best in areas with a humidity level that is lower than roughly 20%, any more than that, and the air will not be able to absorb as much water and will not be able to be cooled as much as it can be. 

On the flip side, air conditioners work best in areas with higher humidity levels over 20%. The more water vapor in the air touches the coils with the compressed refrigerant; the more water is produced from the steam. Essentially the more water vapor in the air, the better and faster an air conditioning unit can work to cool down a room.

Electricity Usage

Something else to keep in mind is that the amount of electricity needed is different for each process because of their other cooling methods. Air conditioners of any kind will generally use much more electricity. 

Electric AC units use more energy because the compressor is needed to compress the refrigerant to cool down the air. Air coolers essentially only need electricity to power a fan or two and a pump to transfer water. This process uses vastly less electricity than air conditioners to achieve the same outcome.


When it comes to ventilation, air coolers do not require any at all. They only need sufficient room to suck in hot air. In contrast, portable air conditioners are almost required to be connected to a window via their ventilation hoses. The hose will limit the areas you can use your portable air conditioner compared to a portable air cooler.

Comparison In Price

Price is another factor you should consider. Portable air conditioners can typically cost anywhere between $200 and $700. Portable air coolers will typically cost much less, around $50 to $150. 

Portable air conditioners cost more, primarily because of the much more complicated parts that go into making them, like the compressor. 

Environmental Safety

Both portable air conditioners and air coolers have different effects on the environment as well. Because air coolers suck in and process the air entirely within the room you placed it in, they are much more eco-friendly than air conditioners. 

Air conditioners use CFCs (or chlorofluorocarbons) made of chlorine fluorine and carbon. This is what is referred to as refrigerant. This chemical is harmful to the environment due to it being slowly released into the atmosphere.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to cooling your home to comfortable levels, look no further than a portable air conditioner or a portable air cooler. Depending on where you live, and its humidity levels will determine which you want to use. Are humidity levels above 20%?

You are better off using an AC unit. Are humidity levels below 20%? Use an air cooler. If you happen to live in an area that is constantly around 20% humidity, you can go with either of these two options.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.
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