How Do Portable Air Conditioners Work?

by Véronique Raymond
portable air conditioner

Portable air conditioners are an excellent alternative to standard HVAC systems.

They can easily alleviate the discomfort of hot air in the home and they can also help dehumidify the air as well.

Most portable models are window air conditioners, but there are some that can be placed elsewhere in a home without the need to vent to the outside.

Different portable air conditioner types will have different levels of energy efficiency, different price points, and various methods of operation.

Let’s explore how these machines work, what benefits they bring the home, and what features to look for to guarantee successful cooling of warm air.


Benefits of A Portable AC Unit

Hot and humid air is one of the main discomforts you can experience in your home. Since humidity is something that can negatively affect the air quality of the indoor air, you may decide that a portable air conditioner is a better alternative to a standard dehumidifier.

Portable air conditioners are incredibly easy to set up and maintain, and since many models can be moved from room to room, you’ll be able to quickly cool down the area you’re in instead of waiting for the temperature of the entire house to slowly go down. Since portable air conditioners don’t need a permanent setup, you are also able to take them with you when you move; this is especially important if your new home or apartment does not have air conditioning installed already.

One of the most noteworthy benefits of a portable AC unit is the reduction in energy usage and costs. Since they are such compact machines, they don’t require much energy to cool a room down, and you don’t have to cool your entire house simultaneously either. If you’re on a budget, a portable air conditioner is a great way to save some money in the warmer months of the year.


Types of Portable Air Conditioners and How They Work

portable air conditioner

Portable types of air conditioners are more versatile than standard units built into a central air conditioning system. These portable air conditioners come in two main types, and since they are self-contained units, you can set them up almost anywhere with venting capability. Both single hose and dual hose units are refrigerant type machines, meaning they need an exhaust hose in order to vent the hot air and moisture produced during the refrigeration process. The exhaust hose can be placed through an open window or more firmly installed with a window kit. Let’s take a look at the differences and similarities between single and dual hose portable air conditioners.

Single Hose Portable Air Conditioner

Single hose portable air conditioners are the ideal for smaller spaces. They are usually more affordable and easier to store than dual hose models, but they won’t be quite as effective or efficient. They draw air from the room into the machine to cool it down via refrigeration and then send the cooler, drier air back into the room. Since the machine is constantly pulling warm, moist air from the room, negative pressure is created in the home. Warm air from outside will therefore enter the home through cracks around windows and doors, requiring the machine to work harder to constantly battle the new entry of hot air into the home. Since this process isn’t very efficient, single hose models will become less and less effective as the room size increases.

Dual Hose Portable Air Conditioner

Dual hose units are much more effective at creating and maintaining a home full of cool air. They function very similarly to single hose units in that they pull room air into the machine, cool it down via refrigeration, send it back into the room, and expel the heat and moisture to the outdoors via an exhaust hose. The second hose in this design is used to pull air into the machine from the outside to help cool down the compressor and condenser coils. This keeps the machine cooler and more capable of managing a hot and/or humid home. These models will be more expensive, but they can also handle larger room sizes and more humidity in the air.

Mini Split Portable Air Conditioner

Mini split portable air conditioners are dual-purpose machines that can perform both heating and cooling functions depending on the season. They are very popular additions to apartment suites and garages that are used as work sites all year round. Most of them can be installed in a few simple steps into a wall near the ceiling, similar to dryer vent installation. There are also some models that can be installed in the floor or lower on a wall. They have both heat pumps and refrigeration coils to ensure you can achieve the ideal temperature in large or small rooms without needing two separate machines or a more expensive, complex install. These will be much more expensive machines than even the best standard portable air conditioners on the market, but will be worth it for the dual functionality.


How The Refrigeration Process Works

portable air conditioner

Portable ACs work via a process called refrigeration, and as the name suggests, this is the same process that keeps the air cold in your refrigerator.

A fan is used to pull warm air into the machine from the surrounding room. The air is then cooled by condenser coils containing refrigerant; a lot of the water vapor in the air is collected at this stage. the refrigerant is constantly compressed by the compressor in order to ensure that the coils are capable of cooling the air enough to be effective. The heat that is collected from the air and the heat produced by the mechanisms of the AC are expelled through an exhaust hose to prevent the machine from overheating and becoming ineffective.

The water that is collected as condensation also needs to be removed from the machine, and this can happen in one of three ways.

  1. Self-Evaporation. This is the most effective and popular way to get rid of condensed water vapor; it will be evaporated by evaporator coils and send out the exhaust vent with the exhaust air accumulated during the refrigeration process. This provides the machine with an unlimited run time and therefore cooling capacity without needing any input from a human.
  2. Gravity Drain. A gravity drain system uses a drain hose to constantly expel water that is condensed out of the air. This is another process that doesn’t require any input from a human, but it will take a bit more effort to setup and you’ll need to monitor the connection site and hose condition to ensure that everything is functioning safely.
  3. Water Reservoir. The final option for water removal, and least appealing for most homeowners, is a water reservoir tank built into the portable air conditioning unit. The water will collect in this tank as it condenses, and you’ll have to empty it on a regular basis.


Features Of The Best Portable Air Conditioners

portable air conditioner

High BTU Rating

Portable air conditioners with a high BTU rating will be capable of higher levels of airflow than lower BTU models. This will be a great thing if you are trying to cool a larger space since it can output more cold air in a shorter amount of time. However, it is important you match the BTU to the room size, otherwise it won’t be able to dehumidify the space properly and you’ll end up wasting energy.

Versatile Install Options

If you plan on taking your portable AC unit with you to different rooms or even different homes as needed, you’ll want to ensure it has versatile install options. Some models can only go in certain types of windows, but others will be compatible with sliding windows or even the glass door at the back of the house. Window units are the most common and usually the least obtrusive, but if you don’t ever use your back door, that may be the option you prefer.

Low Decibel Operation

There is nothing worse than a noisy machine in your home that needs to run constantly, so it is a good idea to check out the decibel rating of the portable AC you have your eye on. Most models will have a rating between 40 and 60 decibels, and this is the ideal range to avoid an overly-loud machine or a machine quiet enough to both you with the compressor noise.

Built In Thermostat

Most types of portable air conditioners, window AC units and others, will have a thermostat built in to help regulate the temperature in a space without your input. This gives you the freedom to ignore the machine with the confidence that it can do its job properly at all times. The convenience is worth any extra money you’ll have to pay, but it is a fairly common feature that shouldn’t affect the price point too much.


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