A portable air cooler is a great option for beating the summer heat. It’s a great fit to use at home or in the office. You can create a more comfortable space to work or sleep in, and you don’t depend on your landlord or neighbors allowing you to install bulky equipment. But which device should you choose when there are so many on the market?
In this guide, we cover all the different types of portable coolers, their pros and cons, and what you should consider before buying. Let’s find out which one is the best portable air cooler for you.
AC units account for almost a quarter of electricity consumption in buildings worldwide. Whether you are looking to cut monthly expenses or you want something more mobile, forgoing traditional AC appliances might be a good option. But, there are other reasons to search for portable alternatives:
- They are exactly that — portable. You can carry them around, put in whichever room needs cooling, take with you in a car, and some models you can even take on a picnic or camping.
- You need something that doesn’t require installation — a product that is standalone or hand-held or maybe even has wheels, so you don't need to make holes in walls with screws.
- You are looking for something less expensive than a wall-mounted AC unit — you can buy a good portable cooler for $100 to $200 and have it last for a long time.
- Your landlord may not want to install central or a wall-mounted AC — let's face it, a lot of us are renting and bound by a contract, so installing an AC might be out of the question.
- Personal air cooling is more cost-efficient — if you have a small room or a big house with lots of rooms, half of which you don't use, or your summers are too short to invest in an AC.
- You are trying to be more eco-friendly — a lot of AC alternatives consume less energy and thus are less harmful to the environment.
There are three major categories of portable air coolers: electric fans, portable air conditioners, and evaporative air coolers. Let’s get into details about each type so you can pick the best one for you.
All fans create a breeze by moving the air in the vicinity of the device. They don’t exactly reduce the air temperature of the room, but they can help cool down your skin if the air temperature isn't too high. If it's very hot, a fan will just blow hot air.
There are a few types of portable electric fans: stand or pedestal, box, desktop, and tower fans. There are also mini ones that work on batteries or connect to your phone, but they rarely have any effect at all.
- Wind modes. Fans forcibly create a breeze, and its intensity will depend on the speed setting. Most fan models have three of them.
- Oscillation. Some fans have a button that makes the head of the device oscillate — regularly move from side to side so the air blows in different directions. Box fans can’t have that feature due to design.
- Ionization. A few fan models have ionizers that create negatively charged particles. Once they are discharged into the air, they bind with positive particles like pollen, dust, or smoke and make a denser molecule that doesn’t float. This process can potentially purify the air.
- Timer. This feature sometimes comes with tower fans and lets you set a timer for when the fan should shut off. It is convenient if you turn a fan on and go to sleep.
Advantages of Electric Fans
You can find a compact one. Desktop fans are small, and box fans vary in size, but they are usually smaller in depth (e.g., 20.75x20x4.5 inches).
Good range of prices. The price depends on additional features, like a timer or ionizer, materials used, and the brand. If you’re not looking for anything fancy, you can find a good quality fan for cheap.
You can hack fans with some nifty tricks. For example, you can place a bowl of ice cubes or ice-cold water in front of the fan to make it blow cooler air. Just be careful with handling electric appliances.
Disadvantages of Electric Fans
Don’t actually cool the air. It’s the forced airflow that makes you feel a cooling sensation on the skin, but fans can’t lower the temperature in the room.
Fans can dry out the air. Blowing air makes moisture evaporate faster (ever used a hand dryer?) from your skin and from your surroundings.
They require frequent cleaning. Fan blades collect dust and other particles when the device is not in use, so when you turn it on everything flies back at you, which can be a problem if you have allergies or other respiratory problems. You need to clean it with a vacuum or by using soap and water from time to time.
They can be noisy. Fans produce a safe level of sound, yet it can get annoying if you use it for long periods of time. Even the lowest speed setting can affect your quality of sleep.
Durability can be an issue. Since a lot of the parts are made from plastic, cheap fans might not work for long due to the wear and tear on the equally cheap materials.
A portable air conditioner works a lot like its wall-mounted counterpart. It extracts the air from a room and uses a refrigerant to cool it down. The hot air extracted from the room is then exhausted to the outdoors via a hose.
There are single- and dual-hose portable AC units. Dual-hose devices take the air from the outside through one hose, cool it down in the apparatus, and exhaust the warm air back outside through another hose, which is better since you’re not overprocessing the air.
- Remote control. It’s handy to manipulate the device without interrupting your work or rest.
- Timer. You can set a timer for the device to shut off or to delay the start, and it's available on most models.
- Dehumidifier. Like all AC units, this type dries out the air, which can be beneficial if you live in an extremely humid climate or disadvantageous in a dry one.
- Thermostat. You can set a temperature that the device will upkeep while it’s working.
Advantages of Portable AC Units
Effective in cooling down a room. Portable AC units are meant to cool down a 12 to 50 m2 room. Thanks to a refrigerant, they can cool down the whole room and keep the temperature you set.
They can be moved from one room to another. The weight of a portable AC is around 60 pounds, and the size is around 17x31x16 inches on average, so it’s relatively easy to move one around the house.
Good for places with extremely high humidity. Along with hot air, these devices exhaust moisture from the air, so if you live in places that are hot and humid all the time, such AC can be a benefit.
Easier to clean than wall-mounted AC units. It’s recommended that you clean the filter twice a month with warm water and mild soap since it collects dust and other particles, and a dirty filter can also affect the quality of the air. With easy access to a device’s filter, it won't be a problem.
Disadvantages of Portable ACs
Portable air conditioners use a refrigerant to cool down the air. That’s why they have to be serviced by a professional, to make sure there are no leaks. Refrigerants are odorless, so you won’t be able to smell the gas, and it can cause poisoning if not contained inside a device.
They consume a lot of energy. A portable AC made to cool down up to 350 feet² consumes 290 Watts per hour. For comparison, evaporative coolers need 15 or more Watts per hour depending on the model.
Filters have to be cleaned quite often. Although it’s easy to clean the filters, you have to be meticulous about doing it every two weeks. Otherwise, they collect dust and other particles and affect the quality of air in the room. A filter should also be completely dry before you put it back or it'll grow mold inside.
They dehumidify the air. A pro in some places is a con in others. If you don’t have an issue with a humid climate, you will have one with dry air, which doesn’t sound like that big of a deal but can cause dehydration. In turn, this can cause eye or skin irritation, aggravate respiratory issues, and be overall bad for your health.
They are noisy. Portable AC units operate at a safe level of sound. They don’t go over 65 dB (a vacuum cleaner is 70 dB), but the constant humming can get annoying and affect the quality of your rest and sleep.
They need an outlet for an exhaust hose. Portable air conditioners come with a window frame panel with an outlet for the hose (as seen in picture 1). If you don’t have sliding windows, you’ll need an additional filler piece or window seal (picture 2).
The name is pretty self-explanatory, as this device cools the air by evaporating moisture. Also called swamp coolers, they have moisture pads that absorb the water from a water tank and a fan that draws the air into a cooler and passes it through the pads. Droplets of water evaporate from the pad and cause a drop in temperature, so the air that blows outside is much cooler.
Evaporative coolers can be grouped into personal, living space, and outdoor, based on the device size and size of the area they are meant to chill.
- Different cooling speeds — you can adjust the speed at which the cool air blows out.
- Air filtration — for removing dust, pollen, and other particles from the air that can cause allergies. Some models have a carbon filter that should help with odors.
- Remote control — allows you to change settings from a distance using a hand-held remote or in a mobile app via wifi.
- Timer — allows you to set times at which the cooler will turn on and off.
Advantages of Evaporative Coolers
Effective at reducing the temperature. Evaporating water with artificially made wind is an effective way of cooling down the air. You can test the same process by spraying yourself with water and fanning yourself — you’ll feel cooler while the water evaporates — only with an evaporative cooler you won’t have to go around wet all the time.
Energy-efficient. Swamp coolers use only a tenth of the energy traditional AC units work through, just enough to spin the fan that evaporates moisture from the pads, so you will be saving a good deal on energy bills.
Safe for you. They don’t use any potentially dangerous substances to cool the air.
Humidifies the air. The ideal humidity indoors is said to be between 30% and 50%. A swamp cooler will help you keep it in the healthy range. Hot weather will dry out the air and contribute to dehydration (symptoms: a constant feeling of thirst, itchy eyes, dry skin; dehydration will make you more susceptible to heatstroke) and aggravation of respiratory issues. Swamp coolers can help prevent that.
Easy to clean. It’s okay to clean the pads and water tank once a month with lukewarm water and mild soap. Any additional filters should also be cleaned regularly and replaced as advised by the manufacturer.
Don’t need tricks to work, unlike fans. You’ll find a lot of tips and tricks on the Internet for how to cool down with a fan when it's too hot. They include cold water, ice, and even wet sheets. An evaporative cooler doesn't need any of that.
Don’t need constant access to a window or extra accessories, unlike portable AC units. Evaporative coolers don’t need to be fitted to a window, so you can keep that window open to let the fresh air in — or close it to hide from the heat. They can be placed anywhere, especially if you've got one with a built-in battery.
Disadvantages of Evaporative Coolers
Not the best option for highly humid places. Swamp coolers contribute to the humidity, so if your space is constantly well over 50%, this option is not for you.
It might cost more than you expect. The best portable swamp cooler with all the aforementioned benefits may cost more than an electric fan or a portable AC. But considering they are safer for your health, more effective, and energy-efficient, they definitely pay off.
Here is a shortened version of the pros and cons given above to help you choose the best portable air cooler for you.
|Evaporative Cooler||Electric Fan||Portable AC|
|Pros||- Effective at reducing the temperature
- Humidifies the air
- Easy to clean
- Don’t need DIY tricks to work
|- Relatively compact
- Good range of prices
- Can work better with DIY tricks
|- Effective at cooling down a room
- Can be moved from one room to another
- Good for places with high humidity
- Easier to clean compared to wall-mounted units
|Cons||- Not the best option for humid places||- Dry out the air
- Require frequent cleaning
- Can be noisy
- Durability can be an issue
|- Use a refrigerant to cool down a room
- Consume a lot of energy
- Need frequent cleaning
- Dry out the air
- Need access to a window at all times
|Features||- Water tank
- Evaporative pads
- Water level sensor
- Color options
|- Wind modes
|- Remote control/wifi
Now you know all about the pros and cons of each type of portable air cooler, there might still be some grey areas about their use. So, let’s further separate the facts about air cooling from fiction.
1. You need to set a lower temperature on your AC to cool the room quicker.
What you’re actually setting is the desired temperature in the room, not the temperature of air that blows out. Setting a lower temperature certainly won’t make an AC unit work harder or faster; it will simply continue to work until it reaches the desired parameter.
2. Turning an AC off will save you money.
A device will have to work longer to cool your room down to a comfortable temperature, so you're not saving anything. A better option would be to use a programmable thermostat that will control your AC, setting it to different temperatures during the day and cooling the room gradually.
3. A bigger air conditioner will work better.
This is only true if you have a bigger room. You can find in a unit’s specifications what size of a room it can effectively cool down. For example, if a model is intended for up to 350 feet² and your room is 300 feet², it’s going to work just as well as a model intended for up to 550 feet². A bigger one will only cost more.
4. An AC just cools the air.
It also dehumidifies the air and contributes to spreading around dust and other particles if you don't clean the filters often enough.
5. Fans keep the room cool.
Fans only blow air, creating a wind-chill effect that can provide a cooling sensation. They need assistance to blow cool air, such as placing a bowl of ice cubes in front of or behind it.
As you can see, these myths come from not knowing how devices operate and their purpose. But now you do, so to dissolve any qualms you might have left about air coolers, let’s discuss what they are made of, in which conditions they are best to use, and other parameters.
We've covered the pros and cons of different portable coolers, but now it's time to choose the best device. So, here are the main parameters.
The climate of your area of residence
It's good if you have a hygrometer so you know exactly in what conditions you live. The recommended humidity level is 30% to 50%. Based on this data, if your living conditions are:
- Mostly dry (less than 30%) — you're better off with an evaporative cooler.
- Mostly humid (more than 50%) — a portable AC or fan might be a better option.
- Always changing but usually in the normal range — any type is good, but keep in mind that using a fan or AC when humidity is less than 30% is not recommended.
Size of the device
A lot of portable cooling device models are quite bulky. You'll have to be especially conscious of that if you live in a small apartment or your room is tiny. By size, we can categorize coolers into three types:
- Small, fits on a desktop — personal evaporative coolers (effective at cooling your body and personal space), small fans (less productive and blow air right into your face)
- Medium — swamp coolers, box fans
- Large — tower and stand fans, portable AC units
Size of the space that needs cooling down
This point also depends on how much your preferences coincide with other people in the room, aside from the actual size of the room. For example, if you're alone or a roommate has a different comfort level, it's probably only your personal space that requires cooling.
- Personal space (e.g., while sleeping, resting, or working, at a desk at home or work) — personal coolers
- Small room — personal coolers, evaporative (swamp) coolers, different types of portable electric fans
- Medium-sized living space — personal coolers, swamp coolers, different types of portable electric fans, portable AC units
Cooling devices and their parts are made from different materials, which affects both their durability and your health.
- Plastic. Plastics are a whole category of polymers commonly used in home and other appliances. It's impossible to say that a device's corpus is not good because it's made out of plastic, but if you choose a cheap one, you risk buying a less durable cooler made from equally cheap plastic that smells unpleasant and isn’t good for your health and the environment.
- ABS plastic. It's a thermoplastic polymer that is tougher and more impact-resistant than other polymers we collectively name “plastic.”
Some coolers can have additional filters installed to change the quality of air. These are mainly fiber and carbon filters.
- Fiber filters. The main part of an air filter is usually fiberglass, which is effective at trapping things like spores, dust, pollen, fur, bacteria, and particles from other materials like wood or metal (e.g., when there's construction nearby). There's a 16-level MERV rating for filter efficiency, 16 being the highest efficiency, so check if a device using fiber filters has this rating.
- Cellulose filters. These are made from organic fibers, and like the previous type, cellulose filters are supposed to trap particles from the air. As opposed to glass fibers, cellulose fibers are less uniform and predictable in size and thus less efficient, trapping fewer unwanted particles.
Both fiber and cellulose filters should be checked regularly and replaced when they get dirty, or they will affect the work of the device and can even cause health issues. You can soak them in a water and dish soap solution to extend use time.
- Carbon filters. Carbon, or activated charcoal, filters remove gases and odors from the air that passes through a device. Some websites suggest you clean a carbon filter by soaking it in hot water with dishwashing liquid and rinsing it off. Still, it needs to be replaced regularly.
- Patented materials. Some manufacturers create new materials or reinforce existing ones. For example, we use the patented evaBreeze material for filters in Evapolar air coolers based on mineral fibers for the pads (also referred to as filter or cartridge) since it provides a better surface for evaporation and doesn't build up bacteria.
Cooling device maintenance
Let's be real, any appliance requires proper maintenance to last for as long as possible. With some devices it is easier, with others — it's daunting.
- Easy — rinsing evaporative coolers with just water
- Medium — cleaning fan blades and filters in some models of swamp coolers and fans with soap and water
- Difficult — cleaning filters and calling up maintenance services to change the refrigerant in portable AC units
If we judge the effectiveness of air coolers by the drop in air temperature, let's take the air of your personal space as the measurement, as this a major criterion in your comfort.
- Low — different types of fans (don’t decrease the temperature)
- Medium — cheap evaporative coolers
- High — portable air conditioners and high-quality evaporative coolers
This number will depend on the type of device, particular model, size of space you want to cool, and other features, so check the description of the product you are considering buying to know exactly how much energy it consumes. In general, we can say it is:
- High for portable air conditioners
- Medium for tower fans and some models of box fans
- Low for evaporative coolers, stand or desktop fans, and some models of box fans
All air coolers have a number of features that might be essential for you, so it's good to keep an eye out when choosing a device.
Water level controller/indicator. This is specific to evaporative coolers and can alert you when the water tank is about to run out of water. It can be handy if you run the device for long periods of time without switching it off.
Remote control or wifi. AC units and some models of fans have a remote control as a separate device or pair up with your phone and can be controlled via a wifi connection.
Timer. Many air cooling devices have a timer so you can set the time at which it should automatically turn on or delay its start (e.g., switch on around the time you wake up).
Since there was a lot of info, as a way to sum it up, this table will show which devices are appropriate in certain situations:
|Personal evaporative cooler||Large evaporative cooler||Desktop fan||Tower fan||Single- or dual-hose portable AC|
|You want to cool down a small room.||✅||✅||✅||✅||✅|
|You want to cool down a large room.||❌||✅||❌||✅||✅|
|You want to cool down your personal space.||✅||❌||✅||❌||❌|
|You don’t agree on the ideal temperature with other people in the room (e.g., office).||✅||❌||✅||❌||❌|
|The air is too dry.||✅||✅||❌||❌||❌|
|The air is too humid.||❌||❌||✅||✅||✅|
|You have allergies.||✅||✅||❌||❌||❌|
|You want to rest well in a silent room.||✅||❌||❌||❌||❌|
|You are worried about chemical refrigerants.||✅||✅||✅||✅||❌|
Unless you live in a constantly humid climate, evaporative coolers hit all the boxes: you can cool down your personal space considerably and don't need to depend on other people's comfort levels. Hence, we have reviewed the best portable evaporative cooler models as well as a portable AC and fan models for your comparison.
- Effectively cools down personal space (33 ft²or 4 m²; by up to 15 degrees C)
- Purifies and humidifies the air
- Made from high-quality materials (doesn’t build up or spread bacteria or mold)
- Works silently
- Easy to clean
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Safe for children
- Doesn't change the temperature of the whole room
Price: starting at $99
- Humidifies and purifies the air
- Has three speeds
- Comes with a remote control
- Fit for cooling down up to 300 feet²
- Quite bulky and not hand-held
- Consumes more energy (1000W)
- Has a safety grill to protect children and pets from the fan blades
- Has three speeds
- Lightweight, just over six pounds
- Can be angled upwards
- Quite loud, 55 dB
- Not very effective when it's hot, like any fan
- Doesn’t waste floor space and weighs only ten pounds
- Has a good airflow radius (up to 100 feet)
- Has four fan speeds
- Has a timer
- Dehumidifies the air
- Can’t be disassembled for a deep clean
- Has a sleep mode for saving energy
- Has a washable air filter
- Can double as a heater
- Quite bulky and heavy (65 pounds)
- Dehumidifies the air, like any AC
The choice of the best portable cooler heavily relies on the conditions you live in, your needs, and your budget. Portable AC units are the most effective of the bunch, reducing the temperature in the room to what you deem comfortable, for the cost of using a refrigerant that can be dangerous in the case of leaks. Electric fans are least effective in cooling down your personal space, but they do work, and you can find relatively affordable models made from good-quality materials.
Both portable AC units and fans are more suitable for a humid climate. If you live in a place where it’s dry more often than humid, a better option might be an evaporative cooler so you don’t need to buy a humidifier along with your cooling device. Evaporative coolers are effective and safe, using water to bring down the temperature around them, and middle of the range in terms of pricing.