When I moved into my new apartment in May, I prayed the air conditioning would work. Anything would be a step up from the AC in my old studio, which blew stale wind and bad cooking smells from other units into mine—and its vents looked like they hadn't been scrubbed since the '60s.
Unfortunately, every time I turn on the "central air" in my new place, it just sends out a lukewarm miasma. I'd been wearing out a hand-me-down box fan trying to keep my D.C. digs cool, so when a co-worker mentioned portable air conditioners, my ears perked up. Not only would a portable AC unit be less wasteful than central air, it would do a better job than a fan at cooling my increasingly swamplike apartment. I decided to check them out.
Luckily, it's a good time of year for anyone with a broken-down window unit or a yen for movable chill to shop for a portable cooling system. Summer's half gone, and many are on sale.
Portable ACs are similar to the window units you find in homes without central air conditioning. They suck the hot air from the room and send it outside through a flexible tube that looks like the bendy part of a straw, which you stick in a slat that seals up your window. The unit pumps a cool breeze back into your home, and voilà—relief. Most ACs have the fortunate side effect of dehumidifying the air, too. Sign me up!
My rigorous testing involved running the units on high for periods of four to six hours in my living room during the day, and overnight in my bedroom on days when the indoor temperature ranged from 82 to 90 degrees. An air conditioner's strength is measured in British thermal units. ACs that use 12,000 Btus per hour can usually cool a room of about 400 square feet. My living room is roughly 250 square feet, so I figured a 12,000 Btu unit would do fine. I also tested units that use less than 12,000 Btus to suss out how much the variance affected a unit's performance. Not much, it turns out.
5 possible points
If you weren't sweating from the summer heat already, assembling a portable AC can get you glistening fast. In theory, these appliances shouldn't be too hard to piece together—they arrive almost fully intact, with wheels and handles attached. But ease of assembly varied, and some units had parts that were more quickly installed or stayed in place better than others—namely the mount that holds the exhaust pipe in the window. Also in this ease of use category: How portable are they? Do they roll smoothly from room to room?
10 possible points
An air conditioner generally isn't the most attractive appliance. But if it's going to cop a semi-permanent squat near my living room window, I'd prefer it to have a little character and fit in with the furniture. From hulking white plastic to charcoal-colored "Italian design," the units I tried out varied in size, display readability, and attractiveness. Additional bells and whistles, like a heater function, oscillation, or automatic temperature control earned the units extra style points.
10 possible points (more points equal a quieter unit)
I'm a light sleeper, and I prefer to watch movies without subtitles if they're in English, so it was important that the units didn't make a racket while they did the hard work of cooling my humble abode.
15 possible points
Snazzy design, easy assembly, and quiet cooling are important, but ultimately I was out to test how well these ACs got their chill on. Did it take hours for me to feel their effects, or was I cooled off immediately? Did I wake up sweaty during the night? Did the cold air spread throughout the room, or did it linger in one spot? This category was the deal-breaker.
The results, from eh to ahhh …
Koldfront PAC 1200W 12,000 Btu, $469 ($349 on sale) This AC is narrow and lightweight, with a conveniently placed handle for portability. Too bad it wouldn't roll forward or backward, just side to side like a drunken Weeble. As I pushed it into my bedroom, it caught on the edge of a thin area rug, tipped forward, and spilled a suspicious liquid.
Points off for the unit's flimsy foam window mount. The forward-facing air vent was problematic, too, because the plastic bars that were supposed to attach to the slats had come loose (presumably during delivery), so it was difficult to get the breeze flowing in one direction.
When I started it up, the AC sounded like a Cessna taking off, but it eventually quieted down. On the plus side, the unit made a good dent in the living-room temperature, and it kept my bedroom about 7 degrees below the house thermostat overnight. So I decided to sleep with it on again. Sadly, around 3 a.m., the unit emitted a death rattle that sounded like a wrench tumbling around in a dryer. I turned it off for the night.
Easy breezy: 2 (5 possible)
Design: 6 (10 possible)
Say again?: 4 (10 possible)
Chill factor: 12 (15 possible)
Total: 24 (40 possible)
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