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)
Amcor NanoMax A 12000E 12,000 Btu, $395 This narrow, lightweight unit was the most inconspicuous and attractive to my eye, with its tidy modern design. But the assembly instructions were a bit confusing and didn't include much info about how to fit the window slide bar that the exhaust hose attaches to into the window itself. (The manufacturers must have realized this, because a supplemental sheet gave more detail.) And the unit features a front-facing air vent, which tended to strand its icy breeze at crotch level. It's nice to have a cool crotch and all, but in general the units that send air upward cool the room more efficiently. The unit redeemed itself in the ease-of-use category, however, with its easily adjustable window kit—plastic mounts are infinitely more adaptable and stable than foam ones. And for such a scrawny and inexpensive unit, this one packs punch—it did well at cooling the room quickly (but it never reached my selected temperature—76 degrees).
Easy breezy: 4
Say again?: 5
Chill factor: 11
Soleus LX-120 12,000 Btu, $545 The Soleus seemed to have a lot going for it. It's attractive and versatile—the vents have a nice oscillating feature, and the unit includes a heater. Plus, the elaborate window mount can adapt to fit into a sliding glass door, which offers great flexibility for installation. The unit is easily maneuverable and pretty quiet—even on high, it sounds like the whoosh of a large fan—not all that intrusive. All this bodes well, so I was disappointed that the AC's performance wasn't that impressive. It took a few hours to provide relief from the 85-degree heat when I tried it out in the living room while working from home one day. My roommate walked in the door around 6 and said, "I like this one." Little did she know how long it took to reach a decent chill. And the display offended my good taste—it features fuzzy neon colors you'd find lighting up a '70s arcade game.
Easy breezy: 4
Say again?: 7
Chill factor: 10
SPT WA-1220H 12,000 Btu, $599 This squat little AC reminds me of a potbelly stove. Installation was pretty straightforward, and although the unit came with a foam window mount (again, not nearly as good as a plastic slide board), the installation kit also included an extra foam panel to add length. While it's not much to look at, the unit boasts heating capability—great for year-round use. It rolls easily, and the large air vent toward the top effectively shoots cool air skyward. This dark horse plunged the temperature in the living room a full 10 degrees when the house thermostat hovered at a scorching 90. Very good, you fat little AC!
Easy breezy: 3
Say again?: 6
Chill factor: 13
Haier HPRD12XC5 12,000 Btu, $469.95 At almost 80 pounds, this dual-exhaust beast is easier to maneuver than you'd think. Thankfully the plastic window mount was easy to adjust to different window sizes, and the vent flap at the top of the AC opens wide to send air in a strong upward current. The AC cooled down my small bedroom by an impressive 10 degrees overnight, though it knocked only a few digits off the 83-degree heat in the living room one Saturday afternoon. Still, its exceptional dehumidifying capabilities made the heat less oppressive. And this AC sounds like the smooth whir of a strong box fan, letting you get a decent night's rest. Hallelujah!
Easy breezy: 4
Say again?: 8
Chill factor: 11
DeLonghi Pinguino PAC C100 10,000 Btu, $469.99 This AC's stout body is reminiscent of its namesake, the penguin, and it's effortlessly mobile. Assembly took only a few minutes, despite the somewhat confusing instructions. While the plastic window mount was a little difficult to install (I honestly think a hole was drilled in the wrong end), it stayed in place once wedged between the window frame and sill. A chilly breeze from vents toward the top of the unit reached clear across my living room and seemed to cool the whole space more thoroughly than other units (it was difficult to measure this exactly, because the unit doesn't show the actual room temperature on the display screen). The display is simple, without too many confusing buttons, and the Pinguino was one of the quieter units tested. This bird's a cool customer.
Easy breezy: 4
Say again?: 7
Chill factor: 13
Sharp CV-P10MX 9,500 Btu, $538.65 An interested observer called this unit the Cadillac of portable ACs and, despite some design flaws, I have to agree. It's tall and full-bodied, but its sloped design isn't jarring. When you turn it on, long curved vents at the top open and close slowly, like the flaps that induce drag on airplane wings—which not only looks awesome but also helps oscillate cool air around the room. This is the only AC I tested that doesn't have an illuminated display and lots of buttons on it—the unit operates almost exclusively by remote. (Personally, I'm not a fan of AC remotes; they're easily misplaced and seem unnecessary, but I guess I understand how some might prefer to adjust temperature from the couch or the bed.)
The unit boasts unique features that trump its minor flaws, like a bug screen and rain guard on the window mount. And while the unit gives no indication of the actual room temperature, both my living room and bedroom cooled quickly and noticeably. Sharp's "Library Quiet" feature lives up to its name: The thing is monklike compared with the other units. This roaming AC is well worth owning.
Easy breezy: 4
Say again?: 9
Chill factor: 14
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