As soon as temperatures rise in the spring people start thinking about the heat of coming July and August. For those with central air the next thought is typically centered on maintenance or the inflated electric bill. However, if you’re in an older home… or an apartment your first thoughts might land on ways to escape the hottest days of the summer. Trips to the mountains, the lake, or to see relatives (with AC) are all great ways to ways to beat the heat. But, if you expect that you’ll be stuck at home when the mercury rises… you’ll want to review your air conditioning options ASAP. And, there’s no better place to start than with the age-old portable ac vs window ac debate. Especially if you’re a renter.
How do they Work?
The first thing you’ll need to familiarize yourself as you begin to explore the merits of small air conditioners, is how they work. Not necessarily the intricate details… just the basics; because there are a few things that make a huge difference.
First, how does AC work? Air Conditioning is all about heat transfer between spaces. To move the heat, we need to convert a liquid to a gas. As the liquid (refrigerant) transforms to a gas it absorbs heat. If we want to continue cooling the gas needs to be turned back into a liquid with a compressor. Compressing the gas turns it back to liquid, but it also creates additional heat. And without getting into more detail than necessary… that heat needs to be exhausted to the exterior. Then the cycle starts all over. Gas expands, air is cooled, gas is compressed, and heat is exhausted.
Window Air Conditioners
So the big difference in how a window AC unit operates is in how it moves heat to a building’s exterior. Rather than use a series of ducts (or a heat pump) the window unit exhausts from vents on its body. And, almost all of that body is hanging out of the window.
Portable Air Conditioners
Portable air conditioners on the other hand use a long exhaust hose to get rid of the hot air. So from a “how they work” standpoint both are pretty similar aside from the way they move air to the great outdoors. How well they work, how they’re used, and other details are covered below. But, first let’s cover another cooling unit.
Ventless Portable Air Conditioners
In your search for an air conditioner you may encounter a ventless portable air conditioner or two. Sounds great right? No vent hose, nothing hanging out of your window… why wouldn’t you want a ventless AC unit. Well, to be honest these aren’t air conditioners at all. They’re swamp coolers. And while they do work in some cases… they’re completely different from a compressor and refrigerant based cooling appliance. We have another article explaining the pros and cons of ventless options, but in short they use evaporation to cool the air instead of phase conversion (gas to liquid… liquid to gas).
Portable AC vs Window AC; are they easy to install?
They’re incredibly easy compared to other options like mini-splits and central air conditioning. Those require the skills of a professional installer. Both the portable and the window AC unit can be installed by almost anyone.
To install a portable air conditioner you basically just pull it from the box, route the exhaust hose to a window, and plug it into an outlet. A window mount air conditioner is pretty similar. In short; remove from box, open a window, place the AC in the window opening, close the window, and plug it in.
The big difference in installation when you’re looking at portable vs window is the strength required to hoist the window AC into place. They can be fairly heavy so some people may need a bit of help getting the unit installed safely. With the portable unit all you really need to lift is the hose and an lightweight window adapter. And most have rollers so you rarely need to lift the entire machine.
There is another thing to consider when installing a portable air conditioner. What if you don’t have a window for the vent? Well you’ll need to create or find a hole somewhere else. But, that isn’t really a direct window ac vs portable ac problem. It’s a “how do I cool this windowless room” problem.
How much do they cost?
Most portable air conditioners will fall somewhere between $200 and $600 – with a handful landing on either side of that figure. Window air conditioners are priced along those lines but there seem to be more sub $200 options available. But, in our humble opinion we don’t think price is a significant pro or con for wither option.
You Should Buy a Portable Air Conditioner…
If you don’t have a window that can accommodate an air conditioner. Window ac units are fairly tall and wide, and some units will require an external support bracket. Contrast that with a portable unit… if you vent to a window the opening can be small and you’ll never need a support for the lightweight hose to window adapter. Beyond that, portables also work in many windows that swing outward.
If you’re frequently moving the unit from room to room, a portable is a better choice. That’s pretty obvious though (it’s called a “portable air conditioner” for a reason). However, it’s portability is also great if you rarely use it, or only need it for a few days here and there. Portables are way easier to store when not in use. And, they’re easier to move to and from storage when you need them.
If you have an HOA or a landlord… a portable is a better option. Face it; a window air conditioner looks worse to passers by than a portable ac’s inconspicuous vent hose. Especially when people like us are too lazy to remove it when it isn’t needed. That’s probably why HOA’s and property manages prohibit window mount air conditioners.
Finally, if you don’t have any windows you should go with the portable unit. You can get pretty creative with the exhaust when the heat is unbearable. Some people even attach them to existing vents in kitchens and bathrooms. If you don’t have windows and refuses to go with a portable unit… you can always cut a large reticular hole in an exterior wall. On second thought… just get a portable unit if you don’t have an adequate window.
You Should Buy a Window Air Conditioner…
If space is in short supply. The biggest “pro” to window mount air conditioners is floor space. They don’t require a single square inch of space on your room’s floor. And, for people living in a small apartment or tiny home that precious real estate is reason enough to go with a window mount unit.
If you want to save a few bucks on your electric bill. That’s right, window air conditioners are more efficient when it comes to electricity consumption. The hot parts are all outside… where it’s hot already.
If you don’t want to worry about an exhaust hose and adapter go with a window air conditioner. Heaving them into the window is kind of a pain but once they’re up there, most units have wings that fill in any voids. Most portable hose adapters do as well, but they seem to be a little on the flimsy side compared to in-window options.
You care more about appearance from the inside than outside. From the interior a window mount air conditioner is a mild intrusion into a room. You obviously can’t see through it, but aside from that it isn’t a huge difference. Plus it’s easy to hide behind blinds or curtains when not in use. Portable air conditioners, on the other hand, look kind of like a robot on life support. They just stand there, sometimes awkwardly, in the room… tethered to a wall or window by their exhaust hose.
What if you already have AC (central air, mini-split, etc.)
There are a few reasons to pick up a window or portable air conditioner even if you have AC already. But, you should really think this purchase over if money is tight.
The obvious reason is that air conditioners break. And, in our experience they break on the hottest day of the year. Right in the middle of the busiest time for repairs and installs. So if you live somewhere that’s really hot, like Arizona or Florida, it might make sense to have a backup on hand. Elderly people, pet owners, and families have a baby in the house can also justify the purchase. Excessive heat sensitivity and decreased mobility can be very dangerous.
Another reason is one that we encountered a few years ago. In our case it was in a south-facing office with way too many windows and too few vents. When the sun hit the windows the AC just couldn’t compensate… and turning it up cooled other offices too much. The property manager didn’t want us to vent a portable AC unit out of our window, but we did anyway. It was only for a week or so… and we weren’t renewing our lease. With that said… you should probably check with your landlord before installing a window or portable ac unit in a rental.
There are other reasons, like if you’re a landlord (just saying…), but we’ll save our last one for people who don’t need to cool their entire house. AC is expensive. If you only need to cool a small room for a few hours a day a window or portable ac unit might make financial sense. Plus you’ll have a backup in case your whole house AC goes on the fritz.