How Does a Portable Air Conditioner Work?

Whether you’re looking for a quick escape from the heat, or just want to maintain a comfortable year-round temperature in your home or office, you know the value of a quality air conditioner.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, three-quarters of homes in the United States are currently equipped with an air conditioning system.

Now, there are some new options available on the market today that are changing our options when it comes to cooling down. One innovative solution? Portable air conditioners.

At this point, you may be asking, “Just how does a portable air conditioner work?”

We’re glad you asked! Today, we’re taking a look at the ins and outs of these handy new systems, telling you everything you need to know about their operation and use.

Ready to get started? Let’s dive in!

How Does a Portable Air Conditioner Work? Start Here

Let’s begin by talking about what a portable air conditioner actually does before we answer “how does a portable air conditioner work?”

In a nutshell, it works as its name implies. It’s a moveable, rollable unit that won’t cool your entire building, but is an excellent alternative to chill down a single space. 

They’re great for rooms that tend to get pretty stuffy, or humid, as they also serve to remove extra moisture from the air.

As such, some common places you might find them include a computer room, sunroom, living room, attic bedroom, or corporate office.

Most models have hoses that install into a window to provide ventilation. Yet, as opposed to A/C window units, portable air conditioners don’t block the entire window space. This makes them an attractive alternative.

They can also be used to augment and support your home or office’s existing HVAC unit, where extra power is needed to get a certain room to an ideal temperature.

If you need to move locations, or if the season changes and your unit is no longer needed, you can easily roll it into storage until it’s time to use it again.

As opposed to traditional HVAC systems, which are contained outdoors, these systems usually sit on the floor of your space. They’re usually between 28 inches and 34 inches tall and are generally lightweight, between 65 and 80 pounds.

Thus, these features combined make them a great option when considering a more economical and effective way to cool down your space.

Ventilation: A Quick Guide

When asking “how does a portable air conditioner work?” you’re probably wondering more specifically, “how does it hook up?” Thankfully, the answer is easier than you might expect.

While the exact installation instructions might vary a little from model to model, most portable air conditioners are installed and set up in roughly the same way.

To begin, each comes with a window kit. Put simply, this kit has all the supplies necessary to install the portable air conditioner into your window. 

Most window kits come equipped with a window bracket and exhaust hoses.

These can be installed onto the unit, and onto the window itself, for a quick and easy setup. The bracket can be cut to fit almost any window length, generally maxing out around four feet.

When closed, the window fits up against the window kit, sealing it from outside air.

Then, the hose is inserted into a small hole in the window kit to allow for ventilation. The hoses run comparable to a dryer hose, at around five inches across.

Installation into a window is necessary because while portable air conditioners have some major differences compared to traditional systems, these disparities are mainly cosmetic. 

In regards to mechanics, portable air conditioning systems operate in essentially the same manner as conventional ones.

So how does a portable air conditioner work, and how are they the same as traditional models? It’s simple. They too need to vent.

As they pull warm, moist air from the room, they cool it. Then, they emit the cooler air back into the space, allowing the moisture and heat to escape outside the unit.

Hoses typically run around four to five feet in length, so keep those dimensions in mind as you determine where in your space to place the unit.

Single-Hose Versus Double-Hose Models

So just how does a portable air conditioner work? The meat of the process is in the ventilation system. 

Depending on you model, your portable air conditioner might use a single or dual hose ventilation process. While both offer benefits and drawbacks, it’s helpful to understand how each works.

In single-hose models, air is pulled from the room into the unit, where it is cooled via a refrigerant, such as Freon. It’s then sent back out to the room. Heat and moisture are expelled from the single hose to the outdoors.

At the same time, the unit is pulling in cooler air from the room to help its internal parts maintain a steady working temperature.

On the other hand, a double-hose unit works a little differently.

Here, the unit still pulls in air from the room. It still cools it and shoots it back out at a lower temperature. Yet, these models don’t rely on that same air to cool them internally.

Rather, they draw in air from outside of the building. Then, they use that new air to regulate their system temperature. 

Once used by the unit, the air exhausts via the second hose. Thus, these models are typically deemed more efficient. This is because they’re essentially self-cooling, and don’t use air from your space to do the job.

Yet, double hose models can be less energy-efficient, and a little more costly, than single-hose options.

Speaking of energy savings, you may be wondering, “how does a portable air conditioner work to save energy?”

The answer is that any portable air conditioner has the potential to deliver substantial energy savings depending on the model.

This is mainly because you’re opting to only cool one part of your building, versus its entirety. If you’d like more information on this aspect, we delve a little deeper into the topic of energy savings here.

Other Configuration Options

While a majority of systems exhaust via a window, it’s important to note that some can be configured to vent elsewhere.  So while you’re asking “how does a portable air conditioner work?” you may also want to consider, “how can I make it work for my space?”

These alternative configurations can be incredibly useful. 

They’re especially beneficial in spaces where traditional windows might not be available, such as in an apartment.

Depending on your requirements, there are some portable air conditioners that vent into drop ceilings or sliding doors. There are even ones that connect to the wall.

Ultimately, there are guides available to help you configure many non-traditional spaces into air conditioning-ready locations. Yet, when doing so, be sure to consult a professional to ensure you’re not ultimately doing more harm than good.

Moreover, before purchasing, be sure the model you select is appropriate for your space and desired usage. Ultimately, how does a portable air conditioner work? It works well when it safely fits your requirements and meets your needs.

Moisture Removal 101

Another one of the most common follow-up questions to “How does a portable air conditioner work?” is “But what about the moisture that’s emitted? Do I need to empty water?”

The short answer is not usually. While there are some standard models that require manual removal, a majority are taking advantage of recent technological advancements to offer customers the ultimate in convenience.

If you do opt for a standard model, most come with a bucket that will fill up over time and require emptying.

Depending on your usage and model type, this might mean emptying every day or so, or you may be able to go a month or more before it fills up entirely.

In this case, consistent monitoring is key. When it fills up, you simply turn the unit off, empty the water, and replace the bucket before turning the system on again.

Another way that some portable air conditioners ventilate is by using a drain hose. This hose will attach to the unit’s drain port. When the unit is in use, the hose will help direct moisture into a drain.

If you need to drain the water via an unconventional method, such as outside of a window, or over a substantial distance, you may opt for a model that comes equipped with a condensate pump.

In these models, the pump helps move the water more strongly and accurately along the drain line, so it can reach its intended destination.

Yet, though the above options are excellent alternatives when it comes to removing the built-up moisture in your portable air conditioner, many are now taking the guesswork — and the labor — out of the process.

So how does a portable air conditioner work when it comes to moisture removal? Specifically, what can you expect from the newer ones available today?

Recent, more advanced versions are self-evaporative. This means they absorb the warm air and moisture internally, then process it and exhaust it out of the window via the exhaust hose.

Sizing Specifications to Consider 

Now that we’ve delved deeper into the question of “how does a portable air conditioner work?” let’s talk a little bit about what you should look for when making your purchase.

To begin, take a look at the space where you want to place your unit. Is it small, medium-sized, or large/commercial?

Once you make that judgment, you’ll be better able to determine which size unit you’ll need to keep the room cool.

For portable air conditioners, power is measured in British Thermal Units or BTUs. Essentially, the higher the system’s BTUs, the more space it will be able to accurately cool.

Portable air conditioners provide from around 7,000 BTUs to 14,000 BTUs, though larger models are available.

A small room, such as a personal bedroom or personal office, will typically only require a unit that offers between 7,000 and 10,000 BTUs. This power wattage will cover spaces of up to around 300 square feet.

A medium room, such as a living room, may require a unit that offers slightly more in terms of power. In this case, one that provides around 11,000 to 14,000 BTUs will work more powerfully to cool the larger space. These units can effectively cool spaces of around 700 square feet or less.

There are also portable air conditioner options available for much larger, commercial-sized spaces. These are ideal for corporate locations that experience a high level of heat and movement, such as atriums or cafeterias.

How does a portable air conditioner work in an office space?

For one, they also provide an effective way to cool down computer server rooms. Keeping these rooms free of extra humidity and heat is a must to keep systems working at top performance.

If this type of usage is one you’re considering, remember that a commercial-sized portable air conditioner will require a more robust power supply. It should be one capable of handling more than the average household outlet.

In other cases, most run on 115 Volt / 60 Hertz of power and come equipped with a three-prong plug.

Climate Considerations for Use

While space is a top consideration, you’ll also want to think about how often you plan to use your unit.

Wondering “how does a portable air conditioner work” is only the first step. You’ll need to also consider where you live.

If your climate is cooler, or if you only plan to run the unit at certain times of the day, a system with less BTUs might be the better option, even if your room is a little larger than the standards.

Yet, the alternative equally applies. If you live somewhere where the weather is typically warmer, or if your intended room receives a lot of sunlight, you might need a system with a higher BTU count, even if your space is smaller.

Before making your final purchase, you may also want to check out your chosen model’s decibel rating (dB level). This measures how loud the unit will run.

As a given rule, most portable air conditioners run at between 48 dBs and 60 dBs. This makes them slightly louder than a running stream, but quieter than the sound of a shower.

Traditionally, they run at about as loud as normal conversation, making them a natural addition to any space. 

Portable Air Conditioning Experts: Your One-Stop Source

Are you still wondering, “how does a portable air conditioner work?” Would you like to read some reviews on top models and receive some expert advice on how to get started?

If so, you’ve come to the right spot.

We’re experts in everything air conditioning, and we’re dedicated to helping consumers around the country pick the one that’s best for them.

Check out our guide to the latest portable air conditioners to hit the market. Then, consult some of our helpful, industry-related articles for guidance and support.

Have any questions or run into any issues? Feel free to contact us today or leave a comment below, and we’ll help you keep your cool!

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