After spending nearly 20 hours comparing more than 50 different portable air conditioners—including seven hours testing a handful of the top-selling units—we think that the Haier HPN12XCM is the best portable air conditioner for most people. Though a window (or wall) air conditioner is almost always a more effective, efficient way to control a room’s climate, sometimes a portable is the only kind of AC that fits your space. So if you need one, the HPN12XCM offers the best combination of cooling comfort, intuitive control, portability, and quiet operation among its competitors.
If you have the option of installing a window (or wall) unit, a portable air conditioner is usually the wrong choice. Portables cost more and they never cool a room as effectively or efficiently. That’s because unlike most other kinds of ACs, portables sit entirely inside your home. They have to fight an uphill battle, trying to remove hot air from an area but inevitably reradiating some of that heat back into the same space. (More on this later.) You might even be better off trying to make yourself comfortable with a fan, or a do-it-yourself evaporative cooler or ice-bucket cooler.
One more important thing to know before purchasing: You absolutely have to be able to vent a portable AC out through a window or some other opening for it to work properly. It can’t sit in the room un-vented and make heat disappear. Home Depot’s page on portable air conditioners actually says portable air conditioners MUST BE VENTED THROUGH A WINDOW in all caps, so don’t worry, you’re not the first person to ask the question. Most units come with “window kits” that can extend or contract to fit an opening and roughly close it off to prevent heat and bugs from entering, and you may want to make some DIY additions (foam, tape, weatherstripping, etc) to truly seal the area surrounding the vent.
The unfortunate truth about portable air conditioners is that they all pretty much suck, but our task was to find the one that sucks the least. The best portable air conditioners do a reasonable job cooling and dehumidifying a room, run as quietly as possible, and make installation easy and adaptable to all kinds of scenarios. It’s better if it’s not an eyesore, too.
To reach these conclusions, we spent nearly 20 hours researching, comparing, and testing portable air conditioners. A lot of that time was spent comparing specs and data from user and expert reviews for more than 50 different portable AC units. We spent the rest of the time doing hands-on testing. This is our second summer covering the portables category, and collectively we have five years of experience writing about other kinds of air conditioners. I also used to be a staff writer at Reviewed.com, where I wrote about appliances for nearly four years, so I have some experience covering these kinds of products.
During our research, we identified what we think is a correlation between a portable AC’s dehumidification capacity and its “comfort rating” in Consumer Reports (subscription required). The more moisture an AC can take out of the air, the better it will be at controlling a room’s climate. So we weighted that spec above the others. We also narrowed the field down to models with a rating of at least 10,000 Btu, so that the compressor is powerful enough for more than just tiny rooms. (Guidelines for Btu ratings in window units don’t apply to portables, so if you’ve shopped for a window unit in the past, just try to forget everything you learned—it does not apply when picking a portable AC.) We also favored units with a higher energy efficiency ratio (EER) when possible.
We hauled the four picks into a Boston apartment for testing. After we unpacked them, we found that three of the four contenders were very similar in the business end of the machine, maybe even built in the same factory. Our testing mostly centered on measuring noise levels, as well as judging the installation (and uninstallation) process. We also assessed each unit for its filter design, construction quality, mode functions, drain plugs, fan design, and remote-control functions, and how it deals with condensed moisture.
Because we don’t have access to a climate-controlled room, we were not able to test for dehumidification or cooling ability. We did consider the results from Consumer Reports’s portable AC tests, but even those are light on hard data. So, to be clear, our assessment of each unit’s ability to control climate is based on research into which specs seem to correlate with happy owners and good ratings at Consumer Reports. We plan to test our top picks in real homes over the course of the summer so that we can report better data, even if it’s subjective.
Our noise test was the most important (and most detailed) part of our testing plan. We’ve found that most people really just want an AC that’s quiet. So, at the advice of audiovisual expert and Wirecutter contributor Geoff Morrison, we connected a calibrated microphone to an iPhone 5S, launched the SPLnFFT app, and set it to a C-weighting with a slow response. For each unit, we measured the volume by averaging six readings from a distance of about 6 feet. Those readings were iterations of each unit’s fan/mode settings (compressor on/off, fan high/medium/low). We measured the frequency output and looked for isolated spikes in the upper midrange and high frequencies—the region that tends to present itself as particularly irritating to human ears.
The Haier HPN12XCM is the best portable air conditioner for most people who need one. Many portable ACs are pretty similar to each other, but the HPN12XCM has a few small advantages over its competitors. Most important, it’s a bit quieter than most units, and is one of the easier models to install and uninstall and roll from room to room, even on carpet. We found its controls and remote to be simple and intuitive, and the machine is less of an eyesore than most others. Its price is consistently on the low end of the spectrum, and several major retailers carry this unit. And as far as we can tell, it’s one of the better models in terms of making a room comfortable.
Installation (and uninstallation) is simple enough with the HPN12XCM. Unlike a lot of other portable ACs, the Haier came equipped with some insulation foam, which helps improve its cooling effectiveness and efficiency. At around 68 pounds, it was the heaviest of our main contenders, but it was significantly easier to maneuver on both carpet and bare floors, owing to its smooth casters. Setting up the hose was similar to doing the same for other models, and the length and quality of the materials are almost identical.
The unit itself is easier on the eyes than other models we tested (in our opinion)—not too dull, not too garish. None of these units looks great, and the hose is always going to be an eyesore, but the HPN12XCM is okay.
As for cooling and comfort, we reported this story in spring in Boston, and we don’t have a climate-controlled room to accurately test how portables perform, so until we can conduct further testing this summer (and update this story), we’re basing our analysis on specs and research. The HPN12XCM cranks out 12,000 Btu and claims to have a cooling area of 500 square feet. That’s a wider (claimed) area than most machines with this Btu rating, which is a little puzzling to us given how eerily similar many of these machines appear to be on the business end. Portables aren’t strictly regulated like window units are, so two machines that have the same Btu rating can claim to cover significantly different areas. We’re just not sure why, and don’t think you should take these cooling claims to heart. Our guess—based on the average advertised effective area for other 12,000-Btu units (and some experience using a portable AC last summer)—is that it’s mostly effective in rooms up to 400 square feet. That’s probably still a stretch, because, as we’ll cover below, portable ACs just aren’t that effective at climate control.
That said, we expect that the HPN12XCM is still better than most of its peers at making a room comfortable, mostly because it’s a better dehumidifier. It’s rated to pull 4.2 pints of moisture out of the air per hour, which is one of the highest capacities we’ve seen in any portable AC. We also observed a correlation between a higher dehumidification spec and a higher comfort rating in Consumer Reports’s test results. Now, that extra dehumidifying power might matter only in dank or muggy settings, but it doesn’t hurt to have the potential for better performance.
And compared with other portables, the HPN12XCM is one of the better-reviewed models. It’s a top seller at Home Depot, where it’s earned an average rating of 4.1 stars (out of five) across 515 reviews. At Google Shopping, the aggregate user rating is four stars (out of five) across 502 user reviews. That’s better than the ratings of most portable ACs. It’s also the second-highest-rated portable in Consumer Reports’s rankings.
The HPN12XCM does have a few unique flaws, relative to other portables. For one, it suffers from a relatively low energy efficiency ratio (EER) of 9.5. Each of the three other contenders had EERs north of 11. To be clear, 9.5 is not an egregious rating—it’s actually on par with most portable units on the market—but if you’re mindful of your electricity bill it’s certainly worth noting. Our best guess is that it might cost an extra $6 per year to run, but that depends on energy prices in your region and how you use the AC. We have tips on how to maximize efficiency below.
We found that the HPN12XCM’s filter assembly fell off the back of the machine pretty easily and didn’t click back into place. The filter itself looks pretty typical compared with those of other ACs we’ve seen, though, and you probably won’t have to think about this very often.
Again, the installation process is intuitive, but that doesn’t mean it was flawless. For example, you have to angle and twist the vent hose in a precise way to snap it into place—a design scheme that was found in nearly identical form on both the Honeywell and Whynter units. (A lot of these machines appear to be made by the same manufacturer.) I actually nicked myself trying to pry the hose loose and drew some blood. But unless you’re a complete nincompoop like me, this won’t happen to you.
All that said, the primary shortcoming of the HPN12XCM stems from the fundamental design flaw shared by all portable air conditioners: They’re bad at cooling. In the process of chilling a room, they’re also reheating it because the entire machine sits indoors. It’s an uphill battle.
Yes, portables do create cool air. If you stand in front of the fan, you’ll feel a refreshing, chilly breeze. But air conditioners are really heat exchangers—the cold air is just warm air with the heat removed, and the heat has to go somewhere. With portables, a lot of it ends up reradiated into the room through the machine’s chassis and the long, dubiously insulated ventilation hose.
And that’s not all. Because portable units push air out of your home through the hose (in an attempt to get rid of the heat), it creates a negative pressure that then pulls warm, unconditioned air from other parts of your home, through cracks around doors and other leaks. Some portables use two hoses to work around the negative pressure problem—one to draw in outdoor air, the other to ventilate heat. Seems clever, but this design pulls extra heat into your home in the form of warmer outdoor air, creating extra work for itself just like a single-hose unit.
Portable air conditioners are just fundamentally inefficient machines, in terms of both effectiveness and energy use. According to Consumer Reports, even the best portable AC units struggle to reach lower than 78 degrees. Not a single model qualifies for the Energy Star room-air-conditioner badge. (Window and wall ACs, on the other hand, work by absorbing the heat out of the air inside your home and radiating it outside. They don’t exchange any air between the two sides of a window or wall, and all the heat-sucking and heat-generating components are technically outdoors. The whole thing just makes for a far more efficient and effective process.)
On these points, the HPN12XCM is just like any other portable AC. It doesn’t have any radically different design that makes for a fundamentally more efficient or effective air conditioner.
Our long-term tester said that the portable AC we gave him (the Haier HPN12XCM, but his notes apply to portable ACs in general, we think) cools a little slower than he was expecting. On a 90-something-degree day, the unit was able to cool his 180-square-foot office (with “bad insulation”) down to the mid-70s, which most people should find to be pretty comfortable, but it couldn’t reach the target cooling temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That result seems to be consistent with Consumer Reports tests of portable ACs, as well as with most user reviews. Our tester also said that his little desk fan does a better job keeping him cool than the portable AC, unless the AC is pointed directly at his face. A fan uses at least 97 percent less energy than an air conditioner, so take that for what it’s worth.
The other thing that surprised our tester was how restricted he was in terms of where he could place the AC. Haier says that extension cords are a no-no, so the unit needs to be close to an outlet, close to a window, and somewhere practical for its owners. Such positioning could be tricky for some owners, and is worth considering.
The LG LP1215GXR is a solid alternative if the Haier HPN12XCM is sold out—and if you can tolerate some extra noise. The LG was clearly the loudest of the four we tested by about 3 or 4 dBC (depending on the setting). If you plan on sleeping in the same room as this AC, you’ll probably find it to be on the noisy side of comfortable. It can’t dehumidify as quickly as our main pick—at least on paper—pulling a maximum of 2.8 pints per hour (vs. the Haier’s 4.2). That could affect comfort in very humid conditions, but, as we’ve said, we haven’t tested this ourselves. And though the LG is actually slightly lighter than the Haier, we found it was more difficult to move around on carpet because its smaller casters don’t roll as smoothly.
On the plus side, the LP1215GXR has an impressively high EER of 11.2, one of the highest we’ve seen in a portable and comparable to some window units (in theory, anyway). Like the Haier, it’s a 12,000-Btu unit, although its specs claim that it’s good for up to 400 square feet of space, but the Haier supposedly handles up to 500 square feet (we think the lower number is probably more realistic). We also found that its window kit (the plastic slabs that hook up to the hose and slot into the window) was the easiest to install and uninstall among our finalists. It has an oscillating fan, too, to help circulate more cool air over a greater area. This could also prove valuable if you want your AC unit to double as a capable room fan. However, the oscillator only moves up and down—it doesn’t slide left or right.
In most other aspects, the LP1215GXR and our main pick are very similar machines: They seem to move about the same amount of air, they have the same modes, their timers work the same way, and their interfaces are equally intuitive. If you can’t find our main pick, you’re not missing out on much if you get this one instead.
LG has a few different portable units available, including a 14,000-Btu model, and older versions are still kicking around. Of the available LG models, we think the LP1215GXR is the best balance of price, efficiency, and cooling capability.
The portable air conditioners we’ve covered closely in this guide all have a single hose, which serves to exhaust hot air outside of your home. This design creates negative pressure—essentially, it encourages warm air from other parts of your home to flow into the room you’re supposed to be cooling.
But some portable air conditioners come with two hoses: One hose draws in outdoor air to cool the compressor and condenser, and the other hose blows that used air back outside.
In brief, the argument in favor of dual-hose models is that they avoid the negative-pressure problem. But the main argument against dual-hose models is that the outdoor air coming through the intake hose radiates heat into your room, offsetting the benefits of steady air pressure.
Lots of other variables and environmental factors come into play, too, including humidity, insulation, the BTU rating, whether you have air conditioners running in other parts of your home, and more. This video sums up some of the other pros and cons.
We’ve looked at this problem from several angles, and we don’t see any conclusive evidence that one design is strictly better than the other. We spoke with a product manager at De’Longhi, Linda Hotz, who told us in one conversation that there is “truly a slight performance improvement” with dual-hose models but mentioned in another conversation that most people probably won’t notice a difference. Either way, more people “prefer the single-hose installation and appearance,” she said.
So for this guide, we kept our focus on single-hose portables because they tend to cost less, take up less space, run a little quieter, use less energy, and cool as well or almost as well as dual-hose models do.
That said, we know that some of our readers are interested in dual-hose portable ACs, and some people have raised good points in favor of that type in our comments section. If you’re convinced by the pro-dual arguments, that’s great—we’re glad you found something you like. We’re looking into ways to rigorously test single- and dual-hose models against one another so that we can add something useful to this debate, though that isn’t likely to happen in 2016.
The Honeywell MN10CESWW was our pick for the best portable AC in 2015, and it’s still a reasonably good portable AC. At low fan settings it’s the quietest of the bunch we tested. We didn’t pick it this time around, though, because it has a lower cooling capacity than other models (at just 10,000 Btu) and a lower dehumidification capacity (2.8 pints per hour). Honeywell also makes a 14,000-Btu version as well, but it costs much more without having any discernible benefits over our main pick.
The Whynter ARC-12S is very similar to our main pick, with a high dehumidification capacity of 4 pints per hour and a 12,000-Btu cooling capacity. It has a higher EER, too, up at 11.3. But it’s a bit louder, usually more expensive by at least $20, and is certainly the ugliest of the bunch, looking sort of like a trash can. A few other versions of this AC are available as well, for extra cash: The dual-hose ARC-12SD and the ARC-12SDH, a dual-hose model with a heater built in so you can use it for spot cooling and warming.
Portable ACs have inherent problems with climate control and energy efficiency, so you’ll need all the help you can get to improve their performance.
First, stuff the gaps around the window fixture with foam insulation strips. Some units (including both models we recommend) come with foam tape. If you need more, you can buy 10 feet of the stuff for less than $5. It will help prevent warm outside air from slipping into your home.
Place the AC as near to the window as possible, so that you can keep the hose short, with as many accordion ribs collapsed as you can. The shorter the distance the warm air has to travel before it leaves through the exhaust port, the less likely it is to reradiate into your home. Another trick is to insulate the hose with duct wrap.
If you use your portable AC regularly, clean the filter about once a month. Dirty filters block airflow and reduce overall efficiency.
Most portable ACs have an automatic evaporation function that recycles the air’s residual moisture and prevents the occasional need to drain the system yourself. However, if the unit is located in a particularly humid environment, it may collect moisture faster than it evaporates, and you’ll need to empty the reservoir from time to time, a couple times per week at most (likely less often than that). The portables we recommend will stop cooling when their reservoirs are full, so you’ll know when you need to empty them.
(Photos by Liam McCabe.)
Originally published: May 31, 2016