After putting in 45 hours of research, comparing more than 100 portable air conditioners and testing seven of the best models, we recommend the Whynter Elite ARC-122DS. We think this dual-hose unit will cool a room faster than other portable ACs, using the least energy, even in extreme heat. It’s significantly smaller and lighter than its closest competitors, and it has a typical noise level, installation kit, and price. However, portable air conditioners are fundamentally flawed, and in very hot weather they can struggle to do the job at all. If possible, use a window or wall AC instead—those models work better, cost less, and don’t take up as much space.
This is our third summer recommending portable air conditioners. We’ve put in about 45 hours of research and testing over the years, including 25 new hours for this version of the guide. All told, we’ve looked at more than 100 models, and we’ve tested seven of the best.
Much of our research has consisted of reading through extensive documentation from the US Department of Energy, including the final rule as well as other documents released throughout the rulemaking process. We’ve also interviewed some appliance-efficiency experts, including Joanna Mauer, the technical advocacy manager for the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, and Lauren Urbanek, senior energy policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. And we’ve spoken with representatives from a few portable-AC brands, including De’Longhi, Haier, and LG.
Not many other editorial sources write about portable ACs well. But we did find a good write-up at Your Best Digs, and we learned what we could from the product ratings at Consumer Reports (subscription required).
Personally, this is Liam McCabe’s fourth summer writing about air conditioners for The Sweethome. He also writes the guides for most other major appliances on this site, covering washing machines, dishwashers, vacuums, and refrigerators.
But even though portable air conditioners are mediocre at best, they’re better than no air conditioner at all. Sometimes, they make sense, like in the following situations:
When it comes to moving heat out of a home, a portable AC creates quite an uphill battle for itself. The first problem is that a portable AC sits entirely indoors. Air conditioning makes you comfy, in part, because it transfers indoor heat outside. Every other type of AC is designed so the hot parts stay outside, where the heat can just radiate away. But a portable AC keeps its hot parts inside, and needs to actively push the heat outside, up an exhaust hose that ventilates through a window (sort of like a clothes dryer).
This design has several bad side effects. The worst is that it pulls warm air into the room through cracks around doors, windows, and floorboards. By forcing air out through the exhaust, it creates negative pressure in the room (a slight vacuum), and “infiltration air” seeps in to equalize the pressure. In very hot weather, this is a huge problem. When it’s 95 degrees outside, the infiltration air can erase up to 96 percent of a portable AC’s cooling effect, as the Department of Energy found (PDF) for one particularly bad model. All portable ACs draw some infiltration air, but single-hose models are particularly sucky, pulling about three times as much as dual-hose models.
Another side effect is that a portable AC’s exhaust system wastes a bunch of cold air. Other types of ACs keep indoor and outdoor air almost totally separate: The indoor air gets cooled by the evaporator, the outdoor air takes the heat off the condenser. But a portable AC uses some indoor air—which it already took the time and energy to cool off—to take heat off the condenser, and then dumps it outside. This is just not an efficient way to do things. Dual-hose models are better because they have a separate intake-exhaust loop that relies mostly on outdoor air to cool the condenser, and they waste only about one-third as much indoor air as single-hose (exhaust-only) models do, the DOE found (PDF).
Finally, the body and hoses radiate heat back into the room before the exhaust can dump it outside. The DOE determined that, on average, a portable AC’s hoses radiate about 3 British thermal units (Btu) per square foot, while the body casing radiates enough heat to offset about 2 percent of cooling. Those are not huge amounts, especially if you keep the hoses short. But combined with all the other inefficiencies, they add up. This is also one instance where dual-hose models can be at a slight disadvantage next to single-hose models—they generate extra heat because of the extra fan, and the intake hose also radiates a little extra heat into the room. It’s simply not an issue with other types of AC, because those models’ hot condenser coils sit outside.
Because of all those inefficiencies, the DOE found (PDF) that the real-world cooling capacity of portable ACs was less than the advertised amount. Even in just moderately hot weather, around 82 degrees Fahrenheit, most of the portable ACs that the DOE tested cooled at only about 7,000 Btu—even when they claimed to cool at 13,000 Btu.1 That means you’ll probably end up using more energy than you expect, too. Under very basic and very generous calculations, the most efficient dual-hose portable AC would add about $21 per year to your energy bill, compared with a run-of-the-mill Energy Star window AC meant to cool the same area. A harsher estimate, factoring in all the inefficiencies even for a dual-hose model, could be more like $60 extra, or about twice as much as the window unit. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. According to Natural Resources Defense Council energy policy specialist Lauren Urbanek, a portable AC that meets the upcoming DOE minimum efficiency rule (which we believe our pick would meet) will cost about $96 to run per year on average, $36 more than that comparable window unit.
We considered only models with a dual-hose design and a high energy-efficiency ratio (EER). Those two specs have the biggest, broadest impact on efficiency and cooling ability.
A dual-hose portable AC usually cools a room faster, using less energy overall, than a single-hose design, especially in very hot weather.2 In more moderate heat, the dual-hose advantage shrinks—but they’re almost never less efficient. The DOE concluded that dual-hose models use about 15 percent less energy than single-hose models on average. During our research, dismissing all the single-hose models cut the field of candidates from 103 models down to just 21.
We then eliminated all models with an EER below 9, leaving us with 17 contenders. The EER spec is measured as the Btu rating divided by the maximum wattage. An EER around 10 is pretty good, though we’ve seen it as high as 12. Picking an air conditioner (portable or otherwise) that needs less energy for the same cooling power is just a commonsense thing to do. But the stakes are a little higher for portable ACs because of all the other inefficiencies. A model that uses less energy also has less heat to radiate back into the room, doesn’t need as much air to cool the condenser, and potentially draws less infiltration air. The advertised EER never holds up in the real world, but we’re confident enough that a higher EER is a decent baseline spec for better performance and lower energy use.
We then homed in on models with the strongest owner ratings, because good ratings usually indicate good reliability. But in general, portable ACs have mediocre reviews, with even the best-liked models barely earning an overall rating of four stars out of five, in the same sad company as inkjet printers. (The best window units earn a solid 4.2 or 4.3 stars out of five.) However, a few portable AC models are rated much worse than others, often because owners report that their plastic parts become brittle and crack after just one summer. So we cut the lowest-rated models of the bunch.
A fair price for a portable AC with these features is somewhere in the range of $400 to $475, give or take, occasionally lower if there’s a sale. Paying more doesn’t get you any worthwhile advantages that we can find. Paying less usually means you’re stuck with a single-hose unit—they have their place, but they’re not the best choice for most people.
Other specs and features did not factor much into our decisions.
Cooling capacity, measured in Btu, seems important but had almost no impact on our choice. Efficient dual-hose models with decent owner ratings all fall between 12,000 and 14,000 Btu. Even if you have a smaller room, we think this is the right range to look at. These models are better designed than the cheaper, lower-Btu models, and they also tend to be the best-selling sizes at most retailers anyhow. The DOE found (PDF) that because portable ACs are much less effective than advertised, weaker units may barely work at all in very hot weather. And Consumer Reports determined that portable ACs struggle to cool as much space as they’re advertised to cool. Just go big with a portable AC.
Dehumidification capacity is irrelevant, because just about every portable AC is rated to remove more moisture than a dedicated whole-house dehumidifier, and they all work equally well. Evaporation style doesn’t matter, either: Unless you’re in a brutally muggy climate, the moisture will just self-evaporate through the hose—and in case that doesn’t work, every model uses a similar drain scheme.
Modes and controls hardly vary from model to model, so that wasn’t a major factor for us. Same with refrigerant—every current model uses the same R410A refrigerant. We did want to have manageable portability; we’ve found in tests that weight is much less important for portability than the design of the casters.
We settled on three finalists that were priced fairly and widely available at the time of our research, purchased them, and brought them in for testing: the Whynter Elite ARC-122DS, Whynter ARC-14S, and Avallon APAC140S.
We attempted a cooling and dehumidification test, but we don’t really trust the data we’ve gathered so far. For each of our finalists, we warmed an area to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and raised the relative humidity to 51 percent, in accordance with an industry-standard test. We set the target temp on each unit as low as it would go, ran each unit for 30 minutes, and noted how much it was able to drop the temperature and humidity. However, the outdoor temperature was only in the 50s at the time of our testing (late April in Boston), so the infiltration air likely chilled the room as much as the actual cooling system. We repeated these tests during a second session on an unusually warm day in May. We’re going to use these initial results as baseline data for later tests, which we plan to run for longer periods during summer heat waves. We’re also hoping to find a practical way to measure how much infiltration air each model pulls into a room.
To test noise, 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—iterations of each unit’s fan/mode settings (compressor on/off, fan high/medium/low)—from a distance of about 6 feet. We measured the frequency output and looked for isolated spikes in the upper midrange and high frequencies, which tend to sound irritating.
We also hooked each unit up to a Kill A Watt electricity-usage meter to gauge the advertised energy use against the real-world figures.
Beyond those tests, we also noted the quality of the materials in each unit and how easy it was to install and uninstall the machines, as well as to move them over floors and carpeting.
If you need a portable air conditioner, we recommend the Whynter Elite ARC-122DS, a dual-hose unit. Our educated guess is that it should be able to cool a room quicker and to a lower temperature than its competitors, and it should also use the least energy. It’s much lighter and smaller than similar models, so it’s easier to move and store. The noise, price, and installation kit are all typical for the category.
The Elite ARC-122DS has the best specs of any portable AC we’ve come across. It’s a dual-hose model, with a category-leading energy efficiency ratio (EER) of 12.0, and a strong 12,000 Btu cooling capacity. As we’ve learned, the printed specs don’t always translate to the real world, but considering the specs plus a bit of our own testing, we can say that the Elite ARC-122DS is likely the most effective cooler among portable ACs. Since it’s a dual-hose model, it doesn’t suck in too much hot infiltration air. And because the EER is so high, it doesn’t radiate as much heat from its body back into the room. So it should cool rooms quickly and reach lower temperatures than less-effective models—both of which can have a big impact on your comfort in very hot, humid weather.
That also means the Elite ARC-122DS is likely the most efficient portable AC overall. In mild weather, we found that it used about 1,005 watts to run the compressor and the fan on the highest setting, just about matching the advertised power draw (1,000 W). In tests on a hotter day, it drew 1,080 watts. Since it seems to cool quickly, the compressor may be able to switch off sooner than those in competing units, though we need to do more testing to confirm this. The combination of low power draw and shorter run times for the compressor should add up to significant energy savings.
The Elite ARC-122DS is noticeably lighter and more compact than its closest competitors. It weighs about 60 pounds, stands a shade under 30 inches tall, and measures 17 inches wide. It’s about 20 pounds lighter, 6 inches shorter, and 2 inches narrower than our runner-up, which is a more typical size for a strong dual-hose model. As a result, we found the Elite ARC-122DS comparatively easier to roll across rugs and over thresholds (not to mention carrying it into a house from the driveway). It’ll also take up less space in a small closet or storage area when it’s not in use.
In other aspects, the Elite ARC-122DS is typical of dual-hose models. It comes with the very same installation kit as our other finalists. The control scheme and remote control are pretty much the same. We measured it running at about 65 dBC on the high fan setting, without any obvious rattling, whirring, or whining noises, which is par for the course. And the price (at the time of this writing, at least) is right in line with that of our other finalists.
For starters, the Elite ARC-122DS is still a portable air conditioner, with all the problems inherent to that design.
The accompanying window kit is not very good. It consists of a few plastic pieces that slide together, so you can mix and match to the width (or height) of your window—except that it won’t always fit. The double-hung windows in our test house, for example, were about 3 inches too wide for the smaller piece to fill the gap, and at least 6 inches too narrow for the longer piece to fit. (We cut one of the pieces down to size by drilling holes in a line through the plastic until we could bend it enough to snap off, but a saw might be easier, and filling the gap with foam board could work too.) It also doesn’t come with any foam tape or foam strips to pad the window kit or stuff gaps, which is essential to maximize the efficiency and performance of the AC. All that said, this is the same window kit that comes with both of our other finalists, and many other portable air conditioners we’ve tested. Extra foam is cheap and easy to find.
We’re not sure how reliable the Elite ARC-122DS will be. Very few customer reviews are available for this model. In reviews of a few other Whynter models, owners say that some of the plastic parts in the machine broke after just one year of use, leaving the unit unusable. If you buy the Elite ARC-122DS on our account, and it breaks after a year, we’re sorry. But we have no way to tell how this thing will hold up. For what it’s worth, we don’t see these complaints about most Whynter models, so … fingers crossed?
Whynter’s customer support is a bit of a mystery, as well. Some customer reviews say the support is worthless, others say it’s great. We don’t know what’s closer to the truth, but overall it paints a typical picture. Whynter has never replied to any of our emails or phone calls on any topic at any point over the past three years; however, we have been calling the company as media representatives, which differs from the typical customer service experience.
We also want to reiterate that we can’t yet be certain the Elite ARC-122DS is the absolute best-performing portable AC. Our tests are just not rigorous enough to draw hard conclusions, though the evidence we have so far makes us confident it’ll at least prove to be one of the best.
If our main pick is unavailable, or the price jumps, the Whynter ARC-14S is a good alternative. It’s one of the few other dual-hose portable ACs with a high EER, substantial cooling capacity, and wide availability.
It’s not our main pick for a few reasons. The most important is that it seems to be less efficient, and therefore less effective. In our test, it drew about as much power as our pick, yet didn’t reduce the temperature in the room as much. It cooled the room by 9 degrees in 30 minutes, whereas our pick cooled the room by 13 degrees. As we’ve said, we need more data to confirm the real-world performance. But on paper, the ARC-14S has a lower advertised EER than our main pick, at 11.2 (versus 12.0 for the top pick). The ARC-14S is also relatively heavy and large, at 80 pounds and 3 feet tall (our pick is about 20 pounds lighter and 6 inches shorter), which makes the ARC-14S harder to move around and store.
Otherwise, the ARC-14S is similar to our main pick. It comes with the same window kit, remote control, and control scheme, and the price is about the same, too.
Our other finalist, the Avallon APAC140C, did fine in our tests. But it uses more energy (both on paper, with an EER of 9.5, and in practice, drawing 1,450 watts in our test) than our main pick and runner-up, it doesn’t obviously cool better than either Whynter model, and it’s as large as our bulky runner-up. It doesn’t really have a control panel, either, just a remote control, so if you lose that, working the machine is going to be tricky. It’s very similar to the Whynter models on many counts, particularly the ARC-14S—the hoses and window kit are the very same. The price is about the same as that of our other finalists, too. We just don’t think there’s a real compelling reason to buy this model. A lower-powered version, the APAC120S, is also available but much harder to find.
We also considered but dismissed about a dozen other dual-hose models from CCH Products, EdgeStar, Friedrich, Haier, Impecca, and Sunpentown, because they’re hard to find, overpriced, inefficient, poorly rated, or a combination.
The vast majority of portable ACs—82 of the 103 models we tracked for this guide—are single-hose models. In theory, an excellent single-hose model could be more effective and efficient than a very bad dual-hose model. But if that top-notch single-hose model even exists, it wouldn’t be easy to find without extensive testing, so we opted not to look for the best single-hose model at all. Single-hose models aren’t much cheaper than dual-hose models, and don’t offer any advantages. They barely save any space, and are never more efficient—at least not in weather where you really need an air conditioner. Plus, most dual-hose models (including our main pick and runner-up) can work as single-hose units anyway—just take off the intake hose.
For a previous version of this guide, before we found the evidence that dual-hose models were likely to be better performers, we did test a handful of single-hose units, including the Haier HPN12XCM (now discontinued), the Honeywell MN10CES, the LG LP1215GXR, and the Whynter ARC-12S. We’ve also looked through dozens of other models from brands including Black+Decker, Danby, De’Longhi, Frigidaire, and Koldfront. If, for whatever reason, you’re planning to get a single-hose model despite everything we report in this guide, look at the LG first. Buy only from retailers with decent return policies, because you may not be happy with what you purchase. And whatever you do, ignore any models that are weaker than 10,000 Btu: They’re not very efficient, and they will make an impact only in small rooms.
As with just about every other appliance category, we expect more “smart” portable ACs to trickle out over the next few years. The Frigidaire Gallery FGPC1244T1 is the only one that’s currently available. You can control most of its functions with a smartphone app, or with Alexa or the Google Home. However, it’s a single-hose unit. All the smart window ACs we’ve seen so far have proven to be pretty glitchy, and we’d expect the same problems to pop up with this portable model, too.
It may be easier to find an effective, efficient portable AC in a few years. In 2016, after a years-long process, the Department of Energy approved a rule that would require all portable ACs to use at least 20 percent less energy than the least-efficient models that are currently available. It was scheduled to be added to the Federal Register in March 2017, but the current administration delayed that step. Several states and advocacy groups have announced their intent to sue the DOE over the delay. If this rule is finally solidified, the new efficiency standards will take effect in 2021.
Even then, portable air conditioners will still use much more energy and provide a worse cooling experience than window air conditioners. Several groups advocated for even-stronger standards. But as Lauren Urbanek, senior energy policy advocate for the National Resources Defense Council, put it to us: “We’re happy that there’s a standard to begin with. These products were very far behind window AC efficiency and using way more energy than they needed to.”
We know a few tricks to improve the efficiency and performance of any portable AC.
If the room you’re trying to cool gets direct sunlight, keep the curtains drawn or blinds closed.
When it’s in use, keep the AC as close to the window as you can, with as many of the accordion ribs collapsed as possible, so the hose or hoses stay short. A short hose radiates less heat back into a room than a long hose. The radiation offsets maybe 1 percent of the AC’s cooling, so it’s a minor problem but an easy one to fix. If you’re very worried about this effect, you can insulate the hose or hoses with duct wrap.
Clean the filter at least once a month. You don’t need any tools for this—it’s just like cleaning the lint filter in a clothes dryer. A dirty filter makes an AC less efficient and effective, and it takes only about one minute to fix.