Air conditioners buying guide
Controlling the temperature and humidity in your home means ensuring that you have a much-needed air conditioner. Explore the many options that are available to learn which one will be perfect for your family.
Table of contents
What is an air conditioner?
First, what exactly is an air conditioner? It’s a device that comes in many form factors that helps cool the air in the home by taking warm air, removing it, and replacing it with cooler air.
Some homes may be equipped with central air conditioning, which allows you to control the temperature throughout the entire home using the same thermostat you use to control the heat, and an outdoor-installed air conditioning unit. But this is a costly setup, and some homes, as well as apartments, don’t have it. And you might really only need to add cooling to a single room, such as an upstairs bedroom, or one floor of the home. The solution, in these cases, is to buy a portable or window air conditioner.
Types of air conditioners
If you’re looking to buy an air conditioner to cool a room of the home, you’ll probably be deciding between the two main options: a portable air conditioner and a window air conditioner.
Portable air conditioners
A portable air conditioner is a floorstanding appliance that uses air from within the room to cool the area, and exhausts air, sometimes out from a hose that’s mounted at the window using an included window venting kit. Some models include a self-evaporating function that will recycle condensation back into the air, while others require drainage of water. There are also dual-hose models that include one hose to bring air inside from the outdoors, then run it out through the window, and a second hose that exhausts heated air out. Some can also vent air out through a drop ceiling or through a wall.
A model with a hose will come with a window vent kit that can fit right onto your window opening to expel the air. Those that don’t have a hose require simply that you plug them in and go. But you will need to empty water periodically from a reservoir of some kind. How often will depend on how humid the air is in your room. The most hassle-free option is a more advanced self-evaporating model, since they are easy to set up and require very little, if any, maintenance.
Advantages and disadvantages of a portable air conditioner
Portable air conditioners are great if you want to be able to move them from room-to-room (although note that if you have one that exhausts air through the window, you’d also have to remove the hose and install it at another window as well.) They’re also ideal for rooms without windows, such as a basement office or play area. They are usually quite large and heavy, but often come on castors so you can roll them around, which makes storage during the winter easy as well. They are also usually quick and easy to set up in minutes, so ideal if you’re looking for a quick fix to an especially hot home.
But since they are larger, you might not want to get one for a small room since it will take up space. And some sources suggest that they aren’t as effective in cooling as a window AC unit for larger spaces, though there’s no definitive evidence on this. It might also depend on the unit and brand you choose. (If you’re worried about efficacy, it’s always a good idea to check out trusted sources for online reviews.)
Before we sprung for central air conditioning in my home, I used a portable air conditioner in my son’s approximately 100-square-foot bedroom, and it worked perfectly to cool the space. Keep in mind that if you are in an apartment or rented home, you might not be permitted to install a window AC, or may be worried about doing so, so a portable unit could be your best option (not to mention easiest to take with you when you move.)
Portable air conditioners can sometimes run pretty loud, so you might want to get one with a timer function, so you can have it automatically go off at night once the room has effectively cooled, or during your baby’s nap times.
Though you never know: some people might find the hum of the unit soothing.
Window air conditioners
By contrast, a window air conditioner is installed right into a standard-sized window opening, exhausting hot air outside and bringing cool air in. They’re much smaller, and more unobtrusive in design.
Advantages and disadvantages of a window air conditioner
Window air conditioners are more discreet, and don’t take up any additional space in a room since they fasten directly to the window opening, making them ideal for small rooms or apartments. There’s also no drainage to worry about.
However, you need to make sure it will fit onto your window. I live in a 100-year-old house, for example, which has unusually small windows upstairs, which meant we had to cut the window mount for our portable air conditioner in order for it to properly fit in my son’s bedroom window. If we had gotten a window air conditioner, we would have had to make sure to measure the window opening and get one that would fit perfectly.
Window air conditioners can sometimes be quieter than portable air conditioners, and are often more affordable as well. They can be removed and stored away for the winter, but not as easily as a portable unit.
What are BTUs in an air conditioner?
One of the most important things you need to look at when selecting an air conditioner, regardless of the type, is BTUs, which stands for British Thermal Units. This is the number that measures the amount of heat an air conditioner can remove from the air over a certain period of time, relative to the room’s size. Essentially, the higher the BTUs, the greater capacity the air conditioner has to cool air in a larger room.
So for example, in my son’s aforementioned room, which is about 100 square feet in size, a 5,000 BTU air conditioner would suffice to effectively cool it. But getting a 6,000 BTU unit might help further cool down the hallway when his door is left open. Meanwhile, a 14,000 BTU air conditioner can cool a room up to 640 square-feet in size, which is ideal for a main floor living room, or larger basement playroom that tends to get hot in the summer. You can check out the handy chart in this article to determine the appropriate BTU number for your room.
ASHRAE vs. DOE’s SACC measurements
But keep in mind that BTUs can be measured in two different ways: typically by ASHRAE standards (American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) and, more recently, DOE’s (Department of Energy’s) Seasonally Adjusted Cooling Capacity (SACC). The ASHRAE figure provides the total number of BTUs that an air conditioner outputs while the revised SACC figure from the DEO accounts for heat generated by the AC unit itself. That, in turn, lowers the total number of BTUs and better represents how cool you’ll actually feel. SACC focuses more on efficiency while ASHRAE reports total cold output.
Thus, an ASHRAE BTU rating for a AC unit might be 10,000 while the SACC figure for the same one is 6,500. A 12,000 BTU air conditioner based on ASHRAE standards is equivalent to 7,500 BTU SACC. Think of it like in the same terms as the rated battery life of a tech device versus the actual battery life. Thus, you might find the SACC figure to be more accurate.
While not all products will include both labels, you can use these stated numbers as a guide. And if the ASHRAE rating alone is stated, just note that the actual rating based on how cool it will make the room will be less. So if you feel you only need a 6,500 BTU AC based on the size of your room, when going by ASHRAE, consider bumping up to one with a 10,000 BTU rating to be certain it works sufficiently and you actually get 6,500 BTUs.
This applies more to portable air conditioners than window ACs since the latter typically pushes warm air outside anyway.
What to look for in an air conditioner
When deciding on which air conditioner is right for you, there are a few things you should consider, and questions you should ask yourself.
BTUs and size of room for an air conditioner
As mentioned above, look at the BTUs relative to the size of your room to make sure it will do the job effectively.
The size of the room might dictate what type you decide on in another way as well: if the room is small, you might want to go for a window air conditioner that won’t take up too much room. If you have the size to accommodate it, or a small area where it can comfortably sit, you might prefer a portable air conditioner that is easy to set up and get going right out of the box, without any installation.
Where do you plan on putting the air conditioner?
Are you looking for a solution to cool a specific room in the home, such as your child’s nursery, or the master bedroom? If so, a window air conditioner might make the most sense. But if you think you might want to move it around, and cool different rooms, like the guest room when the grandparents are staying over, look at a portable air conditioner instead.
You also need to consider things like noise: how loud is it, and will it distract your baby, or a light sleeper? If so, look for one that touts extra-quiet operation. And also make sure a window AC or a portable air conditioner’s exhaust hose set-up will fit properly in your window, especially if your windows are unusually small or large.
Also consider what you plan to do with it at the end of the season: while both portable and window air conditioners can be removed at the end of the season for storage, it’s much easier to roll a portable air conditioner into the basement or closet to store it away. But it will, of course, take up much more room.
How much space do you want to cool with an air conditioner?
If you’re looking to cool an entire house, you could opt for multiple window air conditioners for each main room, or get a portable air conditioner to place on each floor of the home that you can move around, or tilt in the desired direction to cool down the space you’re currently in. But you may just be looking to cool down one or two rooms of the home, like the bedrooms, or a small apartment, in which case, a single unit should be enough. If you’re renting an apartment, while a portable air conditioner is larger, it might make more sense since it does not require any type of installation, and you can roll it around if it’s on castors for cooling wherever it’s needed.
Costs and environmental friendliness of an air conditioner
The upfront cost of the unit is only one consideration: window ACs are usually less expensive, whereas portable air conditioners with high BTUs can be costly, but effective for larger rooms, or cooling entire open concept floors of a home.
Whichever option you choose, look for an Energy Star or other environmental-type rating to ensure not only that it runs efficiently, but that it won’t use too much electricity, and cause a massive jump in your bills.
Ease of installation and maintenance of an air conditioner
If you don’t want to have to be constantly draining out the water, look for a model with a function that will evaporate the water and recycle it back into the air, so it’s easy and maintenance-free.
Portable AC units are usually the easiest to set up, since you simply plug them in, position the hose to vent out of the window if you get such a model, and you’re good to go. They usually also have easy-to-clean filters. If you don’t plan on moving it too often, consider getting one that exhausts out the window, which will require a bit of extra set-up, but it means there’s no water drainage to worry about. But if you want a quick and easy set-up that you can move from room-to-room, consider a unit that collects the water from condensation in a bucket that you need to empty as needed, or a self-evaporating model.
Convenience features of an air conditioner
You might appreciate having certain convenience features, like a handy remote to adjust the temperature of a portable air conditioner in the living room from the comfort of your couch, or a timer function so you can set it to cool your child’s room overnight, then shut off at 7 a.m. each morning once he’s up for school. Some also have multiple settings to adjust the cool level, which is perfect to toggle as the temperature outside fluctuates.
Should you get an AC with dehumidification for your home?
Some air conditioners have built-in dehumidifying functions as well. This can be advantageous for a number of reasons. Dehumidifiers works to remove humidity and moisture from the air, helping maintain a comfortable temperature and making the air less dry. This can also help prevent things like musty odours, peeling paint, dust mites, and mold.
If you live somewhere that gets pretty humid during the summer months, this is a function worth considering to help both cool the air and get rid of excess moisture. Air conditioners circulate cool air throughout the home, but often times, it won’t reach the basement level as well as the other levels of the home. If you live in a three-story home, a dehumidifying function can come in handy.
But you might also want to consider a separate dehumidifier if it’s only one room or floor of the home that tends to get hot, humid, and muggy, even with air conditioning running. If you’re using a portable AC, the dehumidifier will help reduce moisture in the room it’s in but it won’t travel to other rooms of the home, like the basement. If the AC unit is not in the basement, it would be a good idea to grab a dehumidifier for that floor, too, or a portable AC with a dehumidifying function for the basement.
Apartment dwellers might also find the dehumidifying function of a hybrid portable AC useful if building management doesn’t turn on the AC until later in the year and Mother Nature has brought humidity earlier than expected. Or conversely, if humidity lasts longer than the typical shut-off date for AC in the apartment. With the unpredictable weather patterns in Canada, you never know when you might need it!
Will you need accessories for an air conditioner?
You shouldn’t need any accessories for a portable or window air conditioner, but there are some items you can get, like side panel kit that can replace worn side panels and help reduce drafts; and a cover for a window air conditioner that can protect it from damage in the winter if you do leave it installed all year, and to help reduce drafts and heat loss.
Bottom line about air conditioners
There are so many things to consider when deciding on an air conditioner. Portable air conditioners are versatile, and usually come with a lot of options, like a timer, multiple settings, and a remote, which make them attractive options, even if they tend to be more expensive. But window ACs might appeal to the budget-conscious person just looking to cool a single room with an unobtrusive design, low maintenance, and little noise.
In the end, the most important things to look at are the BTUs relative to the size of your room (making sure you’re clear on whether it’s the ASHRAE or DOE number), what the installation process entails and how handy you are, overall maintenance, price, fit, energy efficiency, and look. Ticking off each of these boxes, you’ll find the perfect one to meet your needs.
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