Portable Air Conditioners vs. Evaporative Coolers: Know The Differences Before You Buy

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Portable air conditioners and evaporative coolers are popular options for providing room-specific cooling to homes – whether they already have central air conditioning or not.

What makes them different?

Both types of cooling systems can cool a room just fine. However, there are some differences between them, especially regarding their operating environments.

This guide will teach you how each type of air conditioning system works, the pros and cons of each, and how you can choose the best one for your room.

Check out our top picks for every room size and budget, with reviews, pros/cons, buying tips & more!

Evaporative Coolers

Portable Air Conditioners vs. Evaporative Coolers

Evaporative coolers, also known as “swamp coolers,” are air cooling units that depend on some basic science to emit cool air into a room.

These units rely on fans and water to create a cooling air blast that can lower the temperature in a room up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit while reducing the ambient air from five to nine degrees Fahrenheit.

How Evaporative Coolers Work

Evaporative cooling happens naturally all around us, sometimes even daily.

An example of this would be the relief you get when you step outside after swimming in a hot pool.

This cooling effect occurs when dry air passes over water on your body, absorbing some moisture as it goes by.

When the water’s temperature and vapor pressure (the amount of water in the air) are equalized with the atmosphere, the water absorbs the air.

The result is the molecules turning into gases, causing the heat to change from a high temperature to a low temperature.

The area is cooled by the air circulating on its own.

Evaporative coolers operate off of this concept.

The cooler uses a blower fan to draw warm, stagnant air into the unit and passes it over pads that are moistened by water, blowing the cold air out of the team.


  • Operation: Evaporator coolers are very easy to operate and can easily be moved from one room to another without worrying about connecting hoses and drains.
  • Energy Usage: Evaporative cool­ers don’t use a con­dens­er or any com­pli­cated parts that eat up watts. They are big fans that blow air onto moisture. This can sometimes be as much as 75% cheaper to operate.
  • Maintenance: These units don’t need much care. They need to be wiped down every few weeks after heavy usage and may occasionally require the moisture pads replaced, but that’s about all there is to it.
  • Moisture is added when needed: Evaporative cools put plenty of water back in the air. So if you live in an arid climate or have a dry part of the house that could pose a risk to wooden items and anything else prone to warping in dry heat, these coolers serve a dual purpose.


  • Climate restricted: This is a big downside. Evaporative cool­ers can’t be used everywhere. They rely on having cool air present to cool off. So if you live in an arid climate or have a dry space you’re trying to cool, these cooling units won’t be helpful for you.
  • Lack of Added Feature: Evaporative cools are essential appliances, which means they lack many added features found on portable and window air conditioners, such as a heat pump, dehumidifying capability, and many programmable functions.


Evaporative coolers are primarily restricted to desert-like areas and regions in the southern and western parts of the United States.

Despite their nickname of “swamp cooler,” evaporative coolers are useless in swampy, humid areas.

Portable Air Conditioners

How to Install a Portable Air Conditioner

A portable air conditioner is a smaller version of a traditional central air unit. However, only the parts are contained in a single space, instead of most units being out­side.

Portable air conditioners contain the same refrigeration chemical as their big brothers and use a compressor, a condenser, and an evaporator to create the process.

How Condenser Coolers Work

Portable air conditioners are a bit more complicated than evaporative coolers.

The refrigerant chemicals arrive at the compressor as cold, low-pressure gas while the liquid passes through the compressor.

The molecules within the chemical bonds are pushed closer — the tighter they’re pushed, the hotter and more energetic they become.
The chemicals leave your compressor and enter your condenser as warm gas at high pressure.

The gas is then chilled while passing through the compressor and becomes liquid. It then passes through a small opening into the evaporator.

Once the pressure drops, the liquid turns back into gas.

The cool air from the evaporator coil is released into the immediate vicinity while the gas returns to the compressor and starts the cycle again.


  • There is no climate restriction: portable air conditioners can work anywhere and in any space.
  • Better Cooling: Portable air conditioners are artificial cooling that relies upon a complicated process. It may be more complex, but the cooling ability is far more versatile and controllable than air conditioners, even in the hottest environments.
  • Dehumidification units remove moisture from the air during the cooling process, resulting in a more comfortable room and helping those sensitive to allergens.
  • Other Features: Many portable air conditioners have numerous added features that allow them to do more than just cool. All units can circulate and cool air, but many more can provide heat or function as humidifiers when needed.


  • Evaporative coolers use less electricity than portable air conditioners, so they’re likely to be cheaper to run.
  • They’re limited in use because they need to be vented, so they must be close to a window, sliding door, or a hole made into the wall to help direct airflow out of the room. You can’t use them everywhere.


Evaporative cool­ers effectively provide noticeable amounts of cooling while using light energy.

If you live in a dry region, these units will suit you; however, they’re not as versatile as portable air conditioners and require less maintenance.

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