The Best Portable Air Conditioner
After using the Honeywell for 24 months, analyzing 20 different units and narrowing them down to four finalists, which we then tested over 100 hours, our recommendation for the best portable air conditioner is the LG 12,000 BTU. It’s powerful, energy efficient, quiet enough to allow you to sleep consistently, not horrible to look at, and mobile enough to port around to any room without inconvenience.
If you don’t have an air conditioner and have suffered or are about to suffer through increasingly hotter summers, you’ve probably considered a portable unit. They aren’t perfect, or without their critics, but in times of need, they can get the job done.
In particular, most portable air conditioners aren’t very effective and at best, function as a super-powered fan that can blow cool air at you, but not actually cool a room. And worse, they are loud—which makes sleeping next to them difficult if you need their cool air to make your bedroom temperature tolerable.
Ironically, too, most of them aren’t very portable—my wife and I would often times begrudgingly move ours or decide not to move the air conditioner at all from our living room to our bedroom when we owned the Honeywell because it was difficult to move and a pain to re-setup in another bedroom.
LG’s 12,000 BTU model optimizes on every aspect the Honeywell did solidly, but not amazingly. It’s relatively easy to move given it’s slightly smaller size, is relatively quiet, and is powerful enough to actually cool a room, not just cool one person. That’s what made it our top pick for most people who need a portable air conditioner.
Our Pick: LG 12,000 BTU
With all around performance in power, portability, efficiency and usability, the LG 12,000 BTU is our choice for most situations.
Table of Contents
- How do they work?
- Who needs a portable unit
- Single vs dual hose units
- What are British Thermal Units (BTUs)?
- British Thermal Unit (BTU) calculator
- Why you should trust us
- How we tested the finalists
- Comparing all the top units
- Our pick for the best portable
- The quietest portable
- The smallest portable
- The cheapest portable
- Long term testing notes
How do portable air conditioners work?
Portable air conditioners work using refrigerants to absorb the heat from the air. As these refrigerants absorb heat, the refrigerant changes from liquid to gas. The pressure of the air conditioner then creates heat in order to pressurize the hot air through the hose, usually outside. Meanwhile, the cool air is then pushed out into your room in order to bring down the temperature.
In single hose units, this creates negative pressure, causing unconditioned warm air from other rooms or outside to be drawn into your space—causing some conflict that often makes many of these units ineffective and noisy.
Who needs a portable unit
Portable air conditioners aren’t for everybody. They’re normally best for people who can’t fit a window air conditioner or don’t have the permission to do so (such as in an apartment). You need a horizontal window to use most window air conditioners, which doesn’t work for windows with vertical openings.
And if you’re planning to buy one for a house and not a business, you’d most likely need two (or three) to cool a living room, bedroom and office, so you may prefer the use case of a single portable air conditioner you can move around with you.
As mentioned, they’re generally ugly, power hogs, and not actually as portable as they seem. If you can afford installing central air, that’s almost certainly the way to go. But for those that can’t or for those who won’t be staying in one home as long, portable air conditioners are a reasonable alternative.
Single vs dual hose units
Dual hose units, unlike the single hose units described above, have one outtake and one intake hose, whereby the intake hose pulls air from outside to cool the compressor and condenser, and the other hose pushes that used air back outside.
After reading several articles and also watching a few videos on the subject, it seems there is no major difference in performance from one unit over the other. The Whynter 14,000 model did outperform the other three models in terms of true cooling, but all things equal, it was also a lot uglier and harder to move, which isn’t worth it for most.
Ultimately, it seems that dual hose units are slightly better than single hose units in terms of pure cooling power, but it’s not such a significant difference that it’s worth overlooking smaller, cheaper, and better looking models that still have solid cooling capacity.
What are British Thermal Units (BTUs)?
British thermal units (BTUs) are a unit of measurement for energy that expresses the amount of energy used to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree fahrenheit. Portable air conditioners, on the surface, are most easily differentiated by their BTUs.
All things equal, most manufacturers differentiate the portable air conditioners in their product lines by this unit—and it also accounts for the biggest swings in price. In our testing, it also became obvious that the more powerful units in the 14,000 range, although powerful, can also be detrimental to sleep and also, portability.
The Whynter 14,000 BTU model came in at a whopping 100 pounds, and although it was clearly the most effective model for cooling, it was also the loudest, making it impossible to sleep next to, even at lower fan levels.
That considered, you should keep BTUs in mind when deciding the unit you purchase. If you don’t plan to sleep next to your air conditioner, you might want to ramp up the BTUs, especially in bigger, sun-facing spaces.
British Thermal Unit (BTU) calculator
To make your cooling calculation easier, we’ve provided the below BTU calculator, which is based on recommended variables from ENERGY STAR.
If you aren’t sure the size of the room off the top of your head, the following chart from the National Association of Home Builders may give you a good general gauge. For those who aren’t aware, a “Great Room” is a combined living room+dining room.
Why you should trust us
As mentioned, we’ve owned and been diligent users of a Honeywell 10,000 BTU portable air conditioner for 24 months. We understand the needs and wants of a typical portable air conditioner user and also, the most important features of these models as people who have used them almost daily in our San Diego, California homes.
In addition to that, we spent almost 40 hours researching the best models in the market and researching other consumer tests and results on the web to determine not just what we care about, but what others do, too.
We saw that there were a good variety of models available, and decided to pare down to a few selections to determine the best choice and selection not just for you, but for the average user, and also, to inform future selections:
- BTU diversity — we owned a 10,000 BTU unit, but how much better did higher models perform? Were higher BTU models worth spending more on, or was it all smoke and mirrors?
- Double hose vs single hose — the internet says there isn’t much difference here, but is that actually the case?
- Manufacturer quality — from research, Whynter, LG, Honeywell and Haier were the major players in this space. If you need a different BTU level than the number we tested, would other models from that company be reliable?
From there, that gave us four models, the highest rated for each of the major manufacturers, including the Honeywell we had been using. We then spent 100+ hours testing the four units in several different balmy scenarios in the heat of early San Diego summer.
The four best portable air conditioners
- LG 12,000 BTU Single Hose
- Whynter 14,000 BTU Double Hose
- Haier 12,000 Single Hose
- Honeywell 10,000 BTU Single Hose
How we tested the finalists
Although temperatures never soared above 100 in our tests, in a poorly insulated home in the heat of mid-summer, we were able to explore the air conditioners’ ability to properly cool various room types that often got above 80 degrees, and at best, were always uncomfortable. In the coming months, we plan to continue testing the finalists to determine how they perform in the hottest scenarios.
First, we isolated two room types, a 250 square foot office, in addition to a 400 square foot living room/dining room (or great room), both of which are hit aggressively by the sun in the middle of the day.
Unfortunately we couldn’t climate control either room, so the tests won’t live up to scientific rigor, but we made up for that with a few things: 1) San Diego weather is pretty consistent, giving us reasonably even conditions every time we tested and 2) volume testing means we can run the same tests on the same rooms multiple times, and over a large enough sample, get some strong confidence in our results.
We made sure to isolate the tests within the hottest times of the day (around 12-5PM). Because our house was poorly insulated, the heat often stuck around longer than the sun did, with an oven-baked attic that retained heat/pushed it down into the office and living room.
From there, we ran each portable air conditioner for one hour in each space on the high setting, with a goal temperature of 70 degrees. We recorded the starting and ending temperature in each environment, and repeated the process three times in each setting, six total, for each air conditioner we tested.
In the smaller office, LG’s 12,000 BTU model was surprisingly neck and neck with the powerhouse 14,000 Whynter unit, substantially cooling the room and often times, not only cooled the room, but actually left the room cold—something these units can rarely accomplish.
The Honeywell and Haier units were effective, but didn’t blow us away or cool the room to a level even close to the ranges the other two did.
LG 12,000 BTU
Despite costing significantly less than the Whynter, the LG hung around in performance.
In our much bigger living room/dining room, results stayed pretty similar, although the Whynter unit started to outpace its counterparts substantially, with an impressive -.051 per minute cooling power.
On the low end, Haier and Honeywell only cooled at -.028 and -.025, respectively. Having used the Honeywell in the hot of summer with frequency, these cooling levels mean that the only way you will stay cool in extremely hot temperatures with the air conditioners blowing directly on you, and even then, it’s not comfortable.. it’s just barely getting you by.
If you do the math on these, you’ll notice the pure temperature change isn’t anything mind-blowing. Let’s not kid ourselves—portable air conditioners aren’t going to cool an entire house. In many ways, they’re best described as personal air conditioning units.
If you think of them and use them that way, you’ll be happy with the end result.
After the cooling test, something we knew about portable air conditioners from using them frequently is that these units can be dang loud. While not annoyingly loud in everyday settings, they’re loud enough to disrupt your sleep. If one of the main reasons you buy this is to not have to sleep in your own sweat, it shouldn’t counterbalance that by waking you up at various points throughout the night.
There are two stages of sound levels for these units: ongoing, and the moment it turns on or off. These units are all designed so that when they hit a temperature that now needs cooling, it hums to life, reaching its all-time loudest point—and vice versa when shutting down. Depending on the unit, this noise can be just as loud as the ongoing noise, but it’s different—and that difference can disturb your sleep.
This means that you’ll most often find yourself shook awake when the unit activates or deactivates throughout the night—not ideal. Most of them won’t be so loud they immediately jar you, but if they find you in the wrong sleep stage, there’s a good chance you’ll be shook awake.
For this reason, we measured not only the ongoing decibel levels of each unit—we also measured the activation/deactivation decibel level, to see which models were most likely to jar us awake.
The Whynter, while the most powerful unit, was also the most brutally loud, making it an instant nix if you’re considering it as a sleeping option. In addition, it’s the hardest to move, which means you’d need it to be bedroom-only to not be really annoyed at the process of shifting between rooms in your home.
On the other side of the sound spectrum, LG and Haier performed at the top of the class. While by no means did their operational sound remind us of a library, it stayed low enough to not wake us up as often.
While much lower, these are still producing constant noise, so if you’re a super light sleeper, be aware of the possibility of sleep disruption. If you have a significant other who is a deep sleeper, it’s suggested you put them closer to the unit.
Another irritating feature of all four of these units is that you can’t turn off their LED lights. You’d think the product designers would have thought through the option to shut off the lights for people who prefer blacked out rooms (studies show it helps your sleep), but they didn’t.
In using these units, we resorted to the makeshift method of covering them up with tape. While anything but sexy, it helped dampen the light and get closer to pitch black.
Other reviewers have suggested the LED screens function nicely as nightlights. Don’t count us in that camp, but if that’s something you might see as a value add, we can see the argument.
If you live in a humid environment, you may find the humidity settings on these units valuable. Because we don’t live in an overly humid area, we weren’t able to test the moisture removal for each, but were able to evaluate the reported capacity. Despite winning on every other test, LG came in last here at 67.2 pints/day removal capacity, with Honeywell close at 68.
Haier 12,000 BTU
If you're looking for a versatile but effective unit that functions well in humidity, Haier's a good choice.
Whynter and Haier took the lead in this area, with pints/day removal in the 101 and 100 range respectively. All things considered, if you live in a humid environment, the Haier is probably the best all-around choice for you.
Another factor to consider is Energy Efficiency Ratio, or EER, which can have an impact on your long-term electricity bill. EER is the a ratio of the BTUs of the unit to the power it consumes in watts. The Whynter and LG units performed best at 11.2 each, with Honeywell at 11.1. Haier had a EER of 9.5, which was the worst of the group and barely above government mandates—but that still doesn’t mean it’s going to cost you a lot more.
According to some estimations, that difference could be around $6-$20 more year to run, depending on your usage and the electricity rates in your area. On a long enough timeline, that would make up for a little more upfront cost to get a higher EER machine.
Comparing all the top units
Each air conditioner has small differentiating factors that may make or break it for you. We’ve compiled what we believe are the most important features in the below chart, so you can compare them side by side. Click the image to see it at full size.
The best portable overall
For our money, the LG 12,000 BTU is the best portable air conditioning unit on the market. It’s quiet, portable, powerful, energy efficient, and not too pricey, either.
At the time of this writing, it was around $40 more expensive than the Honeywell and $10 more than the Haier, but all things considered, it’s well worth the investment for relative usability and comfort. Given it had the strongest energy efficiency rating, you’d make up the price of the Haier in a few years as well.
It’s not quite as powerful as the Whynter, but a lot more portable and functional given the LG has a place in a bedroom and the Whynter does not. For our money, the LG is also the best looking model we tested, with the Haier being a close second.
The best unit with a heater
If you’re for whatever reason looking for a portable air conditioner that doesn’t need to move or sit in your bedroom, the Whynter may be a better choice, especially if your climate skews on the much hotter side.
Powerful cooling, in addition to a heating mode, make this a good choice if that's your need.
That said, the LG still had comparable cooling at $80 less. One thing the Whynter brought to the table the other models did not, though, is a heating mode. If you’d like your portable A/C to double as a heating unit, the versatility of the Whynter may be a good fit for your home or office.
We could see the Whynter being a good fit in older office buildings with open floor plans that both get too hot and too cold.
The quietest unit
LG 12,000 BTU
At only 70 decibels at its loudest, the LG makes a good bedroom companion.
Impressively, the LG 12,000 tested not only at the top of the class in power, it also tested best for noise level as well, generating only 70 decibels at its highest point. It never woke us up in the three plus weeks of testing it, and it also kept our room ice-cold as well—another factor contributing to good sleep.
The Haier model also performed nicely as a sleep option, with ongoing noise levels of 71 dB. Having used the Honeywell for two years, a 74 dB model, I know that it is capable of waking you up at times. Not frequently, but occasionally, so the recommendation is definitely to skew towards LG or Haier if you need to use these in your bedroom and right next to your bed.
The smallest unit
Haier 12,000 BTU
Attractive, tiny and with solid performance, the Haier's not a bad choice if size is your preference.
Although not bite-sized by any means, the Haier portable air conditioner was the smallest unit in pure height/width, at only 29 inches tall. It’s also one of the two best looking models we tested, and overall, a solid unit as well.
The LG is a close second at 35 inches tall, and an overall better performer than the Haier by a slight margin. Overall, you won’t be disappointed with the Haier if you prefer the aesthetic and want the smallest possible model for your home.
The cheapest unit
The Honeywell 10,000 BTU unit is a popular choice for many people—namely because it has solid Amazon reviews and is on the low end of cost in the market. We fell in that group, owning the Honeywell for 24 months. While we were generally satisfied, by no means were we ecstatic with the product.
Compared to the Haier and the LG, it’s hard to move, and we would often decide to not move it to one room simply because of the inconvenience. In hotter environments, it really only functions as a cold fan, not an air conditioner, in that it’s not capable of cooling a room in hotter temperatures… only blowing cold air on your face.
In addition, it’s on the louder side and frequently woke us up in the middle of the night, at 76 dB max noise level. Overall, it’s a solid product and one that we got by with, but after testing the LG, we’ll be sticking with that.
How to choose a mobile 14,000 BTU unit
If you used our calculator, you might have determined that you need a 14,000 BTU unit, or possibly more, and aren’t happy with how we describe the Whynter. You might have also noticed that there seem to be dozens upon dozens of varied models of each of these products. For example, LG as a manufacturer has 17 choices as of this writing. 17! There’s a variety of ways to go.
If that’s the case, or any of our above results are sold out, you might want to make a choice based on manufacturer. In terms of overall reputation and performance, Haier and LG impressed us the most in this category.
Haier has a 14,000 BTU version of their 12,000 BTU unit, with a similar build (although $535 at the time of this writing). It’s around $60 more than the Whynter, but it’s also 20 pounds lighter. If you need a powerhouse that you can also sleep next to, that would be our recommendation.
LG, unfortunately, did not have the same positive response to their 14,000 equivalent, which has a different build. As of this writing, it’s three and a half stars on Amazon, although also considerably cheaper than Haier’s option.
Although there are options above 14,000 BTUs outside portable air conditioners, it’s rare to see one above that number that’s also portable. If our calculator recommends a number higher than 14,000 BTUs, you might be out of luck or otherwise, may need to consider living with serviceable but not amazing cooling.
Long term testing notes
This post was originally published in May of 2016. Now six months later and having extensively tested the LG 12,000 and Haier 12,000 in two different rooms, we still feel good about our picks. The Haier, which we’ve kept in the bedroom, is a solid unit that has never woken us up in the middle of the night: it’s quiet but effective for cooling the room despite just being okay in overall cooling power.
The LG, which we’ve kept in our living room and moved back and forth between our office, is still a powerhouse. However, we had issue with the unit suddenly pooling water on our floor, and also, the fan sounding like water was running through it. We think this happened because we didn’t empty the water tray of the unit. This was a bit unexpected having never had to do that with our previous unit, the Honeywell.
The problem subsided with time/having cleaned it out, but it caused us to become slightly concerned about its long term viability. We’ll likely exercise the one year warranty before it runs out, and will report back on if this is a one time problem or a major weakness in a product we had otherwise preferred.
As of today, we still feel good about our pick of the LG, since it was far and above the best unit in our eyes. However, the gap is lowering between it and the next best unit for most people, the Haier. We’ll report back in a few months about whether or not the LG is still our top choice for most people.