How do portable air conditioners work?

Anula Wiwatowska
Jul 11, 2024
Icon Time To Read2 min read
// Pretty cool

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Portable air conditioners feel like magic, and they are, but they’re also interesting pieces of technology. Like all good inventions they seem simple, but there is a lot more going on under the hood.

How does a portable air conditioner work?

In the simplest of terms a portable air conditioner sucks in hot air and blows out cool air to replace it. There are three main components that achieve this; the refrigerant, the compressor, and the air circulator.

As hot air is pulled into the machine, the hot air is cooled by the condenser coils. From there the air heats the refrigerant in another lot of coils called evaporator coils, in turn changing its state from liquid to gas.This gas travels through the portable air conditioner to the compressor where the cycle starts again. As the heat transfers from the air to the refrigerant, the air circulator pushes the cold air back out into the room, while any remaining warm air is pushed outside through the duct.

Since the coils are imperative to heat transfer, if they get dirty (as they tend to do) the compressor has to work harder to cool down the air. Not only can this cause serious damage to the device, it also makes the air conditioner less efficient so you’ll need to run it for longer to get the best results. There are a whole heap of other reasons why you should clean your portable air conditioner, but this one might just tip you over the edge.

Throughout this process the AC also extracts moisture and humidity from the air because the air is cooled until it becomes water vapour. In fully evaporative portable air conditioners the device will (you guessed it) fully evaporate the moisture for you. They still have water catchment areas that may need to be drained on occasion, but they are much lower maintenance than gravity drain models that need a drippy hose pipe.

How much does it cost to run a portable air conditioner in Australia?

Portable air conditioners are power-hungry and can cause your electricity bill to skyrocket during warmer months. How much your air conditioner costs to run entirely depends on its wattage. Similar to heaters, the wattage refers to how much power is being drawn by the device when it's running at its max. The higher the number, the pricier it will be.

Figuring out how much these devices will cost you is a relatively simple calculation, you just need your kW/h price from your electricity bill, and the wattage of the machine. Use this formula to get a general idea:

Electric heater
Winter cost = 92 (hours heater is on per day (kw/h charge x kilowattage of device) )

More broadly we know that the average kW/h cost across Australia in the 2022-2023 financial year was around $0.14. Below we use this figure to break down the running costs of some of the most common portable aircon wattage variants. Our daily cost assumes that the device is running for eight hours per day, while the season cost refers to 92 days of Summer.

Hourly cost
Daily cost
Cost per season
Anula Wiwatowska
Written by
Anula is the Content and Social Media Editor within the extended universe. Working in the tech space since 2020, she covers phone and internet plans, gadgets, smart devices, and the intersection of technology and culture. Anula was a finalist for Best Feature Writer at the 2022 Consensus Awards, and an eight time finalist across categories at the IT Journalism Awards. Her work contributed to WhistleOut's Best Consumer Coverage win in 2023.

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