Your Guide to the Best 12 Volt Portable Air Conditioners

More and more people are looking for portable air conditioning units for cars, RVs and small homes – especially given the recent summer heatwaves. Unfortunately, if you don’t shop carefully (or fully understand how small air conditioners work), you could wind up with a piece of junk. Whether you’re living out of a vehicle or trying to cool down a small room or RV, we’re going to break down how to choose the best portable AC unit. You can also skip right to our recommendations.

How do I find a quality portable air conditioner?

In order to answer this question, we first need to cover some basics about how air conditioning systems operate.
Larger buildings, like homes, are typically equipped with a central AC unit which operates “like a giant refrigerator for your house” using a condenser, evaporator, and compressor. For those living in a campervan with a battery bank, you should know that any electrical appliance that produces a difference in temperature (heaters, air conditioners, or refrigerators) all require a significant amount of energy.

Keeping this in mind, some proclaimed portable air conditioning units are actually just fans. For a real cooling system, you need to make sure the portable unit is equipped with both a condenser and evaporator.

how air conditioners work
Source: Archtoolbox

Anything else I should know about portable AC units for cars?

A portable AC unit for a car or van won’t be as powerful as a central unit, but it can really do the trick. One thing to keep in mind is size: in general, the larger the unit the more powerful. That means, while a smaller portable AC unit might be more appropriate for a small car, it simply won’t have the power of a larger unit for, say, an RV or camper.

highlight-arrowA note about “personal cooling devices”: While we’re about to cover some of the best 12V portable AC conditioners and portable air conditioners for cars and RVs, there are still some folks who may be considering a much smaller purchase, like a “personal cooling device”. Of COURSE you want a small, cheap machine that pumps out cold air. Who doesn’t?

The problem is, most of these devices simply don’t work well at all. (you could say that a lot of these companies are just blowing a bunch ofhot air – ha!). A good example is Ontel’s Personal Cooler. You’re far better spending a little extra for a quality AC or fan that will last longer and cool your vehicles more efficiently.

Portable RV Air Conditioners:

Real portable air conditioners aren’t all that small, but they still offer the versatility that window systems do not. These are not 12V, so if you want to run them them off of a large battery bank, you’ll need a good inverter. These are far better suited for RVs for this reason, as well as small rooms in houses. They typically come equipped with an exhaust hose (the heat created to run the condenser, etc. needs to go somewhere other than the same room!)

Here are some other quick things to note about portable RV air conditioners:

• Not the best pick for smaller camper vans
• Compatible with small rooms, converter high-tops, and substantial inverter systems
• These are REAL air conditioners and will cool a room significantly.
• Require a place (window) for an exhaust hose

Top Picks:

This portable Honeywell Air Conditioner doubles as a dehumidifier, and works for rooms up to 400 square feet, features 3 fan speeds, and a sleep mode. The three-in-one system is also the most affordable of its kind, though some users noted it was a little on the noisy side.

The slightly more expensive Whynter AC unit has all the same features, but with an activated carbon filter for heavy use. Although it’s slightly larger, too.

12V Air Conditioner Options

If you’re looking for a portable air conditioning unit for your car, on the other hand, the fact is that there aren’t many ‘true’ AC units that work with a 12 volt outlet. These options typically do not have a condenser, but instead rely on the use of ice (if you’re interested in building your own, you can search “swamp coolers” for ideas). Because it’s reliant on both ice DC power, these can only be expected to cool spaces for brief periods of time.

Top Picks:

The IcyBreeze Cooler Chill Package is a solid choice, and one of the few options available. Pack it with ice or other frozen items, and start it up. The power supply cord plugs usually into a cigarette lighter and doubles as a pseudo-AC unit and cooler. Customers were mostly satisfied, with one noting that block ice works best.

12V Fans for a Car

You may be starting to realize that your ticket to Chill City may not exist for your personal car – at least, not a real air conditioner. However, you still have options, and they are far more affordable. While an AC unit cools the car overall, you can direct a fan toward you specifically. This is especially efficient because, rather than cooling an entire car, these fans work by pushing away warm air produced by body heat, producing a cooling effect.

Top Picks:

You’ll have a good deal of options for 12V fans, so you want to make sure you invest in a high quality one, especially since it won’t have as strong of cooling effects as an AC unit. For RVs or high-top vans with a little mor space, check out the Fan-Tastic Vent Endless 12V Fan. It comes with a five foot cord, low amp draw, and features instant air flow. Most users found it quiet and effective.
If you’re looking for a medium-sized fan, the Above Trek 12V Car Fan is a great option; it not only cools your car, but also apparently fights tobacco, dust, and pet odors. It’s suitable for small compact vans and medium to large sedans and SUVS.
If you’re in need of a smaller option, the Opolar Battery Operated Fan may be a better fit. The fan comes with a rechargeable battery, enhanced clamp, tilting capability, and a one-year warranty. Charge it directly from your 12V battery bank or whenever you get a chance at a 120V outlet. A full battery change lasts up to 6 hours – good enough for a full nights sleep on a warm night.