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, using a condenser, evaporator, and compressor. For automobile applications, 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.
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.
A 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 Air Conditioners for Home/RV:
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 either a small generator, or a substantial house battery with a good inverter. These are far better suited for RVs for this reason, as well as small rooms in houses.
I know I said real air conditioners aren’t small. But there’s always an exception to the rule. If you’re looking for ultra-portability, this Evapolar evaCHILL fits the bill. It’s not going to have the same room-cooling power as the two units listed below, but if you need something to put on your desk or by your bedside, this is a worthy little machine. This is essentially a tiny little “swamp cooler”, in which you fill a small, integrated water tank every so often, which it uses to cool the air that it emits.
Frankly, this might be the ONLY air conditioner of this size that is worth buying, as long as you know that it’s meant for cooling a very small, pinpointed area.
This portable Black & Decker 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.
Similar to the Black and Decker above, this AC unit has multiple uses (they also offer an Alexa-enabled version which is fancy). It’s a little smaller than the above, and will effectively cool a 10×15 foot room with ease.
What we like about this is the ease of cleaning the integrated air filter. It pops off easily, allowing you to run it under the faucet and clean out impurities and dust that it may collect. This little “R2D2” style AC is a nice, compact solution for any room in your house or RV.
12V Air Conditioner Options
Ok, if you’re looking for a portable air conditioning unit for your car, on the other hand, there aren’t many ‘true’ AC units that work with a 12 volt outlet. But let’s discuss the options available that work fairly well.
This looks like a simple cooler for food, but it’s actually not (although it can serve dual purpose for a short amount of time). Simply pack it with ice or other frozen items, and start it up. The unit will pull outside air over the ice, and direct the newly-cooled air out the other side. Its power supply cord plugs into a 12V cigarette lighter and doubles as a AC unit AND cooler.
This will totally work for a car, but we should note that it also makes sense to use cool down a tent (for a festival, maybe). If you’re interested in building your own, you can search “swamp coolers” for ideas.
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.
If your car’s AC is not up to par, consider picking up some 12v fans. 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.
Unlike the typical “bladed” design of most fans, this dashboard fan for your car acts as a quiet little turbine. It really kicks out air, more so than most car’s AC vents. It includes two mounting sticky strips to really fasten it to the dashboard of your car, van, truck or RV, ensuring that it’s not going to move when you take a turn or brake too hard.
Personal note: with a 12V extension cable, we also see this as an excellent fan for a tent while camping!
If you’re more worried about warm passengers than yourself, this XOOL dual-fan for rear seats is a great way to keep your friends or children cool on a hot day. It fastens securely to any standard headrest, making great use of otherwise unoccupied space. It’s great for keeping pets cool if you often run into a store and feel that cracking a window will only let more heat in.
Looking for 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 (hopefully) a week’s worth of commuting.
Think Outside the Box
If none of the above fit the bill for staying cool in your car, we have one final suggestion for those extra-hot days stuck in traffic.
Think about it– what makes you immediately hot when getting into your car? It’s the seat.
Regardless of whether you pick up an air conditioner, fan, or otherwise, this cooling AND heating pad can help a ton. Plus, it solves a potentially-needed problem in the winter months!
The seat cover has breathable mesh and a cooling layer, and can be powered via your 12V car outlet, or at home (if you want to use it on your office chair as well).
Stay cool out there, folks!