Choosing a Room Air Conditioner
If stuffy rooms are making you sweat, here's some news that might cool you off: There are plenty of highly rated and low-cost air conditioners out there. Prices for room air conditioners start around $100 and rise well beyond $2,000. The higher end of the market is populated mostly by built-in models that do double duty chilling and heating large spaces. But for less than $300, it's possible to buy a window air conditioner that's powerful enough to blast frigid air into a small, large, or mid-size room. Depending on the layout of the living space and its relation to the sun, a cheap air conditioner can cool an even larger area. Quite a number of reviewers note that, with a small window unit in a bedroom, they don't have to pay to run central air conditioning at night.
Brands that manufacture budget-friendly air conditioners include Frigidaire, Haier, LG, and GE. Frigidaire is the dominant budget label, followed by LG and GE. Carrier and Friedrich are best known for pricier and larger-capacity units.
The capacity of an air conditioner indicates the size of the area it can cool effectively. It's measured in BTUs, or British thermal units per hour. (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit.) The more powerful the air conditioner, the larger the coverage area and the higher the price.
The cooling capacity of cheap air conditioners ranges from 5,000 BTUs, for small rooms up to 150 square feet, to 10,000 BTUs, for rooms measuring up to about 450 square feet. At 12,000 BTUs (which can cool 550 square feet), prices bust through the Cheapism ceiling.
Before you start shopping, measure the room and the window in which you plan to install the AC. Rooms with high ceilings, direct afternoon sun exposure, and/or minimal insulation may need the oomph of a few extra BTUs. It doesn't pay to buy an air conditioner with excess or insufficient capacity, experts say. A unit that doesn't match the space will perform poorly and inefficiently.
A couple of other things to keep in mind: Air conditioners from the same manufacturer often differ slightly in model number and features depending on the retailer. Be sure to check the specs carefully before buying one of these alternatives. Also, most cheap air conditioners are designed for double-hung windows; options are limited with casement or slider windows.
Portable vs. Window Air ConditionersPortable air conditioners are an option for buyers who have windows or landlords that won't allow a window air conditioner, are worried about installation headaches, or want the option of using a single unit across multiple rooms as needed. In general, users shouldn't expect the same cooling power they would get from an equivalent window unit. Portable air conditioners tend to draw frequent criticisms for being underpowered. Consumer Reports even suggests they should be a last resort, noting that they offer only marginally better performance than a fan. Keep in mind, also, that these units have an exhaust hose that still must be vented through a window.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Air Conditioner Reviews: What We Considered
Air conditioners are especially susceptible to a problem that plagues appliance reviews: Once they receive a large amount of feedback, manufacturers tend to discontinue them in favor of newer models. Some manufacturers release new models every year, although the updates are relatively minor. There is less expert commentary in this category that applies to current models. The most helpful assessments come courtesy of consumers reviewing their purchases on retailer websites including Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe's, Walmart, Best Buy, Target, Abt, AJ Madison, and manufacturers' web pages. We also considered applicable expert feedback from Consumer Reports, Wirecutter, TopTenReviews, and The Spruce.
Above all else, buyers are looking for air conditioners that effectively cool whatever space they've been assigned. There are concerns about noise, an irritant that plagues even the best room air conditioners. Consumers also want units that are simple to install and have some extra features that make them easy to use. Other considerations include efficiency and durability. Some air conditioners cater to allergy sufferers by including an ionizer, which claims to help clear the air of irritants like pollen. But we turned up little consumer commentary on their effectiveness, so this feature did not factor into our choices.
Cooling PerformanceOur research found that among cheap air conditioners, low price is no bar to effective cooling. The occasional lemon aside, users seem more than satisfied with the performance of the budget ACs on our list. Some reviewers even say the air conditioners cool spaces much larger than expected, especially with an assist from well-placed fans. In general, though, buyers are likely to be happiest if they follow the sizing guidelines.
InstallationCost-conscious consumers often undertake DIY installation rather than pay a professional. Although users' experiences vary, reviews often say it's easy to install the models we favor in less than 30 minutes. Note that the higher the capacity, the heavier the unit. A 10,000-BTU window air conditioner might weigh 75 pounds, while a 5,000-BTU model might be closer to 40 pounds. Although many reviewers say they managed to install a bigger unit just fine on their own, a second set of hands might ease the process.
Reviews indicate a few other ways manufacturers can ensure smooth installation. One feature buyers appreciate is a slide-out chassis, which lets them install the frame for the AC before sliding it inside. Side curtains that slide in instead of screwing on save a few more minutes of labor. Many consumers appreciate GE's EZ Mount system, which includes flexible panels that extend to fit a variety of windows, making the company's air conditioners easy for do-it-yourselfers to handle. All the models on our list come with an installation kit.
NoiseNo window air conditioner is immune to complaints about noise. Some reviews and owner's manuals caution that improper installation may cause vibration, rattling, and other annoying sounds. However, the design and engineering of a given model, as well as new energy-efficient technology, are also partly to blame. Some manufacturers specify common noises in their manuals, but consumers still complain about rushing air, the thwack of a fan splashing against water in the drip pan, or the thunk and click of the compressor cycling on and off.
Of course, whether a particular air conditioner is "noisy" is notoriously subjective, but some models are described by a critical mass of reviewers as too loud to tolerate, with excessive vibration and sounds likened to "the lowest note of a contrabassoon." We rejected air conditioners with excessive noise complaints. If noise concerns are truly paramount -- say, if you're a light sleeper choosing an air conditioner for a bedroom -- it may be worth splurging on a more expensive model designed to run quietly.
Energy EfficiencyAll air conditioners these days incorporate energy-efficient technology and many have Energy Star certification, which requires that they use at least 10 percent less energy than comparable models. It's worth noting, however, that the efficiency of any given window air conditioner also depends on factors such as capacity, how much it's used, and whether it's exposed to a lot of sun. For instance, an air conditioner that's too big won't be as efficient because it will cool the space before it can remove the humidity, leaving the air feeling clammy.
While the Energy Star label offers reassurance, another number to note is the energy efficiency ratio, or EER, which takes into account the air conditioner's capacity and the amount of electrical power it requires. The higher the EER, the more efficient the unit. The government estimates that you can save about $9 a year by running an Energy Star-certified air conditioner with an EER of 12.1 instead of a non-Energy Star model with a 10.9 EER. A 5,000-BTU air conditioner with an EER of 12.2 costs only about $37 a year to run, according to government estimates.
Energy Star-certified units also must provide a visual reminder to check, clean, or replace the air filter. This generally takes the form of an LED light labeled "filter reset" or "clean filter." An AC can't operate efficiently if the air filter is clogged with dust, dirt, and soot, so the filter must be rinsed or vacuumed and reinserted periodically. If there is no filter-life indicator, users must remember to clean the filter at least every 30 days, or as the owner's manual instructs.
ControlsBuyers don't expect many other bells and whistles on inexpensive air conditioners, but they do appreciate controls that make it easier to keep the room temperature comfortable. Nice-to-have features include a digital display and thermostat that maintains a precise temperature. Manufacturers still make a few air conditioners with mechanical controls, which cost less but provide less functionality. Reviews indicate that many users actually like the simplicity of old-school dial controls and appreciate the lower price.
Most of our picks have a 24-hour timer, which lets frugal consumers avoid wasting energy by waiting to cool their space until right before they come home. Buyers looking for even more control over a window AC unit may want to consider a "smart" air conditioner that connects to a home Wi-Fi network for remote operation with a smartphone or tablet. This allows detailed custom scheduling that is worth a premium to many users.
A remote control is increasingly standard issue and often hailed in consumer reviews as a big plus. Users like being able to adjust the AC at night without getting out of bed or while lounging on the couch. Remote functions vary by model; in addition to a power button, options may include time delay, fan speed, and cooling mode. Some remotes are even equipped with a thermostat that can sense the temperature in another part of the room and signal the AC to adjust accordingly, although testers sometimes question their efficacy.
The best inexpensive air conditioners feature three fan speeds (low, medium, and high), but two speeds are common on smaller units. Reviewers note that there's a tradeoff with fan speeds: A higher speed cools a larger area, but a lower speed produces less noise.
In addition to cooling and fan-only modes, all the best cheap air conditioners include an energy-saver mode, in which the compressor cycles on intermittently, only as needed. Most reviewers appreciate this feature, but some note that it allows a room to become too warm. Less common is a sleep mode, in which the temperature rises automatically and incrementally, and then holds steady until morning. Frigidaire is notable for including this feature even on low-cost air conditioners.