Portable Air Conditioners for Outdoors


How is an outdoor air conditioner different from other air conditioners?

Air conditioners for outdoor use are usually freestanding and moveable or portable by pushing on wheels or by moving by forklift for the largest units. So, they are often called portable air conditioners – even if they’re not very portable.

Like most air conditioners, portable air conditioners are most effective for enclosed areas that can contain the cool air they create. Because they are freestanding, they are good a good choice for lightweight structures such as tents, sheds, and trailers. Some commercial units that are ETL listed for outdoor use can be used for spot cooling in most any open area that has a supply of electricity.

Indoor air conditioners – mini splits, window, wall, and roof mounts are typically installed permanently with great attention to insulation and separating the heat and humidity from the area being cooled. There is usually less control over these elements with outdoor applications.

Like most air conditioners, there must be a way for the hot air they remove to be separated from the areas they are cooling. This is either done with air exhaust hoses that extend through a window or other opening away from whatever tent or structure they are cooling, or done with water hoses that extend to a drain.

Also like most air conditioners, portable air conditioners use refrigerants to create cooler air than most other outdoor cooling methods. Some can reduce temperatures by up to 40º. The refrigerants must be used carefully so they don’t harm the environment, and many safety measures are put into place to ensure they are safe to use.

Much is being done to develop refrigerants and air conditioning methods that are perfectly safe for the environment, and we will let you know as those become available.

Are outdoor air conditioners different from air coolers?

True air conditioners

True air conditioners use refrigerants to chill the air and need to vent hot air out of enclosed spaces. They reduce humidity (dry air feels cooler than humid air), they inhibit mold growth, and ease allergies. While some can be used for spot cooling in more open areas, true air conditioners are more efficient at cooling enclosed areas, such as tents and sheds.

Air coolers / swamp coolers

What are commonly referred to as outdoor air conditioners are often evaporative coolers or swamp coolers. They use a combination of water evaporation and fans to lower temperatures. While true air conditioners can cool in any climate, swamp coolers require dry / arid conditions for the most cooling. We write about them in our swamp cooler pages.

Swamp coolers don’t need to be vented the way outdoor air conditioners do, but they need some air flow in the areas they are cooling, otherwise the moisture they create accumulates, which can make the air feel “swampy.” Because of this air flow need, they are well suited for more open areas such as patios, open tents, and alcoves.

You can learn more about these and other methods on our comparison page.

This terminology between types of air conditioners can be confusing so just remember:

  • Air conditioners that use refrigerants
    • are for enclosed areas
    • reduce humidity
    • need to be vented with hoses (round hose connections are easy to see in most product photos) or drains
  • Air conditioners / swamp coolers that use evaporation
    • are for open areas
    • increase humidity (so they work best in dry conditions)
    • won’t have air hose connections

Why, where, and when to use a portable air conditioner outdoors

When the needs for comfort and safety are high, portable air conditioners can often meet those expectations.

  • Special events like weddings, VIP parties and receptions that use enclosed tents can benefit tremendously from portable air conditioning. Most tents have optional side panels that can enclose the area, making air conditioning a good option to consider.
  • Trade shows, conferences and modular offices often have limited cooling options, yet impressing clients and customers and providing for their comfort is a sign of care and attention to detail.
  • Portable air conditioners can be a critical part of cooling zones for large outdoor events where cooling many acres is simply not practical, but people still need a place to escape the heat.
  • Electronics in broadcast booths at outdoor events can get so hot they’ll stop working (and so can the technicians)! No other outdoor cooling method can protect electronic equipment in a booth, grounded aircraft or boat like portable air conditioners because they reduce humidity in the area they are cooling. Most other outdoor cooling solutions either can’t provide enough cooling to combat the heat generated by electronics, or use evaporative cooling – water that can damage electronics.
  • Even a gardener’s shed and a child’s playhouse can get unbearable in hot weather, but a portable air conditioner can make that shed comfortable and that playhouse fun again.

Portable air conditioners are usually set up from one day to several months for special events, limited projects, or the summer season. They can be moved to different areas as activities and cooling needs change. They can be moved out of the way or stored during cooler months or when an activity has ended. This also makes renting a cost-saving option for larger units. Since rental companies usually maintain their own equipment, renting can save you time, as well.

The structures they cool are usually less insulated than the homes or commercial buildings that permanent air conditioners cool, so their cooling is less efficient and can cost more in terms of energy use. So portable air conditioners for outdoor use are usually reserved for temporary activities where comfort and health are of primary importance in very hot conditions.

Being cool feels so good we often forget it’s more than a matter of comfort. It’s also a matter of health and safety. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), air conditioners are the best protection against heat-related illnesses. Click here to read more about how outdoor cooling can help prevent heat stress and heat stroke.

Are portable air conditioners worth it? Pros and Cons

Unlike other outdoor cooling methods – shade and evaporative cooling like swamp coolers (which are sometimes mistakenly called air conditioners) – portable air conditioners are not dependent on outside forces like climate and sun location to maximize their cooling efficiency. This means they can cool more reliably than other methods. On average they can reliably cool an area by 15 – 25°F / 8 – 14°C and more.

Because outdoor spaces are typically less enclosed and less insulated than indoor spaces, portable air conditioners are less efficient in outdoor settings. So energy costs tend to be higher than for permanent indoor air conditioners. Air conditioners for outdoor spaces may require larger units to compensate for that difference.

If you have partially or fully open areas that need more than spot cooling, consider other cooling methods, below.

Other Outdoor Cooling Methods

If you have a more open outdoor area that needs cooling, consider outdoor fans, misting systems, or misting fans which combine misting systems and outdoor fans into a single unit.

Swamp coolers (desert coolers) use a similar technology as misting systems (evaporation cooling), but in a contained unit. They are sometimes called air conditioners, but use a different technology than true air conditioners.

Outdoor shades are a nearly universal solution that combine well with every other cooling option.

Take a look at our comparison page to learn which outdoor cooling solutions may be best for you.