When the central HVAC system in my Hawaii condo went out, it was a slow and expensive process. We tried to keep it alive and watched as the monthly bills climbed. Repairmen would come, fix various components, and extend its life by a few months. We knew we needed a replacement AC, but it turns out, finding a trustworthy HVAC contractor in Hawaii to install a central air conditioning system without supervision during a pandemic is not something you can do in a couple weeks. Or possibly at all.
With the clock winding down on my time to finish essential repairs around the unit, we spoke to a neighbor and discovered the open secret that apparently most of the owners in the complex use to keep main living spaces cool and save money: Portable air conditioner units.
Meet the most-improved appliance in the home improvement store
Portable air conditioners have come a long way in the past few years. Some are powered with enough BTU cooling capacity to cool a small apartment. They are as light and compact as a mini-fridge. They cost a fraction of what central AC does. They require little to no modification to the building. They only cool the areas you need them to. And what used to be their worst feature -- the condensation drip pan -- only needs to be emptied seasonally on new models.
Portable -- not the same as window unit
It’s easy to confuse them with window units, which are around the same size but do require installation. Many buildings don’t allow window units -- NYC is a little infamous for landlord/tenant window unit battles -- or only allow them in one place in a unit. A portable AC does need to be near a window or door in order for the exhaust hose to vent hot air, but it does not get built into or semipermanently affixed to the window frame. It also doesn’t stick out of the structure in the same way. Therefore, building managers and HOAs don’t find these appliances nearly as problematic.
Comparing Central HVAC with Portable HVAC
Cost of central AC system: $1,700-$3,400 range, depending on BTUs/tons
Cost of portable AC: $250-$700 range, depending on BTUs.
Cost to install central AC: $800-$2,400 depending on the size of the home and complexity of the installation. Licensed contractors generally charge one full eight-hour day for a standard installation in a small space, two to three full days for larger homes.
Note: You cannot DIY; a licensed contractor is required due to volatility of refrigerants.
Cost to install portable AC: $0
Time to get central AC up and running: one to three days to install. Anywhere from two days to three weeks to get an appointment with an HVAC contractor.
Time to get portable AC up and running: About an hour
Power to cool a home: In homes over 800 square feet, this is where a central system has the edge. Their capacity is meant to meet the square footage of the house -- 10,000-34,000+ BTUs.
Power to cool a home: Between 6,000-12,000 BTUs. This is the drawback of portable units, as you may need multiple, each to cool a main living area within a house, like one in the master suite and one in the living room.
Comparing the ultimate comfort of the occupants.
Portables only lose in this last category, and if it's a very old central system, they don't lose there either. It’s true that the cost to run either type of system can be exorbitant if you leave it running all the time. But the risk of this is less with portables because it’s easier to control them separately.
Bottom line, if you're in a hurry to get a place rented out, on a tight improvements budget, or you're wilting in the heat and unable to deal with HOA approvals and HVAC contractors, portables may be the answer. You can switch in a single day and save an expense equal to three months’ collected rent.