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How we test portable air conditioners

Cooling performance, energy efficiency and ease of use under the microscope.

How CHOICE tests air conditioners

Choosing a portable air conditioner can be tricky if you don't know which one to pick or what capacity to go for, especially as, unlike split-system air conditioners, portable models don't have star ratings yet.

That's why we test portable air conditioners to help you choose the best one for your needs. Here's how we go about it.

Our expert testers

We've been reviewing air conditioners of various sorts for decades now. CHOICE participates in relevant Australian Standards committees and regulatory forums so we can keep an eye on trends in the industry and air conditioner regulations.

How we choose what we test

Portable air conditioners aren't currently subject to star ratings. There are a number of technical challenges in testing them and measuring their performance in a standard way, though industry and regulators are moving towards introducing Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) for these models. So we put these to lab tests to find out how well they perform.

We test both cooling-only and reverse-cycle models, but we only test the cooling performance as this is how the majority of portable air conditioners are used.

Why do choose one portable air conditioner to test over another? Like with most of our product testing, our aim is to test the most popular models on the market and what you're most likely to see in the retailers.

To decide what to buy we survey manufacturers to find out about their range of models, check market sales information and also check for any member requests to test specific models. From this information we put together a final list that goes to our buyers. They then head out to the shops and buy each product, just as a normal consumer would. 

We do this so we can be sure they are the same as any consumer would find them, and not 'tweaked' in any way. It's a different story with split-system models.

How we test

Cooling performance

Testing is performed by an accredited laboratory. The air conditioners are tested in a 4.5m x 4m room with a 2.4m insulated ceiling. This is surrounded by a room or 'shell', which is kept at a constant temperature and humidity. When both rooms are at a stable 27ºC and 70% relative humidity, the air conditioners are turned on full for an hour. The test is repeated at 32ºC and 70% relative humidity.

The testers rate the air conditioners' cooling effectiveness by their ability to reduce the temperature and lower the humidity in the test room. They also assess how evenly the models cool the test room.

Energy efficiency

This is based on the power used versus the temperature drop achieved in our test. While some models score well in this respect, this score is only comparative between the tested models (from year to year we may rescale and rescore models depending on their comparative energy efficiency). It can't be compared against our scores for split systems, which are generally much more efficient. 

While an Australian standard method for measuring the energy efficiency of this type of portable air conditioner has finally been published, official energy efficiency ratings have not been adopted, which is why they don't have energy star labels yet.

Ease of use

Testers look at stability, portability, installing the window kit, removing and refitting the air filter, water drainage, controls (including remote controls) and instruction manuals.

Test criteria explained

The overall score is made up of:

  • Cooling performance (40%)
  • Energy efficiency (30%)
  • Ease of use (30%)

We measure the fan noise (these results are comparative only, what you actually hear depends on the environment). With the fan on high, all air conditioners are loud enough to interfere with normal conversation, but naturally they're quieter on low fan speed.

We also calculate the running costs. This is the approximate cost of operating the unit at maximum capacity for four hours per day for three months in hot weather, based on 30c/kWh. These are comparative only as your actual use may be different.

Our test lab

Testing portable air conditioners requires a very specific laboratory, as described above in How We Test. While CHOICE does have high quality thermal laboratories, we don't have a lab suited to air conditioner testing – it would be very expensive to construct and maintain. So instead, when we review portable air conditioners, we send them to a qualified external lab.

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