Portable air conditioners have the unenvious job of booting up after long periods of downtime and working overtime in poor conditions.
It's like booting up a car sitting on your driveway for six months and expecting it to purr!
Yet portable air conditioners happily do just that, requiring only a dusting down and connecting to a vent to work just as well as last year.
However, things don’t always go to plan. Portable air conditioners have moving parts, so they are doomed to break one day.
You can usually expect ten years from a portable AC, but several factors can reduce your unit's lifespan.
This article explains why portable air conditioners break down with tips to help you extend your portable AC's lifespan.
How Reliable are Portable Air Conditioners?
Portable air conditioners are pretty reliable, with a lifespan of ten years with proper maintenance and usage. Most people don't experience breakdowns in the first five years of ownership.
However, moving parts are susceptible to wear and are usually not replaceable, so breakdowns often lead to replacement rather than repairs.
Most breakdowns are from age rather than premature failure, but improper installation, use, maintenance, and care can damage them irreparably.
Why do Portable Air Conditioners Usually Breakdown?
If you want your AC to last as long as possible then make sure you don't fall foul of any of these problems.
7. Incorrect AC Sizing
A portable air conditioner that is too small works overtime to lower the room's temperature, usually without positive results. This creates extended periods of maximum running, increasing heat and wear in the system.
Generally, you need 20 BTUs for every square foot of living space – this means you need a 3,000 BTU portable AC to cool 150 sq. ft.
There is also the risk of oversizing your portable air conditioner. An oversized portable AC will turn on and off frequently which is inefficient and expensive. The reduced cycle length will also mean that it won't de-humidify effectively.
6. Faulty Manufacturing
A breakdown within the first few weeks of ownership usually signifies a problem during manufacturing.
Your portable AC should still be under warranty, and it is worth pursuing a claim if it has failed through no fault of your own.
Chances are that the manufacturer or retailer will replace the unit free of charge– hence the importance of buying from reputable brands.
5. Misuse and over-use
Breakdowns are usually the result of misuse and overuse, i.e., using the unit in poor conditions and with incorrect settings. These scenarios overwork the system, causing accelerated wear and tear on moving parts.
The most efficient and effective way to use your portable AC (assuming it is sized correctly) is to use the thermostat (auto mode). The lower you set the target temperature the harder the unit will need to work to lower the temperature so try not to make it work too hard.
4. Poor Maintenance
Portable air conditioners require monthly cleaning of the evaporator coils to ensure they don't collect excess ice. Ice forms excessively on dirty coils, stopping them from cooling to the correct temperature and reducing system performance.
Additionally, the air filter needs monthly cleaning to clear it of dust and debris. Most air filters are cleanable with compressed air and a mild soapy solution, but if yours isn't, you can replace the filter for a few dollars.
Cleaning the drainage tray and hoses with a mild bleach solution is worthwhile, so mold and grime can't form inside them.
If your portable AC has specific serviceable components like cartridges, replace these in line with what the manufacturer recommends.
3. Insufficient Care When Moving
The moving parts in portable air conditioners don't have much buffer for shock and impacts.
If you bounce the unit around and knock it against walls, don't be surprised if it starts making funny noises and breaks down.
If you need to lift it, be sure to get some help and not to take any chances yourself. They are deceptively heavy looking machines!
2. Storage Conditions
Portable air conditioners spend half their life in storage, usually shoved into a cupboard on cooler days and wheeled into a garage during the off-season.
The key to correct storage is finding a dry, dust-free space, although you can eliminate the dust problem with a large plastic bag or by using the original packaging.
Don’t store your portable AC in a basement or damp environment because mold might be encouraged to grow.
1. Incorrect Installation
Common installation mistakes include incorrectly connecting the exhaust hose and putting the unit too close to walls.
An incorrectly connected exhaust hose will leak warm air into your home, making your portable AC work doubly hard. It can also interrupt air flow out of the system, giving the unit false readings and making it increase output.
Regarding placement, a portable air conditioner close to walls, windows, and doorways will struggle to cool down your room effectively. You need at least two feet around the unit so it can do its job without impeded airflow.
How Long Can You Expect a Portable AC to Last?
You can expect a portable air conditioner to last ten years with care and maintenance, but those living in humid climates should expect a lifespan of five to eight years (humidity makes air conditioners work harder, increasing component wear).
If you don't clean your portable AC and run it without cycling (so it's on all the time), its lifespan will be lower. It isn't unusual for a mistreated portable AC to run for three years or less before giving up the ghost.
What are the Signs My Portable AC Needs Replacing?
There are various signs your portable AC needs replacing, from lackluster performance to strange noises and electrical odors.
Here are the main signs to watch out for:
It isn't cooling as well as it did a few months ago
The most obvious sign your portable AC needs replacing is if it isn't cooling anywhere near as well as it did a few months ago.
While a drop in cooling performance can signify it needs maintenance, an otherwise clean and well-kept unit probably has a fault.
Try turning the AC mode on to maximum and see how cold the unit gets (you can judge its performance with another thermometer) – if it isn't getting cold, there is probably a permanent fault with condensate components.
Because most portable air conditioners are enclosed systems (not designed for servicing), a repair is usually more expensive than a replacement.
It's noisy (and getting noisier)
Another sign your portable AC needs replacing is if it gets extremely noisy, which signifies a problem with the fan blower and motor.
While all portable air conditioners get a bit louder with regular use (a side effect of the fan loosening up), rattling, squeaking, and loud whirring are not typical.
Try turning on fan mode and see if it operates loudly without the AC – if it does, the fan is on its way out and needs replacing.
It's consuming more energy than normal
You can track the energy consumption of your portable air conditioner with a smart thermostat or smart meter. Most manufacturers provide baseline figures, letting you check if your old unit matches up with when it was new.
Deviations larger than 10% are a cause for concern because external conditions should not affect energy consumption much.
A portable air conditioner that consumes way more energy than usual could have a mechanical or electronic component fault. Unfortunately, diagnosis is not easy, and it's often easier and cheaper to replace the unit.
It has burning and electrical odors
Burning and electrical odors signify a serious component fault - you should turn your portable AC off immediately for safety.
Odors like smoldering plastic and burning metal are usually from a problem with the fan, wiring, primary circuit board, or compressor.
However, if you get a whiff of a burning or electrical odor after a period of downtime, this might be moisture evaporating from the system. If there's no visible smoke, let the unit run for five minutes and monitor it to see if the smell goes away.
Note that attempting to fix electrical faults is dangerous if you are not qualified, and it is usually more hassle than it is worth.
It has cheesy and musty odors
Cheesy and musty odors in portable air conditioners are from mold and bacteria on internal components like coils, fans, vents, and air filters.
Regular cleaning makes it possible to keep these at bay, but in highly humid environments, they can grow faster than you can keep up.
If cheesy and musty smells don't disappear after thoroughly cleaning the fan blades, vents, air filters, and coils, you might need to replace your unit.
We recommend cleaning your portable air conditioner coils and air filters monthly. Flush the drainage hose with bleach weekly. Use a no-rinse cleaning spray on internal components and let your portable AC dry thoroughly before use.
As a stopgap, you can spray the vent with a waterless deodorizing spray to fill your room with pleasant smells for a few days.