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Portable AC vs Central Air

What’s the difference between Portable AC vs Central Air

The difference between portable AC and central air is that portable AC is a low-power, mobile air conditioner while central air cools large spaces from a fixed, central location.

A portable air conditioner is designed to be a low-cost cooling solution for small spaces. Portable AC will only cool the area immediately around the unit but can be moved from room to room.

Central air conditioners will cool an entire home from a single unit in a fixed location. The cold air produced by your central air conditioner moves through your home via a system of ducts. That means central air can cool a room far away from the actual unit. 

Cooling Capacity

Central air is much more powerful than a portable air conditioner. A portable air conditioner produces 5,000 – 10,000 BTUs of cooling power, enough to keep a single room of up to 450 square feet cool. 

Central air offers 18,000 – 60,000 BTUs of cooling power. That would be enough power to cool the largest residential properties. 

A BTU is a measure of an air conditioner’s cooling power. A single BTU is enough energy to cool a kilogram of water by one degree Fahrenheit. Higher BTU air conditioners can cool larger spaces. 


A central air conditioner system costs $4,000 – $8,000 while a portable AC costs $100 – $400. That’s the biggest difference you’ll get between two different types of air conditioning.

But why is central air 20 – 40 times more expensive than a portable air conditioner? Cooling capacity is part of the story. You tend to pay more for an air conditioning system that can cool a much larger space. 

Another reason for the difference in price is that you have to pay a lot to install a central air system. Central air needs to be wired into your home’s electrics. Ductwork needs to be installed to carry cool air to different rooms. 

Energy efficiency

Central air is much more energy efficient than portable AC. Central air has a typical energy efficiency ratio (EER) of 18 – 21 while a portable AC has an EER of 7 – 11.

An EER is a measure of how efficient your air conditioner is. It’s the output of your portable AC divided into BTUs divided by its power usage in watts. The higher the energy efficiency ratio of your AC, the more effectively it uses its power.

One of the main reasons why a portable air conditioner is so inefficient is that it leaks a lot of heat back into your home.

Every air conditioner produces heat as part of the air conditioning process. But a portable air conditioner pumps this air outside through an exhaust tube. This means that lot of heat leaks out through the thin lining of the tube and counteracts some of the air conditioning.

Should I buy a Portable AC vs Central Air?

You should buy a central air system over a portable AC if you have a larger property to cool. Portable AC and central air systems are designed for completely different types of properties. 

A central air system has much more cooling power whereas a portable AC can only cool a single room.