Proposed Portable Air Conditioner Standards: Not as Cool as They Could Be

Credit: Department of Energy

Using a portable air conditioner could soon be a little cooler on your wallet, thanks to new federal energy efficiency standards proposed this week by the Department of Energy.  This is the first time that the standalone, moveable units that are not permanently installed in walls and windows will be required to operate with at least a minimum level of energy efficiency and savings. 

Until now, portable air conditioners have never been subject to an efficiency standard, and their performance has fallen behind other types of cooling equipment. Consumer Reports considers this equipment to be the “cooling choice of last resort” because they’re most often used in situations where central air conditioners aren’t present and window units can’t be used and, in some cases, may even heat the room more. All of the mechanical portions of the equipment sit inside the room you’re trying to cool. Since conditioned air from the room is also used to cool the condenser and the hot air is then vented through an exhaust hose out a window, the machinery creates negative pressure in the room you’re cooling. This means that in some cases, warm air from the outside or other surrounding rooms is brought into the room with the portable air conditioner.

Nearly a million portable air conditioners were purchased in 2012, and that number is expected to increase by almost 80 percent by 2018 so the action by the Department of Energy (DOE) is well-warranted. While the proposed standard released this week is a step forward for consumers, it unfortunately leaves a significant amount of potential savings on the table. The standard level chosen by DOE was less stringent than some of the more aggressive (yet still cost-effective) options available. Nonetheless, the proposal will still benefit customers who replace their old portable air conditioners: residential customers can expect to save about $144 on their cooling bills over the lifetime of the product, and commercial customers will save almost $300. Over the next 30 years, DOE says, this standard will save 37.7 million metric tons of carbon pollution, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly 8 million passenger vehicles, all while contributing to President Obama’s commitment to save 3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions from standards by 2030.

Standards for other cooling equipment

Fortunately, minimum energy-saving requirements are already in place for other products that keep our homes more comfortable in the warm months, such as central air conditioners & heat pumps, room air conditioners, ceiling fans, and dehumidifiers. What’s more, all of these products are scheduled for improved standards because the available technology has advanced sufficiently to ensure they can waste even less energy.

Credit: EPA

To be specific: updated standards for ceiling fans and dehumidifiers, last adopted in 2005 and 2007, are expected to be finalized by later this summer, and the energy-saving rule for room air conditioners is due to be updated next year. A “negotiated rulemaking” for central air conditioner (and heat pump) standards produced an agreement in January to recommend levels that are 7 percent to 8 percent more efficient than today’s least-efficient models.  In any case, standards for all our cooling appliances ensure that all products meet certain performance criteria while saving money and energy when we purchase and install new models.

With the weather getting warmer as we get closer to summer, it’s good to know that energy-saving standards for our cooling equipment will help ensure that our utility bills don’t burn our wallets as the temperature rises.

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