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Window Air Conditioner Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know



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Too warm in the house? It may be time for a new window air conditioner.

Getty images

Indoor air conditioning is one of the best ways to beat the summer heat. For many, the convenience of central air remains out of reach, making the window air conditioner the next best thing.

Today’s window air conditioners are much better than what you may be used to, and nothing beats the huge energy hogs they once were. Modern windows provide relief from scorching temperatures, remove moisture and consume less electricity than ever before.

However, if you don’t do your homework, you can easily end up with the wrong machine. You may find yourself stuck with something that’s too big or too small, or it just doesn’t fit where you want it. Read on to learn how to avoid these pitfalls.

Read more: How to clean your window air conditioner

Know before you buy

The choice of an air conditioner depends on a number of key factors. Here’s a list of details you should know before shopping.

  • Targeted coverage area in square feet (or square meters)
  • Size and shape of your windows
  • Where can the condensation water be disposed of?
  • Position and voltage of nearby electrical outlets
  • Which smart functions are available






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Find out what your square footage is

Firstly, you want to know what you need from your new AC unit. The most fundamental question: how well does it cool a room?

Window unit air conditioners are all rated with UK thermal units – typically ranging between 5,000 and 12,000. BTUs are a measure of energy that essentially tells you how effectively a device can lower the temperature in a given room.

For a small room (i.e. 150 square feet or less), a 5,000 BTU model should work fine. When it comes to slightly larger rooms – especially rooms in the 340-square-foot range – 8,000 BTU window units are the best choice. If you have a large room or want to cool a small apartment with a single AC unit, you need something with a little more power. 12,000-14,000 BTU units can cover between 550 and 800 square footage.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star website has a handy tool that can help you determine approximately how many BTUs you need.

In general, though, you’ll want 20 BTUs for every square foot you want to cool (although other factors, such as a vaulted ceiling or shade coverage, can push the final estimate up or down slightly).

Calculate the correct size AC unit you need.

EPA Energy Star

What size are your windows?

Usually window mounted AC units are just that. The housing of the appliance is partly inside and partly outside the window. Some kind of bracket or bracket holds the air conditioner in place. This bracket also divides the inside from the outside, and warm air from cool air.

Since there is no universal standard for window dimensions, measuring your window dimensions is a must. Once you have that information, you can compare it to the specifications of a possible new machine. This way, you will hopefully avoid nasty surprises when it comes time to install.

Are you going to remove the window unit at the end of each summer?

Decide whether you plan to dispose of your new air conditioner at the end of the summer or leave it in the window year-round. There are tradeoffs for both approaches. With a permanent installation, you don’t have to reinstall your air conditioner every year.

Even if your permanent AC mount is well insulated, it will not be as draft-free as a quality window that is completely closed. That can be a problem if you live in a place in the winter where it is near or below freezing in the winter. If you live somewhere with mild winters, you should be fine.

A portable air conditioner represents a third option. These freestanding appliances move from room to room with ease as they come with wheels. You will need to mount an exhaust hose assembly in your window, but the hose hardware is lightweight and much easier to install than an entire AC unit in the window. If you are not allowed to have window units in your apartment or if your windows simply cannot accommodate a traditional appliance due to their design, a portable air conditioner may be something to consider.

Read more: Window air conditioners versus portable air conditioners

Consider condensation

A drawback to air-conditioned comfort is condensation. As with dehumidifiers, AC units draw moisture from the air while they are running. That collected water has to go somewhere, usually it collects in an internal drip tray. Some AC models advise you to drill a small hole for the drain. You can then hook up a drain hose to direct excess water to the desired location.

Electricity and power

Decades ago, it was not uncommon for old air conditioners to require high voltage (240V) connections. Current models are much more efficient thanks to Energy Star certification. They can operate at 120V, which is the standard voltage for American household appliances.

It is a good idea to check the situation in your particular home. An old defunct AC unit may only have a 240V outlet nearby. Here’s one more problem you may encounter. The closest outlet is 120V, but it shares a circuit with other devices or electronics that consume a lot of power. In either scenario, you may need to have an electrician repair or add additional circuits.

Sweat the smart stuff

Features beyond size and cooling performance may seem insignificant, but they can have a major impact on how you use a window air conditioner. Smart features appear on more window air conditioners, giving you control via a cell phone app or voice commands.

Here are the main Smart Window AC features you may want to look for: scheduling features, eco modes, and Wi-Fi connection. With each of these elements, you can personalize your experience with a window A / C unit, either by setting timers and controlling the appliance remotely, or by adjusting the overall energy consumption.

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Smart speakers like Alexa and Google Assistant can help control some newer AC units.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

A few last things you should know

Today’s window air conditioners are different beasts than you grew up with. They are more efficient, more powerful and smarter. The big question is therefore not necessarily which device it is best: It’s which device is best you?

If seasonal allergies are a problem for you every spring, as they are for me, a built-in ionizer may be more important than voice control. But if you plan on working more from home given the coronavirus pandemic, remote scheduling and control on your phone may be the crucial feature.

Also take noise into account. Many AC units can make an unholy racket while running, so be sure to check the decibel rating of the models you are considering.

Sold on a window AC unit, but not sure where to buy one? You can usually find air conditioners at stores such as Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart. Online, all of those stores – along with Amazon – offer quite extensive window unit catalogs.


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