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29 July 2021

Should I buy an air conditioner?

Do you really need an air conditioner? Or are you better off with a more basic electric fan? This guide will help you choose the best way to cool your home.
Christina Woodger

Heatwaves are likely to get longer and more common in the UK, according to the Met Office. If your home routinely gets hot and stuffy in summer, could a portable air conditioner help you cope with the heat?

To help you pick between an electric fan and a portable air conditioner, check our expert guide as we run through the pros and cons of both options. We also have details on how to shop for an air conditioner and potential problems you may encounter.

Already decided which product you want? Whichever device you go for, use our air conditioner reviews and electric fan reviews to make sure you buy the best. 

Is it worth getting an air conditioner?

British weather doesn't serve up glorious sun all year round, so you'll likely only need an air conditioner on days that are really roasting hot, or on muggy summer nights to make it easier to sleep.

If you own a chalet-style house or an attic conversion bedroom, an air conditioner could be a worthwhile investment – you'll probably find these rooms hard to cool without a reliable air con unit. The same can be said for conservatories, as these can easily get up to sweltering temperatures in the summer.

We've been hands-on with several air conditioners that double as dehumidifiers. In other words, pick the right model and it could cool your bedroom in summer and supplement your heating in winter. 

But for most people in the UK, particularly those with small homes or with reduced strength to heave an air con about, an electric fan will be best.

If you're shopping for an air conditioner to help with the heat, pick a model that does the job quietly and efficiently with our guide on how to buy the best air conditioner

Do portable air conditioners really work?

In short, yes. What separates poor air conditioners from the best is how quickly and quietly they work, how easy they are to set up, and how energy-efficient they are.

Most models will offer a choice of settings for different conditions. On a cooler day, for example, you can use a fan-only setting to help freshen up your room. If the weather’s particularly sticky one day, you can use the dehumidifier option, if there is one, to make it less humid.

When should I buy an air conditioner?

If you're not in a big rush to buy an air conditioner, you may want to wait until the end of the year before you shop around. Obviously, demand for air conditioners is lower in winter, so you may be able to bag a bargain in a sale.

Note that split-unit air conditioners require professional installation – installers tend to be at their busiest during summer.

Potential air conditioner problems

Air conditioners can be a blessing on those uncomfortably warm afternoons, but they're not flawless products.

Consider how much use you'll get from your air conditioner, especially if the price is high – you might not want to spend hundreds of pounds if you're only going to roll the machine out of storage a couple of times a year. Plus, on the subject of storage, portable air conditioners are chunky, so you'll need plenty of space if you want to hide them from view.

The window sealing kits typically bundled with air conditioners will only work with certain types of windows, such as sliding windows. You can still use a portable air conditioner with another type of window, but more hot air will be coming in for the machine to try to cool.

Portable air conditioners can also be rather noisy. Fixed, split-unit air conditioners are quieter and more efficient, but need to be permanently installed in just one room.

How much energy do air conditioners use?

Our own data shows that portable air conditioners use as much energy per hour as a typical fridge freezer uses in one day. You might not leave them running all day, but the costs can easily rack up. 

The energy efficiency of an air conditioner is usually measured by its energy efficiency ratio (EER). This is the ratio between the cooling capacity, in British thermal units per hour (BTU), and the power input, in watts. Generally, the higher the EER, the more energy-efficient the air conditioner, although the actual BTU delivered by a machine can vary.

Is air conditioning bad for the environment?

Portable air conditioners take a lot of electricity to run. As global climate change increases, and UK summers get hotter and longer, there will be growing demand for air conditioning, leading to higher electricity consumption. 

This in turn may increase the amount of fossil fuels burned, thus increasing the rate of climate change, and potentially increasing the demand for air conditioners. This risks becoming a vicious circle.

Can you hire or rent an air conditioner?

Yes. There are lots of companies that rent out portable air conditioners.

Trying out a portable model before you buy could save you a costly mistake. For instance, you may not realise how much noise these machines can make. At their quietest, they sound like a fridge on its cooling cycle, and some models will rattle and gurgle.

Renting can also show you how much space a portable model will take up in your home. Rental prices typically start from about £60 per week for a compact, lower-powered model, all the way up to £200+ for higher-powered units. As such, if you plan on using it for more than four weeks, buying would be a better option, if you have the storage space.

What other options are there for cooling my home?

Air coolers

Air coolers look a bit like dehumidifiers and are generally pretty portable. They draw in warm air and cool it using water that is stored in a tank. Air coolers don't require installation and do not need to be vented through a window like portable air conditioners. They are much less effective than air conditioners, though.

Air cooler features to look out for:

  • The size of the water tank – a larger tank means you'll need to refill it less often.
  • A remote control to change the settings from a distance.
  • Ice packs to add to the water tank to make cooling more effective.
  • Handles and castors that make the air cooler easier to move.

Portable electric fans

Electric fans come in many shapes and sizes. They range from basic models right up to the expensive and multi-functional Dyson Hot & Cool, which doubles as an electric heater. 

There are three main types. Desk fans, as their name suggests, are smaller fans designed to sit on a desk or table and cool you while you sit close by, while pedestal and tower fans are designed for a whole room.

Fans use just a fraction of the energy that air conditioners guzzle, as they only have to rotate lightweight blades. But while they may help your room feel less muggy, they only move the air around rather than actually cooling it.

Portable fan features to look out for:

  • A range of speed settings to control the flow of air.
  • Oscillation modes that move the fan from side to side.
  • A remote control so that you can control it without getting out of bed or getting up from the sofa.

Explore our selection of Which? Best Buy electric fans, or see our tips on getting the most out of your electric fan.

Other ways to stay cool in the heat

There are a few useful things you can do to cool down in hot weather without having to invest in new equipment.

For starters, try closing the curtains when the sun is facing them. Closing curtains on an east-facing window before you go to bed can block the morning sun. For west-facing windows, you'll need to close your curtains in the late afternoon and early evening to block the sun.

Remember that opening the windows on either side of your house will allow air to flow through. If you own a conservatory, keep the door between it and your house closed, as a lot of heat may leak from the conservatory into other rooms.