How much does it cost to run a portable air conditioner?

How much does it cost to run a portable air conditioner?

Air conditioners need more electricity to run than just about any other appliance in your household. This is doubly true since most units run continuously for several hours at a time, while other power hogs like electric ovens or dryers get used for only a couple hours (and perhaps not every day).

It’s no surprise that campers are concerned about the cost of cooling their tent with a portable air conditioner. Everything adds up: campground fees, fuel to get to the campground, food, drinks, etc. Fortunately, the cost to run an AC unit on a camping trip is fairly minimal for a substantial increase in comfort.

Where does your power come from?

The first step in determining the cost of running your AC unit is by looking at where it gets its electricity from. Since batteries are insufficient for running the power-hungry units, your options are grid electricity or a generator.

Grid electricity

The most convenient power supply for a tent air conditioner is to simply plug into the campground’s grid electricity. There’s no chance of running out, and the current that comes through is very stable.

Most campgrounds do not meter their electrical hookups, so you’re free to use as much as you want without incurring extra fees. You don’t even need to feel bad about it, as your AC unit uses significantly less juice compared to the power-hungry RVs and pull-behind campers that dominate the parks.

Let’s say you stay somewhere that electricity consumption is monitored; in that case, the average price per kilowatt-hour in the contiguous U.S. is somewhere between ten and twenty cents. A 5,000 BTU air conditioner uses about 500 watts per hour, for a total cost of less than a dollar per night for electricity.

Evaporative coolers are less power-hungry, requiring just ¾ of the energy to run their fans. In that case, you’ll be paying twenty-five to fifty cents per night to run your evaporative cooler system. As you can see, running the AC all night costs almost nothing compared to the other fees associated with a camping trip.


The next best option is a generator; this has the added cost of buying and maintaining a generator, but with the freedom to use it wherever you like.

You don’t need a very large generator to power a portable air conditioner; somewhere in the 2000 watt range should be more than sufficient. Most of them hold a gallon or so of gasoline and will run for eight hours before the fuel supply runs out. At current fuel prices, you’re looking at somewhere around three dollars for air conditioning and about a dollar for an evaporative cooler running off a generator.

Even with the higher cost of gasoline compared to grid electricity, this is still very affordable. However, the downside to this setup is that most campsites won’t allow you to run a generator through the night. Even though many generators are quiet (below 60 decibels, about the same volume as a loud conversation), park rules dictate that they must be shut off after a certain hour.

How often do you need to run it?

Depending on where you’re camping, it may not be necessary to run the air conditioner all night. In less humid climates, the temperature will drop off after the sun goes down, which is perfect if you’re staying somewhere where generators must be shut down after 9 or 10 pm. In that case, you could get away with running the unit for eight or so hours over a long weekend, spending only a few dollars.

It more humid regions, day and night temperatures only fluctuate a little, and to stay comfortable you’ll need eight hours of continuous operation. As tents have no insulation, it’s unlikely that the unit will switch off for an appreciable amount of time during the night.

In fact, this is a good argument for buying an air conditioner that is large enough for your tent, but not too large. A unit with overkill cooling capacity can freeze out the tent in a matter of minutes, switch off, and then switch back on a few minutes later when the cold air has escaped from the tent. All that starting and stopping is sure to disturb your sleep cycle.

Uses other than camping

Most people buying a portable air conditioner for their tent don’t just use it while they’re camping. They’re great for cooling a room in your house too! This is where the costs of running one are likely to add up; using a portable air conditioner for eight to ten hours a day for a month could add $30 or more to your power bill.

Again, it’s important that you find a unit that is the right size for the room you want to cool. Larger air conditioners are more efficient, but if the unit is starting and stopping all the time that advantage is lost and it makes it prone to breaking down.

Cost of using a portable air conditioner

Even though portable air conditioners use a lot of power compared to other electronic devices like phones, sound systems, and lights, using one still doesn’t cost that much in the long run. Even with a generator, it’ll only set you back a couple dollars a night, which is more than worth it for the added comfort of staying cool.