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Quiet Portable Air Conditioners

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Portable air conditioners make a lot of noise.

You wouldn’t know this looking at the product descriptions for some of the most popular units on the market. It’s not uncommon to see units marketed as having “Quiet Operation”. One model lists its noise output as being only 44 dB with a graphic on its packaging showing how this is a noise level that sits somewhere in between that of a library and an office.

Under what conditions did the unit produce only 44 dB? On cooling mode or fan only mode? At what distance was the noise level measured? Certainly not anywhere close to the actual AC unit.

Our testing revealed that in the area immediately surrounding a portable AC unit (at a distance of 2 ft.) the average unit produces about 60 dB of noise.

At longer distances (at 10 ft.) it still produces about 55 dB of noise.

These measurements were taken with models operating on cooling mode and maximum fan speed. The same model that claimed a noise output of only 44 dB was measured at 59.5 dB at 2 ft. and 54.2dB at 10 ft. on cooling mode and high fan speed.

At lower fan speeds noise output drops by only about 2 dB – hardly much of a difference at all in terms of raw dB numbers.

However, the actual quality of the noise changes quite a bit.

You see, portable AC units primarily make only two different types of noise:

  • fan noise and
  • compressor noise

Portable AC unit fan noise sounds just like fan noise on any other appliance with fans – a clean white noise with a “shhhhhh” sound.

Compressor noise is hardly a clean white noise. In fact, it’s far from it.

Compressor noise varies from a low frequency buzzing sound (“bzzzzzz”) to a higher frequency buzzing sound.

On high fan speed the AC unit’s compressor noise is masked by its fan noise.

On low fan speed this is no longer the case.

So, while the measured dB on low fan speed is slightly less, the compressor noise is no longer masked. Instead of hearing primarily fan noise as you do on high fan speed, you now hear the unpleasant buzzing noise of the compressor.

Thus, the vast majority of consumers will almost always run their portable AC units on high fan speed. This is really the only way to tolerate the underlying unpleasant noise generated by the unit’s compressor.

And, on that high fan speed, the noise level for most models is at approx. 60 dB.

The table below shows the exact measurements for a few select units on the market:

Fan, high (dB)med (dB)low (dB)
LG LP1419IVSM59.554.552.3
NewAir NAC14KWH0262.160.159.1
Whynter ARC-14S58.45857.6
Honeywell HL14CESWB57.25756.6
    
LG LP1017WSR60.8na58.4
    
Frigidaire FFPA0822U158.857.254.8

Note how all models listed here produce just about the same amount of noise.

No matter the manufacturer. No matter the model. Noise output is very similar for all units.

Also note how there’s no correlation between overall cooling capacity and noise output. For example, the 8,000 BTU Frigidaire FFPA0822U1 isn’t any quieter than the 14,000 BTU LG LP1419IVSM (looking at all three fan speeds).

New compressor technology

To round out this analysis, we briefly need to talk about new compressor technology.

The LG LP1419IVSM is the best example here. It’s equipped with a dual inverter compressor.

Does this new compressor type sound any different than a standard compressor? Is it any quieter?

The answer to both questions is no. The LG’s dual inverter compressor sounds just like a standard compressor and is just as noisy. It makes the same buzzing sound and at the same noise levels.

So, do not expect this model, or any other model that touts new compressor technology, to be any quieter than an older model equipped with a standard compressor.

The LG LP1419IVSM is the best portable air conditioner we tested. It provides several benefits over the average portable air conditioner. But, operating at lower noise levels is not one of them.

Conclusion

Portable air conditioner noise output is a fairly simple topic.

You really only need to know two things about it:

All portable AC units are loud

albeit mostly producing a tolerable fan noise that drowns out harsher compressor sounds

All portable AC units are equally loud

in terms of noise output, there’s really nothing to gain by going with one model over another or even one size class over another (e.g. 8,000 vs 14,000 BTU).

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