Swamp Coolers vs Air Conditioners: Finding Out What’s Best

Researched & Written by Craig

It’s a roasting hot summer’s day.

Just like every year. Here we are again.

With your favorite summer shorts on and an iced drink in your hand, you reach over to turn on your brand new… what?

Air Conditioner? Swamp Cooler? What would complete this picture better? Which would leave your family feeling cooler and more comfortable?

Well, that’s what we’re here to solve. I was stuck on this very question, and dove into researching it fully. Below you’ll find every point of comparison between these two great cooling tools. As well as recommendations for what’s best in different situations.

In short, you want a swamp cooler for a dry climate or an air conditioner in a wet one. Swamp coolers are quieter, cheaper, and easier to use – but they’re not as advanced. An air conditioner will cost you more – but in return you get great cooling, dehumidifying, and accurate temperature control.

However, there’s much more to it than that. Read on to find out more.

How Do They Work?

To understand which appliance is better for you, it’s important to understand how they both work. Let’s look at them one by one.

Swamp Coolers

Let’s start with the easy one.

A ‘swamp cooler’ is basically a fan. A fan that blows air over a wet material.

Have you ever licked your finger, and held it up to feel the wind? You know how it feels a little colder when you do that? This is how a swamp cooler works. (Except with water, not saliva.)

Also known as evaporative coolers, these are simple appliances which is why they come so cheap. We take a powerful fan, and direct it’s airflow over a wet material. This is typically a spongy, almost cardboard-like material. The ‘cooler’ trickles water down over the material to keep it damp. As the air passes through, it’s pushed through at a high speed by a fan, and cools down in reaction to passing through moisture.

Not to mention that it takes on some of the water with it. Which is why swamp coolers will make your air more humid… like in a swamp!

Where does the water come from? Either by a plugged in source for serious units, or poured in by you for more casual models. If it’s you doing the refilling, you also have the option of adding ice-cold water for better cooling.

Air Conditioners

There’s many types of air conditioners. Mainly central, portable, window, or mini-split models. But they all work the same way.

Air conditioners work using what’s called a refrigerant. This is a chemical liquid/gas that’s great at holding a temperature. It’s cooled down in the condenser, and then a fan is blown over it in the evaporator. The breeze produced is cold air, but the refrigerants warms back up again. So it’s taken back to the Condenser.

A typical AC system diagram. For more on this, see our explanation here.

Air Conditioners vs Swamp Coolers: Pros & Cons

Before we dive into the really detailed parts, I want to share this pros and cons table with you.

Sometimes the easiest way to compare two products is to write out everything in one simple table, and look at it all at once.

ProsCons
Swamp Coolers
Cools air in dry climates Bad for humid air environments
Adds moisture to air Not as effective as cooling
Energy efficient Needs water top-ups
Better for the environment Needs more maintenance
Easy to set up and install Can be bad for asthma/respiratory conditions
Quiet
Cheap to run
Air Conditioners
Can dehumidify air Bad in super dry areas. Needs humidifier.
Easy to install Needs a window for exhaust hose
Accurate temperate controls Costs more (to buy, run, maintain)
Minimal maintenance Needs a window for exhaust hose
Much better cooling power. Noisier

Still not sure what’s better for you? Don’t worry. Read on and I’ll go through each point in much more detail.

Try to bear in mind what aspects will be most important to you and your home.

Humidity

One of the main differences between swamp coolers and air conditioners is in humidity.

Swamp coolers blow air through a wet material. This adds a ton of moisture to the air.

On the other hand, air conditioners dry air before releasing it back out. This remove moisture from the air.

This is always worth bearing in mind if you’re trying to decide between the two. If you live in a humid part of the country, an air conditioner is probably your best bet. Live in a dry area, though? Well a swamp cooler will help keep that air feeling much more comfortable.

What if I live in a dry area but want an air conditioner?

That’s a good question. Making the air too dry might start causing issues with your eyes or skin. But it’s quickly solvable. You can add water separately using a humidifier, and some air conditioners can have their dehumidifying function turned off.

Ease of Setup

It’s tricky to provide one quick summary of setting these up as each appliance comes in many forms. For simplicity I’ll focus on the most common – portable units.

In this case, neither portable version needs a professional to set things up for you. Both can have a slight few complications, though.

Portable air conditioners need a properly set exhaust vent, which needs to be secured into a window. This can be fiddly. You’ll need a screwdriver set, a spirit level, and maybe a second pair of hands.

Swamp coolers are simpler. They only need you to supply them with water. Usually through the scientific method of ‘fillin’ up yer biggest ol’ pot ‘n’ pourin er into that there swamp cooler tank!’

Price to Buy

The biggest price difference is the type of appliance you buy. As again, I’ll compare the most popular models – portable air conditioners/swamp coolers.

Swamp Coolers are always much cheaper than air conditioners. They can cost anywhere from $30 up to $300 for a quality portable one. (Though industrial models can go into the thousands).

In comparison, portable air conditioners start at around $300, and quickly go above $5-600 for a standard home model.

This makes sense of course. A swamp cooler is essential a fancy fan with some water works. An air conditioner is a carefully designed machine which accurately cools air using a chemical process.

Cost to Run / Energy Efficiency

Usually a product which cost more to buy can cost less to run. Thanks to better energy efficiency, lower maintenance costs, and so on.

Not this time.

Air conditioners cost a ton more than swamp coolers to run. Always have and always will.

(Again, because an ac is a complicated machine that uses a lot of power. Powering a swamp cooler is basically like powering a big fan – the water is separate).

It’s in their other advantages that air conditioners win out. Better cooling, better control, and being able to dehumidify air.

The difference in energy efficiency is clear. Swamp coolers are incredibly energy efficient coolers, since they are only powering a fan. On the other hand, air conditioners can really blast up your cooling bill. If you’re shopping one, make sure you get a model that’s at least Energy Star certified.

Effort to Maintain

With more mechanisms and moving parts, air conditioners can eventually need some expensive maintenance. The good news is that this is rare on modern models. Expect most ac units to last anywhere between 5-10 years with good care.

Want to make yours last longer? Check out our guides:

How Long Will A Portable Air Conditioner Last?

How Long Will A Window Air Conditioner Last?

On the other hand, swamp coolers need daily maintenance. Thankfully, all that’s really required is refilling their water. (On a hot day, this may need to be done every couple of hours). Beyond that, only the pad needs replaced around once a month. And if you get super unlucky, the fan may eventually break down. But that would be really rare.

Air Quality

Have you ever been in a room with moldy air?

You know, that old, funky, rotten plan kind of smell? The one you can almost taste?

Well, that can happen with a swamp cooler. If it’s left too long or not maintained properly, it’s not hard for mold to grow on the pad. This is why we need to replace the pads – especially after bringing it out of storage.

You also have no control over the air itself. If your window’s open, you’re just blowing around the outside air all the time.

Air conditioners let you control your air. By keeping your room sealed, the only new air is brought in through the air conditioner. And any good model will have a filter system to make sure you’re not breathing in pollutants, allergens, or other toxins.

This might not be a problem if you live in some lovely green land. But if you’re in a city or near a motorway, you might want to consider the clean air of a good air conditioner.

Noise

The only noise from a swamp cooler is the sound of a fan blowing. In good models, this can be close to whisper-quiet. Even the loudest versions can still be covered with a decent pair of headphones or speakers.

Air conditioners can make a bit of a racket. Mostly due to the compressor. CLUNK. Hummmmm… it gets old fast.

That said, they’re not all bad. Modern models are getting quieter and quieter. We’ve even got great run-downs of the quietest models on the market. Check out our guides if you’re interested:

While older air conditioners were like nails on a chalkboard, these modern models can get close to whisper quiet. Most quality versions even have a super quiet ‘sleep mode’.

Features

Being a modern, digitally controlled appliance – air conditioners offer a ton more features than a swamp cooler.

Remote controls, thermostats, timers, different modes… there’s a ton of control you can have over your own comfort. Some models can even provide you with heat – making them a truly year round HVAC solution.

Swamp coolers are a bit more caveman, though. Most are simply a fan hooked up to a water system. If you’re lucky it may have a timer or even a remote control, but you’ll never have the advanced features of a modern air conditioner.

Climate

The area of the country you’re in can often dictate the humidity of your air.

So much so, in fact, that Sylvane came up with this great graphic showing what may be better for your climate.

Do bear in mind that this isn’t the be-all-end-all. If you simply want an air conditioner or a swamp cooler, there’s no reason not to get one!

So Which is Best?

With everything in mind – there’s some simple takeaways we can use for recommendations.

Basically…

Get a swamp cooler if –

  • You live in a dry climate
  • You don’t need too much cooling
  • You prioritise quietness
  • You want to keep the budget down
  • You don’t mind refilling regularly

On the other hand, Get an air conditioner if…

  • You live in a wetter climate
  • It’s hot!
  • You prioritise comfort over budget
  • You want less work after install
  • You need accurate temperature control
  • You have allergies/respiratory issues.

Conclusion

Swamp coolers and air conditioners both have their place in a home.

There’s a lot of different things to consider, and each of them is important. If you’re still stuck, try to rank the above aspects in order of importance to you. Maybe you don’t mind the cost, but just can’t suffer any noise. Or you have dry air, yet need the control of an air conditioner. (So get one and a humidifier).

Regardless, I hope this guide’s helped shed some light on the difference between these appliances for you.

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Thank you for reading, and have a great day!

-Craig