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Cheap Air Conditioners Buying Guide

Prices for room air conditioners start at about $100 and rise well beyond $2,000. The higher end of the market is populated mostly by built-in (and some window) models that do double duty chilling and heating large spaces.

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Most AC manufacturers produce a range of models designed to cool (and sometimes heat) one or two rooms. Major manufacturers of cheap air conditioners include Frigidaire, Haier, LG, Kenmore, GE, and Sharp. Carrier and Friedrich are best known for pricier and larger capacity units.

The capacity of an air conditioner indicates the size of the area it can cool effectively. The more powerful the air conditioner, the greater the coverage area and the higher the price. AC capacity is measured in BTUs, or British thermal units. A BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit. The cooling capacity of budget-priced air conditioners ranges from 5,000 to 10,000 BTUs; once you hit 12,000 BTUs -- capacity that can cool 550 square feet -- prices bust through the Cheapism ceiling.

For a few years now, the best cheap air conditioner for a small room (up to 165 square feet) has been the 5,200-BTU Kenmore 70051 (starting at $170). The newer Frigidaire FFRE0533Q1 (starting at $180) is even more efficient, although not quite as well-equipped. Rooms measuring in the 200- or 250-square-foot range will get a chill on with the 6,050-BTU GE AEM06LS (starting at $190). Another model of the same size, the Haier ESA406M (starting at $164), is a less reliable investment, cooling some rooms effectively but others not so much and apparently dogged by a few design flaws.

The best low-priced air conditioners for larger rooms include two models with 8,000 BTUs: the Frigidaire FFRE0833Q1 (starting at $268) and LG LW8014ER (starting at $239), both powerful enough for rooms of about 350 square feet. The 10,000-BTU LG LW1014ER (starting at $293) and Frigidaire LRA107BU1 (starting at $299) can handle about 500 square feet with relative ease.

Disclaimer: Some products featured in the video below have been replaced by the newer models shown above.

Before you start shopping, measure the room and the window in which you plan to install the AC. Rooms with high ceilings, direct afternoon sun exposure, and/or minimal insulation may need the oomph of a few extra BTUs. It doesn't pay to buy a cheap air conditioner with excess or insufficient capacity, experts say. A unit with capacity that is too high or too low for the space will perform poorly and inefficiently. (Use this online calculator to get a better sense of how much capacity you need.)

A couple of other things to keep in mind: Most cheap air conditioners are designed for double-hung windows; options are limited if you have casement or slider windows. Also, air conditioners from the same manufacturer often differ slightly in model number and features depending on the retailer. For example, versions of the GE AEM06LS include the AEH06LS from Sam's Club (starting at $160), AEL06LS from Home Depot (starting at $179), and AEZ06LS from Walmart (starting at $164). Be sure to check the specs carefully before buying one of these cheaper alternatives.

What We Looked for in the Specs

Energy Star Certification.

All air conditioners these days incorporate energy-efficient technology. The most efficient receive an Energy Star label, which indicates they use at least 15 percent less energy than the benchmark set by the federal government for a conventional air conditioner of their size and design. The critical number to note is the energy efficiency ratio, or EER, which takes into account the model's capacity (i.e., BTUs) and amount of electrical power used. Energy use drops 1 percent for each 0.1 increase in the EER, so the higher the EER, the more efficient the unit. The Environmental Protection Agency bumped up the previous minimum of 10.7 for Energy Star qualification to 11.2 in October 2013. All the models we researched meet or exceed the original standard, and many former Energy Star qualifiers, such as the Frigidaire FRA065AT7 (starting at $190) and FRA086AT7 (starting at $229), remain solid choices if you find them at a good price. Only a limited pool of air conditioners qualify under the new standard. Most of our top picks proudly display an Energy Star.

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The Energy Star label has some impact on price, but in general consumers can find an Energy Star-qualified air conditioner for about the same price as an equivalent, less efficient unit. The Energy Star air conditioner saves money on utilities; exactly how much depends on factors such as the capacity, how much it's used, its position relative to the sun, and the local price of electricity. According to the Energy Star website, consumers save an average of $90 dollars over the life of a qualified AC unit, which should more than make up for a higher upfront cost.

Electronic Controls.

The electronic guts of today's air conditioners support money-saving and user-friendly features, including digital displays, remote controls, and thermostats that maintain precise temperatures. Manufacturers still make a few models with mechanical controls -- Frigidaire FRA052XT7 (starting at $120), for example -- which cost less and provide less functionality.

The slightly higher prices don't seem to faze consumers, who appreciate the versatility of electronic air conditioner controls. Thermostats, for example, take the guesswork out of temperature regulation -- the unit can be set to a specific temperature instead of the meaningless number or level stamped on a mechanical dial.

But don't expect perfection with electronic controls on cheaper window air conditioners. Some users gripe that the temperature display on the Frigidaire models we researched shows the set temperature rather than the current room temperature. Another thing that users find annoying about electronic air conditioners controls is the loud beep many models emit when the temperature setting is changed. One review of a Frigidaire AC asserts the beep is loud enough to wake napping children and several users note that you can disable the buzzer on some models if you don't mind nullifying the warranty.

A remote control is increasingly standard issue with electronic ACs and often hailed in consumer reviews as a big plus. Users like being able to adjust the unit at night without getting out of bed or while lounging on the couch on the other side of the room. Remote functions vary by model; in addition to on/off, options may include time delay, fan speed and/or cooling mode. Some remotes are even equipped with a thermostat that can sense the temperature in another part of the room so the AC adjusts accordingly. A review by The Sweethome says that's one of the best things about the Frigidaire FFRE0833Q1; the same feature shows up on the Frigidaire LRA107BU1.

Multiple Fan Speeds and Cooling Modes.

Inexpensive ACs feature two or three fan-only speeds and a like number of speeds in cooling mode. The standard three fan speeds are low, medium, and high, and reviewers note there's a tradeoff between higher and lower fan speeds: The former cools a larger area and the latter produces less noise. On the cheapest air conditioners, such as the Frigidaire FRA054XT7 (starting at $154), two speeds are the norm. Thrifty shoppers looking for more flexibility typically have to pay the price. The Kenmore 70051 offers three fan speeds (plus greater efficiency and slightly higher cooling capacity) for up to $40 more, depending on vendor.

Review continues below

In addition to cooling and fan-only mode, numerous budget models include an energy-saver setting. In this mode, the fan shuts down with the compressor and periodically restarts to check the temperature until the compressor is needed again. Some consumers opt not to use this mode due to the noise associated with the constant on/off cycling. With sleep mode, a less common feature, the temperature rises automatically and incrementally to a desired level and holds steady all night. Users of the Kenmore 70051 say they appreciate the money and energy savings from this mode, which keeps them from waking up cold.

24-Hour Timer.

Another practical feature is an automatic on/off timer. This money-saving convenience means frugal consumers can return to a cool home after being gone all day and eliminates the worry about forgetting to turn off the air conditioner when leaving. All the models on our list give users a 24-hour window. Several users of the Frigidaire models lament that you can't set the unit to turn on or off more than once in a 24-hour period and must reset it each day.

Reusable Filter.

Every air conditioner has a filter to sift out dust, dirt, and smoke. These days most budget models have reusable filters that can be quickly and easily removed, rinsed or vacuumed, and reinserted; the recommended cleaning frequency is every two to four weeks. Many Frigidaire models are fitted with antibacterial filters. Several of our picks also feature an indicator light that goes on when the filter needs cleaning.

Adjustable Louvers.

Cold air flows out the top or the front of window air conditioners and all have louvers that can be adjusted to direct the air flow up and down, and/or left and right. On some models, however, adjusting the louvers seems to have little effect. One review of the Haier ESA406M warns against buying this model for windows that sit low to the floor because the airflow controls don't angle the cool air upward.

by Gina Briles (Google+ Profile)

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