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Cheap Air Conditioner Buying Guide

Most AC manufacturers produce a range of models designed to cool (and sometimes heat) one or two rooms. Major producers of cheap air conditioners include Frigidaire, Haier, LG, Kenmore, GE, and Sharp.

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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 per hour. (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. At 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 $172) is more efficient, although a little less powerful, at 5,000 BTUs, and not quite as well-equipped. Rooms measuring up to 300-square-feet can get a chill on with the 6,050-BTU GE AEM06LT (starting at $220).

The best low-priced air conditioners for larger rooms include two 8,000-BTU models: the Frigidaire FFRE0833Q1 (starting at $216) and LG LW8015ER (starting at $239), both powerful enough for rooms of about 350 square feet. The 10,000-BTU LG LW1015ER (starting at $269) can handle 450 square feet or more with relative ease.

Relatively few inexpensive air conditioners earn less than 4 stars out of 5 on retail and review sites. Consumer Reports gives only two units a rating of less than 70 out of 100, and both are priced out of the Cheapism range. However, frugal shoppers may want to think twice about one 8,000-BTU model, the RCA RACE8001 (starting at $229). The unit falls far short of current efficiency standards and gets more than its share of gripes about noise, although this is a common air conditioner complaint.

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 that doesn't match 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. Be sure to check the specs carefully before buying one of these alternatives.

What We Looked For

Energy Star Certification.

All air conditioners these days incorporate energy-efficient technology. Those with an Energy Star label use at least 15 percent less energy than a benchmark set by the federal government for a conventional air conditioner of their size and design.

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The critical number to note is the energy efficiency ratio, or EER, which takes into account the air conditioner's capacity (measured in BTUs per hour) and the amount of electrical power it requires. Energy use drops 1 percent for each 0.1 increase in EER, so the higher the EER, the more efficient the unit. The minimum required for Energy Star qualification is 11.2 for most low-capacity air conditioners and 11.3 for units with 8,000 BTUs or higher. For models certified on or after June 1, 2014, there's a different measure: combined energy efficiency ratio, or CEER, which is generally a bit lower and takes into account power consumption when the appliance is off or in standby mode. Most of our top picks proudly display an Energy Star. The one exception, the Kenmore 70051, exceeded the requirements before stricter standards were adopted in 2013 and remains an extremely popular choice. Although it's not as efficient as more recent models, it's a small unit that draws relatively little power to begin with.

A couple of additional features found on all our top picks (including the Kenmore) are required for Energy Star certification. One is 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 it due to the noise associated with the constant on/off cycling.) Another requirement is a visual reminder to check, clean, or replace the air filter. This generally takes the form of an LED light labeled "filter reset" or "clean filter." An AC can't operate efficiently if the air filter is clogged with dust, dirt, and soot, so the filter must be rinsed or vacuumed and reinserted periodically.

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. An 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. The government alleges that consumers save an average of $85 dollars over the life of a qualified air conditioner, which should more than make up for a higher upfront cost.

Electronic and Remote 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, which cost less but provide less functionality. The slightly higher prices don't seem to faze consumers, who appreciate the versatility of electronic controls, according to online reviews. 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 models. One thing users find annoying 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.

A remote control is increasingly standard issue and often hailed in consumer reviews as a big plus. Users like being able to adjust the AC 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 a power button, 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 and signal the AC to adjust accordingly. A review by The Sweethome identifies that as one of the best things about the Frigidaire FFRE0833Q1, the site's pick for best air conditioner. The same feature shows up on the Frigidaire LRA107BU1 (starting at $299), a 10,000-BTU model from Lowe's that dropped off our list this year because it doesn't meet the latest Energy Star criteria.

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Multiple Fan Speeds and Cooling Modes. The best inexpensive ACs feature three fan speeds (low, medium, and high). Reviewers note that there's a tradeoff: A higher speed cools a larger area and a lower speed produces less noise. On the cheapest air conditioners, such as the Frigidaire FFRE0533Q1, two speeds are the norm. The Kenmore 70051 offers three fan speeds for about the same price, depending on vendor.

In addition to cooling and fan-only mode, all our top picks include an energy saver mode (see above). Less common is a sleep mode, in which the temperature rises automatically and incrementally and holds steady until morning. Users of the Kenmore 70051 say they appreciate the money and energy savings from this setting, which keeps them from waking up cold during the night. The Frigidaire FFRE0833Q1 also boasts this function.

24-Hour Timer.

Another practical feature is an automatic on/off timer. With this money-saving convenience, frugal consumers can return to a cool home after being gone all day or not 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.

Adjustable Louvers.

All the window air conditioners we researched have louvers that can be adjusted vertically and/or horizontally to focus the airflow. On some models, however, adjusting the louvers seems to have little effect, and some favor one side over the other. The RCA RACE8001 has three-way air deflection, compared with four- or eight-way adjustment on our top picks, and one reviewer warns against buying this model if you need to direct the air to the left.

Air Conditioner Reviews

In addition to expert sources such as Consumer Reports and The Sweethome, both of which conduct comparison testing, we pored over customer reviews on retail sites such as Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears, and Walmart, as well as manufacturer websites. Consumers who post air conditioner reviews are concerned primarily with a unit's cooling performance. Our research found that among the best cheap air conditioners, low price is no bar to effective cooling. Aside from the occasional lemon, users seem more than satisfied with the performance of the budget models on our list. They do, however, gripe about noise, an irritant that seems to plague even the best picks. Consumers also want units that are easy to install and expect them to last through many a long, hot summer.

Effective Cooling.

Air conditioner reviews indicate that frugal consumers are generally satisfied with the cooling prowess of budget models, regardless of size (i.e., BTUs). From smaller AC models such as the Kenmore 70051 to larger units such as the LG LW1015ER, our picks are frequently praised for their ability to cool a room quickly and keep the air nicely chilled. But such assessments are not universal, and some users pan air conditioners others recommend. Even models extolled by most users get dinged by dissatisfied purchasers who assert that the units don't sufficiently cool the square footage they claim to be able to handle.

Consumers hoping to get more bang for their buck have found ways to maximize the effectiveness of inexpensive AC units. One reviewer mentions placing a fan in the doorway and another in the hall to draw the cool air into other areas of the house. Quite a number of reviews note that with a small window unit in a bedroom, they don't have to pay to run central air conditioning at night.

Quiet Operation.

The aspect of performance that generates the most negative comments is noise. Reviews and owner's manuals caution that improper installation may cause vibration, rattling, and other annoying sounds. The design and engineering of a given model, as well as new energy-efficient technology, are partly to blame. Frigidaire and Haier actually specify common noises in their manuals, but consumers still complain about rushing air, the thwack of the fan splashing against water in the drip pan, or the thunk and click of the compressor cycling on and off. We read posts that likened the disconcerting sounds to a lawn mower and a motorboat. Some assessments of the Kenmore 70051 at Sears come from consumers who can't get past the very loud beep the unit emits when it powers up or down or settings are changed.

But how noise is actually heard and described is notoriously subjective. For example, in reviews on the Walmart website, one user says the RCA RACE8001 is quieter than the older unit it replaced, but others complain of metallic vibrations and a disruptive noise level even on the lowest fan speed.

Easy Installation.

Cost-conscious consumers often undertake DIY installation rather than pay a professional. Although users' experiences vary, reviews often say that installing the models we recommend is easily accomplished in less than 30 minutes. Note, though, that the higher the capacity, the heavier the unit; for example, the 10,000-BTU LG LW1015ER weighs in at 65 pounds, more than 20 pounds heavier than the 5,200-BTU Kenmore 70051.

A word of caution: Not all windows are alike and even the clearest instructions may not suit every window frame. Cue the RCA RACE8001: A few buyers report the side panels are tricky to assemble and setup is a chore. Our top picks are not exempt from similar complaints, so be prepared to improvise. If you're planning a DIY job, keep some plywood, two-by-fours, foam insulation, and weather stripping at the ready.

Durability.

The life expectancy of an air conditioner is about 10 years, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Most budget-priced window air conditioners come with a one-year warranty for parts and labor and up to five years for the sealed system. Longevity issues crop up mainly in reviews of the cheapest models with the lowest capacities. Some of our top picks are fresh-off-the-assembly-line 2015 models, but reviews of previous models give some indication of their durability.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Air Conditioners
  2. Discount Air Conditioners Features Comparison Table
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