Swamp Cooler vs Air Conditioner (Cost comparison)

Swamp cooler vs air conditioner. What’s the better choice for you?

In this article, I am comparing swamp coolers and air conditioners 

The focus here is to provide you with an objective comparison. For every comparison, I am providing numbers and indisputable facts.

After reading through all the sections, you will know whether a swamp cooler or an air conditioner suits you better.

Quick answer: Swamp coolers are way cheaper to run and do not require any installation. Air conditioners, however, work anywhere and anytime. Swamp coolers work best in dry and hot climates. 

Let’s check the comparison in more detail:

Swamp cooler and air conditioner comparison (in numbers, not an opinion!)

1. Running Cost

The running cost of a cooling system is a crucial factor for most users, as it directly impacts their monthly expenses. The primary component contributing to running costs is electricity consumption.

Swamp Cooler:

Swamp coolers are known for their energy efficiency. They utilize a simple mechanism that evaporates water to cool the air, consuming much less electricity compared to air conditioners.

On average, a swamp cooler with 1,500 – 3,500 CFM (cubic feet per minute) airflow consumes around 150W to 350W.

I’d say a regular, quality portable swamp cooler consumes about 250W of power. Larger roof swamp coolers can, of course, consume more.

Assuming an electricity rate of $0.18 per kWh and 8 hours of daily usage during the cooling season, the monthly running cost would be approximately $6.48 for a 150W swamp cooler and up to $15.12 for a 350W cooler.

Air Conditioner

Air conditioners, especially the traditional compressor-based units, consume more electricity due to their complex refrigeration process. A 12,000 BTU (British Thermal Unit) air conditioner typically runs on 1,200 – 1,500W.

Smaller (portable) air conditioners, run on less power. I have a 6,000 BTU portable AC. It consumes roughly 600W.

Using the same electricity rate and daily usage, the monthly running cost for an air conditioner can be estimated to be around $51.84 to $64.80 (for 1,200W to 1,500W models).

For small portable air conditioners, the running cost is about $25.92.

TypeMonthly running cost (8h per day usage)
Swamp cooler (350W)$15.12
Air conditioner (1,200W)$51.84

As you can see, swamp coolers are a lot cheaper to run than air conditioners.

The average monthly savings from running a swamp cooler instead of an air conditioner are $36.72.

Running a swamp cooler will pay for itself within a couple of months or years (depending on whether you replace a large air conditioning system with it, or just a small portable air conditioner).

2. Where and when does it work?

Swamp Cooler

Swamp coolers work best in dry climates with low humidity. They are highly effective in regions like the West Coast, where the air is arid and the temperatures are hot.

That’s because dry air can evaporate more water than humid air. And evaporation absorbs heat energy. So, the drier your location, the better.

Swamp coolers are most efficient during the afternoon and evening when humidity levels are at their lowest.

Contrary to popular belief, swamp coolers work in almost every US state during the dry afternoon and evening hours.

Humidity levels can vary up to 60% over the course of a day. In most states, in the morning, swamp coolers won’t work. But in the afternoon they usually work.

So, in principle, you can run a swamp cooler almost anywhere. However, if you are in one of the more humid states, a swamp cooler only makes sense during summer in the afternoon heat.

Air Conditioner

Air conditioners work regardless of humidity levels. That’s why they are used everywhere. They work in humid states such as Florida and in dry states such as Arizona.

Actually, air conditioners remove humidity from your living space. So, humidity-wise, air conditioners do the exact opposite of swamp coolers.

Air conditioners work anywhere and anytime. Swamp coolers work only when the air is dry. That is usually the case in western US states and in the afternoon and evening hours.

3. Maintainability

Swamp Cooler

Swamp coolers are relatively easy to maintain since they have fewer mechanical parts compared to air conditioners. Regular maintenance involves cleaning and replacing the cooling pads, as well as ensuring proper water circulation.

Parts that can break in a swamp cooler are:

  • the fan
  • the water pump

Both the fan and the water pump are low-power electric parts. Individually, the fan and the water pump usually run on ~100W at most.

Swamp cooler parts last up to 50,000 hours of usage. So, you can use a swamp cooler all day.

A swamp cooler doesn’t break easily. I’ve found a single example of a broken fan in a swamp cooler. I guess, something got in the inside.

swamp cooler broken fan part

Air Conditioner:

Air conditioners have more complex systems, including compressors, condensers, and refrigerants, which require regular maintenance.

Oftentimes, it is recommended to schedule annual servicing to clean the filters, check for refrigerant leaks, and ensure optimal performance.

Of course, it’s also possible to learn about air conditioner parts yourself and maintain things on your own. I have a lot of air conditioner fixing guides on this website. Check them out!

The maintenance cost for air conditioners can be higher than that of swamp coolers.

Parts that can break in an air conditioner are:

  • the compressor
  • pipes (that leak refrigerant)
  • the fan

But to be honest, an air conditioner compressor doesn’t just break. An average air conditioner with regular maintenance can easily last 20+ years.

Air conditioner parts, such as the compressor, are highly optimized from decades of research and engineering.

Both swamp coolers and air conditioners need maintenance. Swamp coolers have fewer parts, so there is less to break. And air conditioners have solid and better-engineered parts that last a long time.

4. Initial Cost

Swamp Cooler

Swamp coolers are generally more affordable to purchase and install compared to air conditioners. A standard residential swamp cooler can cost anywhere between $500 to $1,500, depending on the model and capacity.

Portable swamp coolers, are, of course, cheaper than roof-mounted coolers.

My all-time favorite swamp cooler is the Hessaire MC37M (click here to view it on amazon). Currently, it’s around $360.

Air Conditioner

Air conditioners typically have a higher initial cost. A central air conditioning system can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 or more, depending on the size of the property and the energy efficiency rating.

Portable air conditioners are, of course, less expensive. And you can get a very good model for comparably little money.

The objectively best (and most powerful) portable air conditioner is the Whynter ARC-14S (click to view it on amazon).

It is one of the very few portable air conditioners with a dual-hose system. So, it is as efficient as a big air conditioning system.

Currently, it costs around $375.

Large swamp coolers cost around $1,500 and are significantly more cheaper than central air conditioning, which easily costs $5,000.

However, portable swamp coolers and portable air conditioners cost about the same.

Remember that the running cost of an air conditioner is still higher than that of a swamp cooler.

5. Noise

Technically, noise is just the vibration of air molecules. Both air conditioners and swamp coolers have to move cold air around.

For that, they need a fan.

So, noise is inevitable.

If anyone ever tries to sell you a fully quiet air conditioner or swamp cooler, they are lying.

Swamp Cooler and Air Conditioner

Both swamp coolers and air conditioners produce some noise during operation, but modern units are designed to minimize it.

The quietest portable air conditioners are around 52dB, which is about the level of library noise.

The noise level can vary depending on the specific model and capacity.

Usually, strong devices with high airflow are louder than weaker models.

The best way to control noise levels is to reduce airflow. And for air conditioners, also increase the temperature settings.

The less your air conditioner has to cool, the less it will run the noisy compressor.

An air conditioner technically produces more noise than a swamp cooler, since, in addition to the fan, it has to run the noisy compressor. A swamp cooler needs just a fan.

6. Installation

Air Conditioner

Residential air conditioners, which are commonly used to cool entire homes, typically require a significant amount of installation effort. This process involves placing the indoor evaporator unit and the outdoor condenser unit.

Additionally, ductwork needs to be installed throughout the house to distribute the cool air.

Portable air conditioners are simpler to install. Usually, their installation does not need tools.

And certainly, you don’t need to hire a professional.

You have to install portable ACs to a window so that the heat the device extracts from your room can vent outside.

To attach it to the window, you need a window installation kit, which is always included with the portable AC.

In some cases, if a window option is not available, you can also install your portable air conditioners through a drilled hole in an external wall for venting.

Here’s how a full installation looks like:

do portable air conditioners give off carbon monoxide

Swamp Cooler

The installation of swamp coolers differs from that of air conditioners. Residential swamp coolers, also known as evaporative coolers, require placement on the roof of the building. The roof placement allows the cooler to draw in outside air, which passes through water pads.

Of course, the roof installation requires significant installation. So, in general, I recommend getting a portable swamp cooler.

Portable swamp coolers don’t require any installation. You can connect them to a water tap for continuous water refills.

But that’s optional.

In general, swamp coolers are simpler to install than air conditioners. Portable swamp coolers are simpler to install than portable air conditioners. And residential swamp coolers are simpler to install than residential air conditioners.

7. Size

Actually, the size of a residential air conditioner is hard to measure, since it includes ductwork and it is a split system, consisting of indoor and outdoor parts.

Meanwhile, the size of a residential swamp cooler is very limited. It’s a large box on your roof or next to your house.

Portable swamp coolers and portable air conditioners are similar in size.

8. Portability

Both swamp coolers and air conditioners have portable variants.

Swamp coolers

Portable air conditioners are 100% portable, since they don’t require any installation.

Air conditioners

Portable air conditioners are only partly portable. Yes, you can move them around the house.

But for each window you use it with, you need a window installation kit.

Usually, however, you don’t need to move your portable air conditioner around.

The point of portability is not moving the thing around. Rather, I’d say, it is being able to install it during summer and removing it for the cold seasons.

Still, swamp coolers are undisputably more portable.

When to choose a swamp cooler over an air conditioner?

Based on the above comparison, a swamp cooler is an ideal choice if:

  • You live in a dry and hot climate, such as the West Coast
  • You are looking for a more energy-efficient and cost-effective cooling solution
  • You prefer a cooling system with simpler maintenance
  • You have a limited budget and want a more affordable initial cost
  • You are open to DIY installation and want a portable cooling option


In conclusion, the decision between a swamp cooler and an air conditioner depends on your specific needs, budget, and location.

If you live in a dry climate and prioritize energy efficiency and affordability, a swamp cooler is the better choice for you.

However, if you seek a cooling system that can function effectively in various climates and provides year-round comfort, an air conditioner is better.