What are the Differences Between an Air Conditioner and Evaporative Cooler?

The advantages of various air cooling systems and their application have long been the debate of HVAC professionals. Today, however, with sky-rocketing utility costs, dwindling energy resources, and environmental concerns, alternatives to traditional cooling have come to the forefront of the industry.

Differences Evaporative Air Cooler vs Air Conditioner

While many of us might not work in conditions where air conditioning is impractical, across the world millions of workers – including those in agricultural, construction, industrial, automotive and warehouse industries – are exposed to the possibility of heat stress each day. Those individuals all deserve a safe and comfortable environment.

Differences Between an Evaporative Air Cooler and Air Conditioner

Generally, air conditioners use refrigerants to remove heat and moisture from inside a space. They use a fan to distribute the conditioned air to both improve thermal comfort and indoor air quality. Most commonly, they are fixed, ducted systems and require a minimum of bi-yearly maintenance by a professional to operate optimally.

In this type of system, air is cooled in coils by chemical means and removed heat and moisture is dissipated outdoors. Air conditioners work best in fully enclosed environments and can reduce temperatures to an exact, selected ambient temperature, regardless of outdoor conditions. The biggest drawback to these systems is cost – not only can installation cost thousands of dollars up front, month-to-month operating costs can run in the hundreds.

See our article: What is a Swamp Cooler and Do They Work?

Find the Perfect Portacool Outdoor Evaporative Cooler for Your Team

Cyclone 160

The Portacool Cyclone™ 160 is a versatile, powerful portable cooling solution designed to help you stay safe and productive while working. The Cyclone 160 generates significant airflow and cooling via the natural process of evaporation. Additionally, the Cyclone 160 is equipped with Portacool evaporative media, the highest-quality evaporative media on the market made exclusively for Portacool coolers to provide maximum cooling comfort. Perfect for cooling spaces where traditional methods of cooling are inefficient - entire shops or barns. We do NOT recommend this product being used inside homes or closed spaces where no ventilation is available.

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Evaporative Cooling Systems

Evaporative cooling systems (sometimes referred to swamp coolers or desert coolers) require fewer materials to operate – typically only water and electricity. Evaporative systems typically require less maintenance than air conditioners, which can produce a considerable savings over the course of a year. While evaporative coolers do use water to cool naturally, they do not produce any mist, fog or spray water.

Differences Evaporative Air Cooler vs Air Conditioner

Portable Evaporative Air Coolers

Evaporative coolers use some sort of water-soaked medium that air is pulled through by a fan. When the air is pulled through the medium, it interacts with the water and heat molecules are scrubbed from the air resulting in cooler, slightly moistened air. They work best in open environments, with plenty of access to fresh air. Evaporative coolers can rarely be used in enclosed environments. Also, temperature reduction cannot be selected, but is based on ambient conditions. While fixed evaporative cooling systems can be a bit more expensive to install (most portable evaporative coolers are ready to use out of the box), operation costs are minimal – often as low as a $1 a day – making them much more energy efficient than air conditioning.

Jetstream 250

Step up the cooling game with the Portacool Jetstream™ 250. Cool larger groups of employees, or use multiple to increase overall airflow. User-friendly features include easy-roll casters, cord wrap and streamlined maintenance. Perfect for cooling spaces where traditional methods of cooling are inefficient – shops, warehouses, outdoor events, athletic facilities and more. We do NOT recommend this product being used inside homes or closed spaces where no ventilation is available.

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Is evaporative cooling right for you?

There are many factors to consider when choosing cooling systems for structures or even for outdoor use. One of the first – and most important – things you must determine is if the environment has access to fresh air or if it is enclosed. For example, if you work in a warehouse where the doors are open most of the day, air conditioning is not a viable option, as you are letting all of your expensively cooled air escape. However, if you are in an office setting where no windows open and doors stay closed, evaporative cooling is not going to work very well, and may even make the environment MORE uncomfortable by adding too much moisture to the air.

Differences Evaporative Air Cooler vs Air Conditioner

To bust one myth, many people will tell you that evaporative cooling only works in dry climates. While evaporative coolers achieve significant temperature drops in more arid climates and drier spaces, they can and do provide relief from the heat in any climate due to the advancements in evaporative cooling technology. These aren’t the swamp coolers of years ago! Even in hot and humid areas, such as Houston, you can still expect to see 10°F-13°F cooling. (We know this for a fact – we are located in the small East Texas town of Center and know hot and humid. We use our own products to keep our manufacturing employees safe and comfortable for more than half the year! Really, we do – you can read our story here!)


Due to numerous improvements, evaporative cooling is definitely a contender in a far greater array of applications than it has been historically. Find the right evaporative cooler for your needs or reach out to us through the contact page.