If you find yourself in need of cooling solutions for your home but worry about the cost of traditional air conditioning, there’s another option you may not be familiar with. Swamp coolers, also called evaporative coolers, are an energy-efficient way to cool down your home. However, these coolers aren’t effective in every climate. In this guide, we’ll talk you through some swamp cooler basics and offer our suggestions for the best swamp coolers you can buy.
What Exactly is a Swamp Cooler?
If you’ve ever felt yourself cool down as sweat evaporates from your body, you’ve experienced evaporative cooling. Droplets of sweat absorb heat as they turn to gas (water vapor), which results in your body temperature becoming lower.
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However, you may have noticed that very humid areas tend to feel even hotter than their air temperature would suggest. This is because water evaporates less easily when the air around it is already saturated with water. Similarly, swamp coolers tend to work best in hot, dry climates–it’s harder to evaporate water into humid air, and evaporation is the central process in swamp coolers.
Swamp coolers operate using the same principle of evaporative cooling. On a basic level, they only require a few elements:
- Fan–A fan pulls hot air into the swamp cooler.
- Water pads–Water-soaked pads, which are made pf shredded wool or a similar material, supply the water that will be evaporated.
- Pump–In order to continuously supply water to be evaporated, a pump system continually re-moistens the pads.
- Blower–This component blows the cooler air back into the home.
What Are Some of the Benefits of Using Swamp Coolers?
In the previous section, we’ve covered swamp coolers in a fair amount of detail. Before we move on to showing you our picks for the best evaporative coolers, let’s look at some of the benefits of purchasing one:
- They’re Great for Cooling Smaller Areas
Since swamp coolers are designed for cooling smaller areas, they’re a great choice when you want concentrated cooling. Rather than spending money on centralized air conditioning, you may want to try using a swamp cooler to make bedrooms, sitting rooms, and other smaller areas in your home or outdoors.
- They’re Environmentally Friendly
Traditional air conditioning, while it’s more environmentally friendly than it was, still uses chemicals that may be harmful for the environment. By contrast, swamp coolers use the natural process of evaporation to work and don’t require any chemical use.
- They Promote Healthy Air Circulation
When using swamp coolers to cool your home, it’s usually advisable to keep at least a few windows open. This is to make sure the air in your home doesn’t become overly humid (which stops the swamp cooler from working optimally). When used this way, swamp coolers ensure that the air in your home is changed frequently.
- They’re Easy to Maintain
Aside from basic cleaning and removing the pads as needed, you don’t have to do much to keep your swamp cooler in good working order.
- They’re Affordable
In terms of both purchase price and the cost it takes to run one, portable swamp coolers are a very affordable option for many.
- They’re Quieter
Evaporative coolers are significantly quieter than most air conditioners. If you’ve ever been distracted or annoyed by the constant hum of an AC unit, you’ll likely appreciate this benefit.
- They Add Humidity to Very Dry Air
While it may not feel as suffocating as high-humidity heat, the dry heat of desert climates can become uncomfortable. As we mentioned earlier, these units humidity the air around them, making it more comfortable for you and your loved ones.
- You Can Also Use Them in Fan-Only Mode
If you find that the air around you isn’t uncomfortably hot, you also have the option to use swamp coolers as fans. By turning off the water supply or removing the water reservoir, you can simply run your swamp cooler as you would a portable fan.
What Features Should You Look for When Buying a Portable Swamp Cooler?
Especially if you’re new to swamp coolers, choosing one from the myriad options available can prove to be difficult. In order to make that decision easier, we’ve found some of the features you may want to look for before buying.
- Airflow Capabilities
In most swamp cooler listings, the manufacturer will specify how many cubic feet per minute (CFM) the fan is capable of processing. Often, fan speeds are adjustable, so you can increase or decrease airflow based on your needs.
- Fan Oscillation
On some swamp coolers, you have the option to set the fan to oscillate. If you’ve ever used a standard fan to help keep a room cool, you likely know that oscillation promotes air circulation and helps the whole space feel cooler faster.
- Remote Control
While just about every swamp cooler has a simple onboard control panel, some manufacturers opt to also include a remote control. This makes it easy to adjust settings while you’re farther away. Remote controls usually aren’t absolutely necessary, but they can be nice to have.
- Manual or Continuous Filling
Every swamp cooler needs a water reservoir in order to re-moisten the internal pads. With portable swamp coolers, you often need to manually fill the reservoir as needed. With some portable coolers, you have the option to connect a hose to automatically refill the reservoir. Some coolers have a low water level alert, which can be helpful if you find yourself forgetting to refill.
It’s worth mentioning that you won’t damage a swamp cooler by running it hen the reservoir is dry. However, when you use one in fan-only mode, you’ll simply be circulating air, not cooling it.
- Water Reservoir Size
If you choose a cooler that lets you connects hose for automatic filling, the size of the water reservoir may not matter as much. However, many portable swamp coolers do not let you attach a hose. In these units, water reservoir size makes a difference. With a larger reservoir, you won’t need to refill as often. Larger reservoirs also make it easy to add ice or ice packs to the water to cool it down further. However, a very large water reservoir may make the unit bigger and heavier.
- Portability Features
If you plan to park your swamp cooler in one place and not move it frequently, portability may not be much of a concern. However, if you think you’ll need to move it often, you may want to look for one that’s designed to be more portable. Many coolers come on caster wheels that can be locked, and some even have built-in handles to make them easy to carry.
- Weather Resistance
When the weather is pleasant, you can theoretically use any portable swamp cooler outdoors. Some models are specifically designed to be weather-resistant, and these models are a great choice if you plan to routinely use your swamp cooler in outdoor spaces.
Our Picks for Best Portable Swamp Coolers for Home
While you can set up a central swamp cooling system that operates similarly to a central air system and connects to ducts in your home, portable swamp coolers are an easy and low-cost way to cool down selected areas of your home or outdoor spaces. We’ve gathered our choices of the best portable swamp coolers in order to help you choose the best option for you.
If you’re looking for a quiet and efficient way to cool down areas up to 950 square feet, this compact and highly portable evaporative cooler just might be the right choice for you. This cooler sits on four lockable casters, making it easy to roll wherever you need it. It circulates air at an impressive 3,100 cubic feet per minute. You also can choose from three fan speeds, and the controls are very easy to figure out–you only need to control fan speed, turn the pump on or off, and turn the oscillation motor (which lets the fan oscillate) on or off. With this cooler, you can choose from manual fill (which lets you fill the included water reservoir yourself) or continuous fill (which lets you connect a standard hose to automatically keep water levels constant).
One of the best features of this pump is the fact that it has a larger evaporative surface area, which translates to more complete cooling. It’s equipped with three-sided cooling pads that are denser than those of many swamp coolers. The density means that more water is evaporated as air passes through. Given its size, we think this cooler is one of the most powerful out there–it measures only 37x17x24 inches. And with a price under $300, it’s an economical home cooling solution for many.
Is it right for you? Given its powerful airflow and high evaporative surface area, we think this cooler is best for those who want efficient, effective cooling of a somewhat large indoor space. The option to attach a hose for automatic fill also makes it a good investment for people who prefer lower-maintenance options.
This smaller cooler has a key feature that sets it apart–it’s designed to be weather-resistant, which lets you safely use it in outdoor spaces. While the airflow is lower than that of some other units (this one ranges from 525-729 cubic feet per minute), it does have a few features that make it highly user-friendly:
- Carbon dust air filter–This helps filter out harmful particles and excess dust.
- Adjustable humidification dial–This lets you set your desired humidity level.
- Low water alarm–If you opt to just use the included reservoir, this gives you a warning before the included tank runs completely out.
- Ice compartment–This lets you chill the water delivered to the pads for maximum cooling.
- Remote–A remote control lets you adjust settings from afar.
When it comes to price, this is also one of the most affordable swamp coolers on the list–it only costs around $100.
Is it right for you? Given its affordability and the fact that it can be used indoors or outdoors, we think this cooler is best for those on a budget who need a versatile option. You can use a remote, which is a convenience feature that you don’t always find on units in this price range.
Frigidaire has long been a supplier of reputable yet affordable home appliances, and this sleek-looking white cooler is a great way to spot-cool your home or outdoor areas. It has an effective range of 450 square feet, making it a good option for standard-sized rooms. While you can’t attach a hose for continuous filling of the tank, its large 13-gallon reservoir minimizes the time in between filling.
This cooler has a fan that can circulate air up to 500 cubic feet per minute, but you can choose between three different fan speeds and three cooling modes. The fan also has a wider angle of oscillation than most, meaning it can quickly and effectively cool the air around it. Its small size and easy portability make it a great option for home offices or other personal spaces. While it’s under $300, it’s still one of the pricier options on the list, so it may not be ideal for everyone.
Is it right for you? We think that this swamp cooler is a great portable option (although the manufacturer doesn’t specify that it’s weather-resistant, so it may not be suitable for outdoor use). It’s made by a trusted manufacturer and has a larger water reservoir than many portable options. If you need to reliably cool a small to medium-sized room, we think this is a great option.
This cooler is a bit more expensive than the Frigidaire model we mentioned above, but it comes with extra options that many homeowners will find useful. It can cool up to 640 square feet, making it a good choice for most standard-sized rooms, and its five-gallon water tank can go a significant amount of time without needing a refill. Due to the large size of the reservoir, it’s also possible to add ice packs for cooling without needing a separate ice compartment.
This swamp cooler combines evaporative cooling with a tower fan, and it has a remote to make adjusting parameters easier. You can choose from four different fan speeds, the highest of which reaches 600 cubic feet per minute. The fans also oscillate, which helps the cooled air reach every corner of the desired space more effectively. Unlike some swamp coolers, it also has a whisper-quiet setting, making it a great option for those who need to use it while sleeping.
Is it right for you? While this cooler is more expensive than some, it’s packed with convenience features. We think it’s especially useful for light sleepers who need quiet, reliable cooling through the night.
How Do Swamp Coolers Work?
While you can purchase modern and highly-efficient swamp coolers today, they are based on ancient technologies. The earliest known uses of evaporative cooling technologies were in ancient Egypt. Seeking some relief from hot, dry desert air, Egyptians hung damp cloths in doorways. As the desert air blew through the damp fabric, it evaporated some of the water, resulted in cooler air entering the home. Similarly, in some cultures, wealthier people kept cool by having servants fan air over pots of water.
Of course, the swamp coolers you can purchase now are higher-tech versions of this technology. While they look a bit like traditional air conditioners, the process is different. We won’t go into great detail on how traditional air conditioners work, but on a basic level, they pass hot air over a set of cold coils. The coils are cooled by Freon or a similar chemical. As the air passes through, water condenses–this is why you often see water dripping from window AC units.
Swamp coolers operate in what’s essentially the opposite way–rather than producing water via condensation, they eliminate it via evaporation. If you want to cool the air more, you’ll want to make sure that the water moistening the pads is very cold. Some swamp coolers have an ice box component that lets you cool down the water.
In order to circulate the cooled air through the home, it’s a good idea to also use ceiling or box fans in conjunction with a swamp cooler. It’s important to note that you cannot (or at least should not) run a traditional AC unit and a swamp cooler at the same time. Because they operate using essentially opposite processes, they will cancel each other out.
Where Can Swamp Coolers Be Used?
Since evaporative cooling works best where the air is hot and dry, these coolers function best in the southwestern United States. Parts of Texas and California are arid enough for use, too. Most of the eastern U.S. is too humid for them to function optimally. In the Pacific Northwest and some areas of the Midwest, you may be able to use evaporative cooling, but it may not function as well as it does in hotter, drier areas.
It’s worth noting that swamp coolers also act as humidifiers to some degree, since the cooled air that is blown into the home will also contain newly-evaporated water molecules from the dampened pads. Humidifying the air isn’t always a bad thing–if you live in the desert, the natural air may be dry enough to be uncomfortable. Most sources recommend relative humidity of 40% to 50%. For comparison, desert humidity is often around 25%.
If you’re wondering how to assess whether evaporative cooling will be effective where you are, you can conduct a simple wet bulb vs dry bulb test. As the name suggests, dry bulb temperature is the reading you get from a standard thermometer in dry air. Wet-bulb temperature can be found by wrapping a thermometer in a moist cloth and waving it through the air. In dryer climates, the wet-bulb reading will likely be at least somewhat lower than the dry-bulb reading. The reading you get on the wet bulb is the temperature you can reach (at least theoretically) by using evaporative cooling. In general, most evaporative coolers work in areas that have up to 30% relative humidity.
What Types of Maintenance Do Swamp Coolers Need?
Swamp coolers are fairly straightforward and energy-saving, but they do require some maintenance. Perhaps most importantly, the pads need to be cleaned or replaced regularly. The exact maintenance schedule needed will vary by unit. Since the pads have to be continuously soaked with water, they can grow mold or mildew if left unattended. This may result in an unpleasant, “swampy” smell, which may be part of how evaporative coolers came to commonly be called “swamp coolers.”
As water evaporates from the pads, it may also leave behind minerals, which can cause significant buildup over time. When you replace the pads or clean the cooler, you will likely need to find a way to safely dispose of the buildup.
Routine maintenance isn’t anything out of the ordinary–it’s a good idea to vacuum the intake to get rid of any accumulated dust, and periodically cleaning out the water reservoir can help reduce buildup of any microorganisms.
Additionally, these coolers do require a steady flow of water. Most can be connected to an outdoor faucet to ensure a steady supply. While setting up your swamp cooler with a water supply is generally something you have to do once, you may want to take into account the cost of water in your area. Swamp coolers, after all, work best in arid climates, and the cost of water in these areas may be higher.
Do Swamp Coolers Save Energy?
In suitable climates, many homeowners choose swamp coolers because they have the potential to save a large amount of money. Swamp coolers usually consume between 15% and 35% of the energy that traditional air conditioning requires, making them an economical choice.
Can Swamp Coolers Be Used Outdoors?
Swamp coolers come in many different sizes, and you can even find portable options. You might be considering purchasing one for cooling your home, but you can also use them to spot-cool outdoor areas. The portable swamp coolers that we’ve outlined below can be used indoors or out, and when used outside, they can keep you comfortable even in very hot, very dry climates. Here are some of the outdoor applications where swamp coolers can shine:
- Patio dining areas
- Event tents
- Camping areas
- By the pool
- Outdoor BBQs
Though swamp coolers are based on ages-old technology, newer models offer exciting and modern options that let you customize your home cooling system. The selection we’ve outlined below is a good start, but as you shop, you may find that a different model suits your needs better. Regardless of the exact swamp cooler you choose, you can rest assured that you’re cooling your home’s air in an environmentally-friendly way. If you haven’t already, start your search for your own evaporative cooler today.