Begin RV

Caravan Air Conditioner Debate: Rooftop vs. Portable Units

We invited Australian caravan enthusiast and RV parts expert Jessica Stewart to write a guest article for BeginRV. Jessica writes for RV Parts Express, a leading Australian RV part and accessory retailer.

 It’s the dog days of summer and most caravaners know the feeling. 

Hot. Sweaty. Sticky. Slow. Irritable. No sleep as you toss and turn all night long inside your mobile oven where you feel more like a human torch than a human being. 

SPOILER ALERT: You don’t have to live a baked potato inside your caravan. 

 When it comes to choosing a caravan air conditioner, one of the biggest questions we get is: Should I choose a rooftop or portable caravan air conditioning unit? It’s like choosing between chocolate or vanilla ice cream – there’s no one right answer, you just have to know what’s the best option for Y-O-U. 

Today we’re here to help you understand the pros and cons of each style of unit. So, without further ado … 

Portable or Rooftop Caravan Air Conditioner: Which Is Best to Beat the Heat? 

Today, we compare the pros and cons of the portable caravan air conditioner against the rooftop caravan air conditioner. Both are effective cooling units that will have advantages and disadvantages depending on how you use your caravan. 

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages to consider including: 

  • Effectiveness
  • Cost
  • Space
  • Portability 
  • Ease of Installation
  • Noise

Let’s take a look at the two different units and see what fits your needs: 

Quickfire Comparison: Rooftop Caravan Air Conditioner vs. Portable Air Conditioner 

If you are looking for a quickfire breakdown of portable vs. rooftop caravan air conditioning you can see our comparison here. 

CoolingSpaceCost InstallPortabilityNoise
Rooftop
Portable

Some of the basic questions you need to ask are: As you can see, both the rooftop and portable units have elements which they excel in. Your buying decision will come down to your individual needs which you should carefully assess before you purchase a unit. 

  • How much do I plan on traveling?
  • How important is it that me and my passengers are cool?  
  • What is my budget? 
  • Do I prefer portability? 
  • How much do I value extra space?
  • How much do I value extra light? 
  • Does excess noise bother me?

Now you know what to ask, let’s compare the two styles of unit. 

Portable Caravan Air Conditioner 

While rooftop A/C units have been the standard for years, portable caravan air conditioners are becoming a more popular alternative on the market. 

Portable caravan air conditioners will vary in size, cost and power, but the growing selection allows caravaners to choose a make and model that fits their particular needs. 

Portable caravan air conditioners are perfect for people who: 

  1. Only travel for a few weeks out of the year; 
  2. Mainly travel during the cooler fall and winter months; 
  3. Are looking to save on up front costs; 
  4. Prefer the versatility and portability of a portable unit. 

What are the ADVANTAGES of the portable caravan air conditioner? 

No Installation 

One of the best parts of a portable caravan air conditioner is it will not require any installation. You can simply purchase your unit, take it out of the package and press POWER. Angels voices sing … and you have cool air. 

Unlike the roof A/C unit which will take a good half day of labor to install, the lightweight, portable unit is a breeze to set up. When the first portable A/C units first came out they were large and heavy – modern units are much lighter, slimmer and easier to carry by one person.

DOES TOWING A CARAVAN PUTS MILES ON IT? FIND OUT THE ANSWER HERE

Portability 

Maybe the name tipped you off, but one of the best features of the portable air conditioner is that it can be taken anywhere. Yes, it can be used in your caravan when you are on the road, but it is also a great cooling unit for smaller spaces such as your office, bedroom or home storage space.  

If you are someone who just takes out their caravan on long weekends or for 1-2 weeks a year, you may prefer the versatility of using the portable air conditioner unit in your home. If you have a small home, it can definitely help you save on cost. 

Speaking of cost … 

Cost

Modern portable air conditioners are a great value. You can find high-quality units ranging anywhere between 330-660AUD or $250-$500USD. 

man holding wallet

With units able to cool areas ranging from 250-500square feet you are actually getting a pretty good value for your dollar for its cooling capacity. A higher-end unit should be able to adequately (but maybe not perfectly) cool your entire caravan during the hot months.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the advantages of the portable caravan air conditioner, let’s look at a few of the DISADVANTAGES

Need to Be Placed By A Window

Portable A/C unit typically need to be placed near a window as they use vent lines that transfer the hot air to the outside. This limits where you can place your portable air conditioning unit and often means they will take up valuable floor space in your caravan. 

Less Effective Than Rooftop

Most portable caravan air conditioners units are not as effective as caravan rooftop air conditioners at cooling. They simply don’t have the power to compete with the rooftop versions. 

Girl sweating
An effective caravan A/C unit is critical during the hot summer months.

Even in high powered portable units, the maximum space rating you can find is about 500sq feet. However, even in highly rated portable units you may find that cooling larger spaces is ambitious. 

If you plan on being on the road for anything more than a few weeks a year, the portable unit may not satisfy your cooling needs.  

Noise

While modern units continue to get quieter, portable air conditioners can still make quite a bit of noise while running. The normal range of noise for a portable caravan air conditioning unit can be between 40-60 decibels

While this level of noise won’t blow out your ear drums, units on the louder end of the scale can certainly be an annoyance for light sleepers. Before you purchase, you should check the specs for the decibel level to make sure you are comfortable with the noise output. 

Emptying Tanks

Some models of portable caravan air conditioners will have a tank to store the water created during the cooling process. Owners will need to empty this tank on a regular basis to prevent overflows and a buildup of mold in your unit. 

While it’s not a huge deal, it is another inconvenient daily chore you will have to do while you are on your caravan trip.  

Rooftop Caravan Air Conditioner

The most common type of air conditioner unit in caravans is the tried and true rooftop air conditioner. Rooftop air conditioner units are mounted onto the roof and force the cool air down into the van from the ceiling.

Caravan air conditioner

Rooftop air conditioners are one of the most effective options for your caravan since they circulate air down through the roof allowing the cold air to sink. This type of air conditioner should reliably cool the entire surface area of your caravan. 

The ADVANTAGES of a Rooftop Caravan Air Conditioner are clear: 

Effectiveness

The single biggest advantage of the rooftop air conditioner is the effectiveness. Rooftop air conditioners will typically be much more powerful than portable units and will effectively cool your caravan during the hot months. 

If you are comparing simply based on effectiveness of the cooling unit, rooftop units win hands down – it’s not really even a competition. Just think of the difference between a central A/C unit in your home vs a portable unit – its a big difference. 

With an average BTU of about 15,000 bytes, you will typically have no problem cooling your caravan even during the hottest days of summer. 

Less Hassle

Portable air conditioning units can be noisy, take up space and need to be placed near a window. Once a rooftop unit is installed, it stays there and just does its job for about 5 years. 

Sure, these units may break down from time to time, but you typically won’t have to deal with the day-to-day hassle you will experience with a portable unit. The portable unit can be just a bit more high maintenance – which not all caravaners are down for. 

More Floor Space 

Since the rooftop air conditioner is positioned over the skylight window in your caravan’s roof, you don’t lose any floor space like you would with a portable unit. 

Inside Airstream
A rooftop air conditioner will save much needed floor space.

This is important for travelers with smaller caravans where every inch of floor space is at a premium. As a bonus, newer rooftop units have integrated windows so you won’t have to sacrifice any natural lighting.  

The major DISADVANTAGES of the caravan rooftop air conditioner are: 

Installation 

One of the biggest downsides of the rooftop air conditioner is the installation. A rooftop caravan air conditioning unit may weigh around 45kgs or 100lbs, so you’ll need at least one other person for lifting and installation if you choose to install yourself. 

Don’t be fooled, rooftop A/C installation is not a 30 minute job. You can probably expect to spend at least a half day (or longer) on the installation, so its best to do this during the off season when you have plenty of time. 

If you are looking to install a rooftop caravan air conditioner yourself, here are a few DIY videos that can help you out. However, as there is electrical work involved, you should always do it under the supervision of someone who has experience installing these units. 

This said, most people hire a certified RV mechanic or caravan repair technician to install their A/C units. As this sort of installation is a routine job, you should be able to get a pretty decent deal if you call around to local RV repair shops

Less Natural Light

While some newer caravan rooftop air conditioners now come with a built-in skylight, most models will still cover your RV skylight. If you plan on traveling in your caravan for long stretches of time, your skylight can:

  1. make your caravan feel larger; 
  2. make it feel less claustrophobic inside your caravan; 
  3. be a source of Vitamin D; and, most importantly,
  4. make you feel happier

Many of you will not be bothered by having your caravan skylight blocked, but for others the blockage is a non-starter. You need to decide what’s important to you – if extra light is critical, go for a model that has a built-in skylight to give you that extra sunshine you need. 

Where to Learn More about Caravan Air Conditioners

If you want to learn more about caravan air conditioners you can do your research on the internet (like you are now), however, in our opinion it’s always best to couple that with expert advice.

Seasoned pros, like the ones we have at RV Parts Express can answer your questions based on years of experience and help you find a unit that suits your particular needs. 

The key is to let us know what type of traveler you are. You don’t want a unit that is not powerful enough for your caravan, but at the same time you don’t want to overspend on a unit that is much too powerful for what you actually need. 

By letting us know how you travel, we can help you find a unit that is both powerful and economical enough to suit your needs. 

Conclusion 

Keep yourself cool and safe during the summer months by getting the right air conditioning for your caravan. When making your final decision ask yourself: 

  • How important is constant cool air? 
  • How much do I plan on traveling? 
  • What is my budget? 
  • Do I prefer portability? 
  • Is space a factor? 

Once you’ve answered these questions, the solution should be clear. It’s as simple as that. 

Questions? Comments? Want to share your short story with the world? Leave a comment below or fill out our contact form to get in touch. We LOVE to hear from our readers! 

       Easy Travels, 

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