How to Make a DIY Portable Air Conditioner

With the hottest days ever on record melting our faces off, you’re probably looking for every way possible to keep yourself and your animals cool on the homestead. Portable air conditioners are a great way to keep your chicken coop cool, cool down your tent while camping or just ease the simmer while you sit on the porch. Portable air conditioners can be pricey, though. A DIY portable air conditioner is much more affordable and they’re fun to make.

I built one for this CNET article back in 2016 (they have since updated it and republished my article), so I thought I would give you the steps with a bunch of tidbits that didn’t make it into the article and give you some tips specifically for homesteaders for this camping air conditioner DIY.

Finished DIY air conditioner.
Image by DIY Homesteading 101, Alina Bradford

How does this DIY AC work?

It’s actually really simple. The fan draws the ungodly warm air into the cooler. Ice inside of the cooler cools the air and as the fan pushes in more warm air the cooled air is blasted out of the vents on either side of the cooler. Pretty nifty, right?

DIY portable air conditioner supplies

Before we dive into the step-by-step instructions, let’s take a look at the supply list and ensure you have everything you need. The materials required for this DIY portable AC unit are:

  • Two 5-inch (13-centimeter) diameter PVC elbow pipes
  • Large plastic cooler (I recommend a cooler with wheels so the AC unit is even more portable.)
  • Drill and 1-inch bit (I prefer an impact drill, if you have one.)
  • Permanent marker
  • Skill saw
  • Duct tape (I chose some silly printed duct tape for a festive flare.)
  • Battey-powered fan, solar fan or a rechargeable fan
  • Bag of ice
What you need to make a DIY AC.
Image by DIY Homesteading 101, Alina Bradford

If you don’t have a cooler lying around, the project will probably cost you around $90. The biggest expense will be the cooler since the cheap ones run around $50, but you may be able to find one on sale. It’s still less expensive and more durable than a portable air conditioner you may find on Amazon. Plus, you can keep your drinks cool in it. Bonus!

How to make a portable AC unit

Time for some DIY fun. As usual, I had my handy hubby help with the power tools since he’s literally a pro. 

Trace the fan.

Step 1: Mark your cutting spot

Lay the fan down in the center of the cooler lid and trace its shape using a permanent marker.

Drill the guide hole for the fan.

Step 2: Make a hole 

Using a drill, create a hole in the center of the circle you traced on the cooler lid. This will serve as a starting point for cutting out the circular hole.

Cut the hole for the fan.

Step 3: Finish the fan hole

Put the blade into the hole you drilled and then cut to the traced line. Cut along the traced line with the skill saw. This can be a little difficult, so make sure to have someone hold the cooler steady while you cut.

Tape the fan in the hole.

Step 4: Strap in the fan

Stick the front of the fan into the hole and tape the edges down with duct tape. Make sure you tape on the outside of the lid and the inside to keep it secure.

Trace a hole for the vents.

Step 5: Plan the vent holes

Trace around the PVC elbow pipe on each end of the cooler. These will be the vent holes.

Drill a guide hole for the vent.

Step 6: Drill the beginning holes for the vents

Similar to what you did with the lid, use the drill to create guide holes on both sides of the cooler where you traced the pipes. There is going to be plastic and insulation flying everywhere, so if you’re not already, throw on some safety glasses or at least some sunglasses.

Cut the hole for the vent.

Step 7: Cut the vent holes for the AC

Using the skill saw, cut out the holes for the pipes following the traced lines. Take your time and make sure the holes aren’t too big or too small.

Be patient. Cutting through the insulated part of the cooler is hard. I remember my husband saying some four-letter words during this step.

Place the pipe into the hole.

Step 8: Add pipes to the vents

Insert the PVC elbow pipes into the holes you just cut with the pipes pointing upward. Secure the pipes in place by wrapping duct tape around the edges, just like you did with the fan. Easy-peasy.

Finished DIY air conditioner.

Step 9: Get cooling

Finally, fill the cooler with ice and close the lid. When you want to use the DIY portable air conditioner, turn on the fan. Within about 10 minutes, you should be feeling the wonderful icy caress of your cooling creation.

Tips for making your homemade AC work on the homestead

Placement: Position your homemade air conditioner in a central location to maximize its cooling effect. Consider placing it near you or in the room where you spend the most time.

Restock the ice the easy way: I live out in the middle of nowhere, so I can’t run out and get bags of ice on the regular. One fix to that problem is to fill old milk jugs with water and use them as ice blocks in your DIY AC. If you don’t drink milk, you can use old margarine containers, empty plastic soda bottles or juice containers. The container really doesn’t matter. Just make sure it’s plastic and has a lid. The best part is, you don’t have to clean up a sloshy mess of water. You can just refreeze the container when it melts.

Airflow: Avoid blocking the fan or the vents with objects or furniture that may stop the circulation of air.

Fan speed: Adjust the fan speed based on your comfort level. Higher fan speeds will produce stronger airflow, but may also consume more power. Experiment with different fan settings to find the right balance between cooling and energy efficiency.

Maintenance: Regularly clean and maintain your homemade air conditioner to keep it running efficiently. Dust or debris can accumulate on the fan blades or inside the cooler, reducing its cooling performance. Wipe down the fan blades and clean the cooler as needed.

Personal adjustments: Experiment with the positioning of the PVC pipes to direct the airflow where you need it most.

Safety precautions: Always prioritize safety when using any homemade cooling device. Keep the AC unit away from water sources to prevent shorting out the fan.

Pro tip:
If you want your room to smell a bit nicer, drip some essential oils or some vanilla over the ice.

Now that you’ve made your own AC, how about making your own solar light? Check out these steps for making a solar light for under $10.

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