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Buying guide for best evaporative coolers

If you’re looking for a cost-effective, more environmentally friendly way to cool your home, an evaporative cooler is a great option. Also known as “swamp coolers,” evaporative coolers are designed not for humid conditions but rather for arid, dry, hot climates such as those found in the American Southwest and West.

Not everyone is familiar with the benefits of the evaporative cooler and how it can save money on electricity while freshening and humidifying the air in your home, so you might be unsure how to find the right unit for your needs.

At BestReviews, we give you the facts to help you choose the correct size and type. So, pour a cool drink, scroll down, and take a fresh look at these incredibly effective cooling units.

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The humidity created by an evaporative cooler can be beneficial for fabrics and wood in arid climates.

Evaporative coolers vs. air conditioners

Evaporative coolers are very effective at refreshing dry, stale air through their circulation process, which draws in dry air, passes it over moistened padding inside the unit, and then blows out slightly humidified, fresher air. It can lower the temperature in a room or house by 5°F or more.

An evaporative cooler costs less to purchase than a traditional air conditioner. It also requires less energy to complete the cooling process. That means owners will pay less over the life of the evaporative cooling unit than they would for an air conditioner of similar size and power rating. In some cases, that savings can be as much as 50%, and some brands claim as high as 75%.

Unfortunately, evaporative coolers don’t work well in climates with more than 60% humidity, so they’re not a good choice east of the Mississippi or in parts of the Northwest. However, if you live in a drier climate, such as in west Texas or California, you’re in luck. The past few years have seen a big increase in the number and types of evaporative coolers available. In short, there is an evaporative cooler to suit your needs and the space you want to cool.

Air conditioners cool the air inside the home by drawing in warm air and passing it over an evaporator coil that has been cooled using a refrigerant (usually a hydrochlorofluorocarbon like R-22 or R-410A). This also removes some of the humidity from the air in the form of condensation. The drier, cooler air is then circulated back into the home. While it’s effective and popular, air conditioning uses more energy than evaporative cooling. The price of an air conditioner, particularly at a higher cubic feet per minute (CFM) rating, is often significantly more than an evaporative cooler, and it costs more in electricity to run over the long term.

Types of evaporative coolers

There are two types of evaporative coolers: direct and indirect.

Direct: The most common and affordable evaporative cooling type, direct coolers pass air directly over or through water-saturated padding, returning cooler, humidified air to the room or house.

Indirect (or two-stage): A newer type of evaporative cooling, indirect cooling uses a secondary air stream that is pre-cooled, helping to cool down the primary air stream (the air that will circulate into the house) even more efficiently. This is a pricier unit, but it works very well in areas where daytime temperatures climb above 100°F.

There are  two ways for an evaporative cooler to deliver cooled air: down flow and horizontal flow.

Down-flow coolers: The original evaporative coolers, down-flow (or down-discharge) coolers are mounted either on the roof or the side of a home. Air is drawn into the unit, cooled and moisturized, and then discharged downward into the living space.

Horizontal-flow coolers: These evaporative coolers blow cooled air horizontally into a home or room. The most common horizontal-flow coolers are portable units and window models, but ground-installed horizontal-flow coolers are becoming popular because they’re easier to access for maintenance.

There are five common ways to use/install evaporative coolers: portable, window mounted, roof mounted, side mounted, and ground installed.

  • Portable: These units are mounted on casters and easy to shift from room to room. A portable evaporative cooler is an affordable way to freshen the air in small apartments or individual rooms. However, the cooling effect is much more limited compared to a whole-home unit.

    • Price: You can expect to pay from $160 to $660 for a portable evaporative cooler.

  • Window: These horizontal-flow evaporative coolers are most effective in regions with moderate heat and low humidity. The cooling effect isn’t as noticeable in regions with very high heat, but for the most part one can drop the temperature in a single room by 5°F to 15°F, according to the Department of Energy.

    • Price: Window-installed evaporative coolers range in price from $485 to $630.

  • Roof: This is the oldest type of evaporative cooler, using downward flow to deliver cooled air to a home’s interior. Direct discharge, which blows air into a central part of the house, and ducted discharge, which blows the air through ducts to various parts of the house, are both possible with roof- or side-mount coolers. The biggest drawbacks are that this type of cooler is more difficult to access for maintenance, and it can cause roof leaks over time.

    • Price: You can expect to pay from $400 to $3,100 for an evaporative cooler mounted on the roof.

  • Side: Also a type of down-flow evaporative cooler, this type is mounted onto the side of a home so that cooled air blows into the attic space. While it’s highly efficient, side-mounted evaporative coolers suffer from many of the same drawbacks as roof-mounted coolers, including difficult access and potential damage to the home where it’s mounted.

    • Price: Side-mounted evaporative coolers range from $600 to $1,600.

  • Ground: This type of evaporative cooler is installed in a similar location and manner as whole-house air conditioning and provides ducted horizontal-flow cooling throughout the home.

    • Price: You can expect to pay from $1,700 to $3,000 for a ground-installed evaporative cooler.


  • Always keep a window slightly open when using an evaporative cooler. This maximizes the cooling effect and helps the cooler works efficiently.

  • Experiment with airflow for optimal cooling. Large evaporative coolers (installed in roof, side, or ground) can be maximized by controlling the way air flows through the house. This takes a bit of experimentation by opening and closing different windows throughout the house and adjusting how much each one is open.

  • Coolers should have at least two speeds and a vent-only option. On roof-, side-, or ground-installed coolers, the vent-only setting turns the unit into a whole-house fan during milder weather.

  • Consider purchasing rigid filter media pads rather than fiber pads. These are much more expensive but don’t need to be replaced as frequently. If your cooler can fit them, these thicker pads provide more humidity and better cooling.
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Air filters are an optional accessory rather than a standard feature on many evaporative coolers.


Q. How do I choose the right size evaporative cooler for my home?

A. When shopping, pay attention to the cubic feet per minute (CFM) rating for the cooler, the airflow that a cooler can move. It’s important when figuring out whether a particular unit will cool your entire living space or just a room. Most brands list the estimated square footage that a specific unit will be able to cool, but you can also figure out what you need. Measure the length and width of the room(s) to get the square footage of the area you want to cool, and multiply that by the height of the ceiling. Divide that number by two. The result is the cubic feet per minute you’ll need to cool the area.

Q. I’ve found that an evaporative cooler works well in the hottest part of the day but not so well at night or early in the morning. Is there a way to improve its cooling during these times?

A. In some areas, the humidity in the air varies, and it might be higher from late night through early morning. The effects of the evaporative cooler may not be as noticeable at these times. Some homeowners run an air conditioner when the humidity is higher.

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