Whether you’re on vacation or it’s your regular lifestyle, RV living can be satisfying, fun and relaxing. But without the insulation, electricity and appliances of a typical home, temperatures can fluctuate quickly in hot or cold weather. To keep your living space at a comfortable temperature, consider upgrading to a high-powered RV air conditioner.
The best RV air conditioner is the Coleman Signature Series Mach 15, which is rated at 15,000 BTUs and is among the easiest to install on the market.
What to know before you buy an RV air conditioner
Remember the 20-degree rule
RVs have poor insulation compared to houses, so don’t expect the same kind of performance you get from a home HVAC system. In fact, the general rule of thumb is that an RV air conditioner can keep the vehicle’s interior about 20 degrees cooler than the outside. That’s plenty of cooling power in most parts of the country, but if you’re staying in especially hot areas (for example, most of Texas), you may well end up pushing your air conditioner to its limits. In that case, you’ll have to take other measures to reduce the load on your AC if you want a truly comfortable ambient temperature.
AC installation does take a bit of work
Most RVs already have air conditioners, and if yours is still relatively recent, installing a modern unit shouldn’t be a ton of hassle. If you’re handy with tools and comfortable with minor electrical work, you shouldn’t have too much trouble putting in a new AC. You’ll almost certainly need at least a second pair of hands to hoist it on top of the RV and position it perfectly on the opening in the roof.
If you want to upgrade your RV’s air conditioner but aren’t comfortable doing it yourself, you should have no trouble finding an RV dealer or other professional willing to do the job for a fee.
Don’t forget the power source
The vast majority of RV AC units require a standard 110V connection. If you’re using a generator, double-check it to make sure you have enough overhead to run your new unit. However, it’s becoming increasingly common for RV owners to install solar panels and some rare models can utilize 12V power; these are few and far between, but if you opt for one, you can run it for quite a while on a set of common 100 amp-hour batteries.
What to look for in a quality RV air conditioner
The most powerful roof-mounted RV AC units can deliver 15,000 BTUs of cooling power. If you have a large RV, there’s not a whole lot of difference in performance between each company’s 13,500 BTU and 15,000 BTU models. Instead of hunting the highest BTU numbers, stick with a reliable name brand unit because there will be a noticeable difference between a unit from a well-established industry company and one that comes from a no-name manufacturer.
Some RV ACs have built-in heaters that can help keep temperatures at comfortable levels. Other models that don’t can sometimes be upgraded with heating components from the air conditioner’s manufacturer. A heat pump can be a good tool to have in an AC unit because it keeps you from having to fire up the furnace when it’s just chilly out. However, keep in mind that an AC heat pump is no replacement for a true RV furnace, and it’s a good idea to replace the furnace while you replace the air conditioner.
Unlike with home and commercial HVAC units, there’s no legal requirement for the efficiency of RV air conditioners. For that matter, not even all manufacturers publish their RV AC efficiency ratings. Nonetheless, the rough average of SEER efficiency ratings for RV air conditioners appears to be around 6.0, so look for one that’s around there or just above it.
How much you can expect to spend on an RV air conditioner
The most affordable RV-specific air conditioners are about $650 and can reach as high as $1,500 for ultra-premium units with low profiles or powerful heaters.
RV air conditioner FAQ
Can I use a portable air conditioner in an RV?
A. Yes. Freestanding portable air conditioners are designed to cool individual rooms in a building, but they’re also quite effective in RVs. They aren’t exactly as efficient as permanently installed ACs, but they work well. Keep in mind that you’ll need an open outlet or an extension cord and you’ll almost certainly need an AC unit that vents to the outside.
What you should avoid, however, are any single-hose portable air conditioners, which don’t vent to the outdoors and aren’t very effective overall.
Do window and mini-split air conditioners work in RVs?
A. They can and do, but installing a home window or mini-split AC in an RV will require some additional DIY work. Unless you can search out the rare models with RV installation kits (there are very few), you’ll have to supply brackets and wiring to configure your own setup. While these installations are usually more work than installing a roof-mounted air conditioner, they can also be considerably more cost-effective, especially in small RVs.
What’s the best RV air conditioner to buy?
Top RV air conditioner
What you need to know: This is easily one of the most popular and effective options available.
What you’ll love: First of all, it’s known to be easier to install than many others. It also works with a wide range of control boxes, so you probably won’t have to get a new one. Most importantly, though, it cools quickly and efficiently.
What you should consider: It’s not exactly cheap yet still doesn’t include a heater.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Top RV air conditioner for the money
What you need to know: It works well for small RVs and doesn’t cost a fortune.
What you’ll love: As long as your vehicle isn’t terribly large, this relatively budget-friendly option should do a fine job of keeping it cool. It requires the standard 14” opening and comes with a high-quality waterproof gasket as well as a set of high-density foam support pads.
What you should consider: It’s not the most efficient model and can’t hold up to the hottest climates.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
What you need to know: The ACDC is one of the extremely rare mini-split AC units designed specifically for RVs.
What you’ll love: Mini-split AC units are significantly more efficient than a roof, window and portable models. This is one of very few mini split air conditioners built to run on 24V power. With this highly convenient option, you can keep your RV cool without having to run your generator or tap into your solar system’s voltage regulator.
What you should consider: It is quite expensive and has an entirely different (and slightly more complicated) installation process.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Sign up here to receive the BestReviews weekly newsletter for useful advice on new products and noteworthy deals.
Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
Copyright 2021 BestReviews, a Nexstar company. All rights reserved.