Evaporative Air Coolers (Swamp Coolers) Vs. Traditional Air Conditioning Units

When it comes to cooling one’s home, there are really only two options available. You can either rely on your traditional air conditioning unit, or you can use an evaporative air cooler, also commonly referred to as a swamp cooler. You’ve probably read that swamp coolers are the better option, because they are allegedly more efficient when it comes to energy consumption, not to mention better for the environment.

Unfortunately, nothing is ever quite as good as you often hear it is. While it is true that swamp coolers have some advantages over traditional air conditioning units, they also have some drawbacks worth considering, and in some cases, a traditional air conditioning unit might actually be better for your home than the supposedly more efficient swamp cooler.

Here we’ll discuss the ways that swamp coolers have an edge over traditional AC units, but also the handful of disadvantages they have. After all, no product is a perfect solution to any problem. Knowing which type of unit will be the best choice based on where you live, how much you want to spend, how much time you want to put into maintenance, and your climate, you’ll quickly find out how to best maximize your purchase.

How they Work, and how these Processes Affect Performance

The first step to understanding how swamp coolers and traditional air conditioning units stack up against one another is knowing how they actually work. If you don’t understand this core difference, you can’t really comprehend why they are equally useful in very different situations. After all, neither type of temperature control unit is outright superior to the other, and it is because they function better in different environments.

We’ll start with the evaporative air cooler. The swamp cooler works by taking advantage of a natural process that occurs in the world around us already. Think of how you get a chill stepping out of a cold pool or the ocean, and you get a chill when the warm air passes over you. This is exactly how a swamp cooler functions: it uses a fan to draw in warm, dry air, which then passes over moist, cool pads inside the unit.

When the two come into contact with one another, they try to equalize their temperatures, so the warm air gets cooler to try and match the cooling pads. This now cooler air is then released back into your home, which of course, gradually lowers the overall temperature. It also makes the air a bit more humid, which can be a great bonus if you live in an uncomfortably dry climate.

The traditional air conditioning unit actually works in reverse fashion. Instead of adding moisture to dry air to make it cooler, it actually takes moisture out of warm, humid air to cool it. This process is achieved through chemicals that the air conditioning unit uses. Once the now-dry air is cooled, it is released back into your home, and the warm air you don’t want is released outside, along with some greenhouse gasses. Air conditioners have the nice side effect of making the air a bit drier if you live in an especially humid place.

As you can see, these two different machines achieve the same thing but do it in completely opposing ways. One is not inherently better than the other, as they both have a roughly equal amount of advantages and disadvantages. For instance, if you are especially concerned with being eco-friendly, an evaporative air cooler does not use any chemicals that are bad for the atmosphere. However, you have far more control over the temperature in your home with a traditional air conditioner, and you can also cool your home by a far greater margin than you can with a swamp cooler.

But the most important thing to take from this is that the climate you live in is the most important factor to consider by far. Depending on what climate you live in, the different options will be better suited to you. For one, an evaporative air cooler is not very effective if you do not live in a dry, hot place since that is pretty much a prerequisite to its function. And trying to use it in a humid environment would probably just make the air even more humid.

The same is true of an air conditioner. It will function more effectively in humid environments since it works by extracting moisture from the air. It will still be able to function in dry environments as well, but it will only make the air even drier, which could make your environment more uncomfortable than you would like. This is why you should take your climate into consideration first and foremost when trying to choose whether you should use a swamp cooler or a traditional air conditioner.

Differences in Installation

If you are trying to decide between a swamp cooler and a traditional AC unit, you may be wondering which one is more of a hassle to install. Generally speaking, swamp coolers are a bit easier to install. But of course, this depends on the size of the unit you buy, regardless of which type it is. For both air conditioners and swamp coolers, portable or window-sized units generally require no professional installation of any sort.

On the flip side, if you purchase a full house-sized cooling unit, whether it is an air conditioner or a swamp cooler, you will definitely need professional installation help, which is of course quite expensive. That said, evaporative air coolers are generally easier to install, so even if you do need professional assistance, they tend to be cheaper than their AC counterparts.

Cost Differences

Cost is generally one of the most important factors that people consider when they want to choose a cooling unit, and the general consensus is that swamp coolers are usually cheaper. However, this is a bit of a misconception. The actual unit generally costs the same amount between swamp coolers and traditional air conditioners. However, the cost of installation for the latter is generally much higher, so the final cost tends to be higher. However, this means that aside from installation, swamp coolers and traditional air conditioners are about the same cost, so portable or window variants don’t have a significant cost difference.

For instance, a full house-sized air conditioner actually costs less than an equally sized swamp cooler on average, at an average cost of $1,300, but their installation cost can be as high as $7,000 or $8,000. On the other hand, a full house-sized swamp cooler costs a little more to purchase at around $1,800, but the installation cost is a bit less at around $4,000 or $5,000. As you can see, the overall cost of a swamp cooler could be a little less, but not by much.
However, it is worth noting that air conditioning units are more likely to require professional installation, even if they are smaller sized units. 

Therefore, evaporative air conditioners indeed tend to cost a little less than their traditional counterparts, but the margin is not especially significant.

Energy Efficiency

One of the reasons people tend to get interested in evaporative air coolers is because they are supposedly more energy-efficient than traditional air conditioners. In some ways, this is true, but it depends on numerous different factors. For one, swamp coolers do generally use a bit less electricity, but unlike air conditioners, they do have use water. Generally water is cheaper than electricity, but there is no denying that it is still a cost to consider, and if you are in drought conditions or restricted water conditions, that might be more costly than electricity generally is. 

However, if the water isn’t an issue where you are, a swamp cooler truly is more energy-efficient than a traditional air conditioner. An evaporative air cooler uses about 15% to 30% less electricity, and of course, there are no chemicals involved in how a swamp cooler works. In short, you will generally use less electricity when using a swamp cooler. However, you must also keep in mind that swamp coolers do not reduce the overall temperature of a room nearly as much as a chemical air conditioner does.

So while it does end up using less electricity, it has a somewhat lesser capability in temperature reduction to match, especially if you live in a humid environment.

Maintenance Costs

When it comes to maintenance, there is a significant difference in the two different types of units, but also a similarity. On the one hand, the cost of maintaining both units is actually quite similar. If you were to pay someone to conduct maintenance on either type of unit on a yearly basis, it would probably cost you around $100. However, while the overall cost might end up being the same (with one caveat we will discuss momentarily), there is a vast difference in how often the two units must be maintained.

Swamp coolers require far more maintenance than air conditioners do. An air conditioner will generally only require maintenance once a year, whereas a swamp cooler will often need weekly maintenance, and in some cases even daily. You will often need to refill the water tanks, replace the pads, and clean the unit, whereas you do not need to do any of this very often for a traditional AC unit. This is why it is important to balance the fiscal cost of an AC unit versus the time investment you must put into maintaining a swamp cooler.

That said, while the overall maintenance cost is the same for both types of units, it is worth noting that your traditional AC is a more complex machine, and if a part of it does actually malfunction, it will cost far more to repair than it would to fix a swamp cooler. So while the base maintenance cost is the same, the repair cost for a traditional air conditioning unit could be thousands of dollars.

Emissions and Noise

If you are concerned with the noise or emissions of the different units, you can be certain that the evaporative cooler is significantly quieter than your typical air conditioning unit. That is because it doesn’t really need anything other than its fan to draw in air, so it doesn’t make nearly as much noise as an air conditioning unit. Of course, it also doesn’t use any chemicals in its cooling process, so if you are worried about being eco-friendly, it is definitely a better option than an air conditioning unit.

However, it is worth noting that swamp coolers, because of their cooling pads which are constantly wet, have a chance of growing mold or mildew if they are not maintained properly. This means that there is a chance for an evaporative air cooler to circulate unhealthy allergens that could cause respiratory problems. This, of course, only becomes an issue if you do not take care of your swamp cooler, but regardless, it is a danger that typical air conditioning units do not share.

Bottom Line

Unfortunately, evaporative air coolers are not the end all be all better choice when it comes to home cooling units. While they do have some advantages over traditional air conditioner units, they have just as many disadvantages, so they are pretty even. Neither one is inherently superior to the other since it depends very heavily on the factors that surround you personally.

The first, and clearly most crucial, is the climate you live in. Put simply, if you live in a very humid, wet climate then a swamp cooler is not going to be the choice for you. Thanks to the way it works, adding more humidity to the air around it, it just won’t be very effective in humid environments. In fact, it might even make things more uncomfortable since it will just raise the humidity of already humid air. On top of that, a swamp cooler won’t lower the temperature very well in such an environment. In this kind of climate, an air conditioner would actually serve you better, since it would be able to dry out the humid air.

But if you do live in a dry climate, a swamp cooler will be much more effective, because it works specifically by taking advantage of dry, warm air. In these situations, an evaporative air cooler will be much more effective and use less energy to lower the temperature in your room. So, if you do live in a dry climate, a swamp cooler is a very effective option. It is in these situations that a swamp cooler will actually be able to lower the temperature significantly, by around fifteen to twenty degrees. Those are the ideal conditions in which a swamp cooler would be most effective.

Even so, it is not wholly advantageous. As stated previously, evaporative air coolers require far more time and maintenance invested into them to remain useful, and they do have the potential to grow mold and mildew, which is something that traditional air conditioning units don’t have. Furthermore, while it does use less electricity, it does use water instead, and that can be a con if water is a restricted resource were you live.

The costs involved with the two different types of units aren’t all that different either. Assuming that you are purchasing the same size in regards to either type of cooling system, a swamp cooler is actually more expensive on its initial purchase, but generally doesn’t cost as much to install. That said, once you combine the two costs, the purchase and installation of a house-sized evaporative air cooler would still likely only be a few hundred dollars cheaper than the AC option, which isn’t much when you are talking thousands of dollars.

It is also very important to note that a swamp cooler simply doesn’t cool the air as much as an air conditioner does. While it does still cool it by a fair ten or fifteen degrees under ideal conditions, you don’t have the same level of control. You will not be able to lower the temperature of your room by thirty degrees with a swamp cooler. You will also not be able to specify what temperature you want to lower the temperature in your room. You do not have as much control, so keep this in mind.

​So in the end, it is definitely not true that evaporative air coolers are entirely superior to traditional air conditioning units. While there are some benefits, there is also an equal amount of cons. Based on the information we’ve provided, it is up to your discretion to determine which particular option will serve you best based on your environment and energy needs. They both have their strengths, but these strengths only show in certain climates and situations, so you need to know when each type of unit will benefit your household the most.