Is a Swamp Cooler or Air Conditioner Better for Your Home?
Here in New Mexico, it’s common to see homes with either a swamp cooler or an air conditioner. Often, you’ll see swamp coolers in older homes and air conditioners in newer developments.
In this blog, we’ll discuss the differences between swamp coolers and air conditioners, explain how each works, and explain several factors that will help you determine which one is right for you.
What is the difference between a swamp cooler and an evaporative cooler?
Before we dive in, we know swamp coolers have a few names—both swamp cooler and evaporative cooler are the terms for the same thing. Technically, evaporative cooler is the correct name and the term used in the HVAC industry.
Swamp cooler is a slang term for evaporative cooler, referring to how if an evaporative cooler isn’t taken care of, your home can get…swampy.
This slang term has been so widely adopted that many people don’t even know that swamp coolers are called evaporative coolers. HVAC specialists will understand what you’re talking about if you use either term.
Comparing Cooling Methods
The main difference between swamp coolers and air conditioners are the methods by which they cool air. The methods create certain limitations for swamp coolers specifically.
Air Conditioners Use Refrigerants
Air conditioners, or refrigerated air, as many people in New Mexico call it, cool the air in your home with refrigerants. To break it down further, when the temperature inside your home goes beyond the temperature you set, a signal is tripped on the circuit board on your furnace.
The blower motor inside your home and the condenser outside your home both start moving. Warm air from outside is drawn into your home and is cooled as if moves over the evaporator coil in your furnace. This cooled air goes into your home through the return air vents, and the refrigerant in your furnace absorbs the heat as the air passes over the evaporator coil. This now warm refrigerant is pumped out to the condenser unit outside.
Another set of coils in the condenser pulls the heat from the refrigerant, and then the refrigerant returns to the furnace.
A refrigerant is a chemical substance or mixture that comes as fluid or gas. Ones you may have heard of are CFCs (largely phased out in the 90s) and Freon.
Swamp (Evaporative) Coolers Use Water
Swamp coolers work similarly, in some senses. Instead of passing air over refrigerant, warm air passes over pads saturated with water. The water cools the air, from 15-40 degrees cooler than the outside air according to energy.gov. As an Albuquerque HVAC company, we see it much more common that the air is cooled only about 20 degrees lower than the outside temperature.
Whether it motivates you to save money or reduce your energy use for environmental concerns, or both, it’s wise to consider the energy usage of any new appliance you’re getting. Swamp coolers have a reputation for using less energy than air conditioning. Let’s see if that’s true.
What uses more electricity AC or swamp cooler?
Also according to energy.gov,
“Evaporative coolers cost about one-half as much to install as central air conditioners and use about one-quarter as much energy.”
Other sources, like Angi, state that swamp coolers use 15-35% less electricity than air conditioning. While that’s a pretty wide swing, it depends on the specific units you’re comparing. But, the consensus is that swamp coolers use less electricity.
It’s worth mentioning that air conditioning units are getting more and more energy efficient. If you’re in the market for a new cooling system, ask your HVAC salesperson to compare the energy usage of specific AC units to swamp coolers.
If you’re looking at energy use alone, swamp coolers are the obvious choice. But as you keep reading, we think you might find reasons why the choice isn’t so cut and dry, especially depending on where you live.
What Are the Climate Considerations?
Evaporative coolers, while very energy efficient, don’t work in all climates. They operate best in dry environments. In fact, you can’t even use them if the humidity is too high.
And it’s important to know that even in dry climates, if the temperatures get too high, an evaporative cooler will not have the effect you want. Since they can only cool air to about 20 degrees less than the outside air, when you’re in the midst of summer heat, the inside of your home could be very uncomfortable.
All of that to say, evaporative coolers are ideal for dry yet mild climates. For example, here in Albuquerque, some people prefer swamp coolers, or just have them because they live in an older home.
In these homes, the hottest days of summer might be bearable, but a swamp cooler sure isn’t providing that refreshing blast of cold air.
Swamp Cooler vs Air Conditioner Maintenance
When considering swamp cooler vs air conditioner, it’s important to know the maintenance each requires.
Is it cheaper to run central air or a swamp cooler?
We talked about energy use already, and determined that a swamp cooler is much more energy efficient than an air conditioner. However, there are other things to take into account when determining which one is cheaper overall.
Both swamp coolers and air conditioners operate best when they have regular maintenance. However, with swamp coolers, it’s pretty much non-negotiable to have regular maintenance.
Unlike central AC, in a swamp cooler home, you can’t run both the heat and the cool (like in the spring or fall when it’s warm during the day and cool at night. You have to physically drain and shut down the swamp cooler for the winter and install the damper to keep from losing heat through the vent.
A savvy homeowner can complete the spring and fall changeovers, but most people decide to hire it out since you have to get up on your roof—with a shop vac, no less!
Swamp coolers also require that you regularly change out the pads, even more frequently if you live in an area with poor water quality. While the pads aren’t expensive, they can add up over time.
Having said all of that, central AC and its maintenance tend to be more expensive than swamp coolers overall. Certainly, the purchase and installation costs are higher, but they also require more electricity. Regular maintenance is recommended as well. For those on a tight budget, a swamp cooler can be a great choice.
Which is Noisier? Swamp Coolers or AC?
One common complaint about evaporative coolers is the noise. Homeowners can hear the sound of water trickling, the motor, and the multiple fans inside the system. If you’re sensitive to noise, or work from home that requires quiet (like audio recording), you may want to avoid a swamp cooler if possible.
However, there are steps you can take to reduce the noise. Check out some tips on reducing noise from a swamp cooler here.
With air conditioning, you hear when the AC kicks on and throughout the cycle. If you’re outside, you’ll likely hear the whirring of your condenser unit as well. But, these sounds are less disruptive than the sounds from a swamp cooler.
Is Evaporative Cooling Better for Allergies?
For those with environmental allergies, having good indoor air quality in your home is a must!
One advantage of evaporative coolers is that it’s always pulling in fresh air, whereas central air conditioning recirculates the same air. Fresh air can be lovely!
However, with an evaporative cooler, you also have to leave a window cracked at all times. This can bring more allergens in the home, causing those with allergies to suffer.
A closed-air system, like central air conditioning, is better for those wanting to avoid pollens and other airborne allergens. It’s also better to have central AC if your city regularly deals with poor air quality.
One last concern about evaporative coolers and allergies is the potential for mildew growth. If you regularly maintain your swamp cooler, mildew is not a problem. But mildew can begin to grow if you don’t change the pads regularly (at least twice per cooling season). Obviously, this is not good for people in your home with allergies.
Overall, if people in your household deal with environmental allergies, it’s best to choose an air conditioner over a swamp cooler.
Cost of Installation
Install costs are higher for a central air conditioning unit. According to HomeAdvisor, it can cost between $3,882 and $7,905, on average, to replace an AC unit. The national average cost range for a swamp cooler install is $1,500 to $3,500.
Of course, these are all just averages. Prices vary of the size of the home, the cost of the actual unit you’re picking, any ductwork needed, and for swamp coolers, what kind of mounting you need (ground, roof, window, or portable.)
To sum it up, there are reasons why you’d want each type of cooling system.
Advantages of swamp coolers:
- Unit price and installation are less/budget-friendly
- Some people feel they add moisture to the air in their home
- They are constantly pulling fresh air into the home
- They’re ideal for dry climates
Advantages of air conditioning:
- Requires less maintenance and attention
- No risk for mildew or burst pipes
- Can get your home much cooler
- Works in any climate
- Better for people with allergies
- Better for those sensitive to noise
If you’re in the Greater Albuquerque Area, give Bosque Heating, Cooling and Plumbing a call at (505) 444-7200. We will be happy to have a free consultation with you and help you decide which cooling system is right for your home.