Evaporative Coolers VS Air Conditioners | Which To Choose?

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Evaporative Coolers VS Air Conditioners | Which To Choose?

With summer well and truly on the way, your thoughts are likely turning to how you’re going to stay cool over the next few months. For many of us, that means turning to our air conditioners for relief. And it’s about more than just comfort too – your air conditioner can be an important tool in preventing overheating, helping to keep you safe as temperatures rise.

If you’re worried that your current unit won’t quite cut it this year, or are simply looking at new options to help you keep cool, we’ve got you covered! We’re going to compare evaporative coolers vs air conditioners – two popular cooling solutions used across Australia. We’re going to cover suitability, efficiency, the all-important cost factor, and more.

But first, let’s take a quick look at how both evaporative cooling and air conditioning work.

How air conditioners work

In the average home, you’re probably most likely to see a split-head air conditioner system in use, with an outdoor compressor unit linked to an indoor unit which brings cool air into that specific room. You might also find standalone air conditioners in smaller homes, or see ducted/vent systems in larger, newer builds and for commercial use.

Traditional air conditioners rely on refrigerants to cool the air. To use a split system as an example, warm air is pulled through fans into the indoor unit and passed over cold evaporator coils. The liquid refrigerant inside these coils converts to gas and absorbs the heat from the air. The refrigerant is then condensed back into a liquid in the outdoor compressor unit, and the heat is expelled, while the cooled air is blown back into the home.

How evaporative coolers work

While technically evaporative cooling is a form of air conditioning, it doesn’t work in quite the same way. Evaporative coolers, sometimes known as “swamp coolers”, use evaporation to cool down the air – it’s the same process as when you get out of the shower and start to feel chills as the water droplets evaporate off your skin, lowering your body temperature.

Like air conditioners, you’ll find evaporative coolers on both a large and a small scale. They can be built into the home, using ceiling ducts and a central cooling unit, or purchased as a small standalone product.

Unlike air conditioners, evaporative coolers don’t need refrigerants to work. The hot air is pushed through the system, where it will eventually reach a series of water-soaked cooling pads. These pads cool the air, which is then sent back out into the room using fans.


Let’s be honest – the price of a new cooling system is likely at the forefront of any decisions you’ll be making about how to cool your space this summer. Remember that you’ll have to consider installation, running, AND maintenance costs, and with power prices on the rise, you’ll need to come prepared for changes in the future.


If you’re looking at picking up standalone or portable units, evaporative coolers tend to work out a little cheaper, coming in as low as $200 compared to the $300+ for air conditioners. Just remember that as prices go down, efficiency will likely follow, so if you’re looking at standalones as an option, you may want to spend a little more initially to save a lot later on.

For those of you able to build a system into your home, whether you’re adding onto an existing structure or working it into a new build, you can expect to pay well into the thousands for either system. A quick Google search places both at around $3000 to $5000, though that can go up or down depending on factors such as installation type, the scale of work required, and labour costs for your local area. Remember, if you’re installing a system, rather than purchasing plug-in standalone units, you’ll need to make sure your tradie holds all the appropriate licences.

Running costs

Generally speaking, you’ll find an evaporative cooler a little cheaper to run than an air conditioner. It uses less power, and because you’ll potentially need to keep the doors and windows open, you can also make the most of a summer breeze and feel a little cooler for slightly cheaper.

According to Canstar Blue, using a ducted evaporative system could cost between $65-$85 per year, depending on the size of the space cooled. You’ll also need to consider water usage with an evaporative cooler – perhaps not an issue if you’re renting, but if you own your own home, you’ll need to keep an eye on expenditure there too.

Ducted systems tend to cost roughly $0.91 per hour to run, although this varies depending on a wide range of factors: the room’s temperature, the system’s efficiency rating, and more. If you’d like a more thorough breakdown of air conditioner running costs, check out our split vs ducted price comparison.

Remember that you can always offset running costs by turning to solar power – and that goes for both evaporative coolers and air conditioners!


Though it’s tempting to go on price alone, there’s far more to the evaporative coolers vs air conditioners debate. Given the different cooling processes at play, you’ll also need to think carefully about your location.

Because evaporative coolers rely on those soaked cooling pads to cool the air, they’re not ideal for use in humid climates or during rainy seasons, as their process requires the pads to contain more moisture than the air passing through them in order to cool it effectively. They’ll also require more maintenance and cleaning because of this, which can send costs up.

To get the most out of them, you’ll want a humidity of less than 30%, which will rule out those tropical and subtropical regions. For those areas, you’d be better off considering traditional air conditioner units, which can both cool and dehumidify. In short, if you live in Melbourne consider an evaporative cooler. If you’re in Far North Queensland, traditional air con is the way to go.

Cooling (and heating) capabilities

As a rough guide, you can expect a maximum temperature drop of 12-14˚C from either option, well above the recommended setting of 8˚C lower than the outside space. However, evaporative coolers can increase humidity, so you might not get that same blast of cold air as you do from an air conditioner, especially given that many air conditioners also work as dehumidifiers.

The good news is that you can leave doors and windows open when using an evaporative cooler – in fact, it’s encouraged to help circulate the air and manage humidity in the cooled space – so any fresh summer breezes can be welcomed into your home.

And while winter might be a distant memory for some, it’s worth noting that air conditioners can also be used to heat your home too. For year-round capabilities, that’s a point to air conditioners!


Maintenance costs aside, it’s important to think about just how much you’ll need to do to keep your system running efficiently and safely.

Both evaporative coolers and air conditioners will need regular servicing and, unless you have prior experience, it’s generally recommended you get a professional in for most jobs. This is especially true of air conditioner units, as they contain refrigerants, which can be dangerous in the event of leaks.

Evaporative coolers will require, on average, more maintenance from the user, with special attention paid to the cooling pads. Regularly cleaning and replacing these will prevent mould and mildew, keep the fresh air flowing, and manage mineral build-ups.

So, which do you choose?

As is often the case, when it comes down to evaporative coolers vs air conditioners, it’s all about meeting your personal needs. If you’re environmentally conscious, looking for long-term savings, and live in the right area, an evaporative cooler might be exactly what you need this coming season. But if humidity stalks your every move during the summer months, and you’d rather someone else take the reins when it comes to maintenance, a more traditional air conditioner will likely appeal – though perhaps you’ll look a little closer at the energy efficiency ratings!

Whatever your choice, reaching out to a professional is always a good idea. They’re your best bet for sound advice, accurate quotes, and maintenance needs. In fact, why not start right here, with our pick of the most energy-efficient air conditioners of 2022?