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Hot? Make your own portable air conditioner for cheap

Take it camping, to the beach or simply to your backyard BBQ -- no electrical know-how needed.

Simple supplies are all you need to make this DIY air conditioning unit.
Alina Bradford/CNET

The hot weather is here in many parts of the US, but there's a simple way to stay cool when you're barbecuing, at the lake or camping: a DIY AC unit. Grab a few inexpensive items from your local hardware store -- we'll show you which ones below -- and you're an afternoon project away from a homemade portable air conditioner. Best of all, you don't need any electrical experience to rig it up.

Read more: How to buy the right portable air conditioner and stay cool all season long


Here's what you need to get started on your AC project:

  • An ice chest
  • Drill
  • Skill saw  
  • Two 5-inch (13-centimeter) diameter PVC elbow pipes
  • Permanent marker
  • Duct tape 
  • Cordless fan and batteries
  • Ice

Make your portable AC unit

Now that you have your supplies gathered, use these steps to build your DIY AC unit:

  1. Trace the fan: Put the batteries in the fan and then lay it down in the center of the cooler lid. Trace around the fan using the permanent marker.
  2. Drill the lid: Drill a hole in the center of the circle you traced on the lid. This will make it easier to cut out the circle with the skill saw.
  3. Cut the fan hole: Place your skill saw blade in the hole, and cut a line that connects from the hole to the circle you traced. Continue cutting around the circumference of the circle until it is cut out.
  4. Add the fan: Place the fan in the hole so the front of the fan will point into the cooler when the lid is closed. Secure it with duct tape around the edges. You'll want to tape the edges on the back of the fan and on the front. I used a printed duct tape for a little pizzazz.
  5. Trace the pipes: Place one elbow pipe on one end of the the cooler and trace around it. Do the same to the other side of the cooler.
  6. Drill a guide hole: Drill a hole in the circle like you did with the lid. Do this on both sides of the cooler.
  7. Cut hole for pipes: Cut out the holes for the pipes with the skill saw.
  8. Add pipes: Push the elbow pipes into the holes. Make sure that the ends of the pipes are pointing upward. Secure the pipe to the hole with duct tape around the edges, like you did with the fan.
  9. Add ice: The last step is to fill the cooler with ice, close the lid and turn on the fan. Within 10 minutes, the air conditioner should be blowing very chilly air.
Now playing: Watch this: Beat the summer heat with this DIY air conditioner

How does it work?

How this AC unit makes cold air is pretty simple. A battery-powered fan pushes air inside of the cooler, which is cooled by ice. The cold air is then forced out of the pipes on either end of the cooler. The lucky person lounging at either end is greeted with a chilly breeze. 

3 pro tips you need to know

Follow these tips to get the most out of your AC:

  • Instead of using bagged ice for your AC, get a couple of jugs of water and freeze them. The frozen jugs of water are mess-free, and you can refreeze them over and over again.
  • You can use a solar-powered fan instead of a battery-powered one so you don't need to worry about changing out batteries.
  • Throw a few dryer sheets on top of the ice for scented air.

Still have questions? Check out the gallery below for more visuals.