Next year, the American portable air conditioning market turns 30 years old.

It was mid-1983 when Denso Corp. — a large automotive OEM and the biggest car air conditioning manufacturer in the world — first began distributing its novel personnel cooling unit, dubbed MovinCool. Judging by the state of the market today, a lot has transpired since those early days.

To say that the market has evolved would be putting things mildly. For one, cooling people in the manufacturing environment, which was the product’s original design parameter and intent, now represents a fairly small percentage of its use. And while a rugged line of coolers is still manufactured for the production floor or warehouse, the largest application by far is cooling computers, servers, telephone equipment, and the various electronic equipment consoles spread throughout the workplace.

As a result, nearly all new models and product innovations in this product sector are geared toward equipment cooling. These commercial applications don’t require high ambient operating ranges or weatherproof cabinets like the original generation. Everything from sleeker designs to energy-efficient, user-friendly features are built into the latest generation to address the higher tech, closer tolerance equipment room environment where most portables are used. Other than being mounted on four casters, the newer generation shares little with those original models.

Design Benefits

However, it is the original design’s mobility that continues to make portable air conditioners so popular. For either permanent or temporary use, portables provide a flexibility that can’t be duplicated. Within the office environment, hospitals, and other commercial buildings, nothing can be deployed as quickly to provide relief for the many localized hot spots. The portable design solves problems that would otherwise take many days or many more dollars to solve with installed systems.

That’s why IT managers, contractors, engineering departments, and administrators are counted among the most loyal users of portable equipment. How these groups of users are utilizing portables has influenced many of the changes and design parameters for the latest generation of units. Among those changes are:

• Higher sensible cooling de-
signs. Many new models designed by industry manufacturers have been reconfigured with higher sensible cooling capabilities geared to the equipment cooling market.

• Energy-efficient components. Variable-speed inverter compressors, superior coil design, more efficient motors, etc., are being built into today’s portables to minimize energy consumption per Btuh produced.

• Operating benefits. Features such as programmable operation, power outage protection, self diagnostics, and monitoring are being built into the newer generations.

• Quieter operation. Manufacturers are finding ways to build equipment with better sound dampening techniques.

• Slimmer profiles. Units of higher capacity are being designed to roll through interior doorways.

The Non-Portable Portable

But even with the advances in design and technology built into the newer generation portables, one of the product’s shortcomings simply can’t be overcome. Because portables are nearly always located within the room requiring cooling, they take up floor space. And in the modern-day equipment room, which is crammed with equipment, floor space is at a premium.

This problem is primarily re-
sponsible for the popularity of the “non-portable portable.” Better known as a ceiling-mounted unit, this configuration has become popular for solving the same issues the portable has become famous for — without the drawback of residing on valuable floor space.

Mounted securely above the drop ceiling or bolted into the concrete deck above, the ceiling-mounted unit provides the necessary full-time cooling for small to medium equipment rooms, which are the main domain for portables.

Even though, by definition, the ceiling-mounted unit is not a portable air conditioner, it has become popular among the same group of users and installers that are enamored with portables. As such, most of the portable suppliers and distributors stock and sell ceiling-mounted units. They are considered by some distributors to be an extension of the portable market.

The most popular ceiling-mounted units come in air-cooled and water-cooled configurations. At present, they are available in 1- to 2.5-ton capacities but larger sizes should soon be available. Its biggest drawback is that you can’t rent the product. It is simply a “for sale” item.

Even so, there seems to be plenty of room for this segment to grow. And as long as corporate America continues to be addicted to technology, chances are good that new and ever more efficient systems will be added to the present lineup — even if they don’t have wheels.

The portable air conditioning market has certainly come of age, and all signs seem to indicate that 30 years from now it will be celebrating its 60th birthday.

Publication date: 6/25/2012