Choosing An RV Air Conditioner Unit

Contributor

Conner Lund

Favorite Trip

Backpacking Ozark Trail

Home Base

Bowling Green, KY

Favorite RV

Winnebago Revel

About Contributor

Conner Lund is a Technical Content Writer. He has both hands-on experience and real-world knowledge. He’s an avid outdoorsman: camping, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, kayaking, hunting, and fishing are all things he enjoys that you could find him doing on any given weekend. He loves to travel and see new places. He does most of his exploring and camping out of his overlanding truck with a rooftop tent.

Your RV roof air conditioner is one of the most important appliances for climate control, especially if you camp in the spring or summer. It’s the reason most campers ultimately upgrade from tent camping to RVing. Whether you’re looking to replace, add, or upgrade your RV air conditioner, we’re here to help.

Learn everything you need to know about RV air conditioners, from choosing the right size to ensuring you have all the correct parts.

Types of RV Air Conditioners

The most popular type of air conditioner is an overhead unit installed on the roof. This type blows air down directly into the RV or distributes it through a ducting system. In recent years, we’ve seen an emergence of window and wall-mounted units, especially in smaller RVs. While less common, portable RV air conditioners can also be found in modern RVs. 

Need help determining which is best for you? Let’s review the best RV air conditioners.

RV Roof Air Conditioners

Dual rooftop RV A/C
Photo by Camping World

The most popular, and for good reason, RV roof air conditioners don’t take up any space inside the RV. They are the most effective at distributing air, especially in a ducted system. These units provide the most efficient cooling and many can also deliver heat if you have a model with a heat pump or strip. 

Although leading the charts in performance, they also lead the charts in power draw and replacement cost.

ProsCons
PowerfulExpensive to Replace
Doesn’t Take Up Space Inside RVLarge Power Draw
Heat Option

RV Window A/C Units

Wall A/C unit in Coleman Lantern
Photo by Camping World

It wasn’t until the Coleman Lantern LT series that I really noticed the emergence of window or wall-mounted units inside RVs. 

One issue with using an overhead unit on a small camper is the potential to freeze you out. Most manufacturers consider a small RV air conditioner to be 13,500 BTU, which is too much for a small RV, even on the lowest setting. With a smaller RV, you also likely have a more limited power supply, and window units draw about half as much power as an overhead unit, on average. 

ProsCons
Won’t Freeze You OutTakes Up Wall Space
Smaller Power DemandUnsightly
Less Efficient Cooling

Portable RV Air Conditioner Units

Portable RV A/C unit in camper
Photo by Getty Images

The most likely use for a portable air conditioner in an RV is to supplement a roof or wall-mounted unit. Their downsides include reduced cooling capacity, added setup time, and reduced storage space. However, there are also positives, such as quiet operation and less strain on your wallet. 

Portable air conditioners are also an option for RVs without an air conditioner or a temporary A/C replacement. The best part is that adding one does not require significant modifications, like cutting into the roof or walls.

ProsCons
Easy InstallPoor Efficiency 
Portable Easy to Move Design Requires Setup
Cost EffectiveTakes Up Storage Space

What Are the Different Rooftop Air Conditioner Components?

RV roof air conditioning systems are a collection of components that work together to deliver cool air throughout your camper. The main component is your roof-mounted unit, followed by the distribution box, a control module, and the thermostat. Some units come as a kit with all the needed items, whereas others require you to purchase them separately. Here’s how each component in the system functions:

The A/C Unit

Overhead rooftop A/C unit without shroud
Photo by Camping World

The main component of an air conditioner for RV roofs is the unit itself. The unit contains all the internal air conditioning parts, such as the coils, condenser, compressor, etc.

Distribution Box

Inside RV view of A/C distribution box
Photo by Camping World

The distribution box is mounted inside the RV to the ceiling directly below the A/C unit. It distributes air throughout the RV through one or multiple vents.

Control Module

The control module is mounted to the distribution box or inside the unit. It controls all the settings, such as air speed and temperature. It is the system’s brain that communicates with the A/C unit, distribution box, and thermostat.

Thermostat

A/C electric thermostat
Photo by Camping World

The thermostat tells the A/C unit when to turn on/off. It can be mounted on the wall (electric) or to the distribution box (manual).

Shroud

A/C shroud on RV roof
Photo by Camping World

The shroud protects the internal components of the A/C unit. Typically constructed of polypropylene, these covers are durable and weather-resistant.

Air Filter

The air filter is installed inside the distribution box in front of the vent. It blocks allergens, such as dust, pollen, mold spores, and more, from entering the RV.

Ducted versus Non-Ducted RV A/C Units

There are two types of roof-mounted A/C units: ducted and non-ducted. In a ducted system, ducts run through the RV’s floor, walls, or ceiling, and vents deliver the air throughout the floorplan. 

A non-ducted system has only one vent at the distribution box. Air blows straight down from the unit into the RV. Non-ducted systems are standard for small RVs, while ducted systems are common in larger RVs with multiple rooms. 

Distribution boxes are usually specific to ducted or non-ducted RVs, so you’ll need to know which type you have before selecting one.

How To Choose an RV Air Conditioner

The choice of an RV air conditioner can be overwhelming. There is an endless list of options and plenty of compatibility concerns. Let’s go over some common deciding factors to help you make a suitable choice.

Brand

There are two schools of thought behind choosing the right RV air conditioner brand. The first is choosing the same brand you have now to ensure compatibility. The second is choosing a different brand, with the expectation that you may have to replace multiple components to ensure everything works together. It’s a good idea to look at each brand and pick one that offers a system with the features you need. Some top RV air conditioner brands have been attached below for your convenience. 

Size (BTU Rating)

When most people talk about an RV air conditioner’s size, they’re referring to its BTU rating. British Thermal Units, also known as BTUs, are essentially a measure of power. The higher the BTU rating, the more cooling capacity the unit has. Most manufacturers offer a smaller 13,500 BTU RV air conditioner and a larger 15,000 BTU RV air conditioner. There are some oddball ratings as well, such as 11,000 BTU for smaller RVs.

Several factors, such as the size of the RV, insulation properties, and number of rooms, must be considered when choosing the correct size (AKA BTU rating) for your RV. We recommend sticking with the manufacturer’s suggestion, which you can get by calling the manufacturer directly with your vehicle identification number (VIN).

If your unit did not come with an air conditioner and you want to add one, you can use the general size chart below as an estimate.

RV LengthBTU Requirement
<2013,500
20-3015,000
>3027,000-30,000

Manual or Electric

A manual system is controlled via the distribution box, which means you must adjust settings directly on the ceiling unit. This may pose an issue if you’re shorter or have a high ceiling. 

An electric system uses a wall-mounted thermostat for operation. Although most prefer a wall thermostat, manual systems are easier to install because you don’t have to run wires through the walls and ceiling.

Features

There are many features to consider, but not all brands offer the same options. It’s important to select only what you need, as the more features a unit has, the more expensive it will be. A few examples of standard features are listed below:

  • Heat Pump – Provides extra heat in colder months. Works best above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Heat Strip – Designed to remove the chill, it should not be a primary heat source.
  • Soft Start – Reduces start-up energy demands, allowing for a smaller generator. 
  • Condensate Pump – Channels condensation away from the roof and out a drain tube. 

5 Best RV Air Conditioner Models to Consider

Are you feeling overwhelmed by all the A/C models out there? Our top five RV A/C units will help you get a reliable system to keep you cool this summer. 

Dometic FreshJet 3 Series RV Air Conditioner

Dometic FreshJet 3 Series RV Air Conditioner
Photo by Camping World

The most innovative rooftop air conditioner on the list is a Dometic RV air conditioner, the FreshJet 3. The FreshJet offers upgraded efficiency, quieter operation, and e-coated coils for added durability. 

15,000 BTU Model Tested

Noise Level (dBa)Weight (Lbs)Power Draw (Amps)
596513.6

Furrion Chill HE RV Roof Air Conditioner

Furrion Chill HE RV Roof Air Conditioner
Photo by Camping World

The Furrion Chill is a highly efficient rooftop air conditioner with durable features like vibration protection and a thermal-insulated shroud.

15,500 BTU Model Tested

Noise Level (dBa)Weight (Lbs)Power Draw (Amps)
808415.4

Coleman-Mach 15 Air Conditioner

Coleman-Mach 15 Air Conditioner
Photo by Camping World

One of the most tried-and-true RV rooftop A/C units on our list is the Coleman Mach. This high-performance air conditioner offers superior cooling and unrivaled durability.  

15,000 BTU Model Tested

Noise Level (dBa)Weight (Lbs)Power Draw (Amps)
Not Rated8515.3

Dometic Penguin II High-Capacity Air Conditioner

Dometic Penguin II High-Capacity Air Conditioner
Photo by Camping World

What’s unique about the Penguin is its low-profile design, which improves aerodynamics and helps cut down on fuel costs. Pair this with a high-performance motor for maximum cooling power, and you have an excellent rooftop option. 

15,000 BTU Model Tested

Noise Level (dBa)Weight (Lbs)Power Draw (Amps)
Not Rated9911.4

GE Exterior RV Air Conditioner

GE Exterior RV Air Conditioner
Photo by Camping World

The GE air conditioner is cost-effective and reliable. It has rubber grommets to reduce vibrations, a glossy shroud to increase aesthetics, and easy-to-maintain coils for cleaning. 

15,000 BTU Model Tested

Noise Level (dBa)Weight (Lbs)Power Draw (Amps)
Not Rated8020

What Size Generator Do I Need for My Air Conditioner?

Honda EU2200i generator
Photo by Camping World

Generally, most 13,500 BTU RV air conditioners will require at least 3,500 starting watts, and 15,000 BTU RV air conditioners will need upwards of 4,000 starting watts.

When camping off-grid, there’s no access to shore power. Air conditioners draw too much power for your batteries, forcing you to use a generator. Unfortunately, generator sizing can be tricky. Due to space, weight, and fuel concerns, you’ll usually want to use a generator that is as small as possible.

Like generators, most air conditioners have running and starting wattage requirements. Starting watts represent how much power the unit requires on startup, and running watts represent how much power it needs to stay running. The starting watts can be almost double the running watts. You can reduce the power starting requirements with a soft start.

Learn more in this generator sizing guide.

Do I Need An Air Conditioner Cover?

If you don’t have an RV cover, a rooftop air conditioner cover is noteworthy for protecting the assembly when your RV is in storage. Use an air conditioner cover to keep dust, debris, moisture, and other potentially damaging substances from negatively impacting your air conditioner’s vital components.


Choosing an air conditioner is important, so we hope you found this guide helpful. Whether it’s a rooftop unit, wall mount, or portable system, keeping you and the family cool during warmer months is the ultimate goal.

Let us know what RV air conditioner unit you prefer or if you have any questions in the comments below.

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