Is There a Cheaper Alternative to Air Conditioning?

Replacing A/C With a Swamp Cooler

air conditioning alternative
While there are alternatives to car air conditioning, there are no real replacements. Stephen Shepherd / Photolibrary / Getty

This is a problem a lot of people run into, so you’re definitely not alone, and it’s a tough decision to make. If you lived in an area where you had to deal with months on end of the scorching heat, spending the money to fix your ailing a/c would be a no-brainer, but the choice is a lot tougher if you have moderate temperatures throughout most of the summer.

The cold, hard fact is there's no true replacement for a functional air conditioning system, just like there's no real, legitimate replacement for an OEM car heater.

However, depending on where you live, you may feel some relief from a swamp cooler. And if you're afraid to just roll down your window due to the increased drag, the real story there may surprise you.

Quick A/C Fixes

Unfortunately, there aren’t any really viable “quick fixes” for a broken air conditioning system. Some problems, like a blown fuse, are quick and easy to fix, and it's worth at least giving that a shot. Although it's important to mention that if you find a blown a/c fuse, never replace it with a bigger fuse just to keep it from popping again. If it keeps blowing, there's another problem there that has to be dealt with.

The fact is that most a/c failures are due to bad components like a compressor or a receiver/dryer, or a leak that allows all of the refrigerant to escape. You can temporarily “fix” that kind of problem by purchasing some refrigerant and a filling gauge, but it’s just going to leak out anyway.

In that case, you just end up paying for the pleasure of pumping some very expensive hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

One other "easy" fix is that if your heater box is all crammed full of debris like leaves or pine needles, that can keep the air conditioning from working properly. The problem there is that heater boxes are often difficult or time-consuming to reach, so it may not be quick and easy to check on your own.

Opening the Window

Cracking open a window may not seem like an ideal solution to your busted air conditioning, especially due to myths you may have heard about the relative costs of running air conditioning versus opening a window. The myth goes that it's actually more expensive to roll your windows down, due to increased drag, but the situation is actually a lot more complicated than that.

The bottom line is that if you're driving around on surface streets, rolling down a window should help cool you down without increasing your gas usage too much. And if you can actually stand having your window open on the freeway, that might be worth it too, compared to the cost of paying to fix your air conditioning.

Swamp Coolers

If you live in an area where the humidity is relatively low, like the southwest United States, then there is a decidedly low-tech option called an evaporative cooler that you can try. These devices were known as “swamp coolers” for a lot of years, and you used to see them mounted on the passenger windows of road-tripping cars like tiny jet turbines.

Swamp coolers work through evaporative cooling, so they don’t do a whole lot of good if there’s a lot of moisture in the are already.

If the air is dry, then the mechanism of evaporation can effectively pull out heat and make you feel cooler.

They don’t make the big window-mounted units anymore, but you can find little 12v evaporative coolers that are better than nothing after a long day of work. You can also build your own swamp cooler out of an ice chest and a fan, although you’ll have to dump a bunch of ice into it anytime you want to use it.

If you want to simulate the effects of an evaporative cooler without buying on or trying to hack together your own, you might actually see decent results from just draping a wet rag over one of your dash vents.

It’s not exactly the same thing as the real deal, but the wet rag will help cool off the hot air through the same basic mechanism.

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