Last Updated May 26, 2011 1:57 PM EDT
Note: All the models Consumer Reports tested meet the 9.7 Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER), which is now a must for small and midsize models below 8,000 British thermal units (Btu) per hour, or the 9.8 EER required for larger, 8,000- to 13,999-Btu models. All models also have electrical plugs that help prevent fires by shutting down if the power cord is damaged.
Many of the AC units were tested for comfort, meaning how well the temperature and humidity are controlled at the low-cool settings, as well as indoor noise levels.
Here are the top budget picks, by size:
- Friedrich CP06F10: This 6,000-Btu model starts at $249 and scored an overall 80 points out of 100 points, earning second place among all air conditioners in its size category. (The top spot went to a $335 Haier model.) It boasts a digital display, built-in timer, energy saver mode, a remote control, and up/down louver control.
- Kenmore 70051: This 5,200-Btu model starts at $120 and scored an overall 78 out of 100 points. It features a digital display, built-in timer, auto-fan speed, energy saver mode, dirty filter indicator, a remote control, and up/down louver control. Kenmore air conditioners are made by LG and are sold at Sears and Kmart.
- Frigidaire LRA074AT7: This 6,500-Btu model retails for $165 and scored an overall 78 out of 100 points. It features a digital display, built-in timer, auto-fan speed, energy saver mode, dirty filter indicator, a remote control, and up/down louver control.
- Friedrich CP06E10: This 6,000-Btu model retails for $230 and scored an overall 77 out of 100 points. It features a digital display, built-in timer, and energy-saver mode. But the magazine didn't like its louvers, which control air flow from left to right.
- Sharp AF-S85RX: This 8,000-Btu model is a Costco exclusive and retails for $180. It scored a 76 out of 100 and features a digital display, a built-in timer, auto-fan speed, an energy-saver mode, and a remote control.
- LG LW8011ER: This 8,000-Btu model starts at about $200 and scored an overall 75 out of 100 points. Its airflow to the left got a poor score.
- LG LW1010ER: This 10,000-Btu model costs $285. It scored a 75 out of 100 points and comes with a digital display, built-in timer, energy saver mode, a remote control and up/down louver control. But take note: CR says this unit is much harder to install than some of its higher-priced peers.
- Frigidaire LRA107BUI: A Lowe's exclusive, this $250 AC unit has 10,000 Btu and scored a 72 out of 100 points. It has a digital display, built-in timer, auto-fan speed, energy-saver mode, dirty filter indicator, a remote control and up/down louver control. Like the LG, this unit is also hard to install, in part because it lacks a slide-out chassis.
- Kenmore 70701: For $275 this 10,000-Btu model scored a 71 out of 100. Features include a digital display, built-in timer, auto-fan speed, energy saver mode, dirty filter indicator, a remote control, and up/down louver control.
Get the Right Size
An air conditioner that's too small (5,000 to 6,500 Btu) may fall short when it comes to cooling an entire room. If your room is greater than 300 square feet, consider sizing up. If you have a room that's between 250 to 400 square feet, consider a midsize air conditioner (7,000 to 8,200 Btu) and finally, large rooms with 350 to 650 square feet usually require a large air conditioner (9,800 to 12,500 Btu).
Beware of NoiseIf you want your AC as quiet as possible, get into the details on the Consumer Reports ratings. The models that got an excellent or very good rating in CR's noise tests have minimal sound. The only noise might be the sound of the fan running. Others that didn't score at least "fair" for noise could keep light sleepers awake!
Consider Your Room's LayoutMost air conditioners come equipped with adjustable louvers that let you direct airflow vertically or horizontally. Still, units tend to be better at one direction over the other. That can be a problem if, say, your window isn't centered on the wall. If you need an AC that blows better toward the right of the room, ask the salesperson to show you models with that feature.
Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance journalist and commentator. She is the author of the new book Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life. Follow her at www.farnoosh.tv, and on Twitter.
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