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air conditioner at home

Does the Air Conditioner Bring in Dirty Air From Outside?

A question that I get asked often (and that I have always wondered about) is whether my wall-mounted air conditioner is bringing in dirty air from outside. If so, it’d be safer not to use it, especially on days with bad air.

air conditioner

My short answer is no. To explain why, I’ve got three points of evidence:

1. How air conditioners work

Regular wall-mounted air conditioners in China do have a unit outside connected with tubes to the inside, but that tube is not bringing in outside air. It’s passing coolant, and letting heat escape outside.

So where does the air it’s blowing come from? If you look around your air conditioner, you’ll probably discover that it works like mine: it brings air from the top, runs it over the cooling coils, and blows it out the front. It’s recycling indoor air, not bringing in outdoor air.

2. Tests of the air coming out of the air conditioner

I’ve held my particle counter up into the air coming out of my AC unit, and it’s no different from the ambient room air (See a live test here). I’ve also compared that air to outside air on very dirty days, and the air coming out of the AC is nowhere near as dirty as outside air.

AC air quality test
AC air quality test

(I did this test when I had just turned on my AC. If the AC were bringing in dirty air and I were to test the exhaust after I had been running the AC for a long time, then my whole room would be dirty, not just the exhaust.)

3. Tests of the ambient room air before and after turning the AC on

Results? AC makes basically no difference.

Here’s what happened in one test after turning the AC on:

PM2.5 levels after turning on AC

And here is the average effect over 7 different tests in my bedroom.

% change in air quality after turning on AC

In each test, I ran my particle counter for 30 minutes to get a baseline. Then I turned on the AC for 30 minutes. Here I’m comparing the numbers just before I turned the AC on and 30 minutes later. As you can see, there’s basically no effect. If anything, the larger 2.5 micron particles go down slightly. My guess is this is because the coarse plastic filter in the AC unit captures up some large particles.

Conclusion: If it’s hot outside, don’t sweat it. Use your AC.

Central AC: I should note that these tests are of wall-mounted AC units in China. Central air conditioning may work differently.

For those interested, I’m pasting the detailed data below.

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