How Solar-Powered Air Conditioners Harness the Sun to Keep You Cool

Allie Ogletree
Written by Allie Ogletree
Updated February 21, 2022
Solar panels on the roof of a house
Photo: chinasong / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Solar ACs use solar panels, batteries, solar thermal energy, or a combination.

  • A solar power unit generates up to 90% of your system’s energy.

  • Switching to a solar air conditioner could save you 40% on energy bills.

  • There are three types of solar-powered air conditioners to choose from.

  • Solar-powered air conditioners cost around $3,400 on average.

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When summer is at its peak and the heat is scorching, the last thing that comes to mind when you think of cooling your home is the sun. But as solar energy breaks installation records with each passing year, the sun becomes a more integral part of home cooling. Whether you’re hoping for the RV trip of a lifetime or want to leverage your existing solar panels for even more good, here’s what you need to know about solar-powered air conditioners.

What Is a Solar-Powered Air Conditioner?

A solar-powered air conditioner—also called a solar air conditioner or solar AC for short—uses solar energy to power your air conditioner. They run just like your typical split AC unit, but instead of sourcing energy from the electrical grid, solar air conditioners use solar panels or solar water heaters to capture the sun’s heat and create energy. 

You can purchase independent units for smaller spaces like your RV or large solar-ready systems for your whole house.

How Does a Solar-Powered Air Conditioner Work?

There are two different ways that solar units collect energy: through solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and solar thermal systems. Here’s how each one works to provide your home with cool air.

Solar PV Air Conditioners

Solar PV air conditioners use one to three solar panels to generate electricity. A ductless mini-split system with an outdoor compressor and indoor unit affixes to the wall of your choice, making this option best for smaller, one-level residences and offices. 

During the day, solar power provides 90% of the system’s electricity. At night, hybrid systems switch over to regular grid power, while off-grid units use a battery to store energy created during the day. 

Solar Thermal Air Conditioners

Thermal air conditioners are a type of solar water heater. This type of air conditioner uses the sun’s energy to heat water, which in turn converts a refrigerant into a heat-absorbing gas that both cools the air and provides hot water for your home. Since water requires less energy to heat than solar panels, this system doesn’t need as many panels as a solar PV air conditioner. 

The only downside to thermal air conditioners is that thermal energy can’t use batteries and the electrical grid at night.

Benefits of Solar-Powered Air Conditioners

Solar-powered air conditioners come with many benefits that make them worth your while. Their only main downside is the upfront cost, but even then, you’ll save more money in the long run by switching to solar energy (more on this below). 

With that said, here are the benefits of solar air conditioners:

  • They’re better for the environment. The U.S. Department of Energy states that 117 million metric tons of CO2 enter our air per year from traditional air conditioners.

  • They save on energy bills. You could save 40% or more on your energy bills, depending on whether you need to use the grid at night.

  • They help conserve energy. From a snowpocalypse to other power outages, solar energy helps take the load off the grid, preventing blackouts and needless energy consumption.

  • They’re easy to maintain. Once installed, you don’t have to do much to maintain your solar panels. Even in the snow, solar panels are designed to let snow slide off within a day or two.

Types of Solar-Powered Air Conditioners

There’s a bit of a conundrum when looking at how solar-powered air conditioners work with solar panels. The solar energy captured by PV panels turns into direct current (DC) electricity, but most air conditioners use alternating current (AC) power. This requires an inverter to convert the electricity from DC into AC.

For your air conditioner to actually use the energy collected from solar heat, you will need to choose between three different types of solar-powered air conditioners.

1. DC Solar-Powered Air Conditioners

You can avoid the need for an inverter altogether by choosing a DC-powered solar air conditioner. This air conditioner can run on the DC electricity generated by your solar panels through direct wiring to the panels. You can also run this type of solar air conditioner through a battery off-grid.

Pros:

  • Directly wired to solar panels

  • Ideal for off-grid living

  • Easy to add batteries

Cons:

  • Needs large battery storage capacity to run at night

  • More costly than AC-powered units

  • Can’t run at night

2. AC Solar-Powered Air Conditioners

Also called an inverter air conditioner, an AC solar air conditioner needs an inverter to convert the solar panel’s DC electricity into AC electricity. Once the stored energy in the battery goes through the inverter, the air conditioner can use the electricity to cool your home.

Pros:

  • More affordable than DC systems

  • Connects easily to the grid, where you can even receive credit back for giving energy to the grid

  • Connects to solar panels to generate electricity in the daytime

Cons:

  • Not suitable for off-grid living

3. Hybrid Solar-Powered Air Conditioners

As the name suggests, hybrid solar air conditioners can run on DC and AC. They can also connect to solar panels and the grid simultaneously to give you the best power source management.

Pros:

  • No need for an inverter

  • Easy transition between solar and grid power

  • Could be a heat pump that heats your home

  • Can operate in the day or at night

Cons:

  • Few models are compatible with batteries

  • You’ll need to use the grid at night if the batteries are incompatible

  • If you’re off-grid, it won’t work during the night

Solar-Powered Air Conditioner Factors

A woman adjusting the temperature via a smart thermostat
Photo: Maskot / Maskot / Getty Images

Though there are only three types of solar-powered air conditioners, there are many brands, sizes, battery options, solar panels, and more to choose from. How you choose your new solar-powered air conditioner unit will depend on several factors. 

AC Capacity

Larger homes require more AC capacity to keep cool. This means you’ll need more wattages to power your home (or solar panels that generate enough electricity). Cost data from HomeAdvisor states that PV solar panels cost between $0.70 to $1.00 per watt on average. The average AC solar system needs around 3,000 to 6,000 watts, or $2,100 to $3,000 on the low end and $4,200 to $6,000 on the high end. 

Battery Options

Wanna go “off-grid?” You’ll need batteries to store energy for the night and for days when the weather doesn’t yield enough solar energy. It’s also a good idea to have batteries if you live in a hot climate that doesn’t get cool enough at night without the help of the AC.

Climate

Some climates receive ample sunlight and can get away with fewer solar panels, while other climate zones have less ideal weather for solar energy. In this case, you might need a larger battery backup to store energy on days that the sun is shining or additional solar panels to capture as much energy as possible. 

DIY vs. Hiring a Pro to Install a Solar Powered Air Conditioner

Given the number of parts, the wiring, and the dangers of climbing on the roof for the PV installation, you shouldn’t attempt to install a solar-powered air conditioner by yourself. Instead, opt for working with a local solar installation company

A solar professional will:

  • Accurately calculate how much energy your family uses to determine battery power and the number of solar panels you’ll need

  • Be familiar with your local climate and can advise you on which type of solar AC system will work best 

  • Know which AC size you’ll need to keep your house cool, and

  • Recommend system set-ups depending on your home’s configuration

Solar-Powered Air Conditioner Cost

A solar-powered air conditioner costs anywhere from $1,600 to $13,000, but the average homeowner spends around $3,400 on a solar air conditioner. Keep in mind, you may be eligible to receive a 26% renewable energy tax credit in 2022. This drops to 22% in 2023 and is scheduled to end in 2024.

Solar-Powered Air Conditioner Cost Breakdown

You can calculate how much you’ll spend on your new solar air conditioner depends by looking at the cost breakdown of each part of the system, including the following:

  • Solar air conditioner unit: $1,000–$2,700 on average

  • Photovoltaic panels: $250–$350 per panel

  • Wiring: $50–$200

  • Batteries: $2,000–$3,500

  • Inverter: $750–$1,700

  • Charge controller: $50–$400 

  • Installation: $1,500–$3,500

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