Introduction: 5 Gallon Bucket Air Conditioner

Picture of 5 Gallon Bucket Air Conditioner

Hey there,

The following instructable is going to show my take on the 5 Gallon Bucket Air Conditioner/Swamp Cooler. In the picture you'll notice a small solar panel attached. I'll be creating another instructable on how to hook up a solar panel to a USB cable so you'll be able to power your bucket with solar energy. For now, this will just be about how to build an efficient bucket that actually works.

In contrast to the viral video on Youtube of the guy that built the original swap bucket, I've made a few changes to the design to make it more practical. I noticed when I first built the bucket exactly like the guy on Youtube, the ice would melt extremely fast due to the high powered fan pushing a lot of hot air past the ice. Also, a 5 gallon bucket full of ice does not provide enough of a temperature drop to cool entire rooms. And then there’s the mess that the ice leaves behind. In order to achieve maximum effectiveness, the cold air inside the bucket needed to be concentrated and aimed.

This bucket is best used when you are just sitting around and would like a cool breeze on your face. I use it when I’m on the couch watching TV, on my computer getting work done (more like playing video games), or on warm nights when I go to sleep. I hope this instructable is straight forward and easy to recreate. This is my first one ever so please be sure to leave a comment. Thanks :)

Now lets get started.

*Before we get started, I would like to reiterate the purpose of this bucket. This type of air conditioner is intended for small personal applications. It is not practical to be able to cool entire rooms with a 5 gallon bucket full of ice for hours on end. It is thermodynamically impossible to do so. This bucket is basically the equivalent of your car's AC on "low" on its coldest setting.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

Picture of Gather Your Materials

For this project you are going to need the following materials:
(1) 5 Gallon Bucket

(1) Foam 5 Gallon Bucket Liner*

(1) 2" PVC pipe cut 2.5" long

(1) 5v USB powered fan**

(25) Large Plastic Popsicle sleeves

(1) 1 Gallon Jug

You will also need the following tools:

(1) Cordless Drill - doesn't need to be very powerful but the more the merrier

(1) 2 3/8" Hole Saw***

(1) Knife

(1) Hacksaw/PVC cutters if you don't get the pipe cut for you

*The only place to get these are at Home Depot and unfortunately they only come in packs of 3 and they have to be preordered online

**CPU fans push the least air and are very weak, mini desktop fans with plastic blades are a bit stronger, and fans with metal blades push air the fastest

***If you don't have a 2 3/8" hole saw or don't want to buy/cut a long piece of 2" PVC pipe you can use a 2 1/4" hole saw and use a 1 1/2" S x S PVC coupling to fill your outlet

Step 2: Drill Your Hole

Picture of Drill Your Hole

Hole placement on your bucket is one of the crucial factors in getting it to blow cold air. You want to get the hole as close to the bottom as you can but leave some room for perspiration build up that will occur on your popsicles. The bottom of your hole should be between 2" - 2 1/2" from the bottom of the bucket. Shave off the hairy plastic with your knife.

After that, insert your foam bucket liner and center it inside your 5 gallon bucket. With your off hand, stabilize the inside of the bucket by pressing down in the center. Then, stick your hole saw through the hole you just drilled and drill another hole through your foam bucket liner.

Lastly, insert your PVC pipe into the holes you just drilled. It should be air tight and you may need to rotate your pipe back and forth to get it in. Don't put it in too deep though. You want the PVC pipe to be flush with the inside of your foam bucket liner, otherwise you will create an air flow problem.

Step 3: Mount Your Fan

Picture of Mount Your Fan

Now we are going to be mounting our fan to the top of our foam bucket lid. This depends on the design of your fan so this step might be a little different from person to person. If you are using a desktop fan, you're going to want to first take it out of it's mount. Typically this process usually just involves a screwdriver and two screws on either side.

Next, place your fan on top of your foam bucket liner lid. If you are using a desktop fan you're going to be resting your fan on top of the foam bucket lid so draw an outline of your fan and then compensate inwards about a quarter of an inch so that the blades will be able to sink into the bucket and the lip of the fan will rest on top. If you are using a square CPU fan simply draw an outline and then cut.

Lastly, make the cut. It's best to play it safe and cut a little short at first since foam is very easy to cut. Use a sawing motion with your knife and whatever you do don't break the lid (no pressure). Replacement lids aren’t readily available so be careful.

Set your fan on or inside your lid and you're done with the construction of your 5 gallon bucket air conditioner.

Step 4: Prepare Your Fuel Rods

Picture of Prepare Your Fuel Rods

Now it's time to get over to the sink and start filling up the popsicle bags full of water. This is a tedious process and will test your will and inner strength as a human being. It's a simple process and goes as follows:

  1. Take a popsicle bag and put it under the sink faucet as if it were a water balloon
  2. Fill the bag to about 3/4 to the top
  3. Add salt*
  4. Tie off the popsicle bag with a knot/rubber band/plastic sealing device
  5. Put it in the freezer
  6. Repeat Steps 1-5
  7. Fill your gallon jug up with salt water and throw it in the freezer

Something to note: popsicle bags have the problem of losing their upright integrity as they melt. A hypothesis I have that I haven't been able to test yet is putting thick plastic straws inside the popsicle bags to keep them upright and stable.

*Salt lowers the freezing temperature of water, allowing for colder ice. Be careful not to put too much ice though as the water will not freeze if there is too much. The temperature of freezers varies so there's no accurate amount of salt to recommend. I suggest doing some test runs of your own to see what works best.

Step 5: Fill Your Bucket

Picture of Fill Your Bucket

After you've frozen your popsicles it's time to place them inside the bucket. Because of the nature of thermodynamics, you're going to want to try and maximize the amount of surface area you get from your popsicles. The best way I've found so far is to place the base of each popsicle stick towards the center of the bucket and have them lean on their edge against the outer interior wall of the foam bucket liner. That way only 2 small points of the popsicles are covered and the rest is open and available for air to pass through.

After that, plug your 5v DC powered fan into anywhere you've got a USB socket and let her rip!

Step 6: Enjoy Your Cool Air

Picture of Enjoy Your Cool Air

If you did everything right, you should be outputting anywhere from 5-10°C (My thermometer is in Celsius, 41-50°F) depending on how much salt you used in your popsicle sticks and your freezer settings. For longer lasting results I recommend using the gallon jug with salt water along with 6 popsicles near the output of the bucket and rotating out the popsicles as they melt.

After you're done basking in the glory of your creation, check out my instructable on how to connect a generic 5v solar cell to a type A female USB connector and start connecting devices from the fan on your bucket to the cell phone in your pocket (Coming SOON :D).


The Arc Of Descent (author)2016-07-28

I've tried a different build (not a bucket) where I used a household fan with a diameter of about 8", and the air pressure is just not enough. The 5v fan you're using for this bucket build really does the trick, huh?

Well, I have a few PC's I can harvest a fan or two from. Unfortunately I may be trying other DIY models out because in the past week I've been to the several different Home Depots and Lowe's branches in town, and any staff I ask gapes at me in a way that makes me feel like I'm asking for the location of the holy grail, rather than just a dang bucket liner. Styrofoam-Bucket-Liner. It lines a bucket, out of styrofoam, possibly through magic. No luck.

The experience was slightly irritating, if I didn't drive that point home repeatedly enough, lol.

Thanks for the guide though, you go into some better detail than a lot of the DIY a/c builds on here.

HuyV7 (author)2016-06-10

It depends on where your freezer is. Basically what you do with this is transfer the heat from wherever that unit stands to wherever the freezer stands. The popsicle bags absorb the heat, then you dump them into the freezer and the freezer pulls the heat out and outputs it on the radiator on the back.

Detn8 (author)HuyV72016-07-03

Yep. And the typical response I get when I say that is "your freezer has to be on anyway."

silvergramma (author)2016-06-24

I need to know where to get the foam bucket liners,, I tried to make these years ago with the orange buckets from Home Depot,, they didn't carry them in the store..where can I get them?

danolanater (author)silvergramma2016-06-25

I had to special order them. I have a few extras though. Message me your address and I'll send you one.

jwpookie (author)2016-06-19

I am going to do this with my nephew as a sort of science experiment. Is it possible to use other sources of styrofoam, like from packaging boxes? Or does it need to be water tight? Thanks

TJLee089 (author)2016-06-11

"*Salt lowers the freezing temperature of water, allowing for colder ice."

Salt does lower the temperature at which the water will freeze but it does not change the ultimate temperature of the ice. The net BTUs transferred are the same. It does not result in the extraction of any more BTUs from the air.

SimonM45 (author)TJLee0892016-06-13

Can you clarify this for me. I've seen projects making ice cream using salted ice water.

Toraih (author)SimonM452016-06-15

For making ice cream, you salt the water so it can drop below 0 degree celsius while still staying liquid and keep it's higher termal exchange rate...

Toraih (author)TJLee0892016-06-15

True, frozen water at -20 degree celsius has the same BTU like salted frozen water at -20 degrees. But the salted water should reach the -20 degrees faster since it's longer in liquid form (liquid water has an higher termal exchange than frozen, AFAIK)

Andrew JamesR (author)2016-06-14

One quart (or 1L) plastic milk bottles may be a good option for ice. They tend to narrow more near the top than similar sized soda bottles. You'd have better rigidity and durability than your popsicle bags, and it'll be easier to refreeze them as well.

Paranatural (author)2016-06-13

I think you meant SWAMP bucket. Not swap. (That is what I know it as.) My brother does this little trick. With the frozen bottles of water instead of just ice. He also insulates it with an old styrofoam cooler. Works pretty well on those hot summer days when you need a little extra breeze.

rustygray (author)2015-07-06

I just refill water bottles and freeze. Not only do they last a longer time but when they do finally melt you've got cold water to drink. I keep about 30 in my freezer at all times in case we lose power then I moved the frozen bottles over to the refrigerator side keeps my refrigerator colders longer.

Drake88 (author)rustygray2016-06-13

I know someone that has a similar set-up, but bigger. He used an old 55 gallon plastic drum, plastic thermal sheeting(cut to fit & glued in). He keeps it on a 1 foot tall stand he made so a 1 inch pvc drain pipe can drip into a bucket. A 12 inch desk fan which had the broken base removed is secured to the drum lid with zip ties. For ice he uses used frozen two & three liter soda bottles refilled with water - refreezing is accomplished in an old box-style deep freezer. He uses the cooler when working in his workshop in the summer when it gets real hot, the old place used to be an unattached garage. It has a natural gas wall hear he installed, but had no easy way to ventilate it other than using an attic fan(which causes problems when working).

That freezer was an old project I helped him on - the metal had started rusting so his wife wanted to toss it and buy a new one for the house. He kept it, I came over, and we spent a day cleaning the rust off down to the steel. We then repainted it with some rustoleum paint he left over, built a wooden box that was 6 inches away from the metal(leaving the access open to the compressor and coils). His son came over a few days later and 'finished' the project(he borrowed a foam insulation machine and filled the add-on wooden box around it with foam insulation)

LanceD14 (author)rustygray2016-06-11

that is brilliant. Thanks for your thoughts!

proachaz (author)2016-06-12

I have been using this type of cooler for a couple of years now for my two chickens. Understanding that the 12v fan airflow isn't much but it is completely solar and they appreciate any air less than 100 degrees. The version I built uses swamp cooler pads and a 12v water pump to keep them moist. I cannot use it on the coop due to the problems moisture can cause. I have a arduino turn it on when the temp is above 100, and it is daylight. I had a 10 watt solar cell, but wasn't charging enough to last day after day, so I increased to 30w and now it can keep up. It is neat to see all differences about how this idea can be approached. I got the idea from another post on instructables though mine is much smaller ( What a great site for man and chicken alike! If it were a fan or this, no question this is a great way to go!

mcollins9 (author)2016-06-12

this looks like it would be perfect for camping!! I may try to put one together before we go out next time. thanks!

Acguy808 (author)2016-06-12

I needed a portable unit for baseball dugout and wound up using a Ryobi ONE fan with 18v rechargeable battery packs. Three battery packs for three games = 6 hours run time!

3BoysMom751 (author)2016-06-11

Thank you for this Instructable! My 13 year old son is a PC Gamer and we set up a small closet (6x6) for his computer area "office" but it gets extremely hot in the closed off area. You have given us a Perfect Solution and the instructions seem easy enough for my son to make on his own, he is actually pretty pumped about this project. Thank you, can't wait!

DaveH127 (author)2016-06-10

hmmmm.....if I duct-taped a cabinet fan to one of 2 holes in the top of the bucket (making sure it blows IN), then duct-taped a dryer duct to the other hole, I could direct the cooled air to where I wanted it. I wouldn't lose any moving air and It might be good for spot cooling.

Waddaya think?

cbaker6 (author)2016-06-09

the other issue is a CPU fan puts out so little CFM (60-80 CFM) compared to a deskfan which will put out 200-350 CFM. Granted the CPU fan uses considerably less power, and this one being solar power driven, but the meager airflow will not allow it to do much at all. A deskfan by itself blowing at you will feel a lot more cooler than this contraption

DaveH127 (author)cbaker62016-06-10

I have a few server cabinet fans. 110v, so they sound like a jet engine, but they push the air!

marymac (author)cbaker62016-06-09

Could even put a bag of ice in front of the fan to make the breeze even colder. Or even just a wet cloth. Another version of a swamp cooler. Or make a filter to fit the front of the fan and wet it when it gets dry.

Doctor Pepper (author)2016-06-09

This is directed towards the negative vibes posted. ----- For someone offering their inspirational ideas, we should each use our own judgement as to wether or not we would care to try making anything shown by an individual in Instructables. If you don't like an idea or you have a constructive criticism or a safety alert I would suggest posting your thoughts in a polite way. This isn't the place for hostility! I find this site to be very inspirational and I would think that most people here would be friendly, given that we are all SHARING... our ideas, our thoughts and our results. Let's please try to keep things polite and civil.

TeresaM7 (author)Doctor Pepper2016-06-10

A+, Doctor Pepper. I'm so sick of the shallow, snotty individuals you find in social media who post hate just because they can. I enjoy the posts of people with constructive criticism and alternate ideas. They are actually intelligent and add to the conversation.

Doctor Pepper (author)TeresaM72016-06-10


dbenedetto (author)TeresaM72016-06-10

@doc & terry, I agree also. We should be encouraging creative & critical thought not discouraging it.

RitaB24 (author)Doctor Pepper2016-06-09

I totally agree with you.

PakshetK (author)2016-06-10

sometimes science makes lazy people lazier. cooling yourself down a bit just needs a piece of carton or that shown in the photo - no batteries, no solar crap, no wires, etc....just pick it up and let your hand bring the pleasure ;) The DIY of course will give rise (RISE!!?) to more improved projects (such as the wooden fan using gears and pulleys)

kaddigart (author)2016-06-09

You made nearly the exact same changes to the Youtube one as I did...

A couple of differences you may want to consider:

I re-purposed plastic peanut butter jars instead of bags. 6-8 worked very well compared to both gallon size containers and cold packs (like the bags for injuries as well as the ones for coolers). They allow air flow, don't collapse, and you can use varying sizes to fill as much space as possible.

Walmart carries styrofoam minnow buckets in their outdoor department (may be regional) for $2-3 each that fit almost as perfectly as the bucket liners.

My temperatures ranged about the same as yours at 42-47°F. I also got better results from a 7 inch fan (also from Walmart, $15) than I did with various PC fan combinations I tried.

Anyway, well done.

spyder461 (author)2016-06-09

I like the idea of using the Otter pops for your fuel rods, but was wondering would they last as long as the water/salt mixture. Has anyone done an experiment on these lines. I'm also looking at an article about making your own blue ice packs, and they use the Water/salt mixture.

JohnR57 (author)2016-06-09

Having a hard time visualizing this contraption. Can you add more photos, especially in stages along the way of the assembly. For example, I assume the PVC goes thru the bucket and then continues right on thru a hole in the bucket liner. Is the liner made of styrofoam? If the fan is sunk into the lid of the 5-gallon, how can you aim it? Do you need an intake vent for air coming thru the fan? More illustrations might clarify some things in my head, if you get some free time. Thx.

Doctor Pepper (author)JohnR572016-06-09

I may be wrong, but at first glance, and having not read the whole post yet, I believe the intake is the tubing placed in the hole near the bottom. The fan isn't intended to be directional. It appears to be stationary, aimed towards the ceiling, which is where the most heat would be located in the room and the cooler air will fall from above. I happen to have several 5 gallon food service buckets and a couple of amplifier fans languishing in a drawer. Guess who's going to give this project a try?!!!

Bryan-PaulW (author)2016-06-09

I think better than Popsicle bags ziplock gallon freezer bags would work best. I use them all the time for sprains they are reusable and they last a long time. Add a 1/4" of water to the bag when it's flat andstart the freezing process until its slushy, then add a paper towel to one side and roll around a wooded skewers. This creates a coil effect which allows for more surface area and solves the condensation problem.

leenip (author)2016-06-09

I used just a Styrofoam cooler and used Smart water bottles that allowed air to circulate between bottles. Then I used a fan that worked with ac power and also with rechargeable batteries. I tested it in a car to see how it could work in Texas heat and it was able to give a nice cool air blowing out. In general it is just a way to get a cool breeze to face and chest area if sitting outside. The ice in the bottles lasts about 4 hours, it is easy to pop the bottles back in the freezer, no need for rubber bands etc. And there is always plastic water bottles around to keep back UPS in the fridge.

John T MacF Mood (author)2016-06-09

In theory, one COULD use a big box (or two) of those kiddie plastic covered freezable Popsicles, and just re-use them. Here in the Southern US, they are in every grocery store and (Ugh!) Wal Mart and are cheap.) They won't have the salt advantage to make them be colder, but they would be re-usable, unless you get a sweet tooth and need to buy more. You could have some in the freezer, and some in your "Redneck Air Conditioner" and rotate them in and out. You'd also avoid a melted water issue, perhaps a little condensation, but not anywhere near the amount of melted water.

jebus_curst (author)2015-07-05

I am not insulting your project. It could work great. My issue is that you stated "swamp cooler". It is not a swamp cooler (evaporative cooler). It does not follow the principals of an evaporative cooler. Sorry for being a physics nazi.

lorrwill (author)jebus_curst2016-06-09

I don't think you were mean about it at all. I thought the exact same thing. I see nothing wrong with your point of clarification.

Technically, you are right, but you could have been nicer about it.

Think "Redneck Air Conditioner", and let the man alone. He's given us all a very good project that can help those of us who live under VERY hot conditions.

Where I live it gets to 104° (sometimes higher) and I have no central air conditioner, just a couple of window units in bedrooms, so this could help me out a lot.

I will probably build one for comfort in the areas we can't cool effectively.

Thank you for a very useful and well done Instructable, danolanater, VERY HELPFUL!

marymac (author)jebus_curst2016-06-09

That makes sense but it is moving air from a very cold place to a place where it is too warm. The difference is what counts. Not evaporation.

no, calling scientific principles and/ or inventions based on them by proper names counts. If I called a car a bicycle is that close enough because both have wheels and transport humans from point a to pint b? no? Then this use of improper wording is wrong too. Evaporative cooling is the principle one is founded on, yet the other is using ice cubes so..... it's a bike VS a car here, metaphorically.

fahking (author)2016-06-09

couldn't you just leave the freezer open with a fan in it for the same effect? i'd also argue the use of the word air conditioner as no refrigeration is taking place and this is more of an ice box scenario.

CBTman99 (author)fahking2016-06-09

Unfortunately, the laws of physics indicate that nothing man makes can be 100% percent efficient, let alone being more than 100% efficient (create energy). For instance, even in a perfectly isolated room, leaving the door open of a refrigerator does not cool down the room. On the contrary. it increases the internal temperature. This is because the refrigerator is not 100% efficient. Part of the energy it consumes is wasted in the form of vibration and friction. Besides, compressing a gas increases its temperature, hence the radiator on the back of the fridge, while decompressing it does reduce its temperature, although it never goes back to the original point.

richard4872 (author)fahking2016-06-09

Any artificial alteration to airs normal state is considered conditioning. Heating, cooling, humidification, dehumidification, purification, etc, etc, . . .

NickL15 (author)fahking2016-06-09

No. Unless your head is in the freezer, the front of the freezer might be cold, but the rear where the coils are will be hot, so the cool vs. hot will cancel out. The ice box doesnt so much make you cool, it takes heat away (and leaves water). A freezer, takes heat away from the front, lets it out at the back.

RG8 (author)2016-06-09

no hater here
Informatiion gathering is what learning is all about... Im almost blonde i meant blind so i have to try harder than most
Here is the item i most agree uses the very samr primciples
Using the interior co tent tk provide the very same effect
Alchohol when placed im the freexer acts as coolant in your vehicle under pressure. Keepimg your engine from over heating. Same priciples accept to transfer cool or heat externally using the fan to draw from the items placed insixe.
In this case soda.

nealalan (author)2016-06-09

This is a cool easy and quick build! It's functional, light weight, simple and easily modified. I can see this to be very practical for a tent with purchased ice. Or I also notice when people who leave the beach early in the day and just dump all their ice on the ground. Catch them leaving and you get free ice! :D

P.S. Don't listen to the naysayers! Borrowing (potential energy?) from a freezer and making it portable is always a great idea!

gadget57 (author)2016-06-09

I see a lot of negative comments. Someone has an idea. Where is yours? My wife had a medical ice pack that circulated cold water from ice water in a container. I used small bottles of water frozen. Just refreeze when they thaw out and replace with fresh ones. Every idea can be improved upon with positive input and sharing ideas.

ffeicebuqk (author)2016-06-09

Here's an idea. Just open your freezer BUT make a Styrofoam cover (or any other cover like heavy duty aluminum) size of it (the freezer size frame opening) with a hole the size of the portable fan....then place the fan in that hole to push ice cold freezing air while freezing your food. To make it even more efficient and to prevent leakage, place some frozen ice bags ll around the fan from the inside....

Papa_Guido (author)ffeicebuqk2016-06-09

The idea of these things is that they use little energy. Just opening your freezer means that the temperature in your freezer is going to drop unless you cover the light switch and trick the freezer into thinking the door is closed but then the compressor is going to be constantly running.. Using a lot of energy and all it will be doing is moving the heat in the freezer to the heat exchanger in the back or bottom of the fridge plus the heat generated by the running compressor equals a net gain in heat. You'd actually be adding to the heat you're trying to get rid of.

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