Intro: Ruggedizing and Bug-proofing a Window Air Conditioner for Tent Camping
My wife and I have an unexpected week off together next week where we are dropping off one of our kids at camp in one state and picking up the other one in another state a week later. We are going to be travelling through Florida so I decided to try to book a room or condo at the beach last minute but there wasn't anything available that wasn't prohibitively expensive. I pitched the idea of camping on the beach to my wife and bless her heart she agreed! We have a small 2-3 man tent we got for the kids last Christmas. The campsite is at a Florida State Park and it has power, water and and an air-conditioned shower and bathroom facility but I became a little concerned we would be rolling around in our own sweat every night in that little tent in hot, humid Florida. I briefly investigated purchasing an indoor or portable AC unit but they are much more expensive than regular window units and frankly I don't think we have room in the tent for one. I read with great interest this instructable by zmatt (Thanks Matt!) so I did a little research and found this cheap, little GE window air conditoner that gets rave reviews at my local Wal-Mart for $98. The only problem is that since it is a window unit, it is not designed to be carried around so the aluminum fins of the condenser unit on the back are exposed and can be easily bent or damaged during transport. I came up with a cheap solution to protect the fins and ruggedize our new little camping air conditioner.
UPDATE: We just got back from our trip and the air conditioner worked even better than I thought it would. The first night my wife asked me to turn it down because it was a "tad chilly". lol We were nestled in our sleeping bags too! Not too many bugs showed up but the laundry bag saved the air conditioner one day when a monsoon passed through the campground and the water pooled at the condenser end. So much so that the fan blades were slapping the water and I was thinking "Oh no! It is splashing dirt and debris all over the inside of the air conditioner!" but after the rain I took the bag off and it had kept all the dirt and debris out of the air conditioner. The door of the tent didn't zip snug against the side of the air conditioner so there was a little wedge of daylight there so I stuck a little soft cooler in the crack to seal it. OK, gotta go add a 5-star review for this air conditioner at walmart.com! Best money I ever spent!
The air conditioner I bought is a General Electric 5,050-BTU Window Air Conditioner.
I tested it and it puts out a lot of really cold air for such a small unit and cools our little tent very well.
The problem is that the aluminum fins of the condenser on the back of the unit are exposed and can easily be bent even with just finger pressure. I wasn't sure how I could transport it unboxed in the back of the car without damaging it and I was also worried about kicking it when entering and exiting the tent using the doorway flap since I didn't want to cut a hole in the side of the tent.
I decided to try to find some kind of cheap, durable grate roughly 16"W x 12"H to mount on the back of the air conditioner to protect the aluminum fins of the condenser so I went looking at Home Depot for a replacement charcoal grill grate of some kind but instead found this Brinkmann Stainless Steel Grill Topper for $15.97 that was the perfect size!
I drilled three holes into the lip of the grill topper on both sides since self-tapping screws wouldn't pierce the stainless steel. I then slipped the top lip of the grill topper underneath the lip of the sheet metal at the top of the AC unit and then used six, short self-tapping screws to screw the grill topper to the back of the AC unit. Do not use long screws or you risk puncturing the copper tubing inside containing the AC's refrigerate. Shine a flashlight through the side vents to make sure you won't be screwing into anything other than sheet metal.
The heavy gauge stainless steel is tough by itself but the raised edges really add a lot of rigidity and allows a little extra space between it and the condenser so even if it gets kicked or banged around a little it will not hit the condenser. The extra space also prevents the grill topper from restricting airflow. One last thing to do...
During my research I read here that if there are a lot of bugs where you are camping, they can get sucked into the AC unit by the condenser fan and clog up the condenser from the inside. I was going to tape some sort of screen to the outside vents but then came across this Mainstays Mesh Laundry Bag at Wal-Mart for $1.87 and decided just to slip the entire thing over the back of the unit to keep the bugs out. I hope it works! Thanks for looking!