If you’re looking for convenience, comfort control and lower cooling costs, ductless systems offer all three in abundance. But, is a ductless system right for you? To help you decide, we’ll guide you through the basics of what a ductless system is and what applications it’s best suited for. Plus, we’ll discuss how they stack up against other types of air conditioning in efficiency, aesthetics, cost, and ease of installation.
What is a Ductless System?
It’s just what it sounds like – an air conditioning system that transports air without the use of ducts. The main components are an outdoor unit (the condenser or compressor) and one or more indoor units. The outdoor and indoor units are connected by way of a conduit, housing a few thin tubes and wires, fed through a small hole in the wall.
The indoor unit (or units) is generally mounted on the wall or ceiling, while the outdoor unit sits at ground level. Operation is easy – just use the handy remote control. Or, you can pre-set the unit to run automatically on a schedule.
Mini-Split vs. Multi-Split
Ductless systems are sometimes referred to as mini-split systems. Actually, a mini-split is a type of ductless system with one outdoor unit and one indoor unit. There are also outdoor units available which can connect to several (up to four or even five) indoor units. These are called “multi-split” systems.
Some mini-splits and multi-splits are straight-cool systems, while others are heat pumps equipped to provide heating as well as cooling.
In all types of ductless systems, each indoor unit cools or heats a single room or “zone” in your home. In a multi-split system this means that you can control the temperature in each zone independently. Have you ever argued with your kids or spouse over the thermostat? Problem solved.
Superior Energy Efficiency
Aside from preventing temperature disputes, zone-level cooling control also spells energy efficiency. Just raising the temperature in unoccupied rooms can save you money in cooling costs – without sacrificing your comfort. This is only one of the ways you can save by going ductless.
In fact, ductless systems can save you between 7% and 66% in heating / cooling costs over ducted air conditioners. This is because air leaks in ductwork account for 30% of the energy consumed by central AC’s. Without ducts, this energy is channeled to fulfill its real purpose – cooling or heating your home.
Another contributor to energy efficiency is the inverter-driven compressor. It is designed to speed up or slows down according to the system’s current needs. This feature uses far less energy than a single-stage compressor, which continually cycles off and on. The amount of energy necessary to get the compressor started is less than what’s necessary to keep it going and adjust its speed.
Because of these features, ductless systems earn higher SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) ratings than many of their ducted counterparts with equivalent cooling power. The higher the SEER rating, the more efficient the unit. Major HVAC manufacturer Trane offers ductless systems with ratings up to 38 SEER.
So, is a ductless air conditioner right for your home? Although designed for versatility, there are some clear instances where installing a ductless system makes more sense than others.
For example, take an older home with no existing air conditioning system or ductwork. In this case, a multi-split ductless installation is a viable option.
Also, if you already have a ducted central AC system, you could replace it with a ductless system. However, swapping your central air conditioner for another ducted system would be significantly less expensive. In this case, the benefits of ductless air conditioning might not outweigh the initial cost.
In our experience we’ve found that the best applications for ductless systems are:
- Rooms or spaces without existing ductwork, or where installing or extending ductwork is not possible, too costly or too invasive. This includes:
- Room additions, guest houses and mother-in-law apartments
- Enclosed Lanais or sunrooms
- Garage workshops and renovated garage apartments
- Attic living spaces
- Wine Rooms
- Enclosed storage rooms and sheds
- As a supplement to central air conditioning. Are there any spaces in your home that could benefit from some extra cooling “oomph”? A ductless system can provide additional cool air right where it’s needed – be it your kitchen, a bathroom, or that room with the massive windows taking the brunt of the summer sun.
Now for the important question – how do they look? You might be concerned that hanging a ductless wall unit will ruin the décor in your new room addition. I concede that ductless air conditioners do not look extremely attractive. Nor are they as discreet as central air conditioning. The typical indoor unit is relatively large and comes only in shades of white or beige. Because covering the unit would block and airflow, you’ll be stuck with the color.
However, many units do have a ceiling mount option available that helps it integrates more seamlessly into its surroundings. And, like any other appliance, you will probably become accustomed to its appearance. Over time, you might barely notice it’s there.
Besides, ductless units look much more sleek and modern than window air conditioners.
Ductless vs. Window Air Conditioners
Appearances aside, ductless systems also have the upper hand in the following categories when compared with window air conditioners:
- Noise level: Ductless systems are quieter than most window units. One particular Trane ductless model runs as low as 22 dB, while the quietest on a recent list of new window units ran at a minimum 54dB.
- Efficiency: Ductless also wins in energy efficiency, mostly due to the variable-speed compressor. Most window units are single-stage.
- Security: Because of the way window units are installed, they present a home security risk by providing a convenient access point for burglars. Insects might also find their way inside if the gaps are not properly sealed. Conversely, a ductless system only requires a 3” diameter hole in the wall to feed the cables to the outdoor unit. This is much more secure and easy to seal.
Window units do have a few advantages, though. They are portable, easier to install, and typically much less expensive than a quality ductless system.
The cost of a ductless system may vary. For instance, you can purchase a Trane mini-split ductless system from us at Kobie Complete for an estimated $2400 – $3500 (including professional installation). This includes one indoor unit and one outdoor unit. Multi-split systems and complex installations will change the price, as you can well imagine.
Although the initial cost of a ductless system is much higher than that of a window air conditioner, in many cases the benefits outweigh the cost. Also, the cost to replace your existing central air conditioner with a multi-split ductless system might be higher than simply purchasing a new ducted system.
But despite the initial investment, your ductless system should pay off at some point thanks to its energy efficiency. Payback timeframe depends on factors including your climate, usage, and electricity rates.
Ductless systems are relatively easy to install compared with central air conditioners. The indoor units are mounted on the wall or ceiling and the conduit only requires a about a 3” hole in the wall.
That being said, proper sizing, placement and installation are very important. If your unit is too large for the space or is improperly positioned, it could waste energy. The unit also uses refrigerant, which needs to be handled by a professional.
A DIY installation might also void your warranty. Some manufacturers only warranty their equipment if it was installed by a professional.
A professional HVAC installer will make sure you reap the most benefits from your ductless equipment.
Maintaining a ductless system is easy, but very important to not to neglect. There are two regular DIY tasks you’ll need to perform:
- Clean the filters. Most ductless systems have reusable filters. Simply remove and clean them according to the directions in your owner’s manual. Monthly cleanings should be enough in most cases; but if you smoke or have pets, you may need to clean them more often. Ductless systems don’t tend to handle debris buildup well.
- Keep the condenser clean. Make sure the outdoor unit is clear of debris. You’ll need to hose it down gently with a garden hose from time to time.
Annual professional maintenance is still recommended to keep your ductless unit in tip-top shape.
Ductless air conditioners are some of the most energy efficient heating and cooling systems out there. They are a great option for spaces without existing ductwork. Or, they can supplement an existing air conditioning system by eliminating “hot spots” in your home. Also, while a multi-split ductless system can make a good replacement for your existing central air conditioner, the initial cost might outweigh the benefits. Compared to window units, they are more secure, less noticeable, quieter and more efficient, although their upfront cost is higher.