If you’re looking for a new HVAC solution for your home, you may want to consider a ductless air conditioner. Some older homes simply cannot accommodate the extensive ductwork required by a central heating and cooling system. Some homes may also feature "hot spots," zones or entire rooms that never seem to get quite comfortable no matter how much you fiddle with the thermostat. Or maybe you're a homeowner eager to upgrade the energy efficiency and eco-friendliness of your major appliances. Whatever the case, before you invest in a ductless heating and cooling air system, acquaint yourself with these basics.
How do ductless air conditioners work?
Ductless air conditioners typically come in two different configurations.
The first configuration is a ductless mini-split. This configuration cools a single room or zone. A single indoor air handler is connected to an outdoor compressor unit by electrical cables and a refrigerant line that passes through a small hole in the wall. The air handler essentially works much like a traditional window unit, only it can be installed anywhere on or within your wall. In order to maximize convection (hot air's tendency to rise and cold air's tendency to fall), air handlers are usually mounted near the ceiling. These indoor units can run automatically or be adjusted using a dedicated remote control.
The second configuration is a ductless multi-split. Unlike a ductless mini-split, a ductless multi-split cools multiple rooms or zones. These models allow you to connect up to four indoor air handlers (for four rooms or zones) to one outdoor unit. Each zone has its own remote control. If one inside unit stops functioning, the other units will still work and cool their respective zones.
Ductless air conditioners are not ventless. These systems still must discharge warm air and drain condensate (excess water) created during the cooling process outside your home. If you’re looking for a ventless air conditioner, consider your evaporative (or swamp) cooler options.
Why would you need a ductless heating or cooling unit?
Ductless multi-splits are great for homes in which a central air conditioning system would be too expensive or impractical to install. If you currently cool your home with window units, a ductless system is a definite upgrade, as the self-contained nature of the air handlers translates into fewer air leaks.
A ductless mini-split can also be a great complement to an existing central HVAC system. If you've recently added a room to your home or converted a garage or an attic into a living space, you can cool it using a mini-split instead of extending your ductwork. You can also use a ductless mini-split to improve temperature control in a single room. If one zone of your home receives a lot of sunlight, you can add a ductless mini-split to keep that room comfortable without lowering the thermostat for your entire house (and raising your electric bill).
What are the advantages of a ductless air conditioner?
Ductless air conditioners are:
Flexible. You can heat or cool individual rooms or zones only when you’re occupying them, saving energy and money. Each zone has its own thermostat, so room occupants can adjust the temperature to their own comfort level. Compared to a window unit, ductless mini-splits offer more placement options. You can install indoor air handlers high on your walls, hang them from your ceiling or mount them near your floorboards. Some manufacturers even offer recessed air handlers that resemble the conventional vents and returns of a ducted HVAC system.
Easier to install. Installing a traditional ducted system can take several weeks. Depending on how many indoor and outdoor units you need, your ductless air conditioning system can be ready to cool in as little as one day. The connection between the indoor and outdoor units of a ductless mini-split usually only requires a 3-inch wide hole through your wall. Your installer doesn’t have to re-build walls or ceilings around duct work, so your house won’t be in a state of reconstruction for who knows how long.
Quiet. With a traditional window unit A/C, the compressor and the fan that cools the compressor generate a great deal of noise. In a ductless mini-split, the compressor is located exterior to the room being cooled.
Energy efficient. Ductless systems are not as subject to energy loss as conventional systems. Many ducted HVAC systems leak cool air as they move it from the compressor to your home's interior. In fact, according to the United States Department of Energy, duct losses can reduce the efficiency of air conditioning systems by up to 30 percent. Moreover, the majority of ductless systems carry an ENERGY STAR® rating, and those featuring exclusive inverter technology sport the highest SEER ratings of any available air conditioning product. Because ductless air conditioning systems require less electricity than most central heating and cooling air systems, you’ll also save money on your utility bills.
Eco-friendly. Increased energy efficiency translates into a lower carbon footprint. Furthermore, ductless systems use a refrigerant (R410A) that has zero ozone depletion potential.
Helps provide better indoor air quality. Air ducts in traditional HVAC systems need to be cleaned regularly. Even after cleaning, dust and other allergens may remain. Ductless systems rely on a filtration system that can reduce the amount of dust, bacteria, pollen and allergens in your home.
What are the potential drawbacks of a ductless air conditioner?
If you choose to purchase a ductless system, be aware of the following:
Higher initial cost. A ductless mini-split costs about $1,500 to $2,000 per ton of cooling capacity. The cost of a ductless system is about 30 percent higher than central air conditioning (excluding the cost of ductwork) and can be twice as costly as a window unit.
Incorrectly installed systems are inefficient and ineffective. If the installer doesn’t size the indoor unit correctly or place it in the correct location, short-cycling can occur. Short-cycling wastes energy and doesn’t control temperature or humidity properly. Also, locating an installer and/or experienced service technicians for these less-common ductless systems can be difficult for homeowners in some areas.
Less visually appealing. Some homeowners may prefer the built-in appearance of a central air conditioning system's vents and returns to the indoor air handlers of a ductless mini- or multi-split.
However you choose to cool your home, your air conditioning system is vitally important to your family’s seasonal comfort.
An American Home Shield® Home Warranty covers all components and parts of ductless mini-splits, up to and including the full replacement of ductless systems. If an unexpected breakdown of your system should occur, it can potentially cost hundreds of dollars to repair and thousands of dollars to replace. At American Home Shield, we pride ourselves on helping you protect your budget when a covered item breaks down due to normal wear and tear, plus giving you access to qualified repair professionals in the event of a covered malfunction.