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When Should You Install a Ductless Air Conditioner

Comfort Cost Savings

What’s the difference?

Air conditioners provide cool air through two forms of delivery: ducted or ductless systems. The majority of homes in the U.S. are built with air ducts made from sheet metal that run from the main air conditioning unit to each room in the house. The ducts are hidden in walls and air is delivered to each room through vents. In ductless systems, the refrigerant from the outdoor condensing unit is sent directly to an air handler located on the wall or ceiling of a particular room.

While a ductless system can have several benefits, many homeowners with existing ductwork will be better off from a financial and comfort perspective by using a ducted system. The benefits and concerns of a ductless system are:

Benefits of Ductless

  • Easy for a contractor to install (no ductwork)
  • Some flexibility in location of air handler
  • Ability to cool the home by specific zones
  • Quiet when operating

Concerns with Ductless

  • Reduced overall indoor air circulation and increased humidity can lead to comfort and air quality problems
  • Appearance of the air handler on a wall or ceiling in each room
  • Higher cost of ownership for a whole-home solution if your home already has central AC
  • External refrigerant lines which could cause energy losses and aesthetic concerns
  • Serviceability and ease of repairs could be a problem as the unit gets older

While we don’t recommend a ductless system for most homes, there are several situations where a ductless system should be considered over a traditional ducted one. These include:

  • Room additions or adding cooling to a garage or work space
  • Cooling smaller, older homes without existing ductwork
  • When space is at a premium and ducts won’t fit
  • When replacing a less efficient window/room air conditioner

The bottom line

Your comfort, humidity and long-term reliability should all be factors in making a smart decision. As with any important HVAC question, it makes sense to talk with a professional. Contact a reputable licensed contractor who can explain the many options and variables when it comes to selecting the best solutions for your needs.

If you’re considering a ductless system, what are some of the reasons it appeals to you?

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10 thoughts on “When Should You Install a Ductless Air Conditioner

  1. Are there any ductless units that remove the humidity? It would seem to be a simple process and require only a small drain tube to go through the wall along with the pipeset and power.

    • Ned,

      Most common units do have this feature that allows the condensate to drain externally, like you suggested. The real drawback with Mini-splits is air circulation. Ductless systems don’t seem to circulate the air throughout the house as a more common ducted system would. This limited circulation leads to a lower “comfort” level when comparing the ability to control whole house humidity to a common ducted system.

  2. I will be building a large house in Houston TX., On occasion I will be home alone and will not need to cool the entire house.
    My question is have you heard of a residential application of both Central AC and Heat combined with a ductless system.

  3. I will be building a large house in Houston TX., On occasion I will be home alone and will not need to cool the entire house.
    My question is have you heard of a residential application of both Central AC and Heat combined with a ductless system. .

  4. The short answer is yes. Some people have used ductless mini-splits in conjunction with a central AC system. Typically, the ductless mini –splits are used in the more remote areas or rooms that are used less frequently or might be located far away from the central AC system – e.g. an attic space or “bonus” room that is frequently zoned off from the rest of the house or used only occasionally.

    Depending on the size or the layout of the house you are planning, you should also consider two central systems – usually one for the upstairs and another one for the downstairs. This way, you can adjust the temperature up or down in those areas independently and reduce your overall energy consumption. For the areas where people will be sleeping at night I would also consider a central system with some sort of capacity modulation – either one with two steps of capacity or continuous capacity control along with a variable speed or stepped indoor air handler. This will be especially important in Houston because of the comfort and health problems associated with humidity control are almost as important as the temperature control. If you go with a capacity control system, usually 16 SEER or greater, the system will be able to adjust to the load on humid nights when you need the system to run at low capacity for a pretty long time to make sure the humidity is removed and the air remains fresh and filtered. The same system can still run at the full load capacity during the day when the demand for cooling is most critical. The other benefit of these systems is that they are really quiet when they run at the low capacity mode. I have a two step system and I can barely hear it when it runs at night on low load.

    I really appreciate your posting this question. I know investing in a new, custom built home involves a lot of decisions and unfortunately the HVAC decisions are sometimes overlooked. In a hot, humid area like Houston it would be good to consider the comfort and energy cost factors as well as the many other decisions you will be making. Good luck with your new home!

  5. I have concerns with installing one in a small condo in Myrtle Beach right at beach front with the humidity??
    Not sure if ths will work well being in this constant ocean air climate.

  6. I live in southern Ohio. I have a heat pump/central air system that kills my wallet during the winter months. The house was built in the 1960s and I don’t want to invest as much money as needed to go Geo-thermal. My last electric bill was over $500.00. I have been considering going to the ductless mini split system when I have to replace my existing unit. Can a ductless system handle the cold Ohio winters and provide enough cooling during thr hot summer months. Also, if I install a ductless system do I have to have all the old ducting removed. I don’t see why I couldn’t leave everything else in place, all it would be doing is taking up space.

    • Gene – There are a lot of options for HVAC replacement you can consider beyond just the premium geothermal systems and, depending on the size of your home some of the lowest cost options will involve continuing to use your existing ductwork and simply replacing your old central HVAC system with another central HVAC system. People usually only go away from a ducted system if they have some fairly specific reasons for doing this like having poorly installed and leaky ductwork and/or a compelling need to supply HVAC to individual rooms or zones which you can get with ductless mini-split systems. But in answer to your question, in these cases you could leave the ductwork in place but you might want to seal it off. You could also leave your existing air handler in place along with the new mini-splits and just use it as a whole house fan and filtration system to circulate and clean the air by just running the fan only, or you might be able to keep it as is and use the old system as a backup in case your mini-split additions are not keeping up. All system types should keep up if they are sized properly for your home but sizing decisions are not always an exact science.
      As for your geographic location, all heat pumps work better on days that are not severely cold, like below 15F. If you get below that point your heat pump (whether it is a mini-split or central style) will probably be using auxiliary heating methods like resistance heaters which are usually not very efficient. What some people are doing in colder climates in the upper Midwest is installing a “dual fuel system” which is a heat pump with a standard gas furnace but the gas furnace only comes on when the temperature gets really cold. Most of the time, when the temperature is above 15F the heat pump will be the primary source of heat. A side benefit to dual fuel systems is that you can also decide whether to run the heat pump on electricity or gas depending on which has the lower energy prices at that time.
      There have been a lot of improvements in the efficiency of central HVAC and heat pump systems over the past few years so if your system is older you might look into just replacing it with another basic system and you will probably realize a nice energy savings without going to a premium geothermal system or going to all the cost of installing some number of new mini-split systems to cool and heat various rooms in your house. Instead, you could install another heat pump or a standard central AC unit with a standard gas furnace or the dual fuel system mentioned above. If you ask a few local contractors to quote various systems they can also estimate how much energy you will be saving with each type they are quoting and they can even quote some higher efficiency models if you really want to save on energy.
      You can really learn a lot from talking with a few contractors about these options but you have to ask. Most contractors are familiar with all the technologies mentioned above but if you just ask them to quote just one type that will be what they quote and you will have no way to compare these different options. I hope this answers your questions but there are some other articles on this site that go into more detail on this topic. Here is a link to one of them.

  7. It’s a good piece of article sharing information about when can we install a ductless air conditioner. Really appreciate the points on the benefits of installing ductless air conditioner. The advantages are numerous and the installation options for homeowners are significant.

  8. every manufacturer should send a installation manual with product so customer can satisfied himself that manufacturer,s technician perform his work up to mark.

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