Ductless Mini-Splits vs. Central Air: Pros and Cons
Psst! Hey, you. Yeah, you, the one searching online for information about home heating and cooling options. Have you heard about ductless mini-splits? Do you know what makes them different from a traditional system? Most importantly, do you know whether you want one type of system, the other, or a combination? Well, you came to the right place.
The terms “better” and “worse” don’t generally fit into the HVAC industry when assessing different options for your home heating and cooling. It’s why we always like to talk to a homeowner, make sure we understand their specific needs, then create a solution that fits their budget.
But some options are indeed better or worse for individual homes.
This article runs through the pros and cons of ductless mini-split systems and more traditional central air systems that include an air conditioner, heat pump, and/or furnace. We hope by the end, you’ll have a better idea of which might be right for you.
RELATED: Ductless Mini-Splits 101: What They Do & How You Benefit
Ductless Mini-Split Pros
This is the big one. Mini-split systems contain some of the most sophisticated technology in the HVAC industry. The units utilize inverter technology to convert high-voltage electricity into DC voltage, allowing them to run with very little energy.
The results are SEER ratings that can reach over 30 on the cooling side, and equivalent efficiency for heating as well!
Mini-splits also use variable-speed compressors, meaning they can run as much or little as needed. This is in contrast to most (but not all) central air units that have only one or two speeds and have to switch on and off more often.
2. Built-In Zoning
We’re most used to seeing mini-splits in individual living spaces: garages, patios, sunrooms, attics, finished basements, and others.
This usage also highlights the benefit of larger mini-split systems that have multiple indoor units (also known as “heads”). If you have multiple mini-split heads in a home, one can be running while the other is off. Heck, one could even be heating while another is cooling!
This allows you to have precise control over the comfort in your home. If there are nuisance rooms that never seem to be at the right temperature or rooms that you use more than others, this can be an ideal solution to avoid heating or cooling the entire home when you’re only using a small portion of it.
3. Ductless = Less Work
Ductwork is great for several reasons, but it can also be a hassle. Modifications for new equipment, cleaning, and maintenance can all cost money and time.
Many slab homes lack ductwork entirely, and don’t have room to have it installed. In this case, a ductless system is a necessity. In others, ductless can simply be a viable alternative.
The zone control that ductless systems have will let you set a heating and cooling solution to your specific needs.
Importantly, mini-splits are also commonly used in conjunction with central air systems. Rooms like garages, finished basements, and attic guest rooms rarely have ductwork for a central air system to connect to.
To make these rooms more usable, it’s often ideal to pair your traditional system with an individual mini-split for that room or area.
Ductless Mini-Split Cons
Ductless systems do have air filters, but these aren’t as powerful as ducted filtration systems that will better rid your home of allergens, dust, and odors.
Carbon inserts exist that can be added to mini-split units, which take care of some of these issues. But these need to be periodically replaced. Depending on your usage of the system, this can become onerous to handle.
Lastly, air purifiers can be fitted into some mini-split systems, but this will be limited by the zoning that is inherent to the system.
2. Line Aesthetics
Ductless systems have a line that runs from the indoor to the outdoor unit, and because mini-splits are often located in odd places, this can mean that the line runs down the side of your home or around corners of it. The line includes condensate drainage and electrical connectors.
This can be an eyesore, as it’s visible even from far away.
This one actually has a solution, but it’s one that not all HVAC contractors do!
A “line hide” is a covering that looks much more natural against a home. It can also be painted to match a home’s coloring, while the line itself cannot be painted. The line hide also better protects the line from the wear and tear of the elements.
Fire & Ice always includes a line hide with installation, but because it’s an additional cost, many companies ignore it.
Mini-split systems control humidity by collecting moisture into the condensate line. In many cases, the line can utilize gravity to simply run the condensate outside to a drain.
However, depending on location, this is not always the case. When this happens, a condensate pump is necessary to move the moisture outside. Condensate pumps can add to cost, noise, and maintenance.
Any HVAC equipment needs regular maintenance. Without this, it won’t function properly for long, and you’ll lose efficiency, increase your utility bills, and it’ll ultimately kill the system years before it should.
Where ductless systems are different is that the filters will need to be cleaned regularly. If you only use them in the summer, letting them sit during the winter months may be ok. But many ductless systems are used year-round, and cleaning filters every couple weeks is a best practice.
Many homeowners ignore this responsibility, though, and it has downstream effects in the form of reduced efficiency and, eventually, harming the internal equipment.
5. Initial Price
Ductless systems are potentially much more efficient, so your utility cost is generally much less than with central air.
The downside is that the initial cost is more. This can be counterintuitive because we think of mini-splits as the “smaller” option. But in a one-to-one comparison with the area they heat or cool, the initial cost is more for a mini-split.
Where this isn’t as true is when you would need to install ductwork in a home to be able to contain a central heating and cooling system. Ductwork alone can sometimes exceed the cost of an air conditioner or furnace, so in these cases, the initial cost can be similar for a ductless system.
Central Air Pros
1. Lower Initial Cost
If ductless systems cost more at the start, that means central air is going to be less expensive. This is always going to be true in homes with existing ductwork that don’t need modifications for a new system installation.
The higher-efficiency air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces can also get about 20 SEER (or equivalent HSPF rating), which means the gap isn’t always gigantic in efficiency depending on which equipment you choose.
2. Size and Range
Central air systems are simply better equipped to handle large homes that need consistent heating and cooling. Ductless systems can have up to about five heads in residential homes, so they can service more than one or two rooms.
The difference is usually quite stark, though, and making sure your heating and cooling is reaching throughout your home is going to be easiest with a ducted system.
3. Integration with Air Quality Products
The filtration options for ducted, central air systems are much more robust than they are for mini-splits.
Additionally, numerous air quality products integrate easily with whole-home, ducted systems. These include humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and air purifiers.
The net benefit to your air quality can be profound with one or more of these. Add-ons like the dehumidifier can also work with your ductwork to reduce the workload on air conditioning, which can contribute to overall efficiency.
RELATED: Is a Whole-Home Dehumidifier Right for Me?
4. More Options
The breadth of options available for air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces is simply larger than it currently is for mini-splits.
If a mini-split is right for you, extra options may not matter, but it’s true that the ductless side of the industry is still catching up in terms of models, brands, and individual differences between them that can make one the best fit for you.
Central Air Cons
1. Utility Bills
If the zone control of a ductless system cuts down on your bills, heating or cooling your whole home when you’re only in parts of it will hike your energy bills.
Make no mistake: a new, efficient central air system will drastically reduce your bills compared to an older system. But in a one-to-one comparison with the mini-split, it doesn’t quite win out.
2. Duct Maintenance
Modifying or repairing ductwork can be expensive, so it’s best to have it properly cleaned and maintained as necessary. This can be an additional cost, though.
A typical maintenance plan will include a host of features related to the health of your entire system, but modifications to existing ductwork usually fall outside those yearly costs. Ask your HVAC contractor how you should be handling your ductwork as part of a comprehensive care solution for your equipment and home.
3. Temperature and Zone Control
Many A/C units and furnaces have only two settings: on or off. Two-speed systems increase this slightly, and the high-end variable-speed systems will work similarly to mini-splits. Many times, though, your budget will be best suited to a one- or two-speed system.
As before, these are still leagues beyond older systems in terms of efficiency, but they lack the granular control over the temperature that a mini-split will provide.
If you and your family regularly use every room in your home, this may not be a negative at all, so it will depend on the homeowner.
Which Is Right For Me?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so the answer to the question will change depending on the homeowner and their particular budget and comfort goals.
That said, you should now have a much better idea of which is going to be best for you. For some, the answer will even be both, with a central air system servicing most of the home while a mini-split unit services a particular room or area that lacks ductwork or is tough to heat and cool.
If you’re still interested in a ductless mini-split system and think it may be part of a solution for your home, check out our article that breaks down the cost of mini-splits. Once you do that, if you’re in the Des Moines, IA area, reach out to us to schedule your free in-home estimate where we’ll answer any questions you have and help you settle on a solution to meet your needs.
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