Ductless vs. Central Air Comparison Guide

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Modern air conditioning systems feel better, function better and fit better than their predecessors. The choices available to homeowners is greater than ever. Two of the most popular options central air conditioning with ductwork and ductless air conditioning, sometimes referred to as a mini split system. Both systems answer a lot of specific air conditioning needs and both have advantages for the homeowner So between ductless vs central air, which system is better for your home or business?

Central Heat and Air vs Ductless: The Similarities

The Condenser

Virtually all AC systems, including ductless and central air, start with a condenser that sits outside on a slab, platform or rooftop. The condenser includes coils, a fan motor and a compressor. Refrigerant, a gas that one would expect from its name to be naturally cold, is actually made extremely hot by compression, changed into a liquid and circulated through the condenser coils.

The Evaporator Coils

The super-heated liquid moves to the interior via line sets and then circulates through the evaporator coils, where it cools and returns to a gaseous state. Following thermodynamic principles, interior air releases its heat to the evaporator coils and the aluminum fins adjacent to them. Therefore, an air conditioner does not create cold air. It removes heat, leaving cold air in its wake.

The Air Handler

The evaporator coils reside inside the air handler, which blows the cold air into the living space. Both central air and ductless systems employ air handlers, but in much different ways. In a central air conditioning system, the air handler sits in a closet, basement, attic or utility room and is connected to the rest of the house by ductwork. In a ductless system the air handler is located in the room it is assigned to cover.

Ductless vs Central Air: The Differences

Ductwork vs No Ductwork

A central air system uses one air handler to cover the whole house, and it forces the air through a ductwork network to all the rooms. It's not hard to guess that a ductless system doesn't use ducts. The in-room air handler does all the work for that particular room (sometimes called a zone). Ductless mini split systems are great for single room applications, add-ons, garages, workshops and family creation/entertainment rooms. They also can be used for multiple rooms, including an entire house. Remodeling projects, especially those that create separate living spaces like a duplex or an apartment, are best served by ductless AC systems.

One Air Handler vs Multiple Air Handlers

The ductless system can have as many as eight separate air handlers, for eight separate rooms or zones. The air handlers in a multi zone mini split systems all feed off the same condenser, but they all perform independently of each other. They can be set to different temperatures, because they all have their own thermostats.

Ductless vs Central Air: Advantages/Disadvantages of Each

Cost of Ductless Mini Split vs Central Air - Equipment

Ductless equipment is more expensive on the front end. The equipment is compact and must be built to tight tolerances for proper performance. Some mini split systems allow homeowners to perform their own installation, and therefore require special design considerations. The biggest reason for the additional front-end expense of ductless AC systems is the cost of multiple air handlers. The more zones (rooms) you air condition, the more expense you incur. Once installed, however, ductless mini split systems start working in your favor. They typically operate with much more efficiency, delivering more comfort while at the same time using less energy. The energy savings occur year-round, thanks to heat pumps, which reverse the cycle of air conditioning and send warm air into the affected rooms. If you're building new or adding on, ductless offers a cost advantage in that you don't have to install ductwork, which is probably the biggest drawback to central heat and air.

Cost of Ductless Mini Split vs Central Air - Installation

One of the biggest benefits of ductless air conditioning is the ease with which it installs. Single-zone systems are often available as DIY projects, and even a few multi-zone systems are now coming out as DIY items. Regardless of whether the installation is performed by the homeowner or a licensed HVAC technician, installation of a ductless mini split system takes less time than a central air system.

Performance

With traditional central air conditioning, you have one air handler and one thermostat for the whole house. Rooms that have climate control issues like big windows and high ceilings get the same temperature setting as the cozy sewing nook down the hall. Family members must accept the thermostat setting established by whoever is in charge of it (which is sometimes debatable). Ductless systems offer individual controls. Each zone has its own thermostat, so settings can be customized from zone to zone. Ductless mini split systems tend to be more energy efficient since energy is not wasted trying to make all rooms the same temperature. There is also less air loss through ductwork. Ductless vs Central Air Conditioners: Frequently Asked Questions
Is central air better than ductless? When choosing between central heat and air and ductless, the question of whether the house already has ductwork is probably the biggest factor. A secondary factor is the size of the house. For a large house, already fitted with ductwork for a lot of rooms, central air might be your best option, for cost reasons. Does ductless air conditioning increase home value? The addition of any new AC system, whether ductless or central air, increases the value of a home by as much as 12 percent. Replacing the AC system could be the best investment you put in your home, even in an older home. Are mini splits cheaper than central air? For a whole-house system, the cost of ductless mini split vs central air is not cheaper than central air. The necessity of buying multiple air handlers drives the initial cost up. However, in new construction, the ability to forego the installation of ductwork becomes a bonus for ductless mini split systems. Plus, the energy savings over the life of the system cannot be overlooked. With the tightening of energy regulations and the volatile nature of energy costs in many areas of the country, this is a huge consideration.
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