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ductless air conditioner

How to Buy a Ductless Split System Air Conditioner

Updated Sep. 30, 2015
By Gary Sprague

If you own a home without air conditioning, or one with older window units, you may want to consider adding a ductless split system air conditioner. This is also a good option for homes without ductwork, which can be difficult and costly to install. Ductless split systems (also known as "mini splits") cost more than window units and can be more expensive than central air- conditioning systems, although the expense of installing ductwork could balance the cost difference between these two options.

Although ductless split systems can cost more up front than central systems, they can save energy dollars by allowing consumers to heat and cool specific areas, as well as eliminating the cooled air normally lost through ductwork. Benefits of a ductless split system include ease of installation and the ability to cool and heat individual rooms as needed.

What is a Mini Split?

Split ductless systems operate in essentially the same way as central air conditioning but do not use ducts to circulate air. A mini split is comprised of an outside condenser unit and at least one indoor blower unit mounted on the wall or ceiling which provides point-of-use air conditioning in the room where it is installed. The indoor unit is connected to the outdoor unit via a conduit through which refrigerant travels to cool the area. The conduit is concealed behind the indoor mounted unit and leaves the residence through a hole typically no larger than three inches.

Split systems can be used in single zone or multi-zone applications. A single zone has one indoor and outdoor unit and are designed for use in a single room or area. A multi-zone split system combines a single outdoor condensing unit with up to four indoor units, usually located in separate rooms and each with its own control. Multi-zone systems are most often used to cool multiple areas in a home or business.

Deciding if a Mini Split is the Right Choice

Consumers should consider the following questions in deciding whether or not a ductless split system air conditioner is the right fit for their cooling needs:

  1. Is there ductwork already installed in my home?
  2. Do I need to cool one room or several rooms?
  3. Is there a qualified installer in my area who is familiar with ductless split systems?

Installing ductwork involves opening up walls and ceilings and can be a messy and expensive process. If you need to cool only a few rooms and can locate a qualified installation expert, then a ductless split system air conditioner may be right for you. Potential buyers can check for a SEER rating on a ductless split system, just as with other types of air conditioners. Units with a higher SEER rating are more efficient but higher in price.

You may also want to read Is a Mini-Split Right for You?.

Cost of a Mini Split

The upfront cost of ductless air conditioning tends to be slightly higher than that of central air conditioning. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, mini splits cost about $1,500 to $2,000 per ton (12,000 Btu per hour) of cooling capacity – roughly 30% more than central air systems and approximately five times more expensive than window units.

According to Homewyse, the average cost to have a split system air conditioner installed is between $2,400 and $3,800, although the cost increases with each additional unit. The cost to install a central air unit (without ducts) averages between $2,900 and $4,200.

Central air conditioners cool the entire house, including unoccupied rooms, while split systems only cool certain rooms and can be individually controlled, making them more economical. Also, central air conditioners average a 30% energy loss through ductwork. Ductless systems save energy by eliminating this loss.

Finding a Qualified Installer

Because installation is critical in achieving peak performance, consumers should search for an installer who has installed ductless split systems in the past. The contractor should perform a load calculation to determine the proper size for each indoor unit and the best location in each room for installation. A system that is too large is more expensive to purchase and often wastes energy by short-cycling, while an undersized unit will run too often, resulting in higher operating costs and premature wear.

While the popularity of split system air conditioners appears to be growing, it can still be a challenge to find a qualified installer. Most heating and cooling contractors are trained to install central air systems, while far fewer have experience with mini splits. Along with a lack of training and experience, many contractors have tools and materials for central air systems but are not as readily equipped to work on mini splits.

It is important to do your research before choosing an installer. The installer should have verification of bonding and insurance. You can check with the Better Business Bureau for complaints against the installing company. In addition, some technicians are certified by trade organizations, which can show that company's commitment to providing quality service.

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