Summer is such a wonderfully relaxing season. It’s the time for swimming, vacations, cookouts, and plenty of sunshine. Unfortunately, it’s also the time for either suffering through the heat or paying outrageous cooling bills. But there’s a truth more upsetting than just the bills: if your heating and cooling system uses ducts to distribute conditioned air, you could be losing 20 to 30 percent of that air due to leaks.
Patching up ducts isn’t a difficult or expensive project. But if you responsibly maintain your HVAC and find that it still doesn’t meet your expectations for efficiency, there may be another way to address the problem: a ductless air conditioner. This is also a good retrofitting solution for homes without ductwork, as well as an energy-efficient option for new construction.
How Does a Ductless Air Conditioner Work?
A ductless heat pump, also called a “mini-split system,” is made up of an outdoor component (condenser and compressor) and an indoor component (evaporator and blower assembly). The two units are connected by a conduit containing electrical wiring and tubing. The units transfer heat from outdoors to indoors, or vice versa, via a refrigerant that runs through the conduit. In cooling mode, the ductless mini-split system transfers heat from your home to the outside unit.
Most mini-split systems allow you to install up to four units in your home. The area that each unit heats or cools is called a “zone.” The units work independently of one another, cooling or heating only zones that are occupied as opposed to the whole house—which saves you energy. While it may sound over-the-top or inconvenient to have more than one mini-split system in your home, the units are small, requiring only a three-inch hole in the wall. They can be mounted on the wall, suspended from the ceiling, or free-standing.
Mini-split systems are also able to scale back the amount of energy they use whenever heating or cooling needs decrease. Traditional units waste energy by cycling on and off, but mini-split systems subtly adjust to meet fluctuating demands, saving you energy.
How Much Does a Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioner Cost?
Installing a ductless mini-split system will result in monthly energy savings, but it does constitute a sizable upfront investment. Here’s a cost breakdown to help you decide if this project is right for your home:
The cost of the equipment largely depends on whether your home will require one, two, three, or four systems:
Single – $1800
Double – $2500
Triple – $3000
Quad – $3800 and up
The size of your home and its energy efficiency affect the number of units you will need. Keep in mind that projects like adding insulation to your attic, closing off leaks around doors and windows, and adding a low-emissivity film to your windows can make the job much easier for your ductless air conditioner.
Comfort and energy efficiency are the biggest advantages of mini-split systems. But if yours is installed incorrectly or isn’t the right size, you won’t experience either of those benefits.
Unless you are a builder or remodeler, it’s worth hiring a contractor with the right tools in their belt. The contractor has to lay concrete for the outdoor unit, cut a hole in the exterior wall, run the electrical lines for the conduit, and perform other tasks as needed, such as getting rid of some of your current system’s components. Expect to pay between $1300 and $2000.
While you may be tempted to settle for the best price regardless of specific experience, remember that ductless heating and cooling systems are still a niche market in the U.S. You may have to hunt a little for the right contractor, so don’t settle for someone you’re not sure will do a good job just because they offer the best price.
Other Things to Consider
- If you live somewhere with extreme summer temperatures, a ductless air conditioner may not be able to bear the entire burden of cooling your home on the hottest days. You may want to hold onto your traditional HVAC system to use as a supplement when needed.
- If you have wall units or radiant heating, you can integrate just one ductless system to take care of your main living area or “zone,” rather than switching to ductless in your whole house.
- There may be rebates and tax incentives available to you, so check them out before you red or green-light this project.