The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Ductless Mini-Split System For Your Home

Ductless mini-split heating cooling

Introduction

A ductless mini-split heat pump works like a regular central air conditioner but without the ducts. It is widely used in residential, commercial and institutional buildings. Common applications for this type of system are in detached and multifamily housing or as a retrofit to houses with non-ducted heating systems – for example, hot-water heat, electric baseboard space heaters, etc. Additionally, they are ideal to improve comfort in small or large spaces such as a bedroom, small apartment or even a garage.

In short, the unit operates as a small heater and air conditioner. Many hotels or holiday condos have one of these units on the wall or near the window to control heating and air conditioning. If you have seen one of those, you have seen a ductless mini-split system. To be clear, we’re not talking about the super loud and annoying units that keep you up all night in a hotel. Modern ductless mini-split systems are quiet and sleek, fit into their surroundings, and you’ll barely notice them, other than the improved comfort in your home.

How do they work?

A ductless mini-split operates similarly to a central heating and cooling system. Mini-splits have two main components: an outdoor compressor/condenser and an air-handling unit. A conduit houses the power cable and refrigerant tubing, while a condensate drain handles any water produced in cooling mode.

The ductless system takes air from the room, cools or heats it, and then returns it back into the room. It is connected to an outdoor unit with a small bundle of pipes approximately the size of a fist. This includes copper pipes that circulate refrigerant back and forth. The outdoor portion is considered the condenser and has the compressor and the electronic controls. The indoor portion is considered the air handler and/or the evaporator.

Ductless mini-split Airco heating cooling

Heat Pumps: All Daikin ductless heat pumps consist of an indoor unit, which is either wall-mounted, floor-mounted, ceiling cassette mounted, or concealed, paired with a quiet and compact outdoor unit.

As you likely gathered from its name, a mini-split/ductless system is a split system, which means it has components that are located inside and outside the home. In the case of heat pumps, they provide year-round comfort by mechanically cooling or heating the air from inside your home while transferring the heat absorbed or lost to the outside via a sealed refrigerant circuit.

Daikin's single-room heat pumps are energy efficient and ideal for heating a small space. They are small and unobtrusive in your home. Imagine your small office or studio being toasty warm without the fuss of a furnace or the hassle of a ducted system at all. With an opening just three inches or smaller in diameter, a ductless mini-split heat pump is easy to install and maintain.

Why do I need a ductless mini-split system?

Many homes were built with a duct system but they weren’t necessarily designed for the family living inside them. While many homes in the Lower Mainland were built with a central air system on the main floor, builders often went cheap with electric baseboard heaters on the top floor. With heat radiating from the attic and no airflow, it can be impossible to sleep. And, different families sometimes have different setups and living arrangements. Also, homes grow with an addition, such as an extra room or a garage attached. These situations are when a ductless mini-split system is ideal.

For instance, a new sunroom built onto the house will not necessarily be connected to the home’s existing ductwork. Based on its location, this room might heat up quicker and need a cooler air temperature than the rest of the house. The main benefit of a ductless unit in this room is that it is properly sized for the space and will not divert the needed heat/coolness from the other rooms in the house. Plus, adding additional coverage area could overload your old HVAC system.

On the reverse, a person or family looking to downsize will see this as a viable option. For example, retirees in a large home who don’t want to heat/cool unused rooms. The simple solution is to close vents but that could create pressure imbalances and mould problems.

What about the battle over the thermostat? Some like it hot, some like it cold. A ductless system solves that problem. It has the ability to create a different climate altogether without adjusting the temperature in the rest of the building. Though you can install zoning in a traditional HVAC system, it is nearly impossible after the home is built and it will not be as efficient as a ductless system whose sole purpose is heating or cooling a single area.

What is the difference between central air and a ductless mini-split system?

Mini-split systems have little to no ducts, so they avoid the energy losses associated with the ductwork of central forced-air systems. Duct losses can account for more than 30 per cent of energy consumption for space conditioning, especially if the ducts are in an unconditioned space such as an attic or basement.

Central air systems require expensive and intrusive ductwork, and often can’t be amended after the home has been finished. Any homeowner who has priced out having central air installed understands how prohibitively expensive it is.

Quad zone vs central air

Consider upgrading to ductless mini-split heat pumps in these situations:

  1. In homes with costly electric heat and cooling (e.g. baseboard; electric radiant, furnace)
  2. Older homes with no ductwork
  3. Homes with expensive central heating due to high fuel costs
  4. You have rooms that are not regularly occupied
  5. Spaces next to unconditioned spaces where ductwork would be exposed (e.g. above a garage)
  6. Additions or outbuildings where extending ductwork is not feasible (e.g. shed, barn, garage)

Should I get a ductless or forced air system?

This question should be asked during the construction phase, but often with additions, renovations, or upgrades, it can be more difficult to answer. In some cases, people do not have the option to use forced air, and in others, adding ducting may simply not be an ideal choice.

Older houses were traditionally built with no consideration for needing air conditioning, especially on the West Coast. That might have been the case 25 years ago, but times, like the climate, have changed. For these homes, a central air-conditioning system will help, but it will never fully solve the heating/cooling issue when a living environment requires a variety of temperature needs. This is where ductless systems can really help.

How much does a ductless mini-split system cost?

This varies depending on the size of the area it is servicing and the heat loss/gain it is managing. It also depends on the number of heads needed for installation and the specific installation challenges with connecting the indoor units to the outdoor unit.

On average, the starting cost for quality equipment properly installed is $6,500 for the first system, including an outdoor head and approximately $5,000 per additional head. The rule of thumb is that one room needs one head for the most effective and efficient operation. If there are three rooms utilizing the system, three heads are needed. Ultimately, the overall cost is dependent on the area the unit covers. The smaller the area, the more inexpensive the arrangement.

If budget is a concern, our expert tip is to cover only a master bedroom or living space depending on your priority. Some manufacturers do have indoor heads that can be connected to basic ductwork, allowing for coverage of multiple rooms, such a three-bedroom top floor, with only a single unit.

What sort of upkeep or maintenance is required?

Aside from poor installation and low-quality equipment, lack of preventative care is the main reason heat pumps fail, so it is important to ensure routine maintenance is given to the unit. Think of it like any other major appliance in your home: If you don’t take care of it, it might not last as long. It is easy for a typical homeowner to clean the main filters but we do recommend you have a qualified refrigerant technician fully clean and check the equipment every couple of years.

Ductless mini-split systems can withstand a variety of outdoor climates. Unlike a central air conditioning unit outside that is covered in winter (depending on where you live), a ductless system remains uncovered year round. This is because it is utilized for heating and cooling, and therefore operates regularly. Don’t worry, they can handle the West Coast elements, rain or shine.

What are the advantages of a mini ductless system?

The first advantage is the effectiveness of the system. Because it is taking air from within the room, it can cool or heat that air quickly and efficiently. Comfort is managed quickly without the huge energy costs. This is because the equipment is not using electricity to create heat or cooling, but rather to move the energy from one place to another, using the principles of refrigeration.

The appeal of a ductless mini-split system is in the name: It is small and it is usually ductless. The small size makes it an easy addition to a backyard or balcony and the indoor units fit a room where space is limited and at a premium. Without requiring ductwork, it often is easier to install and can be significantly less expensive than a traditional complete ducted HVAC system. Also, a ductless system boasts a sleek and modern look and often has a longer lifespan.

Ductless mini-splits are quiet with many less than 50 dBA (A-weighted decibels) for the outdoor unit and some indoor units less than 25 dBA.

A ductless mini-split offers more flexibility and convenience for the user and provides a more customized experience for heating and air conditioning comfort. Often the south/southwestern-facing areas of a home are hotter than the north/northeastern side, or the top level is hotter than the bottom. Having individual zones in each area allows much better balancing of temperature. In addition, with unoccupied rooms, or different sleep schedules and temperature preferences, the flexibility can be liberating.

Ductless heating systems do not directly consume fossil fuels in the production of heat. While some electrical grids do use fossil fuels to supply backup electricity at times of peak demands, the general direction of governmental policy is to encourage the reduction of fossil fuels usage through electrification.

What are the disadvantages of a mini ductless system?

First and foremost, ductless isn’t cheap. Though, it is less expensive than adding ductwork to an existing house or building. Higher upfront costs will balance out thanks to lower operating costs in the long run.

It can be tempting to think one product is the same as another. One estimate says that 80 per cent of the market is product copied from the leading manufacturers. And often, those copy-cats can be hard to repair when it is impossible to find replacement parts. Also, parts can be expensive without the proper warranty. This equipment usually has variable speed DC compressors and computer-driven control boards, which make them quiet, efficient and effective.

While quality equipment and good installations make all the difference, you need to ensure you are working with one of the leading brands. Just because you’ve heard the name, doesn't mean they make their own equipment. Several leading companies source their product lines to midline manufacturers and then can’t be easily repaired a few years later.

The ductless mini-split unit, like a ducted system, requires professional installation. This means there is a higher risk for improper design and/or installation. Finding a qualified HVAC contractor to install and service a ductless system can be a challenge in some areas.

Do you live in a condo with a strata?

If you live in a multi-family dwelling, such as a townhome or condo, you’ll need strata approval before installing this type of equipment.

With the changing climate and technologies, stratas are facing difficult decisions. Higher insurance costs, and more demanding operating and legal conditions, make some strata organizations fear this new technology. Generally, stratas are concerned by the sound levels, the look of the equipment, and the penetration of the building envelope. Taking the time to educate any strata management council about the technology and how it should be installed can be the key to a successful process to approval. While they will eventually require you to sign an AOL (assumption of liability) agreement to protect them from any damages to common property, there is little risk when dealing with good installers and good equipment.

Here are some general points to help educate any strata management organization:

  1. Sound
    • While all heat pump equipment varies in sound, most ductless mini-split heat pump technology is quiet enough to avoid problems with neighbouring properties. We recommend learning about sound levels and what might create sound problems. The average old-style cube air conditioning outdoor unit can be over 75 dBA while the average ductless mini-split heat pump is less than 60 dBA, with many being less than 50 dBA. For every 10 dBA drop, that reduces the perceived sound by about half. The indoor units are even quieter with many being able to operate at 25 dBA or lower. Considering an empty auditorium can be about 40 dBA, it’s clear the sound is not an issue.
  2. Sight
    • Installation planning should be a critical element of the job, to ensure both the strata and the homeowner are clear on where the infrastructure such as refrigeration piping and electrical/communication cables are located. This piping and cable can be concealed within walls, soffits, attics, or special conduits to minimize the esthetic impact. While it’s not always feasible to install this in walls after the completion of construction, understanding your options and working with a contractor who wants to meet your needs is important.
  3. Penetrations
    • While every installation will likely need to penetrate the building envelope at some point, often it is a minor connection of about two to three inches to facilitate the connection between the outdoor unit and the indoor unit. Some wonder if there is an air exchange between the two units, but this is not required. Good installers will ensure the building envelope is sealed by using a conduit, sealed both internally and externally once the piping/cables have been installed.
  4. Some other considerations as expected should be:
    • Insurance licencing, and workers compensation
    • Factory training
    • Brand chosen
    • Warranty coverage
    • Experience, customer ratings
    • References

As with any building addition or renovation, there are pros and cons to all mechanical or construction work. Ultimately, the needs of the current situation should be considered, in addition to the future use of the area. HVAC shouldn’t be an impulse decision. It should be well thought out with multiple factors considered.

If you feel that a ductless mini-split is right for your building, contact us today!

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