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Ductless Mini Split vs Central Air: A Quick Comparison

ductless mini split vs central air

Indoor temperatures affect us more than we think. Regulating the temperature in your home is important for your overall comfort, health, and even your productivity. The right cooling system can make a marked difference in your quality of life, but choosing the right system for your home and lifestyle is crucial.

If you’re deciding between central air and a ductless mini split system, it’s important to understand the basics of how each system works and consider the benefits and drawbacks of both options so you can make the best choice for your home, needs, and budget.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about central air and ductless mini split systems and compare the two:

Table of Contents:

What is a Ductless Mini Split System? 

Ductless mini split systems consist of two parts: an outdoor compressor/condenser and one or more indoor air-handling units. Units are installed in each room or “zone” of your home that requires cooling, and each is controlled separately by individual remote controls. The system’s indoor units are either wall-mounted or suspended from the ceiling and are connected to the outdoor compressor by a refrigerant line. That’s why the system is ductless — it doesn’t require a duct system to exist or be installed in your home.

Although it’s common to hear people refer to it as a “ductless AC,” it’s important to note that ductless mini split systems are technically a type of heat pump and not an air conditioner. See our blog on the differences between heat pumps and ACs.

The number, size, and location of indoor mini split units determines how quickly and efficiently the system will cool your home. There are single-zone and multi-zone systems, depending on whether you need to cool a small space, like an ADU or a single upstairs bedroom, or a larger space, like a full one- or two-story family home.

What is Central Air Conditioning?

Central air conditioning is the most common type of cooling system in the United States, and is ideal for cooling large spaces all at once. A central air conditioner uses your home’s duct system to cool the air. This helps to keep the temperature consistent and even throughout. 

Air conditioners involve three main components: a compressor, a condenser coil, and an evaporator coil. The three components work together, absorbing and removing heat by converting refrigerant from gas form, to liquid, and back to gas at a rapid speed. These systems can help improve indoor air quality; the more they run, the more particulates they can capture.

Central air is typically controlled by a single thermostat, which essentially acts as the command center for your home’s entire cooling system. When the system senses that room temperature is too high, it sends a signal to the system to begin the cooling process.

Similarities and Differences

Both ductless mini split systems and ducted air conditioning systems are effective ways to regulate your home’s internal temperature. But as the name suggests, ductless mini splits don’t require a duct system. If you already have existing ductwork in your home, check out our article on Ducted Heat Pumps vs Ducted Air Conditioners.

Another major difference between ductless mini splits and central air is that a mini split’s indoor units can be adjusted separately by remote control, while central air is controlled via a central thermostat. With a mini split, you could keep one room or zone at a cozy 72 degrees, while another zone is set to cool to 65 degrees. With central air, your whole home will remain evenly cooled to a consistent temperature based on the setting you select.

Advantages of Ductless Mini Split Heat Pumps

Mini split systems are ideal choices for homes with no existing ductwork, as well as for ADUs or additions. They’re also one of the most efficient HVAC systems on the market due to their inverter technology, which allows them to generate only the amount of cooling that’s actually necessary. 

Here are a few additional benefits of a ductless system to consider:

  • Room-by-room temperature control: Since each unit in a ductless mini split system has its own remote, you can adjust the temperature settings for each zone separately.
  • Energy efficiency: Ductless heat pumps control the temperature and humidity in your home using only the necessary amount of energy.
  • Quick installation: Mini split systems can be installed without major structural disruption to your home, via a small hole in the wall to connect each indoor unit to your outdoor compressor.
  • Lower energy bills: While the upfront cost of installing a ductless heat pump system is typically higher than that of central air, the efficiency of a ductless system will reduce your utility bills substantially; in this way, a ductless mini split heat pump is a great long-term financial investment.

Disadvantages of Mini Splits

The primary drawback of a mini split system is the upfront cost. On average, the initial cost of installing a ductless heat pump system is about 30% higher than the cost to install a central system (without ductwork). The efficiency of this kind of setup reduces your utility costs substantially, making it a fantastic long-term investment if you’re planning to stay in your current home for the next few years. However, if you’re planning to move in the near future, your return on investment is reduced.

The other factor to consider is space. While a mini split’s outdoor compressor is generally smaller than a traditional central AC system, the indoor units are visible in your home (unless you opt for a ducted mini split system). Central air is generally more inconspicuous.

Advantages of a Central Air Conditioning System

There’s a lot to love about central air. Central AC remains the most common type of home cooling system in the United States, and is an optimal choice for individuals and families who live in larger homes and need a consistent temperature throughout.

Some of the major benefits of a central air conditioning system include the following:

  • Convenience: With central AC, you can control the temperature of your entire home using a single thermostat and rely on a consistent and reliable temperature.
  • Lower upfront costs: While running a ductless mini split system is less expensive long-term, central air is less expensive to install. 
  • Compatible with existing ductwork: Central AC works in conjunction with your home’s existing furnace systems, so there’s no need for new ductwork.  
  • Increased property value: Installing central air in your home can raise your property value by up to 10%, according to real estate experts.
  • Air filtration: Ducted systems are superior when it comes to filtering allergens, dust, and odors in your home.

Disadvantages of Central Air

If your home doesn’t already have ductwork, installing central air becomes much more complicated. You’ll also need to maintain your ducts over time.

Another thing to think about is cost. While the price of having central AC installed may be lower than a ductless mini split system, central air doesn’t offer the same benefits on your utility bills every month. That said, it does boost your home’s property value.

Which One is Right For You?

There are major advantages to both central AC and ductless AC, as well as some drawbacks. In the HVAC world, it’s often fruitless to talk about “better” or “worse” systems, because the right system for you depends on your home, family, lifestyle, and budget.

In general, the factors to consider when choosing between a ductless mini split system and a central air conditioning system include upfront and monthly energy costs, installation time and complexity, your local climate and temperature conditions, and your lifestyle and preferences:

Cost

The cost of installing central air is lower than the upfront cost of a mini split system, especially if your home has existing ductwork. However, a ductless AC system saves you money in the long run due to its innovative and efficient technology.

Installation

While both systems require professional installation, a ductless system is very quick to install, while a central air conditioning system involves a more complex process.

Climate

When temperatures reach extreme highs or lows, it can interfere with a mini split system’s capacity. Mild climates like that of the Pacific Northwest are ideal for ductless heat pumps, since temperatures rarely drop or rise to extremes . In less mild climates, central air is a safer bet for extreme temperatures (though there are some ductless options that can handle more extreme temperatures).

Lifestyle

How you use your home is a major consideration when you’re choosing between two types of AC. Since mini split units are controlled via remote control, you have the option of cooling only one room or “zone” at a time, or setting zones to different temperatures. This is ideal if there are rooms in your home that are rarely used during certain hours of the day. However, if you need your entire home to remain at a consistent temperature throughout the day, a centrally controlled AC system may be more convenient.

Professional HVAC Consulting, Installation, and Repair

If you’re not sure what type of air conditioning system is right for your home and family, our consultants and Jacobs Heating & Air Conditioning are here to help. We’ll evaluate your home, help you understand your options, and aid in determining the best system to meet your home cooling needs. Home- and business owners throughout the Portland and Vancouver area trust Jacobs with their heating, cooling, and ventilation needs.

We’re here to answer your pressing questions, help you make the right decision for your home, and keep you and your family comfortable year round. Call us at (503) 444-8470 or contact us online with any questions, and read our statement on COVID-19 to find out what we’re doing to protect both you and our team.