What Is a Ductless System?
A ductless air conditioning system is an energy-efficient system that can cool (or heat) rooms and zones of a home without needing ductwork. Ductless systems provide a suitable AC option for homes that don’t have the space for ducts or for homeowners who’d rather not tear up their walls to install ducts.
How Ductless Systems Operate
Similar to ducted, split central air conditioners, ductless systems also consist of an indoor air handling component and an outdoor component housing the compressor and condenser unit. However, instead of just one large air handler unit tucked away inside a closet, crawl space, or attic, ductless systems have multiple air handlers installed in different rooms of the house mounted on the wall. These individual air handlers operate similar to a window unit, where each one can be regulated to a different temperature.
The indoor and outdoor components are linked with copper tubing that passes through a small hole in the wall. Similar to split air conditioners, refrigerant travels through tubing to the indoor air handler(s), where the evaporator coil pulls the heat from the air leaving cool air which is blown into the room. The refrigerant, in vapor form, is then transferred to the condenser coil in the outside unit where it is changed back into liquid form.
Ductless systems were originally developed by a Japanese manufacturer in the 1970s and are predominantly used in Asia and Europe, but they have recently gained in popularity in the U.S. due to their energy-efficient capabilities. The ductless air conditioner was designed to be an improved version of the window unit, where it could provide localized cooling to homes and buildings where a larger, central air-type system was not an option due to building size or financial constraints. Providing greater efficiency than window units, the ductless system offers air comfort variability that can be controlled individually, room-by-room, which enhances its appeal as it gives all family members more control over their own comfort.
Pros and Cons of a Ductless Unit
- Ductless systems are very energy efficient due to the fact that they’re smaller so they use less energy to operate and because there are no ducts. An average home with a central air conditioning system can have an energy loss of 25% to 30% just from their ductwork. Ductless systems also have technologically advanced components such as an inverter-driven compressor, which allows the system to speed up and slow down as needed instead of shutting down completely. Other types of systems consume a lot of energy just on start-up alone.
- Installation of ductless systems is easier and less complicated than ducted systems. The factory puts together most of the components of a ductless and not having to deal with ducts makes the installation process one where there are fewer chances for mistakes to occur.
- Faster cooling – since there are no ducts for the air to travel through to reach its destination, ductless systems can cool a room much quicker since the air handler unit is already in the room.
- Zoned cooling -each indoor unit of a ductless system has its own thermostat allowing that room’s temperature to be individually controlled. No need to cool a room that’s empty – just turn the unit in that room off. Plus, family members get to choose the temperature that is most comfortable to them.
- Reliability – ductless systems have gained a reputation for being reliable and maintenance friendly. Also, without ducts, potential problems such as leaks, debris, or build-up which can clog air flow and reduce efficiency are not a concern.
- Ductless systems are expensive. For a single-room installation, a ductless air conditioner will cost you several times more than a standard, comparable window unit. Compared to an air conditioning system for an entire home, such as a ducted central air conditioner, a ductless system will typically be more expensive than a similar capacity unit. And, if you are replacing your ducted central air system with a ductless system, the cost could be two to three times more expensive than replacing it with another ducted system.
- Maintaining a ductless system can be cumbersome as each unit’s filter will need to be washed monthly, or more frequently if there are pets or a smoker in the house. Skipping this important step could shorten the life of your system.
- Ductless systems are primarily used for spot-cooling rooms in an average-sized house and are not really ideal or cost-effective for cooling an entire building.
- The indoor component of a ductless system may not be aesthetically pleasing to some, and they typically come in only standard white or beige colors, jut out from the wall, and cannot be covered.
Ductless System Set-Up
The outdoor component of a ductless air conditioning system can be installed on a concrete slab in a shaded area on the side or back of the house and unobstructed from shrubbery. The exterior unit can also be attached to the outside wall of the house with mounting brackets. With this type of installation, it’s important to have plenty of clearance, at least 4 inches, between the wall and the unit, and at least 20 inches of clearance above the unit.
Interior components of a ductless system are typically mounted high on an interior wall of the room it’s cooling. It should be centrally located in the room for even distribution of the cooled air. For less obtrusive locations inside a room, ductless interior units can also be placed recessed in the ceiling or near the floor. The indoor unit should be installed no more than 50 feet away from the outdoor unit.
Cost of Operating and Maintaining a Ductless System
The upfront cost of your ductless system will depend on the size of your home and how many units it will require – either one, two, or perhaps four or more. The more units required, the more the initial cost will be. There are also other factors which can affect the cost of a ductless system such as brand, the amount of cooling needed, system features and capabilities, integrated technology, and air conditioning support and services.
The high costs of ductless air conditioners can sometimes scare consumers away, but rebates and tax incentives are often available as they are energy-efficient systems. Plus, the initial costs are likely to be recouped before too long since ductless air conditioners, which have SEER ratings up to 26, are one of the most efficient and cost-saving air conditioning systems available. Ductless air conditioners use up to 30% – 50% less energy than central air systems so their overall operational costs are lower. Maintenance costs for ductless systems also tend to be lower than that for other systems, and with proper care and maintenance a ductless system should last for over 20 years.
Is a Ductless Air Conditioning System the Best Choice for Your Climate?
Ductless systems are a great option for most climates as they can provide individual heating and cooling effectively and efficiently. However, for those regions that reach extremely high temperatures and humidity levels in the summer, a ductless air conditioner may have difficulty cooling your home on some of those hotter days. Also, ductless systems are not as good as central air systems at removing moisture from the air so for those who live in a very humid climate, a ducted system may be a better option.
What Is the Difference Between a Ductless System and Other Types of Systems?
Ductless air conditioners resemble window units in that each are designed to cool one room. The similarity pretty much ends there as ductless systems are much more efficient than window units, don’t block the sunlight by taking up space in a window, and don’t pose a security risk as window units can easily be removed. Window units are still the cheapest and easiest air conditioners to install, though.
Compared to ducted air conditioning systems, such as split and packaged AC units, ductless systems work in a similar way to cool the home with the use of a compressor, evaporator coil, condensing coil, refrigerant, and blower. However, the cool air is delivered directly into each room through separate air handler units installed on the walls of each room instead of the cooled air reaching the room through a network of ducts. Not having ducts makes for much easier installation and maintenance for ductless systems, as well as improved efficiency and less dust in the air as there are no ducts on which it can collect.
Ductless systems come with a hand-held remote that controls just that one individual unit. With the remote, you can turn the AC system off and on, choose heat or cool, set the thermostat, and control the air speed. If you have multiple units in your home, then a programmable thermostat will allow you to pre-program your desired temperature settings and start/end times for all of the connected units.
Naturally, with the internet of things (IOT), there are smart thermostats available for ductless systems as well that can preheat or precool your home before you get home, monitor the temperature of your home, even while you’re away, adjust the temperature according to weather systems, and work with other applications for multiple features and benefits.
Ductless air conditioning systems are a great alternative to the ducted options and with their temperature variability control and energy-efficiency, they are an excellent choice for many consumers. However, your AC contractor may still advise you to get a ducted system if you already have ducts installed, are concerned with controlling the humidity, or want better air flow throughout your home, which a network of ducts help provide.
If you’re in a new house without any ducts already installed, then you will have the choice of which type of air conditioning will work best for you and your home. To learn more about the most common types of systems, click here. If you’re ready to shop for your new system and want to save thousands by shopping online, click here.