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Choosing between a mini-split and central air conditioning system for your home will depend on several factors such as cost, home structure, cooling, and heating needs.
In this article, let us take a look at how the two air conditioning systems differ and the pros and cons of each.
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How They Work
To differentiate the two systems from one another, it is important to first understand the basics of how they work to provide cooler and warmer air.
How a Central Air System Works
In a central air conditioning system, the air is processed by several components. The system includes a thermostat, an evaporator unit, a blower, a condenser unit, a compressor, and a fan.
The thermostat controls the whole system. It regulates the temperature and the amount of air that moves throughout the system. The thermostat senses if the current room temperature needs more heating or cooling. Once it senses that the temperature needs to be adjusted, it sends signals to the other components to process and move the amount of air needed.
The air that is processed within the system is transferred and distributed via complex ductwork that runs through different areas of a house or building.
With a central air system, you have consistent temperature running through the whole duct system. AC zoning is possible in a centralized system. This is done by installing dampers within the ductwork. The dampers control the amount of air that is distributed to create varying temperatures throughout the zones.
How a Mini-split System Works
A mini-split system is almost like a mini version of a central air system without the heavy ductwork. It has three main components: an indoor evaporator unit, refrigerant lines, and an outdoor compressor and condenser unit. The refrigerant, electrical lines, and drain run through a slim protected conduit to transfer air and liquid.
Air is transferred between the outdoor and indoor units through the refrigerant lines to distribute cold air. Mini-splits with heat pumps can also process the air to get a warmer room temperature by reversing the cycle.
Several indoor units can be serviced by a single outdoor unit. These indoor units work independently from one another. They can be set to different temperatures per cooling or heating area. All you have to do is set up another indoor unit and connect it to the outside compressor to add an AC zone.
Installation Cost Associated With Both
Cost is, of course, a huge factor when deciding between the two systems.
The range cost of installing a centralized air system is between $1,000 and $11,000. This is cheaper than the average installation cost of ductless mini-splits which can cost $1300 to $15,500.
These figures depend on the number of areas that need to be serviced and the brand and performance of the units. It is also good to get at least three bids from different HVAC installers for the best installation rates in your area.
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Energy Bills – Compared Between Ductless & Central AC
While a central air system can be cheaper initially, it is good to note that ductless systems usually cost less to operate.
Since centralized air conditioning relies heavily on ductwork to distribute air, the system is prone to leaks. Because of this, the system works harder and energy is wasted. A ductless mini-split system works more efficiently by cooling spaces faster with fewer chances for leaks.
Mini-split systems that are equipped with variable-speed air handlers work by starting at full speed. Once the desired temperature is reached, the fans switch to a slower speed to keep the space at the right temperature. This saves energy and keeps the temperature consistent.
Another energy-saving feature of a ductless mini-split system is how the indoor units can be turned on and off independently from one another and can be set to different temperatures.
If energy efficiency and lower electricity costs are things that matter a lot to you, then going with ductless mini-splits can be the HVAC system for you.
Home Structure Considerations For Each Type System
If your home already has existing ductwork, then a central air system will even be a lot cheaper for you. However, if you need to install the ductwork from scratch or if the one you currently have needs to be replaced, it might cost double the price to have to overhaul your home structure to accommodate a new ductwork system.
With ductless systems, this will not be an issue. There is also little to no risk about dealing with pests that might infiltrate the heavy ductwork of central air systems.
Although centralized air conditioning distributes air through vents found on walls, ceilings, and/or floors, it also has an indoor air-handling unit that will require some space. Most of the time, these units are placed in the crawl space, the basement, or a utility closet.
The difference lies in just how much space you have. A centralized air system needs a lot of space and construction work while mini splits can fit in pretty much any size and type of space.
Ease of Installation
Aside from ductwork, vents need to be installed to move air around in a central air system. This means punching out holes on walls, floors, and the ceiling if there is no existing ductwork in place.
With ductless mini splits, the simplest air handler you can get is a wall-mounted indoor unit. It comes assembled and will only have to be hung. The slim pipeline that carries electricals, the drain, and refrigerant lines can be run against wall corners or hidden behind walls. A three-inch hole will be punctured to accommodate the conduits connecting it to the outside unit and that’s about it.
There are other more complicated types of indoor units for a ductless system like ceiling cassettes but they are still easier to install compared to placing the heavy ductwork that comes with a centralized air conditioning system.
If you already have existing ductwork, installing a central system can take a week for contractors to work on. Without it, it will take much much longer to install the system.
Ductless systems on the other hand can be installed within a day or two. This usually means lower labor costs.
In terms of home decor, the problem with ductless systems is usually the indoor air handlers. They can be quite visible and they do take up some wall space. Hiding these large units can be a challenge.
In a central air system, all you have are vents that are easy to mask or hide. There are also a number of ways to install these vents around a space.
Central Air System Pros and Cons – Recap
- Consistent Air Throughout System
- Low Initial Costs
- AC Zoning Possible By Installing Dampers and/or Additional Thermostats
- Less Visible Vents
- Less Energy Efficient
- Heavy Ductwork Required
- Complicated Installation
Mini Split Pros and Cons- Recap
- Energy Efficient
- Lower Energy Bills
- Easy Installation
- AC Zoning
- Initial Costs
- Large Indoor Air Handlers
Overall, a centralized air conditioning system may be ideal for those who have no problems dealing with heavy ductwork. This system also works for larger homes.
A mini-split system is more ideal for smaller spaces that will need fewer indoor units to cool or heat. Installing a ductless system for larger spaces will bring the need for more indoor units to be placed.