Central Air VS Wall Air Conditioner Ductless Systems
Which one is better, depends more on application and preference, than whether central air is better than a ductless wall mounted system or vice versa.
First – a quick overview:
Central Air Conditioner: a separate unit which resides on the outside of the dwelling that connects into existing duct work (or duct work is needed for it to function – if none exists, then ducting would need to be added)
Ductless Wall Mounted Air Conditioner & Heat Pump Combo: Also known as a “mini-splits or heat pumps” one part of the unit resides inside the house mounted on the wall and the other, the condenser resides outside. It does not require duct work, however there is about a 2.5” hole that is needed to be drilled onto the outside of the dwelling to connect the two. There are dual and quad mini-split units (also known as “heads”) such that the outside unit can run up to 4 units inside, on different floors or in different rooms. Most are a two head or dual unit, 4 is lesser known.
For the HVAC pro’s out there, we are not talking about fan coils or the like in this article (the in-wall units commonly seen in condos, which require a water source known as hydronic units). The mini-splits here that we are discussing do not need any water hookups, just access to power.
Right to the point: Can a dwelling have both central air and a mini-split? Yes. Mini-splits are a wonderful option to zone cool/heat specific rooms which get too hot or too cold; or if there is a family member who is a senior or is older, or has a delicate disposition, the extra heating and cooling options can be extremely helpful. Also a good option to consider if a family member has allergies or other situation where duct work could cough up dust or debris and aggravate symptoms (HEPA filtration system to existing duct work can often be fairly easily attached as an alternate option).
We are purposefully staying away from a pros and cons list here, because again, both options are great, it just depends on what the user’s existing property & building setup is, as well as the objectives and goals of the cooling needed.
Energy Efficiency: With the newer good quality brand named units such as Mitsubishi and others, the mini-splits are really energy efficient these days. Thus, this would not be a drawback with these units.
Heating as well: A mini-split will both cool and also heat the home as well (office space, dwelling, tiny home, RV, what have you) which an add-on central air conditioner relies on the existing furnace to do this.
Noisy or Quiet?: Both central air and good quality ductless AC mini-splits are very quiet as the condenser portion is outside in both cases, however even the condensers run quiet on good quality units as to not disturb the neighbours. “Packaged Units” as used in older hotels for example and window units, however are very noisy.
Residential (Home Use) or Commercial?: Both. Commonly used in residential units, but both options are also found in light commercial units, and especially the rental market and motels.
Application: What do you need your air conditioner to do?
Central Air – if existing duct work exists, and one is looking to cool the entire dwelling, and not just looking for zone cooling (or heating) then central air is a solid choice. Be sure to get the right size central air unit, not just for the size of your house, but also for the size of the existing duct work! (Very important).
Newer air conditioning systems are much more energy efficient, especially when programmed, and can be combined (using the AHU – air handling unit in the house) with HEPA air purifiers, air exchangers (to keep fresh air inside the dwelling and get rid of stale air) as well as Energy Recapturing Units such as HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilation) and an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilation.) units – these “pre-heat” the incoming air utilizing the filtered outgoing air in cold weather, this way the furnace doesn’t have to heat up completely cold air, it’s mixed with some of the existing outgoing exhaust air which gets filtered – extremely energy efficient.
Keep in mind central air cools the whole home unilaterally and does not just cool the parts that need it, like the bedroom core or the most used room on the main floor. Thus depending on the square footage, smaller homes, especially in Canada can often get away with a heat pump / ductless air conditioner unit.
Older Homes or Heritage Homes: Ductless air conditioners are great for older homes without existing duct work. There always seems to be surprises when one starts opening up ancient plaster walls. No walls are needed to open with ductless wall systems, just an access hole approx 2.5” in diameter for the cables to run to the exterior compressor.
Rental Units in Duplexes, Triplexes and Multiplexes: Ductless A/C Mini-splits are a great solution for these applications, such as the renters can have some relief and provides great advertising and occupancy; as well as having complete control per unit for the tenants.
Tiny Homes, RV’s, Mobile Homes, Cottages, Air B&Bs, Motels, Workshops:, Ductless wall mount air conditioners / heat pump units are a really great option for these. They can easily fully cool and fully heat smaller spaces, plus they need far less energy to run than a central air conditioning system.
Mini-Split / Multi-Split Units Wall Only? There are ceiling units (called ceiling cassettes, as well as floor models, however, wall mounted has the most availability, and is most common)
Keep in mind if you are in an area where it gets below -15 degrees F in the winter, if using it on heat mode, the mini-split external condenser portion will need either some kind of housing or shelter from the elements like a back porch, garage, someplace ventilated but out of the elements.
As a dehumidifier: Some wall mounted air conditioner ductless systems have a dehumidifier mode, such that they can take the humidity out of the air, thus opens up more opportunities for these units, such as in basements, attics, and other applications.
If the building already has good quality existing duct work in good condition: Be sure to ask about central air options – again not just for the size of the dwelling but also the size of the duct work. If central air already exists, and one is looking to zone cool (and heat) certain portions of the home then add on mini-split unit can be a great option to consider.
If the existing building does not have existing duct work: Mini-Splits come in various forms and capacities and are an excellent source of both cooling and heating combined, and can be used in combination with existing heating systems such as boilers, stand alone gas stoves, wood stoves and radiant heating.
However, keep in mind, every building is unique, and each building HVAC should be discussed on its own merit.
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