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Heating and cooling uses a lot of energy, so the air conditioning system you choose has a big impact on your utility bills and the environment. Central air conditioning is common in the United States, but ductless or mini-split systems are becoming more and more popular. Both systems have an indoor compressor or condenser and an indoor unit. Ductless systems can have more than one indoor unit and a small conduit connects the components instead of ductwork. Here’s some more information about the cost differences and other characteristics of central and ductless air conditioning.

1. Upfront Cost

A ductless system will usually be more expensive than a central air conditioning system with the same capacity. However, if you need to replace your ductwork or your home doesn’t have existing ductwork, you should expect to pay about twice as much money for a central air conditioning system as for a ductless system with the same capacity.

This means that ductless systems are ideal for new homes and new additions to existing homes. They’re also a great way to avoid replacing old, inefficient air ducts. If your home has ductwork, your installer will seal the air registers so that pests can’t get in and any dust or other contaminants inside won’t escape and lower your indoor air quality. There’s no need to pay to have the old ductwork removed.

2. Installation

Contractors usually need about a week to install a central air conditioning system. If you don’t already have ductwork, the process will take longer. Installers will have to tear down parts of your walls and ceilings to install the ductwork, then make repairs and repaint the damaged areas. For some homes, custom-made ducts are necessary, and they use valuable space in closets, attics, and basements.

Since the factory puts most of the parts of a ductless system together, installation only takes a day or two. Contractors place indoor units in your rooms and drill a hole in your wall for the conduit. Then, they run the suction tubing, power cable, refrigerant line, and condensate drain from the outdoor to the indoor units through the conduit. Since installation is faster, you won’t have to pay as much for labor, and you can get back to your normal schedule sooner.

3. Utility Bills

With a central air conditioning system, cool air has to travel through your air ducts to reach the rooms in your home. Along the way, a lot of it seeps out in unconditioned parts of your home. This forces your system to work harder, wasting energy. A ductless system is more efficient, which means it can cool your home faster.

Most ductless air conditioning systems have fans that can change their speed based on conditions inside and outside your home. These fans are also called variable-speed air handlers. Air conditioners with this feature start working at full speed, then switch to a lower speed when they reach the temperature you want. They stay on to maintain the temperature, saving energy and preventing uncomfortable temperature variations throughout your day.

Ductless HVAC systems with more than one indoor unit can use zoning. Each indoor unit has its own thermostat or separate temperature sensors with a central thermostat. You can set a different temperature in each zone or area. This means you never have to cool an empty room, and family members in different zones can stay comfortable by setting the temperatures they prefer.

You can also use the same method to lower your utility bills if you have an addition, sunroom, basement, attic, or garage with a ductless system, even if that system doesn’t have features designed especially for zoning. Just turn off your central air conditioner when everyone is in the area with the ductless HVAC system and turn off the ductless system if no one is using it.

4. Indoor Air Quality

Indoor pollutants, including dust, dust mites, pollen, mold, bacteria, and even pest droppings, can accumulate inside the ductwork in your central heating and cooling system. Without regular cleaning and maintenance, these pollutants will eventually spread around your home through leaks in ductwork and lower your indoor air quality. According to a 2022 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollutants may cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
  • Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
  • Respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

These pollutants don’t accumulate in ductless systems, so the filters can catch more contaminants. Since ductless HVAC systems with variable-speed fans stay on longer, they can remove pollutants even more effectively. Longer cooling cycles also lower humidity better than central air conditioning systems. Your family will be more comfortable, and you could even lower your family’s medical bills by keeping away contaminants that produce health problems.

5. Maintenance

With a ductless air conditioning system, you won’t have to spend time inspecting your ductwork for problems. You also won’t have to pay for duct maintenance like sealing leaks, cleaning ductwork, or adding insulation. However, central air conditioning systems usually have longer warranties than ductless systems.

No matter which type of system you choose, you’ll still need to perform some routine maintenance tasks. You should check the air filter on ductless and central systems once per month to see if it’s dirty and change it every three months. You should also keep leaves, grass clippings, and other debris away from your outdoor unit and have your system inspected by a professional at least once per year.

6. Your Home’s Value

A ductless system can add value to your home, especially if you have a historic house with no room for ductwork. The energy efficiency and flexibility of a ductless air conditioning system also attracts many buyers.

Ductless systems are also much quieter than central air conditioning systems because air doesn’t have to move through ductwork. The outdoor unit is also less noisy, which is ideal if it’s near your bedroom window, neighbors, or your backyard. You can place the outdoor unit up to 50 feet away from your indoor units to avoid noise even more. However, some people may not like the look of a ductless system’s indoor units. Some larger homes could need more than one outdoor unit as well. This could interfere with the look of landscaping.

Central HVAC systems usually have one indoor unit in the basement or a utility closet. The unit connects to ductwork, and air flows through inconspicuous air registers in each room.

The indoor units for a ductless system hang on the wall or ceiling in different rooms. Floor models are available as well. You can choose covers for the indoor units that blend in with the rest of your home, and many come with convenient remote controls. However, you might have to search for lost remotes occasionally. Some people prefer a central air conditioning system, so before you consider switching to a ductless system, speak to a local real estate agent to make sure that home buyers interested in your neighborhood want a house with that technology.

For most people, a ductless system works best as a supplement to a central air conditioning system. You can use a ductless air conditioner in a new addition or a room that just feels too warm most of the time. Ductless systems are also a good idea if your home needs new ductwork or doesn’t have any ductwork. If you choose to replace your central air conditioning system with a ductless system, lower utility bills will eventually make up for the higher upfront costs. However, this will take at least four or five years.

We Can Help

Griffith Energy Services is a Factory Authorized Dealer with Regal Warm Air Furnaces, Trane Air Conditioning, and Climate Master Geothermal Heat Pumps. We’ve provided heating and cooling in the Washington, D.C., area since the turn of the 20th century, and we can help you install, maintain, and repair a central heater or air conditioner, a ductless HVAC system, or air cleaner to improve your indoor air quality. With our advanced diagnostic equipment, we can make sure your heating and air conditioning system runs at maximum efficiency. We guarantee all repairs for a full year. Contact us anytime at 888-474-3391.

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