Let’s say you’re considering putting an addition on your home or want to turn an unused and unconditioned area, like an attic, into a living space. One of the things you’ll need to consider is how you are going to heat or cool that new space of your home.
If you have an existing ducted or hydronic (hot water heating) system in your home, you might consider extending the ducts or plumbing for those systems into the new addition. Another option is to add another stand-alone system that services just the new addition.
The problem with both of these options is they can get very costly. In the case of the first option, your existing heating and cooling equipment might not be sufficient to handle the additional space you just added to your home.
The end result of the first option could be a house that is no longer properly heated or cooled and would need an even more costly upgrade to the HVAC equipment.
The second option will result in the need for an additional heating/cooling system and new ducts or plumbing for the new space.
A third option, which I strongly recommend you don’t consider, is not putting any heating or cooling in the new space.
There is, thankfully, a great option on the market that is perfect for handling the heating and cooling needs of additions or stand-alone small spaces. It’s called mini-splits.
Like a conventional air conditioning system, ductless mini-split systems have a compressor/condenser located outside. They differ because a mini-split has an air handler (blower) mounted on the room wall. It is then connected to the compressor by outdoor mounted copper tubing and an electrical line that looks like an ordinary downspout when covered.
The result is an easy-to-install stand-alone heating/cooling system just for the space it is needed in without the need for a major reworking of ducts or plumbing.
They are also very energy efficient. Mini-splits are primarily used for air conditioning, but there are also models that handle both heating and cooling.
There are basic units that can handle just one room or larger units to handle up to four different rooms (zones). The units that can handle more than one room have the capability to set different temperatures in each zone.
Like any other HVAC equipment, ductless mini-splits need to be properly sized for the cooling or heating space. Improper sizing can result in pressure imbalances and short cycling (turning on or off too often) of your system. This greatly reduces the efficiency of the system.
This is one of the reasons that if you are considering having a mini-split, or any other HVAC equipment for that matter, installed in your home, you should have an experienced HVAC contractor do the work.
Another important reason to have a qualified professional install the equipment is that mini-splits use liquid refrigerants, which must be added and charged by a licensed technician. Just as I’ve said about anything dealing with electrical, plumbing, or gas lines, refrigerants are something you should leave to someone experienced to work with.
Ductless Mini Splits Pros and Cons
As with most types of energy efficiency equipment, they have both pros and cons. I’ll outline ductless mini-split systems pros cons below.
Ductless Mini Splits Pros:
- Mini-split systems are very energy efficient. Since they have no ducts, they avoid the energy losses associated with ductwork of central forced air systems. Duct losses can account for more than 30% of energy consumption for space conditioning, especially if the ducts are in an unconditioned space such as an attic.
- The units are smaller than room air conditioners. A typical condenser/compressor unit is about the size of a large suitcase.
- They are easier to install than central air conditioning or heating systems.
- Compared to other add-on systems, mini-splits offer more flexibility in interior design options. The indoor air handlers can be suspended from a ceiling, mounted flush into a drop ceiling, or hung on a wall. Floor-standing models are also available.
Ductless Mini Splits Cons:
- The primary disadvantage of mini-splits is their cost. The average ductless mini-splits system costs about $2,000. This is about 30% more than central systems (not including ductwork) and may cost twice as much as window units of similar capacity. Installation costs can also be high. I’ve seen installation estimates as high as twice the cost of the equipment.
- Qualified installers and service people for mini splits may not be easy to find. Not all HVAC contractors have the knowledge or experience to install mini-splits. Know who is going to do the work before you sign a contract.
- Correct sizing of the system is important. Again, make sure the guy who will do the installation knows what they are doing before starting any work.
All in all, mini-splits are still a great option if you need heating or cooling in a small or newly added space. Despite their high initial cost, they are usually more cost-effective, not to mention less disruptive to your home, than the alternatives.
Your return on investment will typically be better than the alternatives as well. In that respect, ductless mini-splits can be your best option for hard to condition spaces in your home.