Central Air Conditioner vs Ductless Mini-Splits (Which Is Better?)

Central Air Conditioner vs Ductless Mini-Splits (Which Is Better?)
Roger Bakies
Residential Sales Professional

I have been in the residential/light commercial HVAC business for 30 years. I grew up in a sheet metal fabrication shop and have installed, serviced, sold and helped people choose new systems to best fit their needs and lifestyle. I look forward to helping you pick the best fit for your home!

About This Article

If you’re thinking about retrofitting your home with ducts to get air conditioning, you could go with central AC or ductless mini-splits. We look at both options.

Our staff at Fire & Ice have been in plenty of Columbus, Ohio, homes that don’t have a conventional furnace. The homeowners have relied on baseboard heat or a boiler to get them through the cold winters.

But when it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside with no air conditioning, the options are scant. You open windows at night, close shades on the east and west sides of the house on sunny days, crank the fans to full blast, and gather around the room or window air conditioners.

If the steamy Columbus and Central Ohio summers are making you long for air conditioning, and you don’t have a duct system already in place, you have two major options.

Install a forced-air cooling system - either an air conditioner or a heat pump - or invest in a ductless mini-split system.

Don’t know which option costs less? Or are you wondering about the ease of installation? Or how about how each will transform the aesthetics of your home?

By the end of this article, we will answer these questions and more, and hope to help you decide how to cool your home.

If You Already Have Ductwork

The first option is easy if you already have ductwork. The outside unit will need power, and then a line set will need to be run to the basement or bottom floor. Then you’ll need an air handler to push the conditioned air throughout the home.

The ducts will probably reach all of the rooms, meaning that cool air will reach everywhere. All that’s left for you to do is buy an air conditioner or a heat pump, and you’ll be well on your way to a more comfortable summer. As a bonus, both of these units help to rid the inside air of humidity, which will solve problems such as:

  • An overly-warm upstairs or finished attic
  • Musty smell
  • Black mold or other mold growth in damp areas
  • Asthma issues
  • A general decrease in comfort
  • Permanent window fog
  • A wild discrepancy between temperatures on different floors of the home
  • Spiders, bug infestations, and cobwebs
  • Moisture damage to wooden floors and furniture
  • Water stains
  • Allergies, either seasonal or due to a specific environmental trigger

You can certainly use ductless mini-splits if you already have central ductwork installed, but they would be used in a room-by-room manner, not as a whole-house solution.

If You Don’t Have Ductwork

Installing whole-house ductwork is time-consuming and expensive. And that doesn’t include the cost of a new AC or heat pump.

An HVAC technician will need to design a ductwork system to cover the entire house. The retrofitted ductwork will need to go throughout the home, to all of the rooms.

Then you’re faced with the cost of installing an air handler or an air conditioner or heat pump, or a gas furnace and an air conditioner, or a gas furnace and a heat pump.

If it’s a ranch home and you have a full, unfinished basement, installing whole-home ductwork isn’t difficult. You can run the ductwork wherever you want.

If you have multi-levels, don’t have a basement, or have a finished basement, it’s going to get pretty invasive. The ductwork will have to go through finished spaces. There’s going to be cutting up and tearing out and refinishing. That gets messy and expensive.

You pick a closet or the corner of a room, and cut out a space for the supply and return ducts. And then run it up to the attic. That gets costly. You have finishing work to do after the fact.

How long would it take to install ducts for an unfinished basement in a ranch home?

To do the whole system, it may take two to four days. Running ductwork is labor-intensive. It would take an additional six to eight hours to install the AC and air handler,

We can always install a zoned system while we’re at it. A zoned system would have electronically controlled dampers. These can be closed partially to help shut down the airflow to a particular room. This would increase the air to the rest of the house.

Or we add manual trunk dampers that can be changed during the winter or summer according to temperature needs.

Ductwork with HVAC tech

Why Is Ductwork So Expensive to Install?

A straight run in the basement doesn’t take long. But you’ve got to cut the holes in the floor for supply registers. You’ve got to cut the holes for the return registers. Some companies use flex-duct. You stretch that out, you put a zip tie on this end, another on the other end, and you’re ready to go.

At Fire & Ice, we use sheet metal ductwork because it’s more conducive to airflow than the ribbed, flexible ductwork. It also takes a little longer to install.

We can’t really quote a price because of how much duct we’d have to run, how many holes we would have to cut. Another contractor would need to do the finishing.

A whole-house duct system is going to start in the $6000 range. That’s the very low end - a baby ranch house with a short main trunk system.

Ductwork with HVAC tech

Advantages of Installing Central Air Conditioning

With existing ductwork, central air conditioning is your quickest, easiest, most economical way to cool your home.

If you have to install ductwork in the whole home, the advantage is you’re going to hit every room.

With central air, you can easily install accessories to further condition the air. Humidifiers can make the dry winter months more comfortable. Air purification systems can eliminate germs, odors, allergens, pet dander, and more. Your whole house will be healthier and cleaner.

The initial cost of the air conditioner unit is less than that for a ductless. A new AC for a residential home can range between $4,350-$12,095. This includes labor and permit fees. This range also covers a variety of system sizes and levels of sophistication, including variable-speed AC systems.

If you’re leaning towards a heat pump, the price is similar. The cost of a new heat pump is between $4,900 - $12,500. This range accounts for the cost of the equipment, labor, and other fees. This range also covers a variety of system sizes and levels of sophistication, including variable-capacity heat pump systems.

An air handler can cost anywhere from $2900 - $5800. This price includes installation. The price variation is due to the unit’s capacity and the type of blower it has. Heat strips are an additional $300 - $600 installed.

Disadvantages of Installing Central Air Conditioning Without Ducts

A duct may have to run through your living room. To make it work, installers are going to rip two holes in the floor and run ducts everywhere. It will be invasive.

Let’s assume we’re looking at a fully finished basement in a house with multiple stories. What then?

We can either run the ductwork under the existing finished ceiling in the basement to get supply registers on the first floor. Or we’re going to have to run the ducts atop the finished ceiling, or rip out the ceiling to run the ducts up in the joist space. Those holes we create would need to be cleaned up by another contractor.

If we’re going to get to the second floor, either you’re going to have to run individual runs up the center walls, then across the ceilings on the first floor. And then up to the second floor. More holes. And we need to make holes for both the supply and return air.

Unless you have the system zoned, you have to pick one spot to put a thermostat. The thermostat doesn’t know what the temperature is in every room. Zoning can work with air conditioning, but it’s not as effective as zoning with ductless mini-splits.

Advantages of Ductless Mini-Splits

  • They are less invasive. They can go in spaces where there are no existing ducts. This point can’t be emphasized enough. Ductless mini-splits have a versatility that central air can’t compare with.
  • You set each head to whatever temperature you like. (One caveat: They all have to be set to cool or heat. You can’t have one cooling and another heating.)
  • They are easier to install in most cases. We install the head on the wall, make a small hole in the wall, and run the refrigerant line outside. We cover that line with something called a line hide because it looks neater.
  • The installation is done in a fraction of the time as it does to install ducts. You’ll have immediate heating and cooling just as you desire it, and with the kumo cloud app, you can operate the units through your phone. (You can do this with a high-end AC/heat pump and thermostat as well.)
  • They heat and cool. Yes, A heat pump can do the same, though they will struggle during extreme cold.
  • Energy efficiency: Ductless technology is some of the most efficient stuff on the market. The lower-end ductless systems are rated at 16 – 18 SEER. Some of the higher-end products get into the 30s. No air conditioner or heat pump comes close. A higher SEER rating is more desirable, and saves the most electricity.
  • Zoning control is easier with ductless. You can tell each individual head to heat/cool to a certain temperature.
  • The higher-end units come equipped with i-See Sensors. The 3D i-See Sensor enables customizable airflow control. Working in conjunction with the dual split vane design, the sensor is able to direct heating or cooling where it is needed most. As a result, it can save energy by ensuring no unnecessary heating or cooling to areas that don’t require it.
  • Mini-splits use variable-speed compressors, meaning they can run as much or little as needed. This is in contrast to most (but not all) central air units that have only one or two speeds and have to switch on and off more often.

Disadvantages of Ductless Mini-Splits

  • With ductless, you’re missing the opportunity to do whole-house humidification, air purification, dehumidification. These accessories work in the ducts. (The ductless does have some dehumidification and filtering capability.)
  • Some people can’t get over that thing on their wall. No question that it will be obvious in every room in which it’s mounted, whereas vents can be more unobtrusive.
  • They’re efficient when they’re heating, but there’s no backup heat. This is when you would need a furnace or air handler with electric heat strips to supply emergency heat when it gets really cold. A prolonged cold snap during which you use the heat strips installed in the air handler frequently will drive up your electric bill substantially.
  • Ductless doesn’t create central airflow. It doesn’t put air through the whole house, meaning that places where there are no heads won’t get the benefit of conditioned air. Only select rooms will be cooled/heated to exact comfort levels. 
  • A single outside unit can have up to eight heads, but generally, it has five or fewer. If you want heat/cool in more rooms than that, you may have to buy two complete systems. To install ductless with eight heads, it would take a couple of days at least, maybe three. Typically an outdoor unit with three heads would take one day, possibly two. It’s rare that we would do an eight-head unit. It’s more likely that we would install two four-head units. One side of the house would have a unit with four heads, and the opposite side of the house would have another four heads. For this setup, the initial cost is not cheap.

Ductless mini-split and HVAC tech

What Is the Cost of a Ductless Mini-Split?

A single zone/one room heating and cooling solution will range between $3,700 and $6,000. A dual-zone/two-room system will run between $5,500 and $9,000. A system that provides heating and cooling for multiple zones/three to eight rooms starts at $8,500 and up. All costs include labor and fees.

The Next Step Is Up to You

In a retrofit home without ducts, it’s a tough choice between running ductwork and installing central air conditioning, or going with a ductless mini-split system. You need to weigh both options and decide which is going to be the best fit. Generally speaking, in a house with a full basement and one floor, a ducted system in the basement is probably the more attractive option.

If you have multi-floors and don’t have places where you can run ductwork, ductless may be the more attractive option.

That said, you should now have a much better idea of which is going to be best for you. For some, the answer might even be a mixture of both, with a central air system servicing most of the home while a mini-split unit services a particular room or area that lacks ductwork or is tough to heat and cool.

If you’d like to talk in person with an HVAC expert to further refine your options, and if you’re in the Columbus, OH area, reach out to us to schedule your free in-home estimate. Here at Fire & Ice, we’ll answer any questions you have and help you settle on a solution to meet your needs.

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