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Portable Air Conditioners vs Ductless Mini-Splits: Pros and Cons

Portable Air Conditioners vs Ductless Mini-Splits: Pros and Cons
Luke Watson
Sales Manager

I lead the Fire & Ice sales team and meet with homeowners to discuss and solve their comfort issues.

About This Article

If you need to cool off a room or two, which is the better option: a portable air conditioner or a ductless mini-split? Both have advantages and disadvantages. We take a look at both.

Portable air conditioners and ductless mini-splits can make the difference between sweltering and being comfortable. At Fire & Ice, we’ve been in thousands of homes that made good use of them. If there’s that one room in the house that never quite gets cool enough to be enjoyable, an additional cooling unit can be the answer.

The most common place we’ve seen it is in the master bedroom. If you’re like many people, you want a cooler temperature for a good night’s sleep. And there’s no sense in cooling the entire house to 68 degrees if all you want is one room cooled.

We’ve also seen quite a few in sheds. A small space like that, which isn’t a part of the central AC, is a good candidate for a cooling unit that can condition a small space.

Portable ACs are quite common. Mini-splits have been around for decades, but they are still relatively new in this country. We get a lot of questions about them: How are they installed? Do they heat and cool? (Yes.) How much do they cost?

Your decision depends on a host of factors. In this article, we’ll list some of the positives and negatives of both to give you a clearer idea of why you might prefer one over the other.

Why You Might Need Additional Cooling

It could be that your central AC is undersized or oversized. If it’s undersized for your home, it will struggle to keep up with a hot day. If it’s oversized, it does what we call “short cycling.” It comes on at full blast, satisfies the thermostat, then shuts off. The cool air doesn’t have the proper time to mix with the hot air, though, leaving hot and cool spots throughout the house.

According to consumer groups and HVAC industry consultants, 90% of air conditioners and furnaces are improperly sized and installed. 70% of ductwork is incorrectly sized. The odds are your system isn’t designed to suit your home’s needs.

You might need a portable AC because you have a blockage in your ductwork. It’s easy for construction debris to create a clog if you’ve had a remodeling job. We’ve seen pieces of wood covered in sawdust inside of ducts. When the duct is blocked, you won’t get proper airflow.

More than likely, however, the most common cause of having to use a portable AC is a lack of return air. And the rooms that need portable air conditioners in the summer probably need a space heater in the winter.

We see that most often in older homes and homes that have only one central return. Most old farmhouses don’t have any return air ducts. Some houses have one return air duct, which is inadequate.

Conditioned air goes out from the furnace blower, but without enough returns, the air doesn’t mix with the unconditioned air. Especially if everyone in the house sleeps with their doors shut, and their doors are shut during the day, there’s not enough air transferring.

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If you build an addition, your home is transformed in square footage, and your existing HVAC might not be powerful enough to condition that new space. Or if you convert attic space to a room, you may find that there is inadequate insulation to keep it comfortable.

Bonus rooms above a garage are difficult to heat and cool. You can’t run ductwork to it because of the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Ductless mini-split

Pros to Portable Air Conditioner

Compared to central AC or a ductless mini-split, these are cheap. Even the most expensive models are priced well under $1,000. For that price, you can buy two, three.

They are perfect for creating a zoned house. I know of an old house in Clintonville that has four portable AC units in bedrooms. The upstairs is totally zoned. The people in the bedrooms can cool their rooms to whatever they want them to be.

Read more: What is an HVAC Zoning System? (And Why It Works)

Depending upon its size, using a portable air conditioner may use one-eighth as much electricity as your central air conditioner. Keep in mind though, it will cool only one room or one area, so your entire house will not be as cool.

Their portability is a plus. Having a party? You can cool off a specific area for a time, then take the same AC to a bedroom for a good night’s sleep.

Cons to Portable Air Conditioners

You’ll need to empty the water basin often on humid days, though some models have a hose that you can run to a drain.

You’ll be able to cool only one room at a time. And most models only cool, though you can find some that do offer cooling and heating.

They can be noisy. Unlike a split air conditioner (one part is outside, the other in), a portable air conditioner has everything in one casing. The air conditioning’s compressor, which is responsible for the noise, is built into the casing. This can cause quite a bit of noise indoors, although you can buy sound blankets that will help.

They dehumidify the air, but only when they’re running. Once the unit shuts off, so does the humidity control. Since it doesn’t run all of the time, you’re getting intermittent humidity control.

They typically run at one speed: You get either 100% on, then 100% off. That’s not efficient and puts a lot of strain on the unit. If it’s constantly turning on and off, it will wear out quickly. It will be doing well to last 10 years. Central ACs last up to 15 years or longer. A ductless can last up to 30 years.

Pros to Ductless Mini-Splits

Efficiency. Some mini-splits have a SEER up to 33. (SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. Every air conditioner or heat pump has a SEER rating, which signifies its energy efficiency. The higher the number, the less electricity the air conditioner uses.) Central air conditioners can have a SEER of up to 25. A SEER of 33 is as efficient as anything on the market.

Quiet operation. Because it’s a split system, the noisy part is left outside, while the indoor heads are whisper quiet. They have an average noise level of 32 decibels. (A whisper is about 30 decibels.)

They heat and cool with equal efficiency. The United States Department of Energy says that a mini-split with a zoning system can save you as much as 30 percent on your energy bill. They can keep you comfortable all year round.

They offer zoned comfort. Maybe you’ve got a teenager and a grandmother. The grandmother may want it to be 75 degrees, and the teenager wants it at 68, and you want it to be 72. That’s done easily. Most of the units have a remote, and others you can operate through an app on your cell phone. Or you can wire them through your thermostat.

They don’t have to be mounted on the wall. There are floor mounts and ceiling mounts. Floor and ceiling mounts are smaller but less flexible. Wall-mounted can be aimed up, down, left, right, or they can sweep a room. One model has a sensor that detects where a human is, and can be told to aim automatically at (or away from) that heat source.

Ductless systems use variable speed compressors. That means that they can operate at various speeds, delivering just a little bit of heat or cold when necessary. They keep rooms at a constant temperature no matter the outside temperature. Because it can operate at a slow speed, as opposed to turning on and off frequently, the room air is constantly being mixed, creating ultimate comfort.

They can dehumidify the air, even when they’re running at a slow speed. You get constant air quality control.

Sheds, basement workshops, computer rooms, and master bedrooms are all candidates for ductless mini-splits. Or if you’re looking to create temperature zones, where certain rooms have one temperature, and others a different one, a ductless mini-splits’ versatility and temperature control is perfect for that role.

Ductless mini-split

Cons to Ductless Mini-Splits

They are not portable. Once they’re set in place, they’re not going anywhere. That makes the decision on placement crucial.

Some people balk when they comprehend that the head will take up a chunk of wall space. You do get used to them, just like you would get used to a new poster. But the initial reaction can be strong.

The line sets for ductless units are also something you have to think about. They don’t connect via Bluetooth. The line has to run from the head all of the way to the main unit outside. Even with the line hide that we use, which creates a very clean look and can be painted, it’s still stuff running on the outside of your house.

And if you decide to go with a ceiling or floor version, the line set can be invasive; we’ll have to run it under the floor or up in the ceiling, which will add to the cost of installation.

Ductless Mini-Splits Cost

Below we’ve listed typical costs. All costs listed include labor and fees.

  • A single-zone/one-room heating and cooling solution will range between $5,000 and $8,000.
  • A dual-zone/two-room system will run between $9,000 and $15,000.
  • A system that provides heating and cooling for multiple zones/three to eight rooms starts at $18,000 and up.

Staying Cool in Columbus, Ohio

By now, we hope that you have a clearer picture of the advantages and disadvantages of both a portable AC and a ductless mini-split. The final decision is up to you: What’s your budget? How great are your comfort concerns? How many rooms are you trying to cool? How long do you want your unit to last? And so on.

If you’re ready to talk to us, fill out your zip code in the map below to see if you’re in our service area. Or if you’d like to do some more research, here are some recommended articles:

Ductless Mini-Splits: A Comprehensive Cost Breakdown

Ductless Mini-Splits 101: What They Do & How You Benefit

Trane-Mitsubishi Ductless Mini-Splits: Pricing & Product Line Review

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