A first-time AC buyer? Hard-pressed to get it done quickly but overwhelmed by an array of choices?
Believe it or not, buying an air conditioner is not as difficult as most people would like to believe, but it’s not as straightforward either. As you will likely find out, it requires you to consider a few things to make it right. But when stripped down to the most essential, these important considerations boil down to just one single question:
What to Choose?
If you’ve already been scouring around online or onsite for air conditioners, you must have discovered that there are many types of ACs out there. Of course, you wouldn’t miss the familiar window-type units. And there are the portable ones as well. But in recent years, most homeowners are usually torn between just two popular choices: central air conditioning system and ductless mini split system.
Which one is better? Which one is the right fit for your home? Which of these systems can give you the best comfort that you deserve and the money-savings that you need?
To help you make the right decision whether to go for central AC or opt for the ductless system, this article gives you an insight about what are the things to look out for as points for comparison, what exactly these systems really are, how they work, and what are their advantages and disadvantages?
Finding the Right Air Conditioning System
Before we set out exploring everything about central air and ductless mini split systems, it is important to consider the things that you need to be looking for in a system. Remember that an air conditioner is a major purchase and any misstep in your purchasing decision will have a huge impact on your comfort, convenience, and energy budget in the future. Knowing the general stuff that makes an AC system a good one, if not the best, will equip you with better understanding about what you really need, what you should be expecting, and why they are important.
Keep in mind that when it comes to finding the right air conditioning solution, there’s no such thing as one-system-fits-all. Everyone has varying needs and requirements, which make the matter of choice relative to a specific situation. Despite this, however, it can’t be argued that there are some common characteristics that make a system either stand out over the rest or pale in comparison.
To effectively compare your set of choices, such as between central air and ductless systems, here are three of the critical considerations:
Cooling or Heating Performance
One of the critical considerations when choosing an AC system is how it can effectively give you the right cooling and heating performance that you need. In this respect, the most practical question would be: will it be consistently powerful enough to keep you cool or warm, especially during extreme climate conditions? Some systems, due to various limitations—whether by design or technology—prove to be severely limited in cooling and heating capability when under too much strain, harsh environment and outside climate condition, or subjected to overuse. On the other hand, some systems are just designed more advanced and built with better cooling and heating technology that they would effectively operate in any condition or environment without impact on performance. When choosing a system, always keep in mind that your comfort depends—above all else—on how your air conditioner performs.
When looking for a new system, energy-efficiency is something that you can’t compromise. Systems vary in their cooling and heating efficiencies and this, in effect, means different systems differ on how they consume energy. The more energy-saving the system is, the more it can lower your electricity costs. Energy-efficiency means it can help you cut your energy costs without any sacrifice on your level of comfort, and this should be realized regardless of the type of AC that you have, the way you’re using it, or how large or small the size of space that it has to warm or cool.
When it comes to air conditioners, flexibility goes a long way, both in terms of convenience and cost-savings. A flexible AC system can provide versatility and convenient options—from installation to applications. When an AC unit is said to be flexible, it means it would require no complex and costly installation requirements and can be installed anywhere without any concern for any structural or design adjustments. If you need a system for a specific type of application, flexibility should be one of the things that you should look for.
Take note that aside from the aforementioned, there may be some other considerations, such as eco-friendliness, capacity to deliver healthy and cleaner indoor air, cost-saving features and components, and even the capability to allow you to control and manage the temperature. The previously outlined characteristics, however, are the most pertinent, relevant, and specifically important when comparing a central air conditioning system and a ductless mini split system. So when making your choice, make it a point that the absence or inclusion of these critical considerations—as long as they’re relevant to your particular needs and requirements—should heavily influence your decision whether to make the purchase or walk away.
To effectively make your purchasing decision, discussed next are the important things that you should know about ductless mini split system and central air conditioning system.
What is a Ductless Mini Split System?
A ductless mini split system refers to air-conditioning systems that are comprised of an outdoor unit called compressor and an indoor unit called air handler or the evaporator unit. This split design explains the name “mini split.”
Aside from the electrical wire, a mini split has a piping component called a line set, which is normally penetrated to a small hole in the wall, connecting the outdoor unit to the indoor unit. As you’ll learn in the next section, this line set, which is composed of two copper pipes called a suction line and a liquid line (collectively referred to as refrigerant lines because they carry the refrigerant) plays an important role in how the system operates.
Essentially, a mini split system is compact. It is called ductless because it does not require ductwork, which is typical of the central air conditioning system. Remember that ductwork refers to those set of tubing that you would normally see being routed throughout different rooms in the house with an installed central air system.
In its typical installation configuration, a ductless system shows the compressor placed outside while the air handler is mounted inside a specific room. This makes the heating and cooling specifically concentrated on a defined space or a particular room inside the house. Usually, one ductless system can have multiple air handlers installed in different rooms and connected to just one compressor. This is called temperature zoning because each air handler can be controlled independently, which means you can choose to set a different temperature for different rooms by simply controlling the specific air handler or indoor unit that is installed in each room. With this capability, a mini split system becomes an ideal solution for controlling temperatures for different rooms, which ultimately eliminates the usual issues on hot spots and cold spots that you normally experience with a ducted system.
How Does a Ductless Mini Split Work?
A ductless mini split system is typically a reversible AC system. This means that it can cool or heat your room because it could both act as an air conditioning unit during summer and as a heat pump during winter. Basically, it can work either way depending on your desired mode of operation.
To understand how a ductless mini split system works, it is important to emphasize the process of heat transfer. This process of transferring heat is crucial in making the system work as an air conditioning unit and as a heat pump. The refrigerant, which is a liquid substance, that flows inside the refrigerant lines and throughout the system makes this possible. During the process, this refrigerant moves and follows a cyclic process, and always changing its state. It would either condense inside the compressor or evaporate inside the evaporator. Specifically, it absorbs heat inside the evaporator while in gas state and circulates it back in the condenser unit; when in liquid state, it releases the heat inside the condenser unit and then brings it back to the evaporator. This cycle simply repeats. In simple terms, it absorbs and releases heat.
Now, with this heat transfer thing that involves absorbing and releasing heat, the question is, how does the system cools or warm air to achieve the cooling or heating process? Here’s how it goes:
As an air conditioner, the mini split system absorbs the warm air inside the room where the unit is installed, processes it into a cool air, and then circulates it back inside the room as a conditioned air through the air handling unit. As a heat pump, the system takes warm air from outside through the outdoor unit. This air is brought inside and eventually distributed throughout the room through the air handling unit and with the aid of the system’s fan system.
What are the Advantages of a Ductless Mini Split System?
Easy and Stress-free Installation
You can’t have a more flexible cooling and heating solution than a ductless mini split system. As a ductless system, it can be installed anywhere and you would not have to worry about the cost and complexities that are normally associated with ducted solutions, like a central air conditioning system.
Complete control over comfort
Ductless mini split systems enables you to have complete control over your comfort. Because this system allows you to independently control the air handling units that are installed in different rooms, you can now choose to manage the temperature inside your home. One room, for example, may have a lower temperature while the other room has higher temperature.
Ductless mini split systems are known for being the most energy-efficient. It’s capability for targeted heating and cooling makes it more perfect for saving energy. For instance, you can choose to turn off the system on rooms that are not in use. Additionally, most ductless mini split systems do not only come with high energy-efficiency ratings but are also designed with better technology that brings advanced cost-saving capabilities, which are evident in its many common features and functionalities. With the cost-saving benefits of a mini split system, you can be sure to reduce your electricity bill.
Better indoor air quality
Ductless mini split systems usually come with better filtration technology and fan system that contribute to the delivery of cleaner and healthier indoor air. This particular advantage is helpful especially if you have specific health issues, like allergies or respiratory ailments.
Ductless mini split systems usually come with the ozone-friendly refrigerant called R410A which could effectively reduce your household’s carbon footprint.
Smart features and functionalities
Most ductless mini split systems, especially the most advanced models, are designed with better functionalities and smart features that make operation and control completely convenient.
Powerful heating and cooling performance
Ductless mini split systems are specifically built with better technologies that make possible the most excellent level of cooling and heating performance and efficiencies. Additionally, most of these systems operate quietly, saving you from the usual clunky noise that is typical of older, more traditional systems.
What are the Disadvantages of a Ductless Mini Split System?
High cost of purchase
Ductless mini split systems have a bigger price tag than conventional systems. Although you can save with a lot money choosing this system, you will need a bigger fund for your initial cash outlay. Some most advanced mini split systems run by thousands of dollars. Moreover, the cost would also depend on the type of model, which is normally determined by the built-in functionalities and SEER rating. With regard to the latter, the higher the SEER, the more it is expensive.
Good for spot cooling or heating
Ductless mini split systems are most effective in cooling or heating a specific room. For multiple rooms, you would need a number of air handlers which you should install in every room. If you’re looking to cool a very large space, or even the entire house that is more than an average in size, then this might be costlier in terms of installation.
While mini split systems are specifically designed unobtrusive, most people with a different design requirements and considerations may not like how they would look when installed, especially when it requires individual air handlers for different rooms.
What is a Central Air Conditioning System?
Central air conditioning system is one of the most commonly used comfort solutions in modern homes. Unlike the mini split system, it consists of a duct network. Basically, it works to cool the entire house through the vents that are connected to the ductwork.
In its typical configuration, the central AC system is also a split system—consisting of an outdoor unit and an indoor unit.
The outdoor unit is the condenser, which is usually a large metal box placed outside the house and responsible for taking the refrigerant gas that is transported from the compressor and converting it into liquid at a low temperature. Inside the condenser is the compressor that serves to compress low-pressure gas. The compressor consists of a condenser coil that helps release the heat from the refrigerant outside.
The indoor unit is the evaporator, which is typically inside the air-handler or installed on top of the gas furnace and inside the duct system. Placed inside the house, the evaporator is responsible for absorbing the heat inside your home and sending it to the refrigerant, and then outside the house. The evaporator unit consists of an evaporator coil that helps absorb the heat inside the house.
Within the condenser and evaporator coils is the refrigerant which serves as the medium of refrigeration that helps absorb and releases heat. The refrigerant moves in a cyclic process throughout the outdoor and indoor unit and through the refrigerant piping system called line sets. The line set which are basically the copper tubing components that include the suction line (transports the refrigerant in its gaseous state, which is a cool gas) and the liquid line (transports the refrigerant in its liquid state, which is a warm liquid). The refrigerant constantly changes state—it condenses inside the compressor and evaporates inside the evaporator.
The other important components of the central air conditioning system are the electrical wire that’s used to connect the unit to the power supply, expansion valve that helps control the amount of the refrigerant that flows into the evaporator coil, the blower that helps circulate the air in the evaporator to allow it to be released inside the house, the fan system that helps blow air in the condenser to release the heat outside, the filter that screens out airborne contaminants, the thermostat that helps your regulate and control the amount of cool air that circulates inside the house, and of course the ductwork, which is used to let the air flow throughout the house and be distributed to each specific room through the air ducts. Together, these components work to provide centralized cooling or heating.
How Does a Central Air Conditioning System Work?
Basically, the central air conditioning system works by absorbing the heat indoors, cooling and dehumidifying it, and then blowing back a cool air inside the house. While this looks simple, there’s actually a whole lot of processes that take place inside the unit.
Here’s how the central air conditioning system works:
After the air conditioning unit is turned on, the blower of your AC system sucks in the air inside your home through the intake vent of the evaporator unit and passes through the air filters. The filtered air reaches the evaporator coils. These are very cold coils because of the cold liquid refrigerant that runs through it. As a result, the air that arrives at the cold evaporator coils also gets cold. It’s a basic Physics principle that heat flows from warmer objects to cooler objects. The same thing applies here. True to its nature, the heat naturally goes to the cold refrigerant. The refrigerant, in turn, absorbs the heat. This results with the liquid refrigerant evaporating into gas. Take note that this refrigerant in gaseous state, although vaporized, is just a little bit warm, and technically is still a cool refrigerant gas.
The circulating refrigerant, which at this point, is a cool, low-pressure gas travels inside the suction line or the copper pipe of your unit that connects the evaporator outlet and the compressor inlet. The refrigerant in its gaseous state, which is basically the cool gas, is transported to the outside unit and reaches the compressor. The compressor pumps the refrigerant which is a saturated vapor. During this process, the molecules of the refrigerant is compressed. Remember that when molecules are compressed, its energy and temperature increases. This means that when the refrigerant gas is compressed at the compressor, it becomes a very hot gas. This results to the cool refrigerant gas turning into a superheated vapor.
The high-pressure refrigerant gas travels to the condenser coil which is also inside the outdoor unit. It is important to know that in the outdoor unit, there’s a fan that takes the air inside, passes it through the condenser coil, and blows it back outside of the unit. Basically, this fan helps dissipate the heat inside by blowing air. Now, when the hot outdoor air that is pulled by the fan passes through the hotter coil where the superheated refrigerant gas is also present, it forces the heat to flow out of the refrigerant and be dissipated outside. The refrigerant, as a result condenses into liquid. Although this liquid refrigerant is cooling off, it is still hot. This warm air will eventually leave the condenser through the liquid line or the smaller copper pipe that connects the condenser to the expansion valve. The warm liquid refrigerant flows through the evaporator unit. Inside the evaporator unit, the temperature of the liquid refrigerant drops and then it evaporates into gas.
As it happens, while heat is released outside into the atmosphere by the condensing coil, the evaporator coil releases the cool air inside your home through the ductwork. The fan system near the evaporator helps blow the air inside your house and circulate it into different rooms through the vents. Take note that while the heat is released outside and the cool air is distributed indoors, the heat inside the house is also absorbed at the same time to repeat the cycle.
What are the Advantages of a Centralized Air Conditioning System?
Centralized comfort solution
As a centralized system, a central air solution is convenient in so many ways. It eliminates the need for installing different sets of system for each part of the house, enabling every household, for instance, to just worry about one system.
Space-saving, unobtrusive, and inconspicuous
The indoor unit of a centralized air conditioning system do not require as much space as any other system where the air handler or the evaporator unit should be prominently mounted inside the house. With this system, all you would see are the small air vents placed in various locations inside the house.
Convenient to operate
A centralized air conditioning system can be controlled via a thermostat or a main control unit. Unlike other systems, you do not need to concern yourself with controlling different sets of units placed inside the house.
No loud noise
Unlike other systems that are noisy, a centralized air conditioning system has a compressor system that is typically placed outside your home.
Centralized air conditioning systems are cost-effective in a sense that you would not need to purchase individual units for individual rooms. It requires a one-time installation and perfect to use especially if you’re building a new home because you can integrate the ductwork elements into the general design of the house structure.
What are the Disadvantages of a Centralized Air Conditioning System?
Costly and complex ductwork installation
Centralized air conditioning systems require the installation of complex ductwork which has to be routed throughout the different parts of your house. Aside from the intricacies involved in the application, the installation cost would be substantial, especially if you have a large house that needs to be centrally air conditioned.
Hot and cold spots
Having parts of your house extremely cold while the other rooms remain relatively warm is one the biggest issue with centralized air conditioning system. Essentially, this pertains to concern on temperature inconsistencies inside the house because the centralized AC system is either not properly sized, has poor insulation, or the ductwork has damage and leaks.
Higher energy costs
Centralized air conditioning systems are mostly energy-hogs because they require greater use of energy to properly operate and condition the air inside the entire home. Inefficient use of energy is also very common with the system. Due to its single, centralized control, it cannot regulate the temperature for specific rooms. Instead, it will have to cool the whole house even if the other parts of the house are not being used.
Centralized air conditioning systems are usually prone to damages, which often calls for costly repairs or replacement of specific components. A simple leak in the duct, for instance, will already have a huge impact in the overall performance of the system. Proper maintenance of a centralized air conditioning system will usually require help from an HVAC professional, which is not cheap.
Being duct-based, a centralized air conditioning system will prove to be too limited as a system especially when you need to cool a specific part of the house that is not connected to the duct network. This issue usually crops up when one wants to cool a room addition, for example, but finds it impossible or impractical because the ductwork can’t be extended any longer without doing a costly and complex structural changes.
Between a mini split system and a centralized air conditioning system, there are so many stark differences. But when compared, it’s hard to determine which one is better and even harder to ascertain why one should be selected over the other. In reality, there’s no way to determine which one is best to choose because situations differ for every household. So, when choosing the best air conditioning system for your home, it is imperative that you weigh you options well and consider all the advantages and disadvantages of your choices. When selecting between a mini split system and a centralized air conditioning system, pay heed to the most important considerations that matter to you and best applies to your particular comfort needs, budget, and situation.