Ductless mini-splits and central air conditioning are two of the most popular options for cooling your northwest Washington home. Whether you are building a new home, replacing your existing air conditioner, or even adding-on to your existing space, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each cooling system so that you can make the best choice for your unique situation. Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about ductless vs. central air conditioning and compare the two.
What Is Ductless Heating and Cooling?
A ductless heating and cooling system (otherwise known as a mini-split), is a multi-zoned temperature control system. Rather than relying on ductwork to push air around, the system has an outdoor compressor and a single ductless indoor unit for each ‘zone’. It’s an efficient, eco-friendly, versatile heating and cooling system that allows homeowners to control the temperature of an individual room or space, or even cool a whole-home. It’s also a great system for new additions, as it doesn’t require costly, complicated ductwork as central air conditioning systems do.
What Is Central Air Conditioning?
A central air conditioning system is the most common type of cooling system in the United States. It consists of a compressor, a condenser coil, and an evaporator coil to cool large areas all at once by forcing air through a home’s ductwork. It is controlled from a central thermostat, which dictates the temperature level of the entire area or home.
Ductless vs. Central Air Conditioning Price
The average cost of installing a ductless system with a single indoor heating/cooling zone starts at about $6,000, depending on the customer’s needs and choices. This cost includes equipment, parts, installation services, associated electrical work, and permits. If additional indoor ductless units are needed, they tend to run around $500-$700/each. With only a 3-inch hole to connect the outdoor compressor with the indoor unit, installing a ductless system is straightforward.
On the other hand, central air conditioning units need ductwork to move cooled air throughout the home. Installation is a complicated process, even with existing ductwork. It is difficult to estimate the cost of a central air conditioning unit because it depends on the square footage of your home and whether it has existing ductwork. If you already have ductwork installed, a new unit will cost $3,800-$6,000. If there is no ductwork in your home, a new central air conditioning system could cost upwards of $10,000.
Although the upfront cost of installing a ductless system deters some, installation costs return through low monthly electricity bills. In fact, people have reported saving up to 50% on their monthly bills.
Washington state utilities offer large rebates for the installation of ductless heat pumps, as they are recognized by the state as highly efficient, green-energy heating and cooling systems. These systems help the energy-efficiency-leading state meet its goal to reduce energy consumption and conserve energy in every household.
Most central air conditioning units do not qualify for rebates as they do not provide an energy efficient option. It’s best to check with your local utility company to verify energy requirements.
At Alpine Ductless, instead of having to apply your rebate and wait for your check after the project’s complete, we do all the legwork for you. We find the most suitable rebate available in your area and we apply the deduction to your order (for most utility rebates). You can have your system installed and pay a reduced amount based on your rebate deduction.*
*Please note that not all utilities have the same requirements. In the event that we are unable to file the rebate for you, we will provide all the necessary paperwork to make the process as easy as possible.
Verdict: If you already have ductwork installed in your home, the initial cost of a new central air conditioning unit will be the most economical. However, over time, a ductless system will pay for itself through monthly savings.
Ductless mini-splits are more efficient than central air conditioning systems. Central ACs use ductwork to push air throughout the home, but the ductwork itself is a common place for leaks. In fact, the Energy Star reports that 20-30% of air is lost due to leaks, holes, or improperly sealed ducts.
When looking into cooling system energy efficiency, find its EER rating (it’s Energy Efficiency Ratio). This rating is a measure of how efficient a system will operate when the outdoor temperature is at 95 degrees F. The higher the EER, the more efficient the system is.
- On average, ductless ACs have EER ratings around 16+.
- On average, Central HVAC units have EER ratings around 12+.
You can also check a system’s SEER rating (its Seasonal Energy Efficient Ratio). This ratio measures how efficiently a cooling system will operate over an entire season.
- On average, ductless ACs have SEER ratings around 16-22+.
- On average, Central HVAC units have SEER ratings around 14-21.
Verdict: A ductless system uses far less energy than a central air conditioning unit. It’s important to remember that the ductwork is just as critical to the performance of your unit as the air conditioner itself.
Central HVAC units and their ductworks can be quite loud when running. Ductless systems, on the other hand, are known for their quiet operation. Mini-splits use very small tubes that connect the indoor unit to the outdoor unit, eliminating the traditional whooshing sound that central AC systems bring. It also eliminates the loud motor sounds from window AC units.
Verdict: The noise levels of central AC are incomparable to a whisper-quiet ductless system.
A ductless system is compact and has a sleek, aesthetically pleasing design. It can be mounted on the wall to remain inconspicuous, but it will be visible in each room with an indoor air handler. In some cases, ceiling cassettes can be used. They are flush to the ceiling and provide a low-profile ductless solution. In contrast, central air conditioning components are contained within the home’s walls and are not noticeable by most people.
Verdict: While a ductless system has a modern design, it still requires mounting to a wall or ceiling. With the exception of air vents and a thermostat, a central air conditioning system isn’t visible within the home.
Ductless systems eliminate the risk of dirty air, carbon monoxide, or even natural gas within your home because they are all electric. Also, since they do not use ductwork, they eliminate the health risks from mold build-up or dust build-up within the home.
Verdict: Ductless mini-splits are a safe option if not one of the safest options for cooling and heating the home.
Cooler weather is right around the corner. Keep in mind that a central air conditioning system will cool the air, but not heat it. It needs to be paired with a furnace or heat pump. Ductless systems, on the other hand, provide both heating and cooling, eliminating the need to buy and install two separate systems.
Verdict: Ductless systems are the clear winner when it comes to an all-in-one heating and cooling solution.
You can expect your central air conditioning unit to last around 10-15 years with proper care. The lifespan of your unit is contingent upon the diligence of upkeep, how the unit was installed, and whether it has adequate output to cool the space. Not many appliances or home technology rival the lifespan of a mini-split, as it can perform for over 20 years when cared for properly!
Verdict: The long lifespan of a ductless system is incomparable to that of central AC.
Ductless systems can be single or multi-zoned, depending on the size of the space that needs cooling. If multi-zoned, each indoor air handler can be controlled individually. This could be useful if, for instance, you like it to be extremely cool in the bedroom while sleeping. The air handler that cools and heats that zone can be set at a lower temperature while the rest of the house remains at normal temperature. With central ac, a sensor shuts the system off when it reaches the specific temperature. It will have to work hard to cool the entire home to achieve the desired temperature in the bedroom. They’re costly, but some top-of-the-line central air conditioners may have zone control features.
Verdict: A typical central air conditioning unit cannot control the temperature by zone, making a ductless system the winner of this category.
Maintenance and Care
Regarding maintenance and care ductless systems, only one major difference separates the two systems: ductwork. Both systems require monthly cleaning of the air filters and once-every-two-year inspections or tune-ups from a professional. However, the upkeep of ductwork in a central air conditioning system makes maintenance more complicated. Regular cleaning or replacement of the filters as well as appointments to inspect, deep clean, and conduct performance checks is essential to caring for both systems. The ducts in homes with central air conditioning systems should be cleaned every 3-5 years.
Verdict: Due to the absence of ductwork, a ductless system undoubtedly has fewer care requirements than a central AC unit.
Which is best overall?
When it comes to ductless vs. central air conditioning, the energy efficiency and resulting savings on monthly bills make a ductless system the ideal choice in most scenarios.
Get a Free Estimate From Alpine Ductless
A ductless mini-split is a great way to ensure cost savings and efficiency for years to come. If you live in the northwest Washington area, are ready for a new heating and cooling system, and feel a ductless unit is a way to go, give us a call or contact us to get a free estimate.
We’re locally owned and headquartered in Olympia, Washington, and serve customers far and wide, including in:
- Pierce County including Tacoma, Puyallup, Gig Harbor, Fox Island, University Place, Bonney Lake and more.
- Thurston County including Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey, Yelm and more!
- Mason County including Shelton, Union and Allyn-Grapeview
Want to learn more about ductless air conditioning? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Ductless Heating and Cooling.