What Is a Ductless Heat Pump? How They Work, Benefits of Ductless Heat Pumps, Average Costs, Energy Savings, and More

Thermostat control for energy-saving ductless heat pump

What Is a Ductless Heat Pump? How They Work, Benefits of Ductless Heat Pumps, Average Costs, Energy Savings, and More

(Last Updated On: June 28, 2017)

Definition of Ductless Heat Pump

A ductless heat pump is a type of heating system that does not require the use of ducts in order to transfer heat throughout your home. Ductless heat pumps also provide air conditioning, by simply reversing the direction of flow of the refrigerant between the indoor and outdoor units. A ductless heat pump system may also be called a ductless mini-split air conditioner, ductless AC, or a mini split air conditioning system.

How Ductless Heat Pumps Work

A ductless heat pump works by taking warm air from one location and moving it to another. It consists of both an outdoor compressor unit, and indoor air handling units. Depending on the number of indoor air handling units, it might be known as a single-zone system, or a multi-zone system. Single-zone systems are ideal for small homes or open-concept designs, whereas multi-zone systems are an ideal choice for larger buildings and those with rooms that are more separate.

In a ductless heat pump system, heat is transferred through a cycle of evaporation and condensation, as a refrigerant substance cycles through the system via a compressor pump. Every ductless heat pump contains two heat exchanger coils, one which condenses the refrigerant and another which evaporates it. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the surrounding area during the evaporation process, conversely releasing heat that was previously absorbed during the condensing process. The movement between these coils is how a ductless heat pump maintains a desired temperature as set by the thermostat.

Benefits of Ductless Heat Pumps

The benefits of ductless heat pump systems are numerous. One major advantage of installing a ductless heat pump system in your home is that it can be retrofitted to buildings that do not have duct work, or in buildings where the central system is already at capacity. This makes them an ideal choice for homes with radiant (hydronic) heat, electric baseboards, or space heaters as their main heating method. They also provide an ideal solution for areas that require supplemental heating, where installing additional ductwork might not be convenient, or if the space is small.

Their compact size and ease of installation also make them a favorite among homeowners looking to install a ductless heat pump in their home. Ductless heat pumps are also incredibly energy-efficient, often more than traditional forced air systems — where duct losses can account for more than 30% of energy consumption, due to losses of 20 to 30 percent of the air moving through duct systems thanks to leaks, poorly connected ducts, and holes. This type of energy loss is nearly eliminated in a ductless heat pump system.

Because each indoor air handling unit is self-contained within the system, it also has its own thermostat. This makes temperature control throughout the home fully customizable, helping to save on energy costs while still keeping you comfortable. You can even spot heat certain zones or rooms as needed, independent of the central system. Because the system is fully reversible, a ductless heat pump can also help to cool your home during summer months.

Indoor air handling units can be mounted on the wall, suspended from the ceiling, and there are even floor models available, which makes for a wide range of installation and design choices.

Ductless heat pumps are also a top choice for their longevity, with many units now lasting 15-20 years. The quality of the compressor, the amount of use the system receives, and the regularity of maintenance all factor into how long a heat pump lasts. Purchasing a new system is beneficial as most manufacturers offer 5-10 year warranties on the major components, so you can ensure your family is comfortable for years to come.

Cost of a Ductless Heat Pump

A ductless heat pump system with one indoor air handling unit costs approximately $3,000 to $5,000, with the price rising with additional heads. Depending on your home’s size and needs, location, and even local climate, this can affect both the upfront installation costs and long-term operating costs, respectively. Some states and municipalities (and even service providers) offer rebates on the installation of a ductless heat pump, so be sure to check if you qualify. Your installer may even offer financing to help with the upfront costs of installation.

How to Choose a Ductless Heat Pump

There are several important considerations when it comes to choosing the best ductless heat pump for your home’s needs.

First, you’ll want to ensure the unit has the capacity necessary for your home. This is impacted by factors such as ceiling height, window size, and number of inhabitants. You’ll need to decide how many indoor units you’ll require, and if you’ll be heating/cooling single or multiple zones. Ensure each indoor handling unit has the necessary BTUs to comfortably control the temperature for your space. You’ll need to decide on appropriate installation spots, and ensure there is adequate space for drainage of the condensing tube.

Aside from price and size, energy efficiency of the unit is another important consideration. All residential heat pumps in the United States come with an EnergyGuide label, which details the unit’s efficiency rating compared to other similar makes and models.

Picking a model with the best heating season performance factor (HSPF) should be your priority if you live in a colder climate. Conversely, in warmer climates, prioritizing a unit with the best seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) you can afford will ensure you get the best deal possible. It might cost more upfront for a model with a higher rating, but you’ll likely save on long term operating costs.

Speaking to your local qualified HVAC technician is the best way to ensure that your heating and cooling needs are met and any heat pump installation is completed according to local and national building codes.

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