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: November 1, 2017)

Definition of Ductless Heat Pump

A ductless heat pump (also known as ductless mini-split air conditioner, ductless AC or mini split air conditioning system) is a type of heating system. This type of system does not rely on ducts for transferring heat. Additionally, ductless heat pumps provide air conditioning by reversing the flow of the refrigerant between the indoor and outdoor units.

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. These systems are either single-zone systems or multi-zone systems based on the number of units. 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, the condensing process releases heat previously absorbed. Ductless heat pumps maintain a desired temperature set by the thermostat from the movement between these coils.

Benefits of Ductless Heat Pumps

Ductless heat pump systems offer numerous benefits including retrofitting into buildings that do not currently contain duct work. Additionally, these systems also work where the central system is already at capacity. These are ideal for homes with radiant (hydronic) heat, electric baseboards or space heaters as their main heating method. As a result, ductless heat pumps offer ideal solutions for areas that require supplemental heating, where installing additional ductwork might not be convenient, or if the space is small.

Another benefit relates to their compact size and ease of installation. 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.

Each indoor air handling unit contains its own thermostat because it is self-contained within the system. 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. As a result, ductless heat pumps offer a wide range of installation and design choices.

Longevity of a Ductless Heat Pump

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. These labels detail the unit’s efficiency rating compared to other similar makes and models.

If you live in a cold climate, picking a model with the best heating season performance factor (HSPF) as your main priority. Conversely, in warmer climates, prioritize a unit with the best seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). Although it might cost more upfront for a model with a higher rating, you’ll likely save on long term operating costs.

Ensure your heating and cooling needs are met by speaking to your local qualified HVAC technician. Any ductless heat pump work requires professional installation according to local and national building codes.

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