Central AC vs Mini Split

Typical Cost To Install Ductless Mini-Split Average: $3,070 - $4,380
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When it comes to selecting the right AC system for the whole house, homeowners are presented with various options, which typically boil down to two: mini split vs central air.

First, we will review how a mini split and central air systems work and will compare the most decisive parameters such as unit and installation cost, efficiency and return of investment.

Then, other pros and cons of each system will be discussed to make sure a well-rounded decision can be made.

Get a free estimate on the cost of an air conditioning system from your local HVAC installers.

What Is A Mini Split?

A ductless mini split has two main components: an outdoor unit (usually called condenser or compressor) and an indoor unit (goes by the names of evaporator or air handler).

In a mini-split system, the outdoor unit is located outside and connects to the indoor unit using refrigerant piping and power cables.

The pipes penetrate the wall through small holes and can run for a maximum of 50 feet. This offers a good range of flexibility when it comes to choosing the location of your outdoor unit.

The indoor units come in various types: wall mounted, ceiling cassette and fan coils. It is possible for one outdoor unit to serve multiple indoor units located in different rooms and of different types.

Cost of mini split vs central air

In simple terms, the cooling is delivered to the house by recirculating warm internal air through the evaporator coil inside the indoor unit.

The refrigerant in the coil absorbs this heat and flows to the outdoor unit, where the heat is released to the atmosphere. Refrigerant then flows back to the indoor unit and the cycle repeats again.

Most mini split systems are reversible, meaning that they can deliver cooling during the summer and heating during the winter by simply reversing the refrigeration cycle.

In this case, the term “ mini split heat pump” is used to describe such units.

Did You know?

Ductless AC systems are often called mini-split or multi-zone air conditioners. The difference between the two is that mini-split consists of an outdoor unit serving only one indoor unit, whereas multi-split system has one outdoor unit capable of serving up to five indoor units with independent temperature control.

What Is A Central Air System?

mini split ac vs central air

The majority of homeowners in US are familiar with a central air system. Central air works based on the same principle of heat removal using the refrigeration cycle.

It also has an outdoor unit (condenser), however, the indoor component is an evaporator coil located within the duct system.

The warm air from the rooms flows to the central air conditioner via return ductwork and registers. As it hits the evaporator coil, the heat is absorbed.

Cool air is then supplied back into the space using supply ducts and registers. The fan (blower) ensures constant re-circulation of air through supply and return ductwork.

In areas that have cold temperatures during the fall and winter months, such as Massachusetts, New York, Washington state, DC, Montana, Maine, New Hampshire, a furnace is installed together with a Central Air unit to provide heating. I

n the warmer Southern states, such as Florida, Louisiana, Texas, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, etc an electric heat coil is added to the central AC to provide heating during the winter months.

Did You Know?

Another – although less common for residential type buildings – option of a central air is a packaged unit. In this configuration, the condenser, evaporator and heating coils are located in one cabinet which is usually placed on the roof or concrete slab next to the building.

The supply and return ducts are connected directly to the packaged unit. This eliminates any installation space required inside the house.

Cost of Mini Split vs Central Air

Cost is inevitably the first thing most homeowners consider when comparing a mini split to central air.
Average cost of a central air system

Average Costs For:
Most Homeowners Spent Between: Most People Spent: $4,670 - $5,930
Low End
$4,240
Average
$5,283
High End
$6,829

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Most homeowners report spending $3,900 – 6,000 to install a 3 ton central air unit in a 2,000 square foot house. This is the cost of all equipment and installation WITHOUT DUCTWORK.

Upgrading, fixing or modifying existing ductwork in an old house can cost $1,000 – 3,000+.

Installing a brand new system of ducts can cost $3,000-10,000 depending on the condition of the house, square footage, access issues and other factors that may impact the total cost of installation.

Thus, the total cost of a Central Air System with ducts costs as much as $6,900-16,000.

Keep in mind that the size of your central air unit can have a big impact on the total cost. To avoid overspending on the ac unit that is too big (and ultimately wasting money on operating costs), be sure to figure out the right size AC unit for your house.

Average Cost of a Mini Split System

Average Costs For:
Most Homeowners Spent Between: Most People Spent: $3,630 - $4,780
Low End
$3,250
Average
$4,130
High End
$4,940

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Across the US, homeowners report spending about $3,250 – 4,900 for a 12,000 BTU cooling single zone mini split system. A 2 zone (30-36,000 BTU) ductless AC costs $6,380-7,900.

Its possible to install a mini split system with up to 8 heating/cooling zones. On average, the cost difference of adding an extra zone is $2,300-3,000 each.

Keep in mind, that you may need to upgrade your electric panel in order to accommodate the mini split system. Electric work may cost an additional $800-1,200+

Which Is Cheaper: Central Air Or Mini Split?

For comparison purposes, the costs were estimated for an average California home size range of 1,000 to 2,000 square feet.

Using the rule of thumb, houses with such areas would need about 18,000 to 34,000 BTU/hr (1.5 to 3 Tons) of cooling capacity. Typical price ranges for California are summarized in the table below:

System Type Ac System Cost Ductwork Cost Total Cost
     
Ductless AC $6,600 – $10,500 N/A $6,600 – $10,500
Central AC $5,530 – $8,960 $951 – 3,160 $6,481 – $12.120

It is clear from the cost comparison that the mini split has a higher cost – about 20% higher than central air.

However, when the cost of ductwork is taken into account, the central AC system is likely to be more expensive.

Therefore, if your house doesn’t have existing ductwork or it has to be replaced, the total cost of installing central AC will likely to be higher than installing the ductless system.

On the other hand, if existing ducts can be utilized, central air would prove to be more attractive in terms of capital cost.

Mini Split vs Central Air Operating Costs

When you are thinking about the long-term costs and returns of a specific HVAC system, operating costs make a huge impact.

In California, due to extremely high costs of electricity, installing a ductless mini split will save you a lot more money over the years, compared to Central Air.

However, in states like Florida, Texas, New Mexico etc. where the cost of electricity is very cheap (around 10 cents per kWH), the pay back for installing a mini split will be a lot longer, and may not make financial sense.

How Much Does It Cost To Add A Mini Split Heat Pump?



Forced Hot Air Furnace Costs
Low End
$3,300 - $3,900
Mid Range
$4,000 - $4,500
High Efficiency
$4,500 - $5,200

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Note that the prices above are for the cooling only AC systems. For a ductless mini split, if a heat pump is selected instead, the final price will only be higher by about $500-600 dollars compared to “cool only” mini splits.

This is tremendously economical, considering the fact that a mini split heat pump does a great job heating your home even in very cold temperatures of -10F to -15F.

As for the central air system, installing a new furnace that will use the same ductwork for heating can cost on average $3,580 – 6,490, which is then added to the total budget.

Another option to consider is installing a central air source heat pump. The average price for an air source heat pump unit (3-5 tons) is $8,700-9,800

Factors That Impact Your Total Air Conditioning System Installation Cost

The are many factors that will affect the price of the AC unit itself, as well as the cost of professional installation.

•Capacity of the system: This depends on the size of your house and how well it is insulated. An accurate HVAC load calculation must be carried out by a qualified engineer to determine the right capacity of the system.

•Efficiency rating: The higher the efficiency of the AC system, the higher the price. Efficiency is discussed in more detail later in this article.

•AC unit brand: Just like with any product, the price will widely vary with the manufacturer and the quality it offers. Based on the average prices, the cheapest AC brands are Payne, Aire-Flo and Tempstar, whereas on the higher end there are more familiar brands such as Carrier, American Standard and Lennox.

•Location: AC installation prices will be different according to the region. For example, in higher income areas, such as Boston, New York, L.A., Seattle, Miami, D.C. San Francisco, etc.

HVAC installers can charge up to 20-25% compared to the national average AC installation costs that you may find online. Conversely, states with overall lower incomes will also have lower labor fees for system installation.

Did You Know? Most of the conventional cooling and heating contractors have invested in the tools and training for ductwork installation due to popularity of the central AC system. In order to earn a return on their investment, they may not recommend and refuse to install ductless systems.

Pro Tip: If possible, try to get the installation done during fall or winter seasons. Due to lower demand, the labor prices are typically lower.

Understanding Air Conditioner Efficiency

Terms SEER and EER are used in denoting the efficiency of the AC units. The efficiency is simply how much useful cooling/heating is produced by the AC unit against how much electrical power is consumed. The higher the value, the more efficient the unit is.

SEER measures seasonal efficiency and is calculated at a variety of outside temperatures ranging from 65 to 104°F, whereas EER is measured at only one nominal condition at 95°F outside temperature.

SEER is usually quoted for the central air equipment, but EER is typically used for displaying the efficiency of the mini split systems.

It is important to remember that comparing one air conditioner’s SEER to another’s EER is not correct.

US Department of Energy (DOE) requires the efficiency of all types of AC units to be displayed using SEER, which means that it can be requested from the supplier, if not already shown in the unit’s performance data sheet.

Once SEER of both units is obtained, their efficiencies can be compared.

Both central air and mini split systems can have SEER ratings from 13 to above 20. However, overall energy consumption will be different for a central and ductless AC system with the same SEER rating.

This is due to losses in ductwork, which may account for more than 30% of energy usage for space conditioning. The difference will be even higher if ducts are leaky and are not insulated.

In addition, a central air system will typically cool all the rooms equally, even if the demand for cooling in some rooms is lower. On the other hand, a ductless AC system enables you to control each room’s temperature separately, which means no energy is wasted on unnecessary space cooling.

To summarize the above, it can be expected that a mini split system with the same SEER rating as a central air system will cost significantly less to operate.

Did you know? Compared to air conditioners made in mid 1970s, modern units use 30% to 50% less energy to generate the same amount of cooling.

The efficiency is constantly improving, so even if your current air conditioner is 10 years old, you can expect to reduce energy bills by 20% to 40% by upgrading to a newer model.

Pro Tip: When selecting a new AC unit, consider models labeled with Energy Start or Energy Guide seal.

These products are independently verified to meet strict efficiency standards and are guaranteed to be the most cost-effective on the market.

Not only this will result in lower energy bills, but it will also ensure that you qualify for rebates.

To search for the right program, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency website (DSIRE) and input your postcode to make sure you cover your local area.

Air Conditioning Maintenance Tips

To keep the value of your AC system high, don’t neglect routine maintenance. Below are procedures that prevent a steady decline of the air conditioner’s performance:

• Replace or clean filters every 2-3 months as they get clogged and dirty. According to the US Department of Energy, this can also reduce the air conditioner’s power consumption by 5-15%

• Clean evaporator and condenser coils once a year. Coils tend to accumulate dirt and debris which lead to premature material deterioration. This procedure is especially important for the condenser coil which is exposed to the outdoor environment.

• Check evaporator and condenser coils for any bent fins at least once a year. Use the tool “fin comb” to straighten them back.

• Periodically check if the condensate channel is clogged by passing a stiff wire through it.

All of the above procedures can be done by homeowners themselves. After a few years of operation, it is recommended to hire a professional technician to carry out preventive maintenance procedures such as checking the amount of refrigerant, oiling motors, and cleaning ducts in case of central systems (ducts should be cleaned every 3-5 years).

Return of Investment (ROI)

The answer to the question – which AC system type adds more value to the home’s resale – is bound to be speculative. A lot will depend on the preference of the potential buyers which is hard to predict.

Although more home owners are familiar with central air, the trend for greener living in California may create better market conditions for mini split systems due to their higher efficiency.

Lower operating costs of a mini split can also help attract new buyers and negotiate a higher value for your property.

In areas where AC is not a necessity, such as coastal California due to breezes in summer months, the expectation of AC system is low. Therefore, an addition of any type of air conditioning will be most likely difficult to “sell”.

Other important factors are age and condition of the AC system at the point of selling. Irrespective of the AC unit type, the older and the less maintained the air conditioner is, the less money prospective buyers will be willing to spend.

Did you know? Many real estate experts agree that most prospective home buyers expect the air conditioning to come with the house and be in a good working condition.

During home inspection reports, the AC system is often thoroughly checked along with the records of warranty.

Pros And Cons Of A Mini Split

Other important things to consider about the ductless mini split system are discussed below.

PROS:

1. Energy Efficiency & Long Term Savings: A huge advantage of a mini split is energy efficiency. Due to potential duct losses, a central AC system with the SAME SEER rating as a ductless mini split, will be AT LEAST 30% LESS ENERGY EFFICIENT.

This higher efficiency and savings on electric bills will pay for the difference in the installation cost in 4-6 years.

Also most mini split systems have a higher SEER rating than central air when comparing equipment needed to cool the same size space.

2. Ease of Installation: Ductless mini split can be installed anywhere in the house without the need for any complex structural or architectural adjustments. This is in contrast to central air, which requires complex modifications to accommodate the ducts and air registers.

3. Flexible Temperature Control: A mini split allows to control the operation of each individual indoor unit which means that the house can be temperature zoned.

Each zone is controlled independently via a separate thermostat, thus eliminating issues with cold or hot spots, usually associated with the central system.

4. Better Indoor Air Quality: In a mini split, the air doesn’t flow through the ducts where there is a high chance of dust or pathogen accumulation.

Instead, the air is filtered and recirculated within the room without mixing with the other rooms’ air. People with allergies or respiratory illnesses will find this advantage particularly useful.

5. Better At Heating Your Home: Even thought there is a longer pay back period for a mini split heat pump, it is much better at heating compared to a central air system.

A mini split heat pump is 4 times as efficient at heating as an electric heat coil that would be added to central air in the Southern states like Florida. 

6. Superior at removing humidity from the air: Overall, a mini split is 4 times more efficient at removing humidity as a central air unit with the same capacity.

Also keep in mind that since most people opt for a cheaper central ac option it will have a single stage compressor which runs in short bursts of maximum output with long breaks in between.

Therefore humidity removal rate with this cheaper system goes down another 50% compared to ductless mini split.

If you live in the states with high relative humidity, such as Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Vermont and Maine, installing a ductless mini split will take care of all your humidity problems.

CONS:

1.Aesthetics: Some people might find installed indoor units to be aesthetically intrusive. In addition, condensate drain pipes that run from each indoor unit to the outside can have a negative impact on the external façade appearance.

2. Limited Options for Add-Ons: Since there are no ducts that circulate the air around the whole house, such additions as the fresh outside air ventilation, central dehumidifier and purifier cannot be integrated into the system like it can be done in a ducted central system.

Pros and Cons of Central AC

Additional things to consider about the central AC system are discussed below.

PROS:

1.Centralized Control: Unlike other systems, central AC offers a convenient control over the whole house through the main control unit.

2.Inconspicuous Components: Apart from air registers, central AC system doesn’t have any visible parts inside the room. The ductwork is usually concealed above ceilings or within walls. The cabinet with the evaporator coil, blower and furnace can be conveniently located away from the occupied spaces.

3. Option to add extra features to improve air quality: with ducted air conditioning, you have the opportunity to install a central dehumidifier and an air purifier.

CONS:

1. Uneven Distribution of Air Temperature: A common issue with the central AC is that some rooms may be over-cooled while others remain relatively warm.

The reason for this is that the system only controls the temperature of a common supply air which is then delivered to different rooms at the same condition.

However, different rooms might have different cooling needs. For instance, a room with more glazing will need cooler air to sustain a comfortable temperature due to higher heat gains.

While it is possible to provide zoning controls utilizing a separate control unit, wiring and volume control dampers, the complexity and cost of this installation is fairly high.

2. Maintenance Costs Are Higher: Since there are more components in a central AC system than in a ductless system, the risk of damage and wear is higher.

For instance, a simple leak in the duct will significantly affect the overall system performance and will require you to hire an HVAC technician, which is often quite expensive.

3. Higher Noise Levels: Since the air has to move through the ducts, where the noise from the fan tends to echo and amplify, central AC systems are generally noisier than ductless systems.

In addition, the outdoor condenser is usually large and does not have the flexibility to be positioned further away from the house.

Final Verdict: Should You Install A Mini Split Or Central Air?

Deciding between central air vs a ductless mini split for your house can be a daunting task. The following questions may help better understand what could be the best choice in your situation:

What is your current AC system? If you already have a central air conditioner with ducts in reasonable condition, it will be much cheaper for you to stick with the same system.

On the contrary, if you don’t have any system installed or you currently have mini-splits, then a central AC system may be a very expensive option due to required ductwork installation, including all the structural and architectural adjustments to your house.

Operating costs: If you are worried about high costs of electricity and huge bills from running air conditioning, a mini split AC will be a more cost efficient choice.

What do home buyers expect in your area? If you are thinking of selling the house and are trying to increase its value, then it might be worth checking with a local real estate agent what potential buyers expect to see installed in the house.

If the local community is more environmentally conscious, then they might expect a more efficient mini split system.

Or perhaps the AC is not even a necessity in this area, so home buyers will not be willing to pay extra for it.

Humidity: If humidity is a big concern and cause of discomfort, consider installing a ductless mini split, as it will provide much drier air compared to central AC.

What are your own preferences? Each of us have our own perception of comfort, aesthetics, noise and convenience.

By considering the pros and cons of each air conditioning system type in this article, you can decide which system will match his preferences the most.


About Leo B

Leo has been a contractor since 2003, specializing in: roofing, siding, general contracting (GC) and residential remodeling. Leo is also a Certified HVAC, Oil & Gas Heating Technician/Installer. In addition to roofing and remodeling, Leo is passionate about Solar, green building and energy conservation, so a lot of my time and energy goes to installing energy efficient heating and cooling systems.


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