The limits are off for ductless heating and cooling systems, as double-digit growth in installations for six years running demonstrates.
Mini split HVAC systems are no longer just for additions, rooms far from central heating that are too hot or too cold, or locations where installing or extending ductwork is impossible.
New technology and competitive costs are behind the growing number of applications including new construction.
This comprehensive ductless heating and cooling guide covers costs, system types, options, features, efficiency, pros and cons and more.
Did you Know?
Ductless mini split outdoor units are now being produced for cold climates. For example, the Fujitsu Halcyon XLTH Extra Low Temp system is an impressive 33 SEER ductless system that provides heating in temperatures as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Trane’s low-temperature 4MXW38 system offers 38 SEER/15 HSPF efficiency and 100% heating performance to -20F.
Haier America, Samsung, Friedrich and several other brands have introduced cold climate ductless heat pumps. A base pan heater in these outdoor units allows condensate to drain without freezing.
How Much Does It Cost?
Mini split heat pumps cost higher than standard split systems, but significantly less than geothermal system costs.
Small, single-zone systems with installation start as low as $1,800. Large, complex systems installed cost as much as $12,500. Here’s average installed costs for three system sizes. There’s more detail in various sections below.
- Single zone systems: 1 indoor unit (6,000-36,000 BTU): $1,800 to $6,500
- Average multi-zone systems: 2-4 indoor units (18,000-36,000 BTU total): $5,600-$9,500
- Large multi-zone systems: 4+ indoor units (up to 60,000 BTU total): $8,250-$14,500
Here’s a quick breakdown of mini split HVAC costs for equipment and installation:
- Outdoor unit cost: $900 to $5,500 (9K to 60K BTU)
- Indoor unit cost: $195 to $2,000 (6K to 36K BTU)
- Accessory package: $225-$1,750
- Ductless HVAC system installation labor cost: $700 to $4,000
The accessory package may include a line set, drain tubing, wiring, thermostat, remote control, additional refrigerant when indoor units are distant from the outdoor unit, condensate pan heater for cold climates and other equipment required for installation.
Did you Know?
Knowing the technical terms will assist you when researching your options, shopping and discussing the project with an installer. In technical terms, outdoor units are also called condensers.
A condenser contains the compressor that circulates refrigerant and the condensing coil that disperses heat during an AC mode and collects heat in heating mode.
Indoor units are also called air handlers and evaporators, and there are several types (explained in the section of Indoor Unit Types below).
You’ll spend less on equipment and installation when you choose one large outdoor unit that supports multiple indoor zones rather than several separate single-zone ductless systems. In a multi-zone system, the climate of each room or zone can be independently controlled for customized comfort.
Mini Split System Cost Factors
Ductless mini split system costs vary widely based on:
- Whether it is AC-only ($-$$$) or a heat pump ($$-$$$)
- Cost rises as energy efficiency goes up.
- Cost rises with the size of the outdoor unit, though again, one outdoor unit costs less than two outdoor units with the same cumulative capacity (1-48,000 BTU unit vs. 2-24,000 BTU units, for example).
- The number, capacity and type of indoor units (single zone vs. multi-zone)
- Indoor units with variable-speed fans for better climate control cost 15% to 25% more.
- The complexity of the installation
Pros and Cons
Now that you have a good idea of mini split system costs, let’s tackle ductless system pros and cons. There is some overlap with standard split systems (placement of the outdoor unit, WiFi), but most are unique to ductless mini split systems.
What we like:
- Outstanding efficiency in the range from about 17-38 SEER compared with 13-23 SEER for standard split heat pump systems.
- Eliminates the 20% to 30% energy loss resulting from heated and air conditioned air leaking from ducts.
- The diverse types of indoor units allow you to customize your system design to fit the space served.
- Zones in multi-zone systems can be independently controlled, including turning off heating and cooling to any zone, for maximum efficiency and indoor climate control.
- Temperature fluctuations are eliminated with precise heating and cooling for balanced temps.
- Generally quieter than standard split systems (15-40 decibels compared with 55-75) and much quieter than window AC units.
- Eliminate many of the allergy risks associated with dust accumulating and spreading through ductwork.
- Most ductless systems can be monitored and controlled by a remote accessory.
- Some ductless systems are WiFi-enabled for remote monitoring and system adjustments using the product app.
- Installation is possible in almost any space.
- Ideal for supplementing or replacing any type of existing heating and air conditioning system.
- The cost of ductwork is saved in new construction applications.
- Line sets (refrigerant piping) can run 50+ feet from the outdoor unit to indoor units, so outdoor units can be installed inconspicuously on the back or side of a home/building
- Eliminate the home security risk of a window AC.
- Outdoor units feature compact, space-saving design.
- Many utility companies offer energy rebates and incentives for energy efficient mini split system installation, which can be found on the utility’s website or searched at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency – DsireUSA.org.
Did you know?
Ductless condenser units – outdoor units – have compressors designed with inverter technology.
It’s similar to variable-capacity compressors in standard air source heat pumps.
Instead of running at high capacity and then shutting off before starting another cycle a few minutes later, inverter compressors run continuously at moderate capacity when there’s a need for heating or air conditioning, adjusting slightly up or down to meet the demand.
Think of it like driving a car. You could maintain an average of 60mph by driving 80 for a few minutes and then slowing down to 40 for a few minutes, cycling up and down.
Or, you could keep it at 60 with cruise control for a much more comfortable ride that’s easier on the car too. Inverter technology is more comfortable and maximizes efficiency, two ductless system pros.
What we don’t like:
- Single-zone systems cost 20% to 100% more than standard heat pump split systems, and up to 300% more when multiple outdoor and indoor units are used.
- Unless the indoor unit is a concealed type, you’ll have a visible air handler in each room or zone.
- Indoor unit air filters must be cleaned every 2-6 weeks, depending on heavily the system is used, to maintain good air flow and indoor air quality.
- Because fewer HVAC specialists are expert in ductless systems, it’s important to find a contractor with good experience and a track record for quality installation.
For many consumers, the basic decision is one of higher cost for ductless equipment versus the better efficiency and system design flexibility it offers.
If you’re replacing an existing split system and have ductwork in place, abandoning it for a ductless system isn’t a cost-effective choice in the first 10 years.
Beyond that, depending on how heavily you use the ductless system, it will eventually pay for itself through lower energy costs.
For new construction, finished garages or attic space or supplemental heating and air conditioning, ductless HVAC systems offer a much shorter payback period.
Potential rebates and incentives from your energy provider can reduce upfront costs too.
Outdoor Unit Options
The outdoor unit is also called the condensing unit, as it is in traditional split systems. Outdoor units start at about 5,000 (5K) BTU capacity, though 6,000 BTU units are the smallest most brands make. They can be as large as 60,000 (60K) BTU, adequate for multiple zones in a large residential setting or light-commercial application. Common sizes and applications are:
- 5K, 6K, 8K, 9K, 12K, 15K, 18K, 24K and 30K: 1 zone
- 18K, 24K, 30K, 36K, 42K: 2-4 zones
- 36K, 42K, 48K, 54K and 60K: 4-8 zones
You have two mounting options:
- Wall mount: Less accessible to rodents that might chew wiring. Keeps the unit out of accumulated leaves, snow and ice.
- Ground mount: Prevents unit vibrations and sound from being transferred through the wall. Removes possibility of large outdoor units (30,000 BTU and up) from pulling on and possibly out of the wall or siding.
Indoor Unit Options
Indoor units, or air handlers, have capacities too – not how much heating and air conditioning they create, but the number of BTUs they can disperse in an hour. The combined capacity of the indoor units should approximately equal the capacity of the outdoor unit for best performance.
For example, a 36,000 BTU outdoor unit could be installed in a system with one 36K, two 18K, three 12K or four 9K indoor units. The indoor units don’t have to be the same capacity. For example, a 30,000 BTU outdoor unit might serve two 9K and one 12K indoor units for a total of 30K/30,000 BTU.
Did you Know?
Each indoor unit has its own control (and often a remote, for easy adjustments). The control is usually mounted on a wall near an entry door for small rooms and in the center of large rooms. This zoned heating and air conditioning is one of the top benefits of mini split HVAC systems.
Mini-Splits vs. Central Air
According to FujitsuGeneral.com Mini-split systems have little-to-no ducts, so they avoid the energy losses associated with the ductwork of central forced air systems. Duct losses can account for more than 30% of energy consumption for space conditioning, especially if the ducts are in an unconditioned space such as an attic or basement.
Central air systems require expensive and intrusive ductwork. Any homeowner who has priced out having central air installed understands how prohibitively expensive it is.
Here are your indoor air handler options and where they are commonly used:
- Floor-mounted indoor units: These air handlers are usually mounted on the wall near the floor, though they can rest on the floor too. They are a good fit for finished attics and upper floors in 1 ½-story homes where the ceiling slopes with the roofline. Anytime ceiling and high-wall installation isn’t ideal, a floor-mounted air handler is a good solution.
- Wall mounted indoor units: These are ideal for rooms with 8’or higher walls. They’re typically mounted at about 7’ where they’re high enough to be out of the way. A bracket is attached to the wall, and the air handler is secured to the bracket.Mounting this air handler type on a home’s exterior wall is the shortest route from the outdoor unit for the wire, line set and drain line. But they can be mounted on interior walls. They’re ideal for rooms of about 300 square feet or less, since a single wall-mounted unit won’t circulate treated air to the farthest parts of a room that is larger.
- Ceiling cassette indoor units: Also called concealed ceiling indoor units, ceiling cassettes are often installed above drop ceilings, though they can be installed in drywall too. These units are placed in the center of rooms too large to be effectively served by a wall unit.Another advantage is that their mechanics are out of view, concealed in the ceiling. About 12” of space above the ceiling is required for installation, and the installation cavity should be insulated.
- Suspended ceiling indoor units: These units are chosen for large rooms where a centrally installed air handler is needed to deliver heating and air conditioning to the four corners, something a wall- or floor-mounted unit couldn’t do.When installing a ceiling unit within the ceiling structure is impractical, then a suspended ceiling air handler is ideal. Because they hang up to 16” below the ceiling, they aren’t a good fit for low ceilings often found in basements and attics.
- Concealed duct units: These newer mini split indoor air handlers include their own short duct of four to eight feet. They are installed vertically between studs or horizontally in a suitable location such as a ceiling or beneath a window bench.The duct is covered by a grate. The first advantage is a less-visible indoor unit that doesn’t take up room space. The second is that the length of the duct facilitates a wider dispersion of the treated air.
- General rules for installing all indoor units: Install air handlers in a location that doesn’t receive direct sunlight or heat from a stove and isn’t affected by drafty windows or doors.These issues will cause the unit’s sensors to get an inaccurate reading of the room’s need for heating or air conditioning, so too much or not enough will be supplied.
The unit shouldn’t be blocked by furniture, an opened door or other obstruction that will prevent airflow.
If there are light fixtures nearby wall or ceiling units, they should be compact fluorescent or, better yet, LED lights to prevent heat from throwing off the air handler’s sensors.
Did you Know?
Not all mini split systems are ductless. Most major brands including LG, Mitsubishi Electric, Daikin and Panasonic manufacture ducted mini split systems. The systems are typically installed with their own insulated, flexible ductwork inside existing ductwork.
The individual room and zone indoor units are also concealed in the ductwork.
Michelle Robb, Director of Residential Marketing for Mitsubishi, says, “Having a ducted mini-split option means homeowners interested in ducted systems can have the setup and aesthetic they want while still benefiting from the efficiency, quiet operation, and zoning capabilities that mini splits offer.” Expect to pay an additional $500 to $1,500 for the ductwork material and installation.
Sizing a Ductless Mini Split System – And System Design
Your home’s climate, size, insulation, windows and other physical features must be evaluated to determine the capacity of the ductless (or any HVAC) system needed.
The Department of Energy recommends hiring a pro to conduct Manual S and Manual J load calculations for your home before sizing a system.
However, this chart ComfortUp.com offers a guide for estimating the size of the system required. Use drawings of your home or measure length times width to determine the square footage of rooms or zones.
- 350 square feet = 9,000 BTU
- 500 square feet = 12,000 BTU
- 750 square feet = 18,000 BTU
- 1000 square feet = 24,000 BTU
- 1250 square feet = 30,000 BTU
- 1500 square feet = 36,000 BTU
- Remember that units as small as 5K or 6K are available for spaces less than 350 square feet.
Here’s how the ductless mini split HVAC system in a typical 2,300 square foot home might be configured:
- Homeowner’s suite, 16×25 (400 square feet): 1-12,000 BTU ceiling cassette unit
- Bedroom #2, 12×14 (168 square feet): 1-6,000 BTU wall-mounted unit
- Bedroom #3, 12×14 (168 square feet): 1-6,000 BTU wall-mounted unit
- Open-plan living room, 20×30 (600 square feet): 1-18,000 Btu ceiling cassette unit
- Open-plan kitchen and dining area, 18×25 (450 square feet): 1-12,000 BTU ceiling cassette or wall-mounted unit
- Optionally, the living room/kitchen/dining area could be served by a 24,000 BTU ceiling unit.
- Den/home office, 12×16 (192 square feet): 1-6,000 BTU wall-mounted unit
That’s 1,960 square feet. The other 340 square feet would be taken up by another bath, ½ bath, laundry and similar space and might require an additional small air handler somewhere.
Total BTU requirements: 54,000 BTU to 60,000 BTU, depending on how the system is configured. Maximum outdoor unit capacity for most brands is 60,000.
Larger homes would require a second outdoor unit. For example, a 3,600 square foot home would need approximately 30,000 additional BTUs of capacity for a total of 90K.
The home could be served by 1-60,000 BTU and 1-30,000 BTU outdoor units or 2-48,000 BTU units. Each outdoor unit would connect to the indoor units in rooms closest to its installation point.
Who Should Consider a Ductless Mini Split HVAC System?
As noted earlier, the range of applications for ductless mini split systems is growing. Here are the most common ways they’re being employed:
- Retrofits for old homes without ductwork or with inadequate ductwork.
- Supplemental heating and air conditioning where the existing system is inadequate.
- Newly finished attic, garage or basement space.
- New construction homes and additions.
- Homes where allergy sufferers or those with asthma, COPD or other breathing issues live, and improved indoor air quality is desired.
Top Ductless Mini Split System Brands
These are the leading brands, though not the only brands, with a brief description of their mini split system equipment. Brands with an * are considered base brands; those with two ** are standard brands, and *** means the brand offers premium quality and efficiency.
**Bryant: This brand is owned by Carrier, and its product line is identical except in badging.
**Carrier: Carrier has partnered with Toshiba, a company with decades of mini split manufacturing experience, to produce the Toshiba Carrier line. Its own Carrier-branded line offers higher efficiency and a greater range of outdoor and indoor equipment options.
*Daikin: Daikin Global is a huge global HVAC company and owner of Amana and Goodman brands since 2010. Daikin currently makes a few single-zone systems and no multizone systems. The ductless options on Amana and Goodman product list pages link to Daikin.
***Friedrich: This is a high-end brand known for innovative commercial ductless systems. Friedrich makes quality residential systems too.
***Fujitsu General: The brand offers a large lineup of ductless and ducted mini split HVAC systems including some of the most efficient and innovative on the market. Low-ambient temperature, i.e., extreme-cold, systems are available.
**Gree: This company has a surprisingly large global market. For years, Gree was considered a budget brand, but recently has a new emphasis on energy efficiency and performance. It’s Sapphire ductless system offers 38 SEER/15 HSPF efficiency and low-ambient temperature service to -22F.
**Haier America: This global appliance brand has made a serious commitment to developing high-quality, innovative mini split systems for the North American market. Cold-climate systems are available.
**International Comfort Products: ICP sells products under identical brands Heil, Arcoaire, Comfortmaker, Day & Night, KeepRite and Tempstar. It’s a respectable but small lineup of indoor and outdoor units with efficiency ranges from the low-20s to about 30 SEER.
**Johnson Controls: Coleman, Luxaire and York are identical Johnson Controls brands. Efficiencies range from 16 to 30 SEER. Quality is average.
*Klimaire: This is a budget brand with low pricing and efficiency ratings near the bottom among all mini split brands.
**Lennox: This is another large standard HVAC company now developing mini split lines. Lennox’s top standard heat pump is the most efficient on the market. The brand’s ductless equipment ranges in the mid-20s in SEER, not among the most efficient.
**LG: The brand calls its systems duct-free HVAC. The large selection of room and multi-zone systems covers all the bases. LG is considered slightly above average in quality and performance.
***Mitsubishi Electric: This is the world’s largest manufacturer and top seller of mini split equipment with mid-range to high-end quality and pricing. Low-ambient systems too.
*MrCool: This budget brand sells well online. MrCool has a DIY line with pre-charged refrigerant lines, so pro installation isn’t required. Efficiency and performance are mediocre compared with all brands.
**Panasonic: This brand is considered solid but not spectacular with equipment in the middle of the pack for efficiency.
**Rheem/Ruud: These Paloma Industries brands with huge budgets are catching up to the field, but are still considered average in quality and performance.
**Samsung: This is a huge global company with diverse technological interests. Still, ductless technology isn’t overlooked. Samsung systems offer dependable performance.
***Trane/American Standard: These Ingersoll Rand brands have deep pockets for development of ductless technology. While late to the industry, they are quickly catching up and make good-quality to upper-range equipment.
The Importance of Quality Installation
Regardless of the brand mini split HVAC system you select, it must be properly installed to perform durably and efficiently.
While the mini split market in North America has grown by more than 50% in the last five years, it still accounts for less than 10% of all HVAC installations.
This means fewer qualified and experienced mini split installers, so taking time to find one with a solid track record is important.
The National Association of Technician Excellence (N.A.T.E. or NATE) is an organization that provides testing and certification for HVAC technicians.
NATE certification is the gold standard for the industry. Hiring a NATE-certified installer with good ductless experience is the best way to ensure you get the quality and performance you’re paying for.
To this end, we recommend requesting written estimates from several ductless mini split installers in your area.
Ask about NATE certification, their experience, written guarantees and warranties and pricing.
Don’t fall for cheap installation if the installer isn’t qualified! When the contractors know you are getting multiple estimates, they’ll “sharpen their pencils” to deliver the most competitive quotes.
How to Buy a Mini Split HVAC System in Steps
- Consider available equipment: You can find a wealth of information about efficiencies, features and costs online, so do your homework using the list of brands above. Each has a website, and many of their products are sold by online retailers.Note, however, that premium equipment is often sold only by certified dealers of the brand.
In other words, your options are to purchase the equipment yourself or to get it through an authorized dealer/installer. Your research will give you a good basic understanding of available equipment and what you envision for your mini split system.
- Read reviews: Review online ratings from Google Reviews, Yelp and the BBB to find top-rated local installers.
- Request estimates: Identify three or more qualified mini-split contractors/installers with good ratings.
- Meet with each contractor: Discuss what you need in a mini split HVAC system. Ask if they’re licensed and insured. Ask about the experience of the install crew. Request system recommendations and written estimates for comparison.
- Make your decision: Choose the installer you believe is best qualified to properly install your HVAC system.
This process is inconvenient. To reduce the hassle and cut the time to days instead of weeks, consider using our free, no-obligation quote service.
Filling out a brief form about your project will produce written estimates from several top mini split HVAC system installers in your area. They are prescreened for experienced, licensed and insured pros. They also know they’re competing for the work.