Ductless, Mini-Split, or Ducted: Choosing the Right Heat Pump for Your Home

Ducted and ductless heat pumps are both types of heating and cooling systems that use heat pump technology, but they differ in how they distribute conditioned air throughout a building and their installation requirements.

Heat pumps 101

What is a heat pump?

A heat pump is a system that transfers heat from one place to another, typically from the outdoor air to the inside of a building for heating purposes or from inside the building to the outside for cooling purposes. It works by using refrigerant to absorb and release heat.

"Heat" pump is a bit of a misnomer: heat pumps provide both heating and cooling in a single package.

To distribute the heated or cooled air, a ducted heat pump system relies on – you guessed it! – ducting.

What is ducting?

Metal ducting in a residential basement
An example of ducting in a residential installation. These ducts distribute conditioned air throughout the home.

Ducting, in the context of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning), refers to a system of channels (or ducts) that are used to distribute heated or cooled air throughout a building. These ducts are typically made of metal, fiberglass, or other materials and form a network of passages that transport conditioned air from the HVAC system to various rooms or areas within a structure.

On the other hand, a ductless heat pump (also called a mini-split heat pump or just a mini-split) is a type of heat pump that does not require ductwork to distribute heated or cooled air throughout a building. Instead, it uses individual indoor units mounted on walls or ceilings in each room or zone that require heating or cooling.

These indoor units are connected to an outdoor unit by a refrigerant line, and the system can be controlled by a thermostat or remote control.

The lack of ductwork makes ductless heat pumps more energy efficient and easier to install, but they may not be suitable for larger homes or buildings.

Ducted vs ductless heat pumps

Here are the main differences between ducted and ductless heat pumps:

  1. Distribution of conditioned air: Ducted heat pumps use a system of air ducts to distribute heated or cooled air throughout a building. These ducts are typically hidden in walls, ceilings, or floors, and the conditioned air is delivered through vents or registers in different rooms or areas. On the other hand, ductless heat pumps, also known as mini-split heat pumps, do not require any ductwork. They consist of an outdoor unit connected to one or more indoor units, which are mounted on walls or ceilings in individual rooms or zones. The indoor units blow conditioned air directly into the room or zone they serve, without the need for ducts.
  2. Installation requirements: Ducted heat pumps require installation of air ducts, which can be complex and labor-intensive, especially in existing buildings that do not already have ductwork. The installation process can involve cutting holes in walls, floors, or ceilings to install ducts, and may require additional space for the ducts to run. In contrast, ductless heat pumps are typically easier and less invasive to install, as they do not require any ductwork. The indoor units can be mounted on walls or ceilings with minimal modifications to the building, and the outdoor unit can be placed outside.
  3. Zoning and flexibility: Ducted heat pumps typically provide whole-house heating and cooling, with a single thermostat controlling the temperature for the entire building. This may result in less flexibility in terms of individual room or zone control, as the same temperature settings apply to all rooms connected to the same ductwork. Ductless heat pumps, on the other hand, provide greater zoning and flexibility, as each indoor unit can be controlled independently with its own thermostat. This allows for customized temperature settings in different rooms or zones, which can result in improved comfort and energy efficiency.
  4. Efficiency and energy savings: Both ducted and ductless heat pumps are known for their energy efficiency, as they use electricity to move heat rather than generating it through combustion. However, ductless heat pumps may have a slight advantage in terms of energy savings, as they do not suffer from duct losses, which can occur in ducted systems due to air leaks or poorly insulated ductwork. Ductless heat pumps also allow for better control over individual zones, which can help avoid unnecessary heating or cooling of unoccupied rooms, potentially leading to additional energy savings.
  5. Aesthetics: Ducted heat pumps are typically hidden from view, as the ducts are concealed in walls, ceilings, or floors. This can be considered an advantage from an aesthetic perspective, as there are no visible indoor units. Ductless heat pumps, on the other hand, require the installation of visible indoor units on walls or ceilings, which may be considered less aesthetically pleasing by some homeowners or building occupants.
  6. Cost: The installation cost of ducted heat pumps can vary widely depending on the complexity of the ductwork installation, which may involve additional labor and materials. Ductless heat pumps, while typically easier and less invasive to install, may require multiple indoor units for adequate heating and cooling of different rooms or zones, which can increase the overall cost. It's important to note that the cost of both ducted and ductless heat pumps can vary based on factors such as the size of the system, the brand, and the location.

Ductless heat pumps vs. traditional HVAC systems

A ductless heat pump offers several benefits over traditional HVAC systems such as furnaces or boilers. One major benefit is that heat pumps are highly energy-efficient, as they transfer heat rather than generating it. This can result in significant cost savings on energy bills.

Additionally, ductless heat pumps are easy to install and can be used for both heating and cooling, making them a versatile option for homes with varying temperature needs (and a particularly good choice in the relatively mild climates we find on Vancouver Island). Another advantage is that they can be installed in individual rooms or zones, allowing for greater control over the temperature and comfort level of each space.

Furthermore, ductless systems are generally quieter than traditional HVAC systems and require less maintenance.

Overall, a ductless heat pump is a great investment for homeowners looking to increase energy efficiency and control over their indoor climate.

What about "mini split" heat pumps?

Ductless heat pump and mini split heat pump are terms that are often used interchangeably. Both terms refer to a type of heating and cooling system that does not require ductwork to distribute air throughout the home.

However, some people may use the term “mini split” to refer specifically to a ductless heat pump that consists of one outdoor unit and one indoor unit, while a “ductless heat pump” may refer to a system with multiple indoor units connected to one outdoor unit.

In essence, they are similar in function and benefits, but the terminology can vary depending on the context and the person using it.

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