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Mini Split Vs Central Air – Which to Choose?

Is a ductless mini-split or central air conditioner the best cooling system for you?

The mini-split system (an air conditioner without ducts) is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to traditional central air conditioning. 

The choice between purchasing a mini-split or central air system can be a difficult one to make, but this guide will help you make the right choice. You can also jump to the section you need most using this table of contents. 

I’ve installed hundreds of air conditioning systems in over a decade, working as a qualified Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) specialist.  I’ve compared split system vs central air conditioning extensively to help you find the best type of air conditioner for your home, lifestyle, and budget. 

Before deciding which is best for you, it’s important to understand the key differences, pros, and cons of a mini-split vs central AC. Keep reading for all the information you need to make the right choice.

Mini Split Pros
Efficiency
Built-In Zoning
Ductless
Heating Capability
Mini Split Cons
Upfront Cost
Filtration
Aesthetics
Drainage
Central Air Pros
Lower Initial Cost
Size And Coverage
Improved Air Quality
Convenience
Central Air Cons
Utility Bills
Duct Maintenance
Energy Waste

What’s The Difference Between Mini-Split Vs Central Air?

Mini-splits and central air conditioners operate using an outdoor compressor unit, which connects to an indoor unit that acts as an air handler. Beyond that, they use different methods of providing cool air throughout your home. 

Mini-splits and central air conditioners are both effective at their job, but one or the other may not be the best option for your needs. Understanding the pros and cons of each system is key to making the right decision. 

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between HVAC vs ductless systems and how they’ll impact your choice.

Mini Split Pros And Cons

A mini-split has some great advantages over central air, but it’s not without its drawbacks either. Here are some of the most important ductless mini-split pros and cons to consider:

Mini-Split Advantages

Efficiency

Mini-split systems have higher energy efficiency than central air. Central air conditioning requires ductwork to operate. Poorly sealed ductwork can account for energy losses of as much as 30% of the total energy usage in your home. 

That’s 30% of your energy bills spent on waste energy that is leaked into your walls, attic, or crawlspace. 

Ductless mini-split systems immediately eliminate these losses since they require no air ducts. This ensures you’re only paying for energy that is put to use.  

Many modern ductless systems also utilize inverter technology. An inverter continuously and automatically regulates the heating and cooling output of the mini-split. It can reduce your energy costs since it stops the system from consuming unnecessary energy.

Built-In Zoning

One of the best pros of a ductless mini-split is that a mini-split system can link a single indoor unit or multiple indoor units to one outdoor compressor unit. This gives you the freedom to control the temperature of individual rooms since indoor mini-split units have separate thermostats. 

You can connect your indoor unit or units to the outdoor unit using a thin, discreet, copper refrigerant line that is easy to install since it can run through a small hole in your wall.

Zone control is perfect if certain parts of your home get hotter or colder than others or if there are multiple inhabitants at home who prefer different temperatures from room to room. You’ll also save on your energy bills by not having to pointlessly cool rooms that aren’t in use.

Ductless

A mini-split system doesn’t need ductwork to operate like a central air conditioning system, hence the ductless mini-split unit. 

An air conditioner without ducts is great if you live in an older building that doesn’t have pre-existing ductwork. Having this installed can cost between $1,500 and $7,000, depending on the size and layout of your home.

Heating Capability

A mini-split system can also be used as a heat pump. Mini split heating works by reversing the cooling process and distributing the heat absorbed from the outside air to single or multiple indoor units, giving you a cheaper alternative to central heating

Heat pumps provide more heating and cooling options, so you won’t need to purchase and install separate cooling and heating systems that are only used for half the year.  

Mini-Split Disadvantages

Upfront Cost

A mini-split system will almost always have a higher upfront cost than central AC. Mini-split air conditioners typically cost around 30% more upfront. You’ll pay around $1500 to $2,500 for a basic unit with enough cooling power for a small room, with installation included.

Filtration

Since a mini-split doesn’t use a duct system to catch and confine dust, dirt, allergens, and pollutants, you will need to use air filters to improve your indoor air quality

These pollutants aren’t then expelled outdoors but are trapped in the filter. That means a buildup of grime and other gross things that must be regularly cleaned to keep the cooling system functioning properly.

Aesthetics

Although the indoor unit of a mini-split could be considered fairly discrete and many have understated, modern designs, having these units hanging from your wall or ceiling isn’t for everyone. You may simply not have the space for such an indoor unit.

Drainage

Ductless mini-splits produce condensation as a byproduct of the cooling process, and this condensate then needs to be drained away outside.

Most wall-mounted units will require a gravity-type drain. Even when properly installed, condensate leakage remains one of the most common causes of mini-split maintenance callouts.

Central Air Pros And Cons

Central air conditioning is installed in 90% of new US homes, and it’s so popular for a good reason! It might not be the best choice for you though, so let’s break down the most important pros and cons:

Central Air Advantages

Lower Initial Cost

When it comes to the cost of mini-split vs central air conditioning, central air wins hands down. 

Central HVAC systems can cost around 30% less upfront than mini-split systems. Ductless systems may cost less to run, but central AC costs less to purchase and install

They can immediately add around 10% in value to your home, making it a perfect option if you’re planning on selling up in the future.

Size And Coverage

Central air systems are designed to cool large spaces or entire homes at once, with a large heating capacity. This capacity can be measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs). 

A higher BTU output means a central unit can cool a larger space more quickly than an HVAC system with a lower BTU output. 

Most central air conditioners come with a BTU output of either 24,000, 36,000, 48,000 or 60,000. That ranges from enough to cool a mid-sized 1,500 sq ft home (24,000BTU) to a large home of 3,000 sq ft (60,000BTU). 

In contrast, mini-split units aren’t as suited to cooling larger spaces and generally have a BTU output of between 9,000 and 24,000. 

Improved Air Quality 

The indoor air quality of your home is important for your health and that of your family. Most central air conditioners have 2 intake vents to help with air circulation and trap any dust, debris, dirt, or allergens in an air filter. 

Unlike ductless mini-splits, a central AC system uses ductwork that is awesome at catching these harmful airborne problems and expelling them outdoors where they can’t contaminate your air

Convenience

Many people invest in central AC because they like the simple convenience that a central thermostat can provide.

While mini-splits certainly offer flexibility, you’ll need to alter each thermostat individually. Sometimes the ability to alter the temperature of your whole home at the flick of a switch is exactly what you need. 

Central Air Disadvantages

Utility Bills

Depending on the climate of the state you live in, the BTU output of the unit, and how long it is running each day, it can cost between $96 and $168 per month to run a central air conditioner. 

That works out at somewhere between $1000 and $1200 per year, around 30% higher than the yearly cost of a ductless system. The trade-off for the cheaper upfront cost is these higher utility bill costs.

Duct Maintenance

Central AC ducts require regular maintenance. Otherwise, the moisture inside will mold and mildew to grow. If this happens, you’ll be blowing contaminated air through your home that will not only have an unpleasant odor but can make people ill over time.

I usually advise a full professional clean of your ductwork every 3 to 5 years, on top of the regular maintenance. This can cost between $400 and $1,000, so you can see how the cost of maintaining a central air conditioning system can quickly escalate throughout its lifespan. 

Energy Waste

You’ll need a professional check of a central system every year as you go into the summer season. If you skip this service, which is another $120 to factor into the yearly running cost, then dirt, wear and tear, and malfunctions could mean your bills are around 20% higher each year. 

Insufficiently sealed ductwork can be responsible for energy losses of up to 30% of the total usage in your home. That’s 30% of your bills paid for heating spaces you don’t need, like your attic, walls, or crawlspace.

Which System Is Right For You?

Now that you know more about the pros and cons of each system, let’s consider your specific needs and how to consider them when deciding between HVAC vs ductless AC.

Cost

If you have existing ductwork in your home, central air conditioning is a much cheaper upfront option. However, because of the technology used in a ductless system, you’ll save more on your energy costs

Whether you’d prefer to save upfront or in the long run could determine which is the best option for you.

Usage

If you plan on keeping your entire home at a consistent temperature all day, then central AC is your best option since you can control everything from a single central thermostat.

If there are rooms in your home that aren’t always in use, or if there’s a family fight for the thermostat because of different cooling preferences, then opting for the flexibility of a mini-split system could be the right choice for you.

Climate

Central air conditioners are the more reliable and effective choice for cooling in especially hot climates. Their increased size and capacity make them capable of temperature control in extreme heat and keeping your home comfortable through the scorching summers.

Mini-split systems aren’t as efficient in very hot or very cold temperatures and are best suited for milder climates where extreme drops or rises are few and far between. However, their ability to be used as heat pumps make them worth considering if you’re looking for a system that can be used all year round.

Who Can Install My Mini Split Or Central Air?

Both a mini-split and central HVAC system will require a licensed HVAC professional to carry out a proper and safe installation. 

Ductless mini-split systems are much easier and quicker to install since they don’t require you to install ductwork that you’ll need for a central system if you don’t have pre-existing ductwork. 

Mini Split Vs Central Air: Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Lifetime Of Mini Splits Vs Central Air?

A ductless mini-split system can be expected to last around 20 years with proper maintenance. That’s significantly longer than the 12-15 year expected lifespan of a central system.

Central AC Vs Split AC Power Consumption?

A central AC unit will use on average around 3,500 watts of electricity p/hour. That works out to between $3.30 and $4 a day, depending on the state you live in. 

A ductless mini-split system only typically uses around 2,000 watts of electricity p/hour, so a full day’s operation is around $2 to $2.50 per day

Which Is More Energy Efficient: Central Air Or Mini Split?

Mini-split systems are more energy-efficient than central air units since they don’t require any ductwork. Leaky existing ductwork in central units can account for energy losses of 30% of your total energy usage, which means central air conditioning bills can be 30% higher for heating space you don’t use. 

My Final Thoughts

Both mini-splits and central HVAC systems are effective cooling options, and both have their pros and cons

A ductless mini-split system brings with it higher efficiency, individual room cooling capability, and the option to be used as a heat pump in the winter or as a backup to central heating. But ducted systems have a lower upfront cost and have the power to cool an entire home at once. 

Now that you understand the differences, benefits, and drawbacks of each system, you’ll be able to decide whether ductless vs central air is best for you and your home!