I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine living anywhere without heating or air conditioning. It appears the rest of the country agrees, as air conditioners can be found in three-quarters of homes in the US. That said, there are a number of air conditioning and heating options to choose from, and honestly, it can get a bit confusing trying to figure it all out.

The most common types of air conditioners include room air conditioners (more often called window units) and central air conditioners that use ductwork to cool an entire home. Ductless HVAC mini-split systems are a compromise between the two—a more permanent room air conditioner without the ductwork.

Furnaces and central air conditioning systems use the same ducts to blow warm and cool air. Both central and mini-split systems can use heat pumps to provide warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer. There are other types of heaters available, including baseboard, gas, radiant, boilers, furnaces, and heat pumps, but furnaces and heat pumps are the most relevant to mini-split and central systems.

Whether you’re looking for a solution for your basement, or you want to heat and cool your entire home, you’ve undoubtedly come across information on central and mini-split systems. Before making any final decisions, learn more about the differences between the two systems.

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About Ductless Mini-split Systems

remote controlled mini split unit

Here’s everything you need to know about mini-split HVAC systems:

Like many central HVAC units, mini-split systems consist of two main components: the outdoor compressor and condenser and the indoor air-handling unit. The power cable, refrigerant tubing, and condensate drain link the indoor and outdoor components. They’re a great option for room additions and houses without ducted HVAC systems.

Advantages of mini-split systems:

 
  • Size. Mini-split systems are smaller than central HVAC systems.
  • Control. Each zone has its own remote, so you can control rooms and areas as needed.
  • Operating costs. Being able to control rooms/zones separately offers the opportunity for lower operating costs, because you’re only heating and cooling certain areas.
  • Installation. These systems are typically easier to install.
  • Efficiency. Because there are no ducts, the energy loss (up to 30 percent) associated with central systems is avoided.
  • Unit style. Units come in a variety of styles, including ceiling, drop ceiling, wall, and floor-standing.

Disadvantages of mini-split systems:

 
  • Overall cost. The cost of installation is lower per unit but can quickly add up when multiple units are installed.
  • Aesthetics. Some people don’t find mini-split systems as aesthetically pleasing as built-in central systems.
  • Unit placement. In colder climates, indoor and outdoor unit placement must be optimized to ensure proper functionality.

About Central HVAC Systems

outdoor ac unit

What you need to know about central heating and air conditioning:

Central HVAC systems carry cool and warm air throughout the home via supply and return ducts. Ducts are covered with vent covers located in walls, floors, and ceilings. The two main types of central systems are split-systems and packaged systems.

Split-systems, equipped with outdoor and indoor components, are the most common. The condenser and compressor are housed outside while the evaporator and furnace or heat pump are found inside. Split-system HVAC units are the best option for people who need an air conditioner but already have a furnace. In packaged systems, the evaporator, condenser, and compressor are in a single outdoor unit.

Advantages of central HVAC:

 
  • Consistent temperature. Central systems provide the entire home with consistent temperatures.  
  • Air filtration. Intake vents draw in air that goes through filters before being distributed.
  • Humidity control. Central systems help remove humidity from the air.
  • Flexible heating options. Because central systems utilize ducts, a furnace can be used for heating.

Disadvantages of central HVAC:

 
  • Ductwork. Central systems require ductwork and duct maintenance.
  • Installation. If your home doesn’t have duct work, expect an expensive and destructive installation as contractors cut holes in ceilings, floors, and walls to insert ducts and vents.
  • Efficiency. You end up heating and cooling areas of the home that you don’t necessarily use. Ducted systems are associated with a 30 percent energy loss as air moves throughout ducts to different parts of the home.
  • Single temperature. Unless you’ve got multiple units, you’ll have to choose a single temperature for the entire home.
mini-plit versus central air infographic

Mini-split versus Central

Cost/Efficiency

Mini-split: Properly sized units efficiently heat and cool specific areas in your home.

Central: Energy is lost as air moves through ducts, especially in uninsulated attics.

Range/Zone

Mini-split: Remote controls for each unit offer greater flexibility in regulating temperature by zone.

Central: Unless you have multiple units, one thermostat controls the temperature throughout the home.

Aesthetics

Mini-split: Lacks the built-in look of central systems.

Central: Vents offer a more built-in, hidden look.

Installation

Mini-split: Individual units are less expensive, and installation is relatively simple.

Central: Installing ductwork is a messy process and can double the cost of installation.

Life span

Mini-split: 20+ years

Central: 15-20 years

Bottom Line

If you’re trying to decide between a mini-split or central HVAC system, remember:

  • A mini-split system is an efficient and cost-effective option for homes without ductwork.
  • If your home already has ducts, a new central air conditioning system will likely be less expensive.
  • Analyze your specific situation to determine the best option.

No matter what you choose, a mini-split or central system will be a great addition to your home.