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Residential HVAC, Residential Installations

Ducted vs. Ductless Air Conditioning? How to Choose

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Last Updated on April 20, 2016


To duct or not to duct? That is the question.

When you’re renovating a residential space, you have a lot of choices to make. Choosing a new air conditioning system may not be as much fun as choosing new furniture, but it’s just as important to get it right.

Contractors are probably throwing a lot of options at you, maybe without a whole lot of explanation. Here’s a primer on two fundamental types of air-cooled HVAC systems, and the information you need to choose which is right for you.

What’s the difference between ductless air conditioning and ducted air conditioning?

In a ducted air conditioning system, there are air ducts made of sheet metal inside the walls and ceilings of your residence. These ducts often serve both your heating and cooling systems. Warmed or cooled air travels from the central air conditioner unit or furnace through the ducts and is delivered to each room in your residence via vents.

As the name implies, a ductless air conditioning system (often called a ductless mini-split) doesn’t have ducts in the walls to distribute air. Instead of cooling air with one central indoor air handler and blowing it through ducts, the ductless air conditioning system sends refrigerant directly to multiple small air handlers (also called blowers) that are installed throughout your residence. These air handlers remove heat from each room individually. They look like small boxes installed on the wall or the ceiling of each room.

When to choose ducted air conditioning

1. The space has existing ducts. If you already have ductwork installed and in good condition, most experts will recommend going with a ducted system. Installation is simply a matter of hooking up the new unit to the existing ventilation. It’s quicker and less expensive.

2. Humidity is a concern. Ducted air conditioning systems are better at controlling humidity. The air handlers in ductless air conditioning lack the mechanisms needed to remove much moisture from the air and drain it away.

3. You want better air flow. Ducted air conditioning systems also provide better air circulation. Since ductless air conditioning systems cool the air in each room individually, there is less air movement throughout the space, sometimes leading to stagnant air and air pressure issues.

Related Article: Surprising Symptoms of HVAC Problems.

4. Aesthetic concerns. Appearance is also an important concern in a residential space, and a reason you might want to choose a ducted air conditioning system. The air handler boxes mounted on the wall or ceiling of each room for a ductless air conditioning system are not always ideal from an aesthetic perspective. With a ducted system, everything is hidden behind walls and in crawl spaces.

You want to reduce maintenance expenses. Ducted air conditioning systems are easier and less expensive to service since there are fewer components. They only require occasional cleaning. There’s just the outside unit and the single indoor air handler. On the other hand, ductless air conditioning systems have air handlers in each room that require service.

When to choose ductless air conditioning

1. There’s no room for ducts in the walls or ceilings. Especially in a New York City apartment or brownstone, who wants to give up those gorgeous high ceilings to make room for air conditioning ducts? If you want to keep your high ceilings, or there’s just no room for ducts, then ductless air conditioning is the answer.

2. You’re adding a room to an existing space or adding cooling to a space like a garage or work room. In this situation, it may be costly or difficult to add ducts to the new space and connect to your existing system. Or your system may not have the capacity to cool the additional space, but you don’t want to replace it.

Instead, you can supplement with a small ductless air conditioning system just for the new space. Sometimes a ductless unit is used even in new construction to provide zoned cooling for an area that’s not frequently used.

3. You want to decrease dust. Since forced air is not traveling throughout the space via ducts where dust can collect, there is less dust introduced to your rooms.

4. You want multiple cooling zones. Since ductless air conditioning systems have separate air handlers in each room, these can be independently controlled for different cooling needs. That means you can lower the temperature in the living room where you’re entertaining a group of people, while increasing the temperature in the bedroom where the baby is sleeping.

Keep in mind that zoning and independent temperature control can also be accomplished with a VRF system, which can be ducted or ductless. VRF systems are a relatively new, more sophisticated technology with many benefits for the luxury homeowner.

Related Article: 7 Reasons to Choose VRF Technology for Your New Air Conditioning.

Above all, choose the right installer

Whichever system you choose, there’s one important consideration: make sure you choose a qualified installer.

Air conditioning is a complex system that needs to be properly designed to meet your needs, and configured by an expert. Make sure your contractor brings in a qualified HVAC contractor to do HVAC design and installation.

Related Article: You Can’t Afford to Make These 7 Air Conditioning Installation Mistakes.

Choosing a new air conditioning system can seem like an overwhelming task when you’re not an HVAC expert. There are so many different options and types of systems, and it can be a challenge to pick the right one for you. We’ve made that easier with our helpful guide: The Ultimate Guide to Air Conditioning for NYC Luxury Residential Spaces.
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