The Ductless Heat Pump: an Efficient Heating (and Cooling) Solution


UPDATE (2/3/12): NEEA has wrapped up their Going Ductless campaign, and drawn a name for the cash prize. Ross Daniel of Seattle will no doubt have a good weekend, as he’s the winner of the $10,000 grand prize. He’s also a big fan of ductless heating systems, which we describe in more detail below…

It’s starting to get cooler out, especially at night, and your thoughts may be turning to the pleasures of Fall: colorful trees, sweaters, and hot mugs of cider. Of course, you may also be dwelling on some less pleasant thoughts… namely, what it’s going to cost to heat your home this Winter. I don’t know if the almanac’s predicting as brutal a winter as last year, but we’ll definitely be running the heating system… and paying for the fuel to do it.

The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) has picked this appropriate time to start promoting a technology that was new to me: the ductless heat pump. Their argument: this heating (and cooling) system is much more efficient and cost-effective than some of the decades-old technologies many of us still use, like baseboard and wall heaters. They’re having fun with their Going Ductless campaign by letting people know that “the 70s are calling, and they want their heater back,” giving users some graphic tools that allow you to place your picture in 7os-style settings, and sharing their “King of HVAC” videos (that’s one above). They’re even offering a $10,000 cash prize to Northwestern residents. They’re very serious about the technology, though, claiming that ductless heat pumps can save consumersΒ 25 – 50 percent on heating bills when compared to older systems.

Still, I didn’t know much about these systems, so I started digging…

What is a ductless heat pump?

Essentially, they’re smaller-scale versions of air-source heat pumps. Also known as “mini-splits,” they consist of “two main components: an outdoor compressor/condenser, and an indoor air-handling unit. A conduit, which houses the power cable, refrigerant tubing, suction tubing, and a condensate drain, links the outdoor and indoor units.”

They seem like a good alternative for new construction, for replacing a ducted system (if you need to do that… I don’t know that the costs line up for optional replacement), or for replacing non-ducted systems. They run on electricity.

What makes these systems so efficient?

The Oregon Department of Energy lists three advantage of ductless heat pumps:

  • They’re ductless (duh!): Since they’re not feeding heated or cooled air through ducts, much more of that air makes it into the room – the US Deparment of Energy notes that losses of heated/cooled air through ducts can account for as much as 30% of the energy consumption of those systems.
  • Inverter technology: “Variable speed compressor models, usually labeled β€œinverter technology,” avoid on-off cycling losses and are able to provide usable heat efficiency on all but very cold days.”
  • Zoning: Ductless heat pumps work a bit like space heaters, it seems; that means you can warm/cool specific areas of your home that you’re using, rather focusing on the whole house.

Finally, there may be incentives available for you to make the switch: NEEA has a list of Northwest-specific incentive programs, and the DSIRE database can help you in other US locations.

Disadvantage of ductless heat pumps

The US DOE notes that these systems can cost more per ton of cooling capacity: about 30% more than a central (ducted) system (but that doesn’t count the cost of ductwork), and twice as much as window units. That appears to only take into account upfront costs. DOE also notes that these systems must be properly sized and sited in order to achieve maximum efficiency and cost savings (but that strikes me as a qualification that applies to nearly any heating/cooling system). Finally, because this technology is still relatively new to the US, you may have trouble finding an installer (though, if you live in the Northwest, NEEA has a tool for locating qualified installation professionals).

As I said from the outset, this was a new one for me… if you know more about these systems, and their benefits (or downsides), share your knowledge with us in the comments.

  1. Turnip

    This last summer Friedrich came out with a new line of ductless heat pumps called their Breeze series which can be plugged in. You don’t need to pay an installer twice as much or three times as much for the same type of ductless heat pump they install. Also your warranty stays in tact too if you install the Friedrich heatpumps. We plan to buy a 24 btu one this year. Even if you include the rebate from untility company you are still paying at least 1,500 more than you should. So many HVAC companies over charging on these units and utility companies have been looking the other way on this. Also I figured out our utility company would make over 600.00 in interest if we financed through them. So when we spend 2K cash and install it ourselves instead of paying 4K through utility company and having “Their” approved installers do it, we are saving 2K and not including the electrical savings overall. Friedrich is rated high with consumer reports for their air conditioning units so this is not some shlocky chinese brand being dumped here either. Everything is included with these in the box and they also have a video that shows you step by step how to install this so it is really idiot proof. What is great feature of these units is that they don’t get moldy like traditional window shaker air conditioners. We had to toss a 12 btu Kenmore air conditioner which worked great but looked inside and hidden is mold growing inside of it in places you can’t see or get to or clean well. These ductless units are quiet and they have dehumidifer capabilities too. I think consumers have been ripped off long enough by HVAC industry and I hope more an more folks buy these Breeze series so that other manufacturers will make similar DIY ductless heat pumps to compete and bring down the prices on all of these. The party is over for HVAC and just beginning for consumers.

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