The answer? It depends.
If your home already has functional ductwork, go with a central air conditioner.
On the other hand, a ductless AC system is the best option if:
- You have an older home without existing ductwork
- You’re building a new home from the ground up and don’t have the time or budget to install ductwork
- You need to cool an existing room or new addition without air ducts
To help you make your final decision, we’ll compare ductless AC systems to central AC systems in terms of:
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Ductless vs central air: Cooling capacity
Bottom line: A central AC has the BTU capacity to cool an entire home while a ductless AC only has the BTU capacity to cool a single room (per indoor unit).
First off, both central and ductless ACs are measured according to their BTU (British Thermal Unit) output. A unit’s BTU output basically tells you how much heat the unit can remove from your home’s air in one hour. Note: One BTU is roughly equivalent to the amount of heat generated by burning through one match.
- Central ACs typically have a BTU output anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000
- Ductless ACs typically have a BTU output anywhere from 1,700 to 12,000
Because ductless ACs and central ACs have different cooling capacities, they also have different delivery methods when it comes to delivering cold air to the home.
- Central air conditioners use ductwork to distribute cold air into every area/room of the home
- Ductless ACs don’t use ductwork—instead, they push cold air directly from the indoor unit into the room it serves
Note: When we say “one” ductless AC, we mean one indoor unit to one outdoor unit. However, some ductless systems can cool up to 4 rooms. These “multi-zone” systems require one outdoor unit that can handle the cooling needs of up to 4 indoor units. Homes that have more than 4 rooms, though, will need a second outdoor unit.
Ductless vs central air: Upfront cost
Bottom line: Ductless air conditioners are about 30% more expensive to install than central ACs. However, if you also have to install ductwork to accommodate the central AC system, going with a ductless AC system will be less expensive.
Installing ductwork in a home typically costs about $2,000 to $5,000+ on top of the cost to install a central AC. This high additional cost usually tips the scales in favor of a (cheaper) ductless installation.
Let’s assume that we have 2 homeowners who need AC installations. These 2 homeowners have very similar 1,800 square foot homes that do not have ductwork already installed.
- Homeowner A wants to install a central AC and ductwork. The total cost for this would be anywhere from $4,500 to $10,000+*.
- Homeowner B wants to install a ductless AC system. The total cost for this would be anywhere from $2,300 to $6,000+*.
*Keep in mind that the cost to install an air conditioner—whether it’s a central or ductless system—depends on various factors such as the unit’s size/efficiency and the difficulty of the installation.
Ductless vs central air: Operational cost
Ductless ACs typically have lower operational costs than central ACs.
Why? Well, it basically all comes down to leaky ductwork. Most homes with central AC lose about 30% of conditioned air via tiny holes, cracks or misalignments in ductwork.
Translation? For every $100 you spend on central AC operational costs, you’re throwing $30 in the trash.
Because ductless air conditioners don’t use ductwork, though, they don’t experience any loss of cold air (that you paid for) via leaky ductwork. This typically means that with a ductless system, you pay less for more cooling.
Additional factors to consider…
Bottom line: Some homeowners find ductless AC units unattractive.
Ductless AC indoor units are mounted directly onto your home’s interior wall or in the ceiling. This allows the unit to push cold air directly into the room. Unfortunately, it also means the indoor unit is visible (as opposed to a central AC’s indoor unit which is typically hidden in the attic or an interior closet).
So if you’re absolutely opposed to a 3-foot evaporator mounted onto your wall, a ductless AC might not be the best choice for you.
Bottom line: Ductless AC units are quieter than central AC units.
Because ductless ACs cool smaller areas (1 to 4 rooms), their condensers don’t need to be as powerful and noisy as central AC condensers (outdoor units).
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