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Mini Split Buyer's Guide

Mini Split Buyer's Guide

Imagine it's over 100 degrees outside. Your old window air conditioners clatter as they struggle to keep you comfortable. You need a hoodie or blanket in your room to stay comfortable, but the rest of the house swelters in the unforgivable heat, barely dampened by the air conditioners' attempts. On top of those problems, you'll soon see a hilariously high utility bill from trying not to melt. You need a solution that won't burn you or your wallet.

Now, it's the dead of winter. The temperature outside has plummeted, and no space heater or furnace can reach the entirety of your house. Your family huddles together for warmth like a heart-warming Christmas movie; another high utility bill will be haunting you again very soon. A mini split heat pump can warm and cool your home, regardless of climate demands.

Mini split AC units are gaining popularity in the US and Canada. Thanks to their energy efficiency, size, ease of installation, and zoning heating and cooling capabilities, they've been used in Europe and Japan for many years. Let's dive into these appliances, why you might want one, and more.

What Is a Mini Split Heat Pump?

A mini split is an air conditioner HVAC appliance, but there is more to them than that. Mini splits are a compact and efficient way to provide cooling and heating to your home without the additional trouble of adding venting or the extensive cost associated with installation. These ductless AC systems experience substantially fewer mechanical failures than traditional systems.

A mini split system is a ductless heat pump split into two indoor and outdoor components. The compressor/condenser sits outdoors, while the indoor unit consists of an air handler/evaporator. These connect via refrigerant lines, called line sets, through a single small hole in the wall and carry refrigerant between the units. Multiple units can be added to a home for individual room control, as opposed to the traditional whole-house HVAC system.

Mini splits are versatile, affordable, and multipurpose appliances that make your home more comfortable without the headache of getting an HVAC company to install a full-sized unit. However, mini splits also have their own considerations before you commit to getting one.

Is a Mini Split Worth It?

That's a good question! Mini splits can be a great way to bring more efficient cooling and heating to an older home, update your air conditioning after remodeling or enclosing a space, or climate control a space. Any of these leave the chance for you to improve your home's cooling and heating system. However, a ductless mini split may not be worth the investment compared to your existing system if you have a traditional HVAC system and ductwork in place.

Mini splits have straightforward installations, thanks to only needing a small wall hole connecting the indoor and outdoor components and the lack of needed ductwork. If you're updating a small, older home, getting a traditional HVAC unit with ductwork could easily cost over $12,000. Even if you pay $5,000 for the mini split system and installation, that's a major savings to consider!

A mini-split can also heat and cool your home without taking up a ton of space. Indoor air handlers are typically much smaller than expected and differ from large, unattractive traditional units. For example, a MRCOOL Advantage 9K BTU Wall Mount Air Handler is a modern-looking white box that measures 28" wide x 11" high.

Mini splits present a better, planet-friendly way to have cooling and air. These appliances are powered by electricity and are a green solution versus similar propane or natural gas-fueled furnaces or fans. Zone heating and cooling also improve their environmentally friendly status, as they give you the ability to only treat the rooms where you spend the most time rather than wasting energy and effort to maintain the whole home.

Industry Leaders

Like with any appliance, there are Big Name brands, and it'd be a mistake to forget to tell you about them before continuing the discussion about mini splits.

LG: While LG might be known for much more than HVAC units, LG manufactures some of the most in-demand mini splits. Their units offer heating, cooling, and alternative HVAC options and have a five-year warranty for qualified systems.

MRCOOL: Besides having a cool name, MRCOOL is a budding star on the mini split stage. With units specially designed for Do-It-Yourself installations, they have everything you need in simple kits to help eliminate the hassle of matching parts together.

Hessaire: Hessaire is another manufacturer that proudly sells quality products. Founded in 1996 in Alabama, they develop and manufacture customized props, motors, and fans for air-conditioners and ventilation applications.  In 2011, Hessaire acquired Fanpac, a manufacturer of evaporative coolers and evaporative cooling components based in Phoenix, Arizona, and the combination of Hessaire and Fanpac brings together engineered air movement with the design and low-cost sourcing of cooling components.

What's All This Technical Stuff Mean?

If you've already started searching for the right mini split, you may have encountered some technical information about each unit that may confuse you. Let's take some time to break down those terms and understand why they are important and impact your decision.

One is a SEER value. SEER, which stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating, is how the efficiency of an air conditioner is measured. The SEER of your mini split is the total number of BTUs divided by the total number of watt-hours. So, 3 million divided by 300,000 gives a SEER of 10. The higher the SEER rating, the more energy-efficient the air conditioner.

Similar to the SEER is the EER rating, which stands for Energy Efficiency Ratio. The EER rating for an air conditioner is calculated by dividing the BTU rating by the wattage. So, a 12,000 BTU air conditioner with 1,200 watts has an EER rating of 10 (12,000/1,200 = 10).

Energy efficiency is one of the factors that draws people to mini splits. Related to the SEER and EER ratings is the Energy Star Rating. Mini splits that are Energy Star Certified can help reduce your heating and cooling costs by 30% more than units without the certification.

Another technical aspect to consider is the voltage the mini-split unit will need. Smaller units use a standard 110 or 120-volt plug, and larger units require 220 or 240-volt plugs. Using the wrong voltage can cause a loss of efficiency, a broken circuit, or a fire.

Next up is the BTU, a key component to any heating or cooling appliance. The number of BTUs you need will be determined by the square feet you wish to heat and cool. The larger the room, the more BTUs are needed.

The most common indoor units produce 9,000 BTU, often shortened to 9k, and cool approximately a 20 x 20 foot or 445 square foot room. An 18k unit could cool an 1110 square foot (33 x 33) room. The actual cooling capacity and heating capacity can be slightly higher or lower than that based on several factors; these include sunlight, average occupancy, age of your home, insulation, and more. Anything larger than 24k BTU often involves a multi-zone system with multiple indoor units.

Speaking of high BTU requirements, let's talk about outdoor units. Their most common BTUs are 18k, 24k, 36k, and occasionally 54k. These numbers are much higher than their indoor counterparts because they pull air in to power as many indoor units as are connected. You'll save money using a multi-zone system to use mini splits for your entire home.

Are Mini Splits Easy To Install?

The indoor components of a mini-split system come in various shapes and sizes to seamlessly blend in. From streamlined wall-mounted units to barely-there ceiling cassette and concealed duct units, mini-split systems are designed to marry form and function. Each mini split type has perks and disadvantages, so finding the right type is essential.

The most popular type is a wall-mounted unit. It comes in the widest variety of sizes, energy efficiency ratings, and BTU configurations. They are also the simplest to install and typically the least expensive. Usually installed near the ceiling of an exterior wall, they require a 3" hole drilled through the wall to connect the refrigerant lines, drain tube, and connecting wire.

Next are ceiling cassette units. These are installed into the ceiling and require a decorative grille that is flush with the ceiling. Many find ceiling cassette mini splits to be ideal for installation in a commercial ceiling or a T-Bar. However, they require a ten to fourteen-inch clearance between the visible ceiling and the surface above. Ceiling cassette units often come with a built-in drain pump to ease condensation removal.

Two other units don't fit the previous explanations of mini-splits. These include concealed duct units that can be used as wall art, like the LG Art Cool Gallery.

Concealed duct units are more like hybrids of central air and mini-split systems. As you might be able to tell by the name, they use ductwork and are typically installed in a dropped ceiling, an attic, a crawlspace, or a closet to carry air to the intended zone via a wall grille. The grille is the only visible part of the system.

If you're looking for an air conditioner that prioritizes appearance, a unit in the LG Art Cool series, like the LG Art Cool Gallery, might fit you better. Designed to mount as wall art, you can frame any 20" x 20" photograph or painting. The hidden air conditioner then blows air out from three sides of the unit. At a slim 5 inches thick, it's very discreet and can be used for single or multi-zone applications.

Now that we've discussed the different types of mini-splits and ductless air conditioners, we can discuss the installation!

To have a system like this installed, a licensed HVAC professional must complete it. You'll need to verify that your hired technician is properly certified because a poor installation can cause inefficiency and under-performance. Additionally, we recommend discussing a labor warranty since most mini split manufacturers only have parts warranties.

Before committing to an installation from your selected HVAC professional, an inspection is in order. This will help determine the best place to mount the indoor and outdoor units and may assess if there is a need for additional units. This can also give you an estimate of the time and cost of the installation. While most installs typically take under a day, a larger system may take longer.

The cost of installing a mini-split can vary due to the system size, unit capacity, placement, etc.

How Do I Clean a Mini Split?

Once you have a mini split installed, how do you take care of it? Here are six tips for keeping your mini split in tip-top shape.

  • Keeping the outside clean is an easy one. Anything accumulated in your unit, such as dust and debris, can cause problems, so wipe it down with a damp cloth!
  • While ductless air conditions need less space than normal central air conditions, you will still need to give them plenty of space to operate. Try to give them four feet of space in each direction.
  • Clean or replace filters as needed. A clogged filter can reduce the efficiency of your unit by 20%, and that's 20% too much. Most manufacturers recommend cleaning or replacing your filters at least once a month during summer.
  • The coil and condenser, the outside parts of your mini split, need as much attention as the inside. Keep it free of dirt and debris using a low-pressure hose to spray and wipe off anything. Just make sure to power off the unit first! Don't let snow or anything else build up on the outside.
  • Watch your pipe. The pipes that let cold and warm air into your home can also collect dust and dirt or develop leaks! Keep an eye on them when you clean your filters or do other maintenance.
  • Don't be afraid to call in the professionals! Annual tune-ups can catch hose blockages, identify leaks, check electrical issues, and more to help you avoid big repairs later.

Another way to help care for your mini-split after your purchase is to ensure you know the manufacturer's warranty. Each manufacturer has its way of doing things, and the time of it can vary from one to seven years. As previously mentioned, some manufacturers only honor part warranties. Knowing what warranty you have and what is covered is vital.

Is A Mini Split Better Than Central?

Mini split ductless units may appear complicated, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth the time and considerations mentioned in this article. A mini split AC system may be the perfect option if you are looking for an efficient, affordable heat pump system.

After reading this, we hope you understand how to select, buy, and install your mini split. If you have any additional questions about a mini split system, please feel free to contact our NFI-certified technicians at 800.203.1642 or browse our library of articles here.

About the Author

Dani Bell

Dani, our Head Writer and Editor, has been in the hearth and fireplace industry for six years. She has written a number of our articles for both eFireplaceStore and eCanopy to balance technical knowledge with customer-friendly terminology and style. Currently, she is studying to earn all of her National Fireplace Institute (NFI) certifications and works with the content department to add products to the eFireplaceStore and eCanopy websites.

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