Mini-split AC vs. HVAC: How do they differ and which one is right for me?

It’s not uncommon for homes in the Northeast to have been built without heating and cooling systems. The decision to add a cooling unit to your home is a big one but it can do wonders for increasing your comfort, especially if you are currently relying on window AC units and ceiling fans. When it comes to cooling off your home in the summer, you have two primary options: an air conditioning system or a heat pump. Despite the name, a heat pump actually heats and cools, so it can be used year-round. 

Brinker’s Energy installs and maintains AC and heat pump systems throughout Montgomery and Bucks Counties. We are happy to help you decide which system will be the best fit for your home. Here’s what you should know about each option, including the benefits and drawbacks of each, to help you make an informed decision. 

What Is Air Conditioning? 

Air conditioners have been around for more than 100 years. The technology was actually developed by Carrier to solve a humidity issue at a publishing company as warm summer air and humidity caused paper stock to stick together. By blowing air across chilled pipes, it solved not only the humidity problem but also cooled the air. 

An air conditioner works like a fridge by absorbing heat that passes over its coil. This creates cool air that can then be circulated through the home. The air conditioner uses a process called phase conversion: when liquid is converted to a gas, the process absorbs heat. An air conditioner forces refrigerants to evaporate and condense repeatedly within a closed coil system. A fan in the air conditioner blows warm air in your house over the cooled coils to chill the air. 

There are a few types of air conditioners but they all use this basic process to cool your air and keep you comfortable. The process also reduces indoor humidity levels. 

Types of Air Conditioning Systems

There are many types of air conditioners to choose from. The right option will depend on your budget, the size of your home, and whether your home has ductwork. Here are the three most popular options. 

  • Central AC. In most areas of the country, this is the most common type of cooling in larger homes because it can cool very efficiently. A central AC works by circulating cool air through return and supply ductwork. Supply ducts and registers in the floors or walls move cooled air into your home. When the air becomes warm again, it circulates back to the supply registers and ducts and goes back to the air conditioner. A central AC system can be a major investment. If your home does not have ductwork, it’s probably not the most efficient or cost-effective option.
  • Ductless mini-split air conditioner. This type of air conditioner is commonly used to retrofit a home with AC when it does not have ducts. Like a central AC system, a ductless system is comprised of two units: an indoor handling unit and an outdoor compressor and condensor. A ductless AC system can have up to 4 air handling units to cool several rooms. Each area will have its own thermostat.
  • Window AC unit. A window unit is a compact unit that only cools one room. This type of AC is usually installed in a window but it can also be installed in an exterior wall. It works by blowing cool air into the room and exhausting warm air out the back.

Benefits of an AC System 

  • Most efficient way to cool your home. An air conditioner is the most affordable cooling unit you can install for your home. It can keep your home comfortable on even the hottest days.
  • Less upfront cost. If you are concerned about the upfront cost of of a new cooling unit for your home, an air conditioner offers a lower cost upfront than a heat pump.

Cons of an AC System

  • Can be cost-prohibitive to install central air conditioning system in a home without ducts. A ductless mini-split system can also be costly when multiple units are installed throughout the home.
  • Only works to cool your home. If you already have a system to heat your home, this will not be a concern.
  • Installing separate systems for cooling and heating can double the maintenance, repairs, and total installation.

What Is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is essentially the same as a regular air conditioner with the ability to reverse its process to heat and cool. A heat pump has all of the same parts as an air conditioner and cools your home in the summer. It does this by pulling hot air out of the house. In the winter, the system reverses, pulling warmer air from outside and in the ground and bringing it inside. Even on the oldest days, there is some heat outside, although a heat pump will lose efficiency the lower the temperature gets. In Bucks County and Montgomery County, a heat pump can remain effective throughout winter. 

A heat pump is an ideal solution for adding heat to a home that was built without ductwork. Also known as a ductless mini-split AC system, heat pumps are both heating and cooling systems. 

Benefits of a Heat Pump

  • Does not require a separate heating and cooling system. This is a big benefit as you do not need to install both an air conditioner and a furnace, for example. A heat pump does double-duty to heat and cool your home with one system. This also means a lower cost for installation and maintenance with just one system. At Brinker’s Energy, we usually recommend a heat pump if you do not have AC in your home. 
  • Does not require ductwork. A heat pump can use existing ducts for a gas furnace and central air conditioning but a heat pump can also be installed with no ducts at all. If you have the typical Montgomery County or Bucks County home with no ductwork, you can get whole-house cooling and heating without the high cost of duct installation.
  • Energy efficiency. When you replace electric baseboard heaters with a ductless heat pump, your energy costs can be anywhere from 25% to 40% lower. A heat pump is also about 4x more efficient than oil furnaces and more than twice as efficient as electric furnaces. For cooling, an AC system and heat pump will cost around the same.

Cons of a Heat Pump

  • Lower lifespan than an AC system. Heat pumps usually last 12-15 years versus 15-20 years with an air conditioner. An AC system will last longer because it will only be used in the summer. A heat pump, on the other hand, will run most of the year for heating and cooling.
  • Not effective at very cold temperatures. A heat pump can pull warmth inside your home from outside to keep you comfortable and warm, even in exceptionally cold weather, but there’s a limit. When the weather reaches freezing, a heat pump will struggle and may not be able to warm your home to your set temperature. This can force your heat pump to run non-stop.

Which Is Right for You?

Choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner can seem like a tough decision but the right choice will depend on your goals. If you already have a good heating system and just want to add a cooling system for your home, an air conditioner is probably the best solution. 

If you do not have either or you want to replace either a heating or cooling system in your home, it pays to consider heat pump installation. A heat pump works best in areas with short winters and generally mild climates. Because heat pumps use electricity and air, they can be more efficient than oil and other heat sources. You can even choose to install a heat pump as a supplemental source of heat. It can be combined with a fireplace, wood stove, space heater, or furnace, for example. 

Brinker’s Energy has served Bucks and Montgomery Counties with heating oil and heating and cooling installation for more than 90 years. If you need help choosing the right system for your home, please give us a call to explore your options.