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Ductless Mini-Split Heat Pumps: An Overview

Written by Carol J Alexander

Published on December 14, 2022


Ductless Mini-Split Heat Pumps: An Overview

Mini-split heat pumps are becoming the go-to option when it comes to heating and air conditioning systems. Which is right for you?

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When it comes to heating or cooling your home, mini-splits are quickly becoming the go-to option. They’re ideal for homes with no ductwork to run a traditional central heating system.

So, if you're looking for an innovative way to warm your home during the colder months, keep reading to learn more about mini-split systems, their high efficiency and energy savings, and whether they're the right choice for your home heating and air conditioning needs.

Hire a local pro to get a quote on your heat pump installation

What is a mini-split heat pump?

Unlike a conventional heat pump, a mini-split heat pump doesn't require ductwork. Instead, a mini-split system includes an outdoor compressor connecting to one or more indoor air handlers through a 3-inch hole. A ductless system can be the only system in a home or a supplement to the existing heat, cooling, or both. Their quiet operation, multi- or single-zone capabilities, and variable-speed fans make them preferred over smaller options like window units, space heaters, and baseboard heating. They also can be retrofitted to a home with no existing ductwork. 

To help you choose the right system for your home, refer to our ductless mini-split vs. central airconditioner comparison guide.

How does a mini-split heat pump work?

Outside you have the compressor/condenser unit. Inside is the wall-mounted air handling unit. The two connect by refrigerant and air tubes and power lines. The system draws air from one location and channels it to the other, reversing the direction depending on whether you’re heating or cooling.

Because a mini-split system has no ductwork, it avoids the energy losses often associated with those of a central system. And, with multiple handlers, each room or zone is treated separately, unlike a central system that treats all the air and then forces it across the home, leaving some rooms warmer or cooler than others.

Pro tip

Because a mini-split system has no combustion, you don’t have to worry about the danger of direct emissions from NOx, carbon dioxide, or carbon monoxide.

What does a mini-split heat pump cost?

However, unlike other heating and cooling systems, you can receive tax incentives and rebates for a mini-split system. To see if you qualify, use the Energy Star rebate finder

Pro tip

According to Energy Star, heat pumps are more efficient than electric resistance, propane, and oil HVAC systems. Also, systems that require R-32 refrigerant use up to 20% less, saving costs even further.

Is a mini-split right for my home?

Unfortunately, a mini-split heat pump isn’t suitable for every home. However, they provide a solution for design issues that a central heating system can’t address.  For instance, a mini-split is right for:

  • Homes with a hot or cold spot. 
  • Rooms with no ducts, like the basement, a renovated attic, or a room addition.
  • Older homes without existing ductwork.
  • Small homes.

Pro tip

For optimal results, HVAC professionals recommend ensuring your home is as efficient as possible before installing any new system. You can achieve the best efficiency by increasing attic insulation, if needed, and sealing other air leaks throughout the home.

How to choose the right mini-split system

Many different factors will impact your choice of a mini-split system. The size and layout of your home, and if you’re looking for a supplementary or primary system, will determine whether you can use a multi-zone system or separate units for individual rooms – and how many. Of course, when considering multiple units, what you can afford comes into play. The height of your ceilings, the amount of insulation, and how much sun exposure you get are also contributing factors. Since this can be a complicated decision, it’s helpful to consult a professional HVAC contractor.

Pro tip

Before replacing or installing a new heat pump, ask your contractor to perform a load calculation to ensure a correctly sized system.

Find a local heat pump professional

However, when purchasing a heat pump, there are a few things to look for. Energy Star-rated units may cost more upfront, but you’ll recoup the investment through lower monthly energy bills. Heat pumps are given two important efficiency ratings to look for: SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) and HSPF (heating seasonal performance factor). The higher the ratings, the more efficient the system. The SEER rating of mini-split systems typically ranges from 18 to 42, depending on the brand and model. The HSPF rating goes from 8 to 10. Heat pumps are awarded the Energy Star with a SEER rating of 12 or greater and an HSPF of at least 8.2.

Finally, you can purchase a ductless heat pump system with smart capabilities. These features include things like scheduling and geofencing. Temperature control is in the palm of your hand with a Wi-Fi-connected remote control or cell phone. Adjust the thermostat from anywhere or set it to sense when no one is at home and adjust accordingly.

Pro tip

Remember to research the life span of the make and model you’re interested in and the length and coverage of its warranties.

How to care for mini-split units

Caring for your mini-split heat pump by performing simple maintenance ensures top efficiency. First, always protect the units whenever you do any work on your home by covering them with plastic sheeting. Then, follow the manufacturer’s directions and frequency to clean the grills and remove and clean the filters. Outside, clear dust and debris from the condenser coils and check for anything blocking the drain tube.

Have your heat pump professionally cleaned once a year. A service technician will clean and flush the coils and vacuum the blower compartments. They’ll also check for leaks, that the system is charged with refrigerant, and that everything is working correctly.

Pro tip

Avoid placing the outdoor unit near a door or window. When they defrost in winter, they release water that could freeze and form icy patches.

DIY mini-split installation

Online tutorials may tempt you to install a ductless mini-split yourself. After all, in most cases, it’s a straightforward, one-day job – and you’ll even find DIY models to choose from. To install a ductless mini-split heat pump yourself, you should:

  • Install the condenser on the outside
  • Run the lines through a 3-inch hole you’ve drilled through your wall
  • Install the air handlers inside
  • Connect everything

However, as easy as it sounds, the pros of hiring a professional far outweigh the pros of doing it yourself. For one thing, self-installation could void your warranty, and you don’t want that. Otherwise, a professional has:

  • The product knowledge necessary to choose the perfect unit for your specific needs
  • The proper tools and instruments
  • The ability to calculate an accurate heat load

So, how do you choose the right contractor for the job? First, ask around. If a friend or colleague had a successful experience with a company, perhaps you will too. Second, ask the contractor about his expertise in installing a ductless mini-split system. With this type of work, you don’t want to hire someone willing to “give it a go.” Finally, ask them which products they have experience installing or servicing. Look them up and see if they align with the features you want. 

Heat your home with a mini-split heat pump this winter

New, innovative Energy Star-certified mini-split models use advanced technology to provide ample heating in sub-zero temperatures. If you live in a cold climate, you no longer need to view ductless heat pumps as a complement to a ducted system. Talk to your contractor to learn which units are suited for your home.

Get in touch with a local pro to install your heat pump today

Written by

Carol J Alexander Content Specialist and Subject Matter Expert

Carol J Alexander is a home remodeling industry expert for Fixr.com. For more than 15 years as a journalist and content marketer, her in-depth research, interviewing skills, and technical insight have ensured she provides the most accurate and current information on a given topic. Before joining the Fixr team, her personal clients included leaders in the building materials market like Behr Paint Company, CertainTeed, and Chicago Faucet, and national publications like This Old House and Real Homes.