Yes, ductless mini-split air conditioners are very good at heating. They aren’t as powerful as, say, electric heaters and furnaces. However, they are excellent supplementary/secondary heaters that generate gentle, comfortable heat.
Moreover, mini-split heat pumps are some of the most energy-efficient heating systems. Since they only transfer (or pump) heat from one location to another, they consume very little electricity. Also, they waste very little power. The majority are 90% efficient or higher.
However, ductless mini-split heat pumps come with a few downsides, such as the inability to function as primary heat sources, especially in very cold climates.
Let’s discuss how they work and whether you should purchase one.
What’s a Ductless Mini Split Heat Pump?
Ductless mini-split heat pumps, also popular as ductless mini-split air conditioners, are a special type of HVAC appliance that function as air conditioners and heaters.
The ductless heat pump comprises two main components – an outdoor condenser and indoor air handler – connected by a refrigerant line set and electrical wiring.
Indoor air handlers are installed inside the house and can come in many different formats, including wall-mounted handlers, recessed ceiling cassettes, floor-mounted air handlers, and ceiling hanging units. The primary purpose of the air handler is to draw air from into the AC system and release conditioned (cool or warm) air back into the room.
Meanwhile, the condenser/compressor unit is installed outside the house. It helps extract heat from the air entering the AC. The heat is then dumped either inside or outside the house, depending on whether the unit is in heating or cooling mode. During heating, the heat is dumped inside the house, effectively raising indoor temperatures.
Aside from the two distinct components, you can also distinguish heat pumps from other heating and cooling systems by the lack of ductwork. The heat pump doesn’t need ductwork to distribute warm (or cool) air throughout the room. Instead, they rely on fans. It’s why they’re called ductless ACs/heat pumps.
Pros and Cons of Ductless Heat Pumps for Heating
If you’re purchasing a ductless heat pump with one eye on the cold/winter season, you need to know that the appliances can be precious during the heating season. But they also come with a few limitations.
Ductless Heat Pump Pros
Heat pumps are more compact, eco-friendly, and relatively easy to install and run than central air conditioners. But that’s not all;
- Incredible energy efficiency
Heat pumps are the most energy-efficient heating solution today for one major reason – they don’t burn any fuel. All other heating systems involve burning fuels such as coal, natural gas, propane, and electricity to produce heat. Heat pumps merely transfer heat from the air outside the house to that inside the house.
- Single or independent multi-zone application
Heat pumps are the only heating system that allows for single-zone heating or independent multi-zone application. The other options are either one-per-room or one-size-fit-all systems. Central air systems allow for zoning. However, zoning is usually a separate project from the AC installation, thus higher costs. Multi-zone mini-split heat pumps allow you to control each zone from a different thermostat independently.
- Flexible output options
Very few heating solutions give you the flexibility that heat pumps afford with regard to indoor output device styles and options. You get to choose from close to a dozen different output options, from wall-mounted air handlers to wall art systems and ceiling cassettes to floor-mounted outlets. This makes it easier to complement your interior décor.
- Modern design and features
Heat pumps are only comparable to the latest portable heaters when it comes to features and controls. They boast modern timer functions, follow-me remote control, built-in sleep functions, and auto-restart features. The latest models are also Wi-Fi compatible for smart home control and even allow for app and voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant.
Heaters are often associated with burn and fire incidents. Every year, hundreds of homes are razed in fires caused by heating appliances. People have also lost lives in some of these fires. Though all electrical appliances pose a fire hazard, heat pumps are at the bottom of the list in terms of risk. They are one of the safest home heating solutions.
Heat Pump Limitations
Unfortunately, heat pumps aren’t without fault. Despite the high energy efficiency and undeniable eco-friendliness, they come with a few limitations as follows;
- High upfront costs
This is perhaps the biggest downside of heat pumps. They cost an arm and a leg to purchase and install. Whereas a simple electric heater for a 500 square-foot room can cost under $200, the most affordable mini splits are at least $1,000. A 12,000 BTU heat pump for a 500 square-foot room can cost up to $2,000 or more. Installation costs are also rather high, starting at around $700.
- Professional installation is critical
What’s worse about the high installation costs is that professional installation is almost a must when dealing with mini-split systems. First off, many manufacturers only uphold warranties if the heat pumps are installed by a professional. Additionally, poor positioning of the AC can cause “short-cycling” that may negate all the energy-efficiency benefits. This means you need professional installation to get the most out of your heat pump.
- Heat pumps make poor primary heat sources
Though some are incredibly powerful, mini-split systems are better as supplementary heat sources than primary heat sources in the house. There are a couple of reasons why. For one, they take a bit of time to raise indoor temperatures to the desired setting. It could be at least an hour before your home is warm enough.
Additionally, the amount of heat you can generate with the heat pump is limited by outdoor conditions. For example, when it becomes cold out there, the heat pump may not give you much heat. Indeed, most heat pumps cannot function below a specific winter temperature.
Tips to Get Maximum Value Out of Your Heat Pump
If despite the limitations, you still believe that a heat pump is the right solution for your home heating needs, we recommend the following tips to get maximum value out of your investment;
- Minimize the load: Improve the thermal envelope of the house to minimize energy loss and heat wastage.
- Set the thermostat right: If you set it too high to counter low outdoor temperatures, you may overwork the heat pump.
- Protect the outdoor unit from snow: You don’t want the condenser spending a large portion of its heat melting away the snow instead of warming the house.
- Supplement it with another heater: Never leave the heat pump to supply all the heat you need all alone. It wears down the appliance faster. Purchasing a supplementary heat source is caring for your heat pump.
- Don’t run it 24/7 year out: Since the heat pump functions as both an AC and heat source, some homeowners have it running night and day for most of the year. Don’t do this as it accelerates wear and tear and can impact appliance efficiency.
- Ensure proper maintenance: The best heat pumps can last up to 20 years in good working condition. But only with good maintenance, including seasonal checks by a licensed HVAC professional.
Yes, mini-splits are good for heating. Indeed, they are more energy-efficient, environment-friendly, and even more flexible than other home heating solutions.
But, they come with a few limitations, such as higher upfront costs and the need for professional installation. In the end, though, the benefits far outweigh the limitations.