Ductless air conditioning systems gain in popularity, sales

Photo by Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
| Saturday, June 7, 2014, 6:04 p.m.

Ellen Kline says ductless air conditioning is working so well, it makes other sorts of cooling in her 100-year-old house look like wrong moves.

She says she and her husband, Alex, had ductless units installed in 2011 to handle the top two floors of their Shaler home. In 2013, they were considering traditional window units for the first floor.

“But then we said, ‘What are we doing?' ” she says. “Another ductless system is the way to go.”

The Klines are part of a growing clientele for ductless systems, which provide cooling to homes where ductwork is not available and would be impossible or too expensive to install.

John Kicinski from South Side Plumbing and Heating says the systems are the “direction of the future.” Butch Donahue from the Greensburg firm that bears his name says sales are “incredible.” His rose 150 percent between 2012 and 2013, he says.

Mike Smith from Mitsubishi Electric U.S. Cooling & Heating says annual revenue from ductless systems will grow from $3.9 billion in 2013 to $9 billion by 2020, or about 30 percent of sales in all heating-cooling systems. It is at about 14 percent now, he says.

“People at first expected it to be a solution for a room or an addition, but it can be so much more,” says the senior marketing manager for residential products for the Georgia offices of that firm.

“Mitsubishi Electric sold 48,000 ductless systems in 2005 when we began aggressively marketing to U.S. consumers,” Smith says. “Sales have grown by double-digits, year-over-year since 2005.”

The Japanese have been using such systems for 50 years, he says, and Mitsubishi began test marketing in the United States between 2001 and 2004.

Ductless air conditioners are systems powered by an outdoor condenser — much smaller than a traditional one because it is supplying less of a load — that are tied to indoor cooling elements called air handlers. The air handlers generally hang higher on a wall and are connected to the condensers by hose-like lines.

They can be used as a heat pump, a function Kline says allows them to keep some rooms warm without turning on the furnace in seasonal transition days.

Smith says the lack of a need for ductwork is what has made them popular in Europe and Asia, where the housing stock is older and not equipped with those systems. Kicinski says the lack of ductwork has made them popular here for additions or sun rooms where duct assembly has not been extended.

He says he installed 19 units in an apartment building that allowed tenants in smaller units to control — and be billed — for their own cooling.

Donahue says he tends to think of them as units for specific problems. He says they are changing constantly, but sees some of the newer possibilities as being “specialty items and pricey.”

He says a homeowner could move into a ductless solution for a one-room problem for about $2,000. Ken Batko from Shaler's Dynamic Heating says a whole house probably could be air-conditioned ductlessly for about $10,000 “about the same as you might spend for a traditional system.”

He says a house could be done in the way he did the Kline home. In that home, two units cool the top two floors, each doing a side of the home. Another unit cools the bottom floor.

Smith says heating more than one area of a home or building is done through a more-powerful condenser working with a greater number of air handlers. He says Mitsubishi's largest condenser can work with eight air handlers.

The strength of condensers is expressed as a refrigerant ton, which equals 12,000 BTU. The eight-handler condenser produces four tons, or 48,000 BTU.

It is not unusual for some conventional air-conditioning units to work at five tons.

Kicinski says the efficiency in causing that cooler air also is one of the impressive aspects of ductless systems. Heating-cooling units are measured for the seasonal energy efficiency ratio, or SEER. It is the ratio of the amount heat produced compared to the energy use to generate it.

Conventional air-conditioning units must have a SEER of at least 13, he says, and those in the high teens are considered at the beginning of high efficiency. Ductless systems are pressing 30 in SEER ratings, he and Smith say.

Batko says the units achieve that efficiency by sensor units that tell them when to use more BTU, sort of a step up from the programmable thermostat.

The ratings and numbers might tell the story mathematically, but Kline has a simpler system.

“It makes no noise and it gets the job done,” she says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy