Traditional vs. Ductless HVAC Systems

Traditional vs. Ductless HVAC Systems

09 October 2021 |  News & Resources

Toronto is known for visiting the extremes of winter weather more regularly than our neighbours further south, but keeping your home at a comfortable temperature is important no matter where you live. Choosing the right equipment to take care of that for you is a major investment in the look, functionality, comfort, and affordability of your home.

One of the more recent developments in the HVAC industry is the ductless system. If that sounds like a confusing term, the words "ductless HVAC system" tell the whole story.

Unlike traditional setups that create the warm or cool air elsewhere then blow it throughout the house with a systems of ducts, ductless units have an indoor blower located immediately beside an outdoor unit.

This technology represents a big change from what most homeowners have maintained or purchased, so let's see how ductless units stack up against traditional systems to help you determine which one will work best for you.

How Big is Your Home?

Perhaps a better question is "How much space are you heating or cooling?" Ducts are definitely more effective in large homes because they don't require multiple outdoor units, but when you're only dealing with a targeted area, ductless is much better.

For example, many retired couples stay in the home where they raised their children and find that they don't need to run heat and air conditioning in those extra bedrooms, bathrooms, and basements. With a ductless system, they can create a comfortable living room, kitchen, and master suite without spending money on wasted energy. For a homes under 2,000 square feet, a ductless system is sufficient for the whole home.

What is Your Tolerance for Noise?

Because ducted systems fully separate the blower unit from the living space, they always operate more quietly. Ductless systems do have an indoor fan that generates some noise when the unit is in operation. Some people may find the sound distracting. If you have concerns about the noise level, read on to find out how you can get a solution that meets your needs.

Fortunately, there are many models of ductless units available with lower decibel ratings. If the unit will be located in a space where sound is an issue, you can simply purchase a quieter unit. Of course, in many cases, the better move would be simply to place the unit in a location where the noise is not an issue.

Do You Mind Looking at the Indoor Unit?

For people accustomed to seeing nothing more than a thermostat on the wall, ductless systems can at first seem a little prominent. The display, vent, and faceplate of the unit will be visible on the wall.

Once again, placement can make up for the visibility. Many homeowners find ways to situate the units in such a way that a tall houseplant or other decorative feature blocks the view without impeding air flow.

On the positive side, this centralized placement of the indoor features makes it easier to operate, maintain, and troubleshoot a ductless system. You will never have to worry about common duct problems like mold, rodents, and leaks. Everything will be easy to access and repair if needed.

What is the Condition of Existing Ductwork?

If you're looking into an upgrade of the HVAC in an existing home, a major factor in your decision between traditional and ductless is the condition of the ductwork itself.

Pay a visit to your attic, basement, or crawlspace and give the ducts a good inspection. Are there cracks, moldy areas, or other problems? Leaky ductwork is very inefficient and can really cost you money. Check inside them as well. If you see a heavy buildup of dust or mold, you may have a real health issue with continuing to use the old ductwork.

Simply put, if you just do not see yourself wanting to worry about the upkeep of ductwork, you can put an end to the headache by going ductless.

How Much Are You Willing to Spend?

A central HVAC system is much more expensive than a ductless system, even if you have good ductwork already in place. The better price holds true whether you're dealing with new construction or replacement of an old system.

Set aside any concerns that ductless systems are built cheaply. They are constructed of quality materials to high standards of reliability and efficiency. The savings come in several other ways that do not affect system performance.

First, your installer will have more flexibility in where to place the system. The outdoor unit is smaller and lighter, giving you more options on location. Second, there are fewer airtight seals to maintain because there are no ducts to install or upgrade.

As with any product, you can spend as much as you want, but the overall price scale for ductless systems is significantly lower than traditional setups.

Is Energy Efficiency Important to You?

Most people have a then-to-now view of energy efficiency--that is, is my system efficient enough to lower my energy bills? Most new systems of any kind will be far more efficient than the old units they replace, but that may not be the best standard to use for comparison.

An objective measure of efficiency is the seasonal energy efficiency rating (SEER) of the unit. If you compare traditional systems to ductless systems, you will quickly see better energy efficiency in the ductless systems. A top ducted system will be around a SEER of 21, while the best ductless units can go as high as 27.

Another angle of efficiency is your carbon footprint, which will clearly be smaller with a ductless system. Understand SEER ratings and you'll be better equipped to make these important comparisons.

Do You Need Zoning?

One of the most common reasons for upgrading to a new HVAC system is the opportunity to incorporate new options for greater comfort. A popular option for new systems is zoning.

Many homes have differing needs from room to room. One person may want a colder bedroom while another person may want a warmer one. A zoning setup can make this possible in your home. HVAC systems of both types can be set up for this option, but ductless systems do so more affordably.

With a zoning configuration, you can make adjustments for individual preferences or to compensate for the natural differences in the home's temperature. Corner rooms that stay colder in the winter can get an extra boost of heat, and sun-soaked rooms that face the southern summer sun can get help pushing toward a comfortable temperature without turning the rest of the house into an icebox.

The Bottom Line

There are two major reasons why homeowners enter the market for a new HVAC system. They have either experienced a major breakdown with their old system or they just want to upgrade for increased flexibility, improved energy efficiency, a smaller carbon footprint, or some combination of those factors.

If you're in the first group, you may not have time to explore your options as deeply as you would like. That's why it can be very beneficial to put together a "what-if" plan for replacing your system. While the unit is still performing normally, talk to contractors about your options for a new system. Make a decision based on their feedback and the information we've provided here so that you can be prepared to make a decision quickly if you ever experience a complete system failure.

If you're in the second group, you have the luxury of time. Follow that same process, making sure you give serious consideration to a ductless system. Making the change to a system utilizing this type of technology can be a great way to meet your personal heating and cooling needs without spending more than you have to for installation or operation.