A mini split is better if you want very high efficiency and the ability to control the climate in each room or zone.
Central air is better for whole home heating and air conditioning if cost is a major factor. That’s right, a mini split system, even for a small house with few zones, will probably cost more than a standard split system. This is especially true if the home already has ductwork and you won’t incur that cost.
In a new home, you should compare the cost of mini split and central air conditioning systems based on the specific factors important to you. Mini splits are growing in popularity for use in new home settings.
This page covers the debate – which is better, mini split or central air conditioning and heating – with a discussion of cost, efficiency and electricity use, indoor comfort, durability, noise level, single zone and multi zone options and the best system for a cold climate.
Each type has pros and cons.
Can you Combine a Mini Split with Central HVAC?
Yes you can. It is often done, especially when the central system doesn’t have the capacity to provide heating and air conditioning to additional space.
Here are common scenarios when a homeowner would combine a mini split with a central HVAC system. A single zone or multi zone mini split could be used depending on the project:
- Home addition – A new room like a bedroom suite, home office, family room, large kitchen, or multiple rooms or adding an upper floor
- Attic conversion
- Garage conversion
- Finished basement
- Supplemental AC for rooms that are hot and stuffy in winter (usually upper rooms)
- Supplemental heat for rooms that are chilly in winter (usually farthest from the HVAC equipment or basement rooms)
Should I Replace Central Air with Mini Split?
No – If your ductwork is in good condition, not leaking air, and cost is a primary concern, then your best solution is to replace a standard HVAC system with a similar (but more efficient) central air system.
Yes – Switch to a mini split system when the ducts in your home need major repairs or must be replaced. Also consider HVAC replacement with a mini split if you plan to purchase a system with ultra-high efficiency of 24 SEER to 42 SEER.
Mini Split vs Central Air Electric Bill
Most mini split systems are more efficient than standard split systems.
As a result, you will use less electricity with a mini split than with central heating and cooling.
When you compare mini split vs central HVAC efficiency:
- AC: Mini splits use about 15% to 50% less electricity in cooling / AC Mode.
- Heat: Mini splits use about 12% to 15% less energy in Heat Mode.
Results depend on which models you are considering in your comparison.
Central AC vs Mini Split Efficiency
Here are cooling efficiencies (SEER) and heating efficiencies (HSPF) for mini split and standard split system heat pumps:
Mini split cooling efficiency: 16 SEER to 42 SEER
Central HVAC cooling efficiency: 14 SEER to 28 SEER
Mini split heating efficiency: 9.0 to 15.0
Central HVAC heating efficiency: 8.0 to 13.0 HSPF
*When comparing mini split to central air efficiency, also consider the problem of ductwork. Studies show that up to 30% of air traveling through ductwork leaks into space where it does no good. This fact makes mini splits look even more efficient by comparison.
Mini Split AC in Every Room vs Central Air
A mini split provides better indoor climate control because you can customize the temperature in each room or zone. It will also produce lower energy costs than a central air / HVAC system.
But the equipment and installation cost of the mini split will be significantly higher than the cost of a traditional split HVAC system.
In short, comfort and operating costs are better but upfront cost is higher with a mini split.
There’s more on the cost of a mini split vs central air and heat in the next section.
Cost of Mini Split vs Central Air
In either HVAC type, system capacity and efficiency are major cost factors.
With mini split systems, a huge price factor is the number of indoor units. Each one brings with it the cost of the indoor unit – the evaporator – installation supplies and installation labor costs.
Mini Split Prices
The cost of a mini split system starts at about $2,100 for a DIY brand like the MrCool DIY Gen 3 or Gen 4 system.
Single zone – Installed: The average cost of a single zone mini split starts closer to $5,000 installed by a pro and can be as high as $10,000.
Multi zone Installed: When you discuss multizone mini split cost, the price begins around $7,000. The average cost of a 3 zone system is $11,750.
Each additional zone adds $2,000 to $3,300 to the price when equipment plus installation is included.
As a result, a 4-zone system can exceed $16,000 and an 8-zone system price will be above $24,000. This is why the US Department of Energy says that a mini split system costs an average of 30% more than a central system.
Central Air Prices
To compare mini split and central air prices, a complete heating and AC system is considered.
Split System – No Ductwork: Gas furnace and AC system prices start at $5,500 installed. Systems of average size and good efficiency are $8,500 to $12,000. The most efficient and expensive standard furnace split systems exceed $17,000 installed.
Heat pump systems cost a little more than furnace/AC systems. When capacity and comparable efficiency are considered, a heat pump standard split system costs 10% to 15% more than a furnace and AC system, topping out around $20,000 or possibly higher.
Split System with Ductwork: The cost of ducts is $2,400 to $4,500 in most homes of 1,200 to 2,000 square feet. House levels, ductwork quality and size, and the configuration of the ductwork runs are factors.
Home Value – Return on Investment
The ROI of a mini split vs central heating and air conditioning depends on many factors.
Generally, a standard central air and heating system has a slightly higher ROI. They cost less upfront, and people are familiar with them, so are not hesitant to buy a home with a standard split HVAC system.
But there are other considerations:
Multi zone systems: If you choose a multizone mini split of 4+ indoor units, ROI will be lower because the equipment cost will be very high – too high to recoup when selling your home.
Premium indoor units: If you choose expensive options like cassette mini split indoor units, ROI will also be lower for the same reason.
Cheap systems: If you buy an inefficient standard system where the climate is very hot, return on investment will suffer because it will “scare off” some potential buyers who fear high electricity / energy bills.
Best ROI – Mini split: The best return on investment for a mini split is in places like the South and Southwest where ductless systems are common.
Best ROI – Standard split system: The best return on investment for a standard system is in northern climates when the system includes a gas furnace with 90+ efficiency.
Summary of Mini Split vs Central Air Pros and Cons
Starting with mini splits, they have many advantages and a few disadvantages. .
Mini split pros:
- Customized climate control in each room or zone
- Ideal for new rooms, additions and conversions
- Some DIY brands like Mr Cool and Klimaire
- Efficiency levels up to 42 SEER and 15 HSPF
- You have many indoor unit options including wall, floor, ducted, air handler and several ceiling types
- No ductwork required – but you can use existing ductwork if you choose to
- Good warranties up to 12 years on all parts
Mini split cons:
- Higher cost, especially with multi zone systems of 4 or more zones are professionally installed
- Many lose effectiveness in extreme cold temperatures
- Visible / obtrusive indoor units unless concealed in the ceiling
Standard split system pros:
- Options for heat pump systems or furnace and AC systems
- Lower overall cost than multi zone mini splits
- Improved energy efficiency compared to earlier systems
- Easier repairs and lower repair bills
- Quieter indoors than mini splits
Standard split system cons:
- Generally lower efficiency
- No DIY AC installation
- Zoning the ductwork is expensive
Are Mini Splits Louder Than Central Air?
Yes and no. The outside unit of a central air system – a conventional AC – is louder by 15 to 25dB. Mini split outdoor units run at 42 to 55dB (decibels). Standard central air system condensing units have a noise level of 55dB to more than 70dB.
Indoors is a slightly different story:
Mini splits: Indoor units range from 19 to 24 decibels, which is like the sound of rustling leaves. Mitsubishi indoor units, for example, have noise levels of 19dB to 22dB. If you are listening to media or having a conversation, you likely won’t hear an indoor unit running. And it shouldn’t disturb your sleep.
Central air: The only sound you might hear is the air rushing out of the grates. Yes, from indoors, you might hear the condensing unit outside, but only if everything in the house is quiet.
Do mini splits cool as well as central air?
Yes. Mini split system air conditioning is just as effective as central air for cooling the air in your home.
Can a mini split cool a whole house?
Yes, a mini split will cool your whole house as long as it is sized large enough to do the job. In other words, don’t expect a 24,000 BTU mini split to cool a 2,000 square foot home as quickly or effectively as a 36,000 to 48,000 BTU central air conditioning system.
Make sure that you or your HVAC contractor do a load calculation to determine the right size system for your home whether you choose a standard or mini split system. You can also use our mini split sizing calculator to get an estimated size.
What is a ducted mini split?
It is a mini split system attached to existing ductwork or to ducted indoor units. For either type, an indoor air handler is installed to circulate heated or cooled air through the ducted mini split system. A ducted mini split can serve a whole house or be used as part of a larger system that also employs non-ducted indoor units.
Do ductless mini splits increase home value?
Yes, a mini split will increase your home’s value by 55% to 80% of its cost.
How much it increases the value of your home depends on choosing the right system for your needs.
To maximize your home’s value, your return on investment, follow these two tips:
1). Choose a system with the right efficiency for your climate – the hotter or colder your weather, the more efficient the mini split heat pump should be.
2). Select wall mounted indoor units. They are the most affordable. On the other hand, avoid the most expensive indoor units like floor units or a cassette mini split system.
3). Design a system with as few indoor units as possible while still effectively heating, cooling and dehumidifying (in AC Mode) your home. This is because the cost of a single large indoor unit costs a lot less than two smaller indoor units when equipment and installation costs are considered. For example, in a large zone like the living room or a bedroom suite, one 18,000 BTU unit installed will cost about 60% to 70% of two 9,000 BTU units installed.