Ducted vs Ductless Heat Pump

Throughout the last few years, heat pumps have been gaining popularity among a lot of homeowners. Mainly, because such systems are much more efficient than furnaces or boilers.

Ducted heat pumps are a great option for the houses that already have ducts and where air circulation needs to be improved. Ductless heat pumps are more flexible, offer zone heating and cooling, and will help avoid any issues associated with ductwork (dust, rodents, etc.).

Below, you will find out what system is going to be better for your specific case.

What Is a Ducted Heat Pump?

Both ducted and ductless heat pumps work using the same principle.

The heat is not created by the units. Pumps simply transfer heat from one place to the other, and this is the main thing that makes heat pumps so incredibly effective.

If you decide to go for a ducted heat pump, you will have an outdoor unit and a central indoor unit that pumps the air through the ductwork.

There are different types of ducted pumps:

  • Air-source heat pumps

As the name suggests. These units work by transferring heat between the outside air and the air in your house.

  • Hybrid units

Perhaps, one of the ‘safest’ options as hybrid units work in conjunction with another source of heating (like a furnace, for example).

In such a case, the heat pump will be doing its thing during summer and the majority of winter. However, if it gets freezing cold outside – the furnace is going to take center stage.

Read: Do I Need A Furnace With A Heat Pump?

  • Geothermal heat pumps

Ground heat is a very stable source of warm air. Such heat pumps get connected to the ground, usually, a few feet below the surface. 

Fact: around 50.000 geothermal heat pumps are installed in the US every year.

What Is a Ductless Heat Pump?

Ductless heat pumps (or mini-split systems) are highly customizable. You can choose to install one or more indoor units that will be controlled independently.

  • Single-zone heat pumps

If you have a small home or if you tend to use only one room in your house most of the time, installing one single indoor unit might be the right choice for you.

Homeowners can also use such heat pumps to control the temperature in supplement areas of their house where there is no ductwork (like garages or workshops).

  • Multi-zone heat pumps

These heat pumps come with one outdoor unit and 2 or more indoor units.

This is a great option for houses where a few rooms tend to be used simultaneously (by different family members, for example). 

Also, you’ll have an opportunity to change the temperature in each room independently. For instance, you can keep the living room nice and warm and the bedroom a bit cooler for a better night’s sleep.

Differences Between a Heat Pump ; an Air Conditioner

An air conditioner can operate only in cooling mode. In order to be able to heat the house up, the air con has to be paired with a furnace or a boiler.

When it comes to heat pumps, these units can do both – heat and cool your home.

Pumps work by absorbing heat from the outside air (or ground) and then discharging it indoors. For that reason, it might be a bit challenging for some heat pumps to keep the house warm when the temperatures drastically drop.

Even though the newer models are able to work even when it’s freezing outside, pairing your heat pump with a furnace might be a good decision.

Read: Heat Pump Effectiveness In Cold Weather

The Pros ; Cons of a Ducted Heat Pump

Pros

  • Effectiveness ; efficiency

Even though heat pumps still use electricity, they are going to need a much smaller amount than a lot of other heating and cooling systems. Mainly, because pumps do not generate heat, they just transfer it.

Fact: an air-source heat pump can reduce your electricity usage by up to 50%.

Moreover, a ducted heat pump can easily deliver up to 3 times more heat than the amount of electricity it consumes (bear in mind that geothermal units are even more effective).

  • Only one unit is needed for an entire house

With ducted heat pumps, you are going to need only one indoor unit. 

You can always extend the actual ductwork if you want, but you would never have to install an additional pump.

  • The ducts are hidden

The great thing about a ducted heat pump is that you can’t really see it inside the house.

The hot or cool air travels through a system of ducts and then gets delivered into the rooms through small vents.

  • It’s easier to find a highly experienced contractor

Ducted systems have been around for much longer than ductless systems. The majority of contractors have a lot of experience in working with ductwork, so the process of finding a suitable professional won’t require a lot of time.

  • Helps combat humidity issues

If you decide to go for a high-efficiency ducted heat pump, it is also going to dehumidify the air which is especially important in the summer months.

Cons

  • Ductwork requires space and installation is expensive and time-consuming

If you don’t have ductwork already installed, it would cost you between $1.900 and $6.000 to get new ducts professionally installed.

However, do bear in mind that a lot of houses simply don’t have enough space for that.

  • Ducts can become home to dust and other allergens

The inside of the system is not pretty at all. Dust, dead skin, hair – all these things can gather in the ductwork.

Moreover, mold and mildew can start growing in some parts of the system, if it’s not kept clean and dry.

  • Needs to be checked for leaks

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 30% of air gets lost through leaks while traveling through the ductwork.

Different holes and poorly connected ducts can decrease the efficiency of your heat pump (and increase the energy bills).

  • Ducts can become an entry point for rodents

Unfortunately, rodents can chew their way into the ductwork or find unsealed access and, later on, use it to enter your kitchen, for example.

The Pros ; Cons of a Ductless Heat Pump

Pros

  • Quick and easy installation

Ductless heat pumps are not invasive at all. 

In fact, in a lot of cases, a mini-split system requires only a small hole in the wall. That means no major construction or room rebuilding.

Adding ductwork to a house that didn’t have ducts before ‘eats up’ a lot of space. Ductless heat pumps, in their turn, will not steal the valuable square footage.

  • Highly flexible design

The quiet indoor units can be placed on the ceilings, walls, or even floor.

Mini-split systems also come with a variety of customizable features. A lot of models have timers, for example.

  • Zone cooling and heating

With a ductless system, you are going to have full control over your unit.

The temperatures in the rooms that have air-handlers can be adjusted independently. That means that you wouldn’t need to heat up the whole house, in case you want to increase the temperature only in one room.

Moreover, ductless heat pumps use inverter-driven compressors. These units don’t simply have an ‘on’ and ‘off’ mode, they can slow down or speed up depending on your needs.

  • Energy efficiency

Because of the inverter-driven compressor, a ductless unit doesn’t have to spend a lot of energy on re-starting the system over and over again.

Read: How Many Watts Does A Heat Pump Use?

Cons

  • Aesthetics

Modern ductless heat pumps come in sleek designs, but you can still see them hanging on the wall.

  • Installation can be expensive

It can cost you up to $8.000 (in some cases – even more) to install a highly efficient multi-zone ductless heat pump.

  • Require frequent maintenance

It will certainly depend on how often you use your heat pump. But, in general, you would have to clean the filter every 4-12 weeks.

The job is not a complicated one, but it should be done regularly.

Ducted vs Ductless Heat Pump: How to Choose?

SituationBetter Option
Your house already has ductsGo for a ducted heat pump
You are planning new construction or renovationDuctless heat pump
You need to improve air circulationDucted heat pump
You have allergy and asthma concernsDuctless heat pump
You want the HVAC system to stay hiddenDucted heat pump
Humidity is an issueDucted heat pump
You want the unit to offer zone cooling and heatingDuctless heat pump

To Sum Up

In a nutshell, if your house already has ducts, going for a ducted heat pump might be a better decision.

However, that does not mean that you should forget about the existence of ductless systems.

Mini-split systems can help control the temperature in the spaces that are not connected to the ducts, like garages or workshops, for example.

Also, do remember that even though heat pumps are, in general, much more efficient than other heating and cooling options, they might not be as effective in areas with freezing winters.

So, having a furnace or a boiler as a backup is always a good idea.

Read: What Causes A Heat Pump To Freeze Up?