Photo of a ductless mini split air conditioner vs central air conditionerIf you’re considering a new AC unit for your home, you may be wondering if it’s better to get a ductless mini split vs central air conditioning system.

Though both will cool you down, the two systems are actually installed and operated in very different ways.

The choice between ductless vs central air really boils down to your personal situation (which includes the layout of your home, the climate you live in, and your budget) and your preferences (things like your sensitivity to aesthetics and noise).

So which one is the right fit for your home?

Which of these systems can give you the greatest comfort and the money savings that you’re looking for?

To help you decide between a ductless AC vs central air unit, we’ll take a closer look at each of these cooling systems, outlining how they work and highlighting their top pros and cons.

Ductless Air Conditioner Buying Guide

After reading this guide, if you find that a ductless mini split air conditioner is the right choice for you, take a look at our best ductless air conditioner page to see what models are available.

That page gives you advice on how to properly size and choose a system that fits within your budget.

If a central air conditioner seems like a better fit, then you’ll need to contact a local HVAC technician to get an accurate quote.

Ductless vs Central Air Systems: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Ductless Air Conditioning Explained

Ductless air conditioning units are designed to provide cooling at a constant, preset temperature to one specific area of your home.

You can choose between one to six indoor units that operate on the same system. And, the temperature for each unit can be controlled separately.

A ductless mini split system has two main components: an outdoor unit, called a compressor, that houses a condenser coil as well as various electrical components; and an indoor unit, called an air handler or evaporator, that sits on your wall.

The indoor and outdoor units are connected by a slim line consisting of two copper pipes. Coolant passes between the two units through one of the pipes. The heat from indoors is then brought through the adjacent pipe to the outdoor unit where it is released.

In the winter, a ductless system can work in reverse in order to provide heating to your home.

Central Air Systems Explained

Central air conditioning basically creates a complete closed circuit that treats and cools air at a central location and then distributes it evenly to the rest of your home.

Like ductless AC, central air systems are split into two main parts: an outside unit, called a condenser, that houses the refrigeration elements, electrical components, and a fan; and an indoor evaporator coil that’s located inside an air handler or connected to the furnace.

A refrigeration line connects the outside and inside parts of the system together.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of a central air system; however, is the duct network.

The cool air is circulated equally throughout your home by one or more fans, a series of ducts, and numerous strategically placed vents. As the cool air circulates throughout your home, it becomes warmer. It then flows back to the central air conditioner through return ducts to be treated once again.

Central air conditioning systems are typically equipped with a filter that screens out airborne contaminants and a thermostat or central control unit that helps you to regulate and control the amount of cool air that circulates inside your home.

Central air conditioners are an all-on or all-off system. You can’t regulate the temperature inside individual rooms unless you close the air vents.

Ductless Mini Split vs Central Air: Weighing the Pros and Cons

When it comes to ductless AC vs central air conditioning, each setup has its own mix of advantages and disadvantages (some of which may not be so obvious), and they should be important considerations when choosing between the two systems.

Let’s go through some of the biggest points:

The Pros of Ductless AC

  • As their name implies, ductless mini split systems do not require ductwork, making it the more convenient cooling option for homes with thick walls or low hanging ceilings. They’re also easy to install. All you need is a small hole in the wall to run the refrigeration line through. Installation can be done for a single-unit system in about 2 hours.
  • They’re ideal for temperature zoning. This means one ductless system can have multiple air handlers installed in different rooms and be connected to just one compressor. Each air handler can then be controlled independently.
  • Air conditioning is limited to the rooms in which the air handlers are located. This can be a big plus in terms of cost savings, particularly in very warm climates, since only the areas currently in use can be cooled.
  • These systems tend to run quieter than central air conditioning systems.
  • Some ductless mini split models have the highest energy efficiency rating compared to other types of air conditioning systems. This makes them the most cost-effective long-term solution.

The Cons of Ductless AC

  • Depending on how many separate units you need and how advanced they are, your initial down payment may be higher for a ductless AC. If you already have ductwork run for a central air conditioner, it will likely be cheaper to replace any faulty components. Some of the most advanced ductless systems can cost thousands of dollars.
  • Most ductless systems don’t have enough power to cool a very large space. So, if you have exceptionally big open areas in your home, like a basement or open concept on the main level, then a ductless system may not be the most ideal solution. The reason being is that you would have to install multiple indoor evaporators to cover that single large space.
  • A ductless system typically requires that a slim box unit be placed on the wall. Not only do you need space for it, but from an aesthetic standpoint, you may not find it attractive. However, ceiling cassettes do exist to mount the air handlers in the ceiling, but this can double or triple the installation cost.

The Pros of Central AC

  • If you have ductwork in your home already or if you’re building your home from scratch, then it will cost much less to install a central AC system than a ductless one.
  • Central air conditioning systems are ideal for large homes or homes that have big open areas.
  • It offers consistent cooling throughout your entire house and you don’t have to worry about turning on and off separate units.
  • Since air is moved through internal ducts and wall vents, these systems are out of sight, which makes them more visually appealing than a mini split air conditioner.

The Cons of Central AC

  • If a central AC system has not been appropriately sized for the house or if the existing ductwork is leaking or poorly designed, it can lead to temperature inconsistencies within your home.
  • If you need to install ductwork from scratch in an existing structure, then the cost of installation can be much higher than a ductless system.
  • Some older homes can’t have central air conditioning installed due to the limitations of the internal structure. To make it work, you would have to install ductwork on the ceilings, which encroaches on your living space and is not visually appealing.
  • Central AC can be more expensive to run, especially in very warm climates, since it works to cool down your entire home. Though it is possible to get temperature zoning in some advanced systems, they tend to be less efficient than ductless ones.
  • Some central air systems can also be noisier than mini split air conditioners since the ductwork can act as an echo chamber.

Deciding Between a Ductless AC vs Central AC

Now that you know how each cooling system works as well as the main differences between them, let’s focus on three key considerations to help you decide which setup is really the best match for your home and personal preferences:

1. Initial Cost of Ductless Mini Split vs Central Air

For many AC buyers, this one issue alone can be the deciding factor.

Unless you currently have an operational ductwork system in your home or you’re building a new home from scratch, it will likely cost you much less to purchase and install a ductless mini split system.

With central AC, the installation cost of a new duct network that must be routed throughout the different areas of your home can get very pricey—particularly if you have a big home.

For example, adding a central AC system to a 2,000-square-foot home that already has a duct network can cost between $3,500 to $4,000. But, if a new network has to be installed from scratch, then the average price doubles.

For this reason, ductless systems are often more cost-effective for a new addition to your home that isn’t connected to the main duct network.

The cost for a single ductless mini split air system is between $1,500 to $2,000. That price can increase, though, if you need several indoor units or wish to buy a unit with a high SEER rating.

However, for the average homeowner, the cost of a ductless mini split vs central air conditioning often falls in favor of the ductless system.

2. Operational Cost of Ductless vs Central Air

When it comes to the expense of operating a mini split vs central air conditioner, mini split systems are much more cost-efficient.

There are several reasons for this.

First, ductless AC units can be custom fitted for different sized rooms. If you have a small bedroom, for example, you can get an indoor evaporator that’s properly size for that space. The cost for this unit is much cheaper than an evaporator that has to cool a large living room.

The chart below shows the various sizes you can get for each mini split indoor evaporator. BTU stands for British Thermal Unit, which is the standardized measurement for cooling and heating systems.

Ductless Mini Split Indoor Evaporator Options

Area To Be Cooled (Square Feet)BTU Needed
Up to 250 sq. ft.6,000 BTU
300 to 350 sq. ft.8,000 BTU
350 to 400 sq. ft.9,000 BTU
400 to 450 sq. ft.10,000 BTU
450 to 550 sq. ft.12,000 BTU
550 to 700 sq. ft.14,000 BTU
700 to 1,000 sq. ft.18,000 BTU
1,000 to 1,200 sq. ft.21,000 BTU
1,200 to 1,400 sq. ft.23,000 BTU
1,400 to 1,500 sq. ft.24,000 BTU
Up to 2,700 sq. ft.36,000 BTU

Since units can be sized for a particular space, it helps to ensure optimal cooling performance and energy efficiency.

Second, if there are sections of your home that tend to be hotter than others, are infrequently used, or the different members of your household prefer different temperatures, then the temperature zoning efficiency of a ductless system can result in significant savings to your monthly energy bill.

Finally, central air conditioning ducts are prone to costly damage and leaking. In fact, according to Energy.gov, as much as 30% of the energy consumption of a central AC is due to leaking ducts.

Another thing to consider is that the repair and maintenance of a central air conditioning system will mean hiring an HVAC professional, and that can also get expensive.

3. Aesthetics and Sound Differences

The final factor to consider is how visible or audible you mind having your air conditioning system.

With most ductless units, you’ll need to find a space to mount the indoor air handler, unless you choose the more expensive ceiling cassette option.

Though standard indoor air handler units can come in various colors and styles, they’ll nevertheless be visible. With a centralized air system, all you would see are the small air vents on the floor or ceiling.

Regarding the sound level, ductless systems tend to be quieter than central AC since ducts can echo and even amplify the sound from the centralized condenser. However, this issue can be avoided with a more expensive central air system.

Which is Right for You?

In summary, when it comes to the choice between a ductless mini split vs central air conditioning system, a ductless system is the most cost-effective solution unless you have an existing duct network that’s in good working condition.

However, if you don’t mind an increase in your monthly energy bill or you’re particular about the décor of your home, then a central air conditioner would make more sense.

Now that we have come to the end of our guide on ductless AC vs central air, you should now have a clear idea of which cooling option is best for you.