Ductless Mini Split Vs Central Air AC: Which Is Better? (8 Differences)

In recent years, we see homeowners replacing central air with mini split AC units quite regularly. Especially when you have to decide on an AC system for new construction, you are seeing more and more mini splits vs HVAC units. This has prompted us to make a spec-by-spec overview analysis of mini split vs central air to answer one key question:

Which AC unit is better; ductless mini split AC or central air?

In the 80s, 90s, and the beginning of 2000s, the standard HVAC central air was a predominant choice. According to Statista’s 2016 worldwide study, however, this is the share of central air vs mini split (and multi-split) ductless units is:

  • Share of ductless mini splits is 77%.
  • Share of central air is 5%.

That is a surprising and significant difference. And it is not unwarranted at all.

installing a central air conditioner is more difficult than installing a ductless mini split ac
Installing these old-school central aircons is (more or less) a thing of the past.

To adequately compare mini split vs central air systems, we are going to look into the key 8 differences between ductless vs central air systems. We are going to tackle the most frequent questions like:

  • Are mini splits more efficient than central air?
  • Central AC vs split AC power consumption.
  • How much do mini splits cost vs cost of central air units? The cost of ductless mini split vs central air (as well as installation costs) is one of the main reasons why homeowners choose a split system mini split unit over central air.
  • How difficult is it to install a mini split vs how difficult it is to install a central air unit? This heavily influences installation costs. With mini splits, you can install certain models like MrCool units yourself (DIY mini split) and save $1,000s of installation.

We will go point-by-point and spec-by-specs to illustrate the key differences between the HVAC central air vs ductless split AC systems. At the end, you can read the bottom line on which type of air conditioning system is better.

Note: If you are looking at a specific mini split or central air, or would require a recommendation, you can use the comment section below and we’ll try to help you out as best we can.

Let’s start with the summary of these vital differences that separate the mini splits and central air systems:

Mini Split Vs Central Air Comparison (Summary)

There are a number of similarities between mini splits and central air. Both of these AC types can produce several tons of cooling capacity, are energy efficient, provide homogeneous temperature, cost 1,000s of dollars, and last for 15+ years.

However, if you really want to answer adequately which is better – mini split or central air – we have to focus on the differences. Here is a chart with the main differences between ductless AC vs central air:

Specification: Mini Split AC: Central Air:
1. Cooling Capacity And Room Coverage From 0.75-6 Tons (300-3,600 Sq Ft) From 2-8 Tons (1,000-4,800 Sq Ft)
2. Energy Efficiency Higher (18+ SEER Rating) Lower (Less Than 20 SEER Rating)
3. Power Consumption Lower Running Costs Higher Running Costs
4. Expected Lifespan Shorter (15-20 Years) Longer (20-25 Years)
5. Ductworks No Ducts Required Ducts Are A Must
6. Installation Difficulty Much Easier (You Can Even DIY Installation) Much Harder (You Always Need Proffesional Installation)
7. Voltage Requirements: What Kind Of Electric Circuit Do You Need? 220/240V For Bigger Units, 110/120 For Smaller Units Always 220/240V Circuit
8. Total Cost Of The System Much Cheaper ($1,200 – $10,000) Much More Expensive ($4,000 – $16,000 Or Even More)

Overall, you can see that there are many advantages mini splits have over central air. Let’s delve into each of them to best illustrate what a difference choosing a mini split vs choosing a central air makes:

1. Cooling Capacity Of Mini Split Vs Central Air

The first thing you have to do when choosing either a mini split or a central air system is the tonnage. AC tonnage denotes how powerful an air conditioner is.

Mini splits are available from the 0.75-ton (9,000 BTU) units to about 6-ton (72,000 BTU) units.

air distribution of central air vs mini split
Air distribution from a 2-zone mini split air conditioner.

On the other hand, the smallest central AC unit is a 2-ton unit (24,000 BTU) and the capacity goes up to 8 tons (96,000 BTU).

Immediately you see that the mini splits can be used to cool small, standard, and big houses. Central air systems can’t be used to cool small houses; they can cool standard and big houses, however.

The key point is to determine the tonnage you need for your house (square footage). If you use the simple DOE’s rule of thumb for AC sizing that states ’20 BTU per sq ft of living space (8 ft ceilings)’, you get these coverages for different units (you need a bit more cooling power per BTU for small houses):

AC Capacity: Coverage (Sq Ft): Mini Split: Central Air:
0.75 Ton 300 Sq Ft energy star no
1 Ton 400 Sq Ft energy star no
1.5 Ton 900 Sq Ft energy star no
2 Ton 1,200 Sq Ft
2.5 Ton 1,500 Sq Ft
3 Ton 1,800 Sq Ft
3.5 Ton 2,100 Sq Ft
4 Ton 2,400 Sq Ft
4.5 Ton 2,700 Sq Ft
5 Ton 3,000 Sq Ft
6 Ton 3,600 Sq Ft
7 Ton 4,200 Sq Ft energy star no
8 Ton 4,600 Sq Ft energy star no

As you can see, the mini splits do something the central air units can’t do: Cool spaces below 1,200 sq ft. You can check which are these smallest mini splits here.

Of course, if you have a very large house, it seems that a central AC unit is the only choice. It’s not. You can always get another mini split to supplement the cooling output you need. That means a combination of several mini splits can generate 10+ tons of cooling output.

Coverage Winner: Mini Splits

What is especially important here is how much running costs you pay for this tonnage. Let’s check the energy efficiency:

2. Energy Efficiency Of Mini Splits Vs Central Air

“Are mini splits more efficient than central air?” This is the key question here. The easiest way to determine how energy efficient a certain air conditioner is is to check the SEER rating (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating).

A higher SEER rating equates to higher energy efficiency (and hence lower running costs).

On average, ductless mini split AC units are much more energy efficient than central air systems.

mini split ac indoor and outdoor unit sketch
The design of mini split heat pumps allows for higher energy efficiency cooling/heating.

The SEER rating of mini splits ranges between 16 and 22 SEER. You can quite easily find a 20+ SEER rated mini split. In fact, the newest generation of mini splits (below 2-ton units) can have a SEER rating of up to 33. This is pure engineering brilliance.

The SEER rating of central air units ranges between 14 and 21 SEER. You will have quite a lot of problems finding a 20+ SEER rated central AC unit. And if you do, the cost of the high energy efficient central air units can be absurdly high (even above $13,000 with installation).

The difference in SEER rating makes a lot of difference. For example, a 20 SEER rated unit is about 25% more energy efficient than a 16 SEER rated unit.

Example: Let’s say you pay $1,000/year for cooling with a 16 SEER central air unit. With the same capacity 20 SEER mini split you would pay only $750/year. This is a $250 difference each year; in 20 years, this is a $5,000 difference between efficient mini split and less efficient central air.

Energy Efficiency Winner: Mini Splits

To illustrate the running costs better, let’s look at how much electricity do mini splits vs central air consume:

3. Central AC Vs Split AC Power Consumption

The power consumption of any air conditioner is predominantly determined by 3 factors. These are:

  1. Capacity of the AC unit (tonnage). Example: A 5-ton unit will consume more electricity than a 3-ton unit.
  2. Energy Efficiency (SEER rating). Example: A 20 SEER rated unit will consume 25% less electricity than a 16 SEER unit.
  3. How much do you use the AC? If you run an AC for 4 hours per day vs if you use it for 8 hours per day, you will obviously see a difference in power consumption.

When you are choosing between a central AC and mini split, you usually pick the same tonnage (Factor 1) and run it for the same amount of hours (Factor 3).

It is quite obvious that the SEER rating (Factor 2) is the determining factor here.

power consumption of mini split vs central air ac
The difference between mini split and central air power usage is primarily determined by the difference in SEER rating.

Because mini splits have, on average, higher SEER ratings, they consume less power than the central AC units.

To illustrate how many watts do different sizes of AC run on, you can check this table. These are calculated wattages and electricity costs if we presume a 10 EER rating, $0.1319/kWh, and running the AC at 100% output:

AC Tonnage: Max. Wattage And Electricity Usage: Cost Per Running Hour:
1 Ton 1,200W (1.2 kWh/h) $0.16/h
2 Ton 2,400W (2.4 kWh/h) $0.32/h
3 Ton 3,600W (3.6 kWh/h) $0.47/h
4 Ton 4,800W (4.8 kWh/h) $0.63/h
5 Ton 6,000W (6.0 kWh/h) $0.79/h
6 Ton 7,200W (7.2 kWh/h) $0.95/h
7 Ton 8,400W (8.4 kWh/h) $1.11/h
8 Ton 9,600W (9.6 kWh/h) $1.27/h

Now, the SEER rating presumes that you run your mini split or central air AC at:

  • 100% output 1% of the time.
  • 75% output 42% of the time.
  • 50% output 45% of the time.
  • 25% output 2% of the time.

What that all this mean?

It means that when you pick a mini split over a central air unit, you are picking, in general, a unit with a higher SEER rating. This will lower the running costs in the case of a high SEER mini split unit and can, conversely, increase the running costs if you pick a low SEER central air system.

Lower Power Consumption Winner: Mini Splits

4. How Long Do Mini Splits Vs Central Air Last?

The lifespan of an air conditioner is an important factor when you are deciding about which type of AC unit is the best. Out of all the specs, the lifespan is a single specification where the central air is better than mini splits.

How long does a central air AC last? (compared to mini splits)

The central AC unit has the longest. They have an expected lifetime of 20 to 25 years.

Mini splits, on the other hand, last 15 to 20 years.

You can see that, on average, central air conditioners last about 5 years longer than mini split AC units. That’s clear – and arguably the only – advantage central air has over ductless mini split systems.

Longer Lifespan Winner: Central Air

5. Ductwork Requirements

Everybody knows that central air requires ducts. You can’t provide air conditioning from a central HVAC system without ducts. And ductworks are expensive (ductwork installation for a standard 2,200 sq ft house costs several $1,000s).

Ductless mini splits, as it is quite obvious, don’t require ductwork. The indoor air handlers deliver all the cooling; not the ducts.

ducted vs ductless hvac units
Central air units require ducts. Mini splits don’t need ducts. That’s a major difference.

The fact that mini splits don’t require ducts is a massive advantage over central air. Nobody really loves the ducts; they take space, are kind of ugly, and they cost a ton.

No Ductwork Required Winner: Ductless Mini Splits (Obviously)

6. Difficulty Of Installing A Mini Split Vs Central Air System

Ducts are not the end of the story here. Central air conditioners are notoriously hard to install, especially compared to how much easier it is to install mini splits.

Of course, most homeowners don’t really care how difficult an AC unit is to install. We mostly care about how much the installation costs; because installing these bigger air conditioners requires professional installers.

installation difficulty between mini split and central air conditioner
Installing the indoor air handler of a split system AC unit.

A general rule of thumb for installing both mini splits and central AC units is this:

The upfront cost of the unit represents about 50% of the total cost. The other 50% is installation plus labor.

That simply means that if you want to install a $5,000 mini split or central air, you are likely to pay somewhere around $5,000 for installation + labor.

That is, of course, if you choose professional installation. With the central air unit, you have no choice: Central air must be installed by a qualified and certified HVAC professional.

Many mini splits also need a professional installation. But not all. You have DIY mini splits (1-ton, 2-ton, or 3-ton unit) that you can install yourself.

Of course, you will need some technical skills and will have to know your way around power tools, but many homeowners opt to install a mini split themselves and pocket the $1000s they would spend on professional installation.

That is a clear advantage mini splits have over central air. If you choose to install a mini split yourself, you can reduce the total cost of the AC unit by 50%. That’s quite a lot:

Easy (Even DIY) Installation Winner: Mini Splits

7. 110/120V Vs 220/240V Circuit For Mini Splits And Central Air

Electric circuit requirements for running either a mini split or central air are not the most important factor here. The voltage you have to use, however, is not insignificant either.

All central AC units require an upgraded 220/240V electric circuit. If you don’t have that, you will need an electrician to upgrade your electric grid. Obviously, this increases the overall costs of installation.

electric circuit requirements of a mini split vs central air ac units
Higher voltage allows for more power (wattage) at lower amps.

Bigger mini-splits (above 15,000 BTU or 1.25-ton units) also require 220/240V voltage. No difference between mini splits and central air electricity requirements here.

However, if you do choose a 1-ton mini split, you don’t need the upgraded 220/240V. You can simply run it on a 110/120V circuit with a 15A amp breaker. That makes the whole DIY process for mini splits much easier.

Electric Circuit Winner: Mini Splits

8. Cost Of Mini Splits Vs Central Air (Price Comparison)

Everybody who is looking to install an AC system wants to lower upfront costs. Because both mini splits and central AC units can cost a huge amount of money, the question about which AC type – mini split or central air – is cheaper is quite an understandable one.

To get a grip on how central air units cost, you can check this cost comparison table from the best central air brands reviews article:

Central AC Brand Logo Capacity SEER Rating Lifetime Electricity Cost Savings Over Federal Minimum Installed Cost Average Rating
1. Goodman 2-5 ton 18-24.5 $1,452 – $3,934 28% – 49% $3,100 – $6,600 4.7 out of 5 stars
2. Trane trane central air cons 2-4.5 ton 18-21.5 SEER $1,551 – $3,703 28% – 40% $5,500 – $13,000 4.7 out of 5 stars
3. Rheem 2-5 ton 13-20 SEER N/A N/A $3,900 – $6,400 4.6 out of 5 stars
4. Daikin 0.75-4.5 ton 18-26.1 SEER $856 – $3,962 26% – 43% $2,400 – $7,200 4.5 out of 5 stars
5. Lennox 2-5 ton 18-26 SEER $1,134 – $3,845 26% – 50% $3,400 – $7,200 4.5 out of 5 stars
6. Carrier 2-5 ton 18-25 SEER $1,189 – $3,916 28% – 48% $3,400 – $7,100 4.5 out of 5 stars
7. Bryant 2-5 ton 18-25 SEER $1,189 – $3,916 28% – 48% $3,300 – $5,800 4.4 out of 5 stars
8. Mitsubishi 0.75-3 ton 20.5-24.6 SEER $469 – $2,117 37% – 52% $2,900 – $6,100 4.4 out of 5 stars
9. Coleman 2-4.5 ton 19.25-20 SEER $1,558 – $3,364 32% – 35% $3,100 – $5,800 4.3 out of 5 stars

As you can see, central air units are not cheap at all. And these are only up to 6-ton units; 8-ton central air units cost even more.

central aircon outdoor unit
Price of central aircons are higher than the prices of most mini splits.

The cost of mini splits, on the other hand, can be quite lower. Here are the costs of the best-selling DIY mini splits made by MrCool:

  • 1-ton mini split (MrCool 12k) costs about $1,450.
  • 1.5-ton mini split (MrCool 18k) costs about $1,750.
  • 2-ton mini split (MrCool 24k) costs about $2,050.
  • 3-ton mini split (MrCool 36k) costs about $2,550.

These mini splits also have an exceptionally high 20+ SEER rating (they are incredibly cheap to run). You can check a detailed analysis of MrCool mini splits and check the real-time prices here.

Of course, if you need more than 3 tons of cooling capacity, you should look for 2-zone, 3-zone, 4-zone, or even 5-tone mini splits. These can cost more than $5,000.

Nonetheless, if you directly compare prices of mini splits vs central air head-by-head (same tonnage, SEER rating, reliability), you will almost always see that mini splits are cheaper.

Affordable Price Winner: Mini Splits

Bottom Line

All in all, after a detailed analysis, you can see why mini splits are so popular nowadays.

Before the 2000s, central air AC was the go-to choice. However, with the emergence of ductless mini splits that have higher energy efficiency, require no ductwork, can do the same job as central air units reliably, the trend is quickly turning in favor of mini splits.

The sales statistics (77% vs 5%) and the specs are heavily in favor of the new mini splits vs the old-school central air unit.

The choice which is better – mini splits vs central air – is quite obvious:

Mini splits are the future.

We hope this helped you understand the key differences between these two types of AC units. If you have any questions or would like a recommendation, you can write us a comment below and we’ll try to help you out.

Thank you.

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