The Heating & Cooling Showdown—Mini-Split vs. Central vs. Room Units

It’s time for a face-off between the major heating and cooling options: the ductless mini-split, central heating and cooling, and room units. Spoiler alert: each one has its own pros and cons, and the overall “winner” is ultimately the system that best solves the user’s indoor climate control issues within a given situation, including space, budget, and preference.

To help you match the best heating and cooling system to provide the climate-controlled comfort you need, we put together a practical comparison of the major HVAC options in 8 categories:

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Efficiency

Winner: Mini-split

Portable and central heating and cooling systems have a common problem: they leak. A window AC unit requires an open window. Typically, window units are installed with flimsy or no insulation, and hot air can leak in. Of course, the unit has to work harder to cool this new hot air, which costs more money and can overwork the equipment.

Central air units leak air through the ducts inside the walls and ceilings. Around 1/3 of their energy use is wasted through leaking air. This problem only gets worse in a big house, commercial spaces, and in a central air system that isn’t well maintained.

A mini-split is highly efficient and wastes no energy delivering heated or cooled air to your living space. The unit only consumes power when it’s on, and you only pay for the heat and air conditioning you actually use.

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Comfort

Winner: Mini-split

As the name suggests, a room unit’s comfort only extends to a single room. Depending on the size of the room, it may only cool or heat a portion of it.

A central air system enables you to set different areas of your home to different temperatures. These tend to be large areas, such as an entire floor of a dwelling. This means compromises when it comes to setting the thermostat. Some rooms run colder than others and setting an entire floor to the same temperature doesn’t solve this problem. You end up taking your warm clothes off in one room and putting them on again in the next room.

One of the significant advantages of a mini-split is its room-by-room climate control. Air handling units with individual thermostats in each room allow you to customize your temperature profile and even enable you to cool one room while you heat another. No more cold and warm spots.

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Environmental Friendliness

Winner: Mini-split

Most HVAC equipment today is designed and rated for eco-friendliness. The major hazard to the environment posed by HVAC systems is consuming an excessive amount of energy. When a house is poorly insulated, for instance, a unit has to continually use fuel to make up for the loss of heat or cool air, which stresses our resources.

Where mini-splits edge out other HVAC choices in energy efficiency (planet kindness) is their ability to control the climate in individual rooms. For example, if your bedroom is chilly at night, you may have to heat up your entire house with a central heating system just to get your bedroom warm. With a ductless mini-split, you only need to consume the fuel needed to warm your bedroom.

Plus, going with a greener mini-split system not only saves you money on energy costs, but it can also qualify you for subsidies and incentives upfront.

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Year-Round Use

Winner: Central system

This one isn’t really fair to room units since there’s no single year-round piece of equipment to heat and cool. But, for the sake of argument, you can purchase an AC window unit and space heater to switch out seasonally. The initial startup cost may be quite inexpensive and attractive. However, both share the same drawback of using a lot of energy to create a relatively small amount of heat and cool air. Also, both deliver inconsistent comfort depending on how close you are to the units themselves.

During the cold winters we experience in the Boston area when temperatures drop below 32-degrees Fahrenheit, most mini-splits lose a lot of their efficiency. Depending on your circumstances, a high-efficiency furnace or boiler might be a big benefit to your family’s comfort.

Central heat and air conditioning does a great job of bringing an entire building to the same temperature or, if you have zoned heating and cooling, you can set separate areas to different temperatures. Additionally, whether you’re heating or cooling, a central HVAC system can circulate and filter indoor air throughout your entire house all year long.

Before you decide on anything, get three quotes from nearby heating and cooling companies to fully understand your options.

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Air Quality

Winner: Mini-split

Both mini-split air handlers and window air conditioners offer cleanable and allergen-reducing filters. Often, these parts of the equipment are forgotten about by consumers. Try setting a reminder on your smartphone! At least once a month during use, take out and clean these filters with regular tap water. It’s simple and can greatly enhance your air quality. The specialized allergen filters are reasonably priced and also easy to install and change.

Still, mini-splits deliver better air quality than window AC units because of the poor seal around the unit allows allergens and other pollutants to infiltrate the room through the window.

Central heating and cooling also offers allergen and pollutant filters. The tricky part about central systems is the ductwork. Unless your system includes indoor air quality components, you will need to get the ducts professionally cleaned on a regular basis or a lot of mold, pollen, and other airborne irritants can accumulate and get blown into your living space.

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Installation

Winner: Room units

This is an easy one. Just unbox your window AC unit or space heater, follow the instructions, and you’re good to go. No technician required. But, there’s a reason HVAC technician jobs require factory training. If equipment isn’t installed and maintained properly, the price you pay for poor climate control is frequent headaches, including costly water leaks that can cause thousands of dollars of damage.

The most complicated system to install is a central heat pump. If you don’t have pre-existing ductwork, installing a central air system requires a lot of construction. That said, even if you do have ductwork built into your home, you may need to demo some areas to tie the new ducts into the existing.

Mini-splits fall in between. You do need a factory-trained technician to install them, but since there’s no ductwork, the only “construction” to speak of is drilling a small hole through an exterior wall. The ductless mini-split definitely wins when you look at getting the most out of your installation dollars.

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Versatility

Winner: Mini-Split

Ducts are a big commitment and can’t be expanded easily. Room units, on the other end of the spectrum, can be installed anywhere there’s a window, but they tend to be one-trick ponies. You’ll need a window AC unit in the summer and a space heater in the winter, and one season’s portable solution becomes a storage issue for the rest of the year.

A mini-split combines the best qualities of both in a system that can be easily adapted to most dwellings. It’s a versatile solution for expanding climate-controlled comfort into bonus rooms, add-ons, and converted spaces where a central system might be impractical or impossible to connect.

Cost

Winner: You . . . when you research.

Any good contractor will tell you, going with the lowest bidder on a job isn’t always the best decision. Getting value for what you pay for is your goal when pricing solutions.

First, identify your problem. You may need to cool an apartment bedroom for a few years, heat a converted garage space, or plan for a total heating, cooling, and air quality system for your new dream home.

With your clear goal in mind, type “hvac service near me” into a search engine and explore your choices. Get three quotes. Look at the cost of installation, maintenance, and operation. Then decide where your money is best spent.

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Plus, you’re always welcome to contact the trusted heating, cooling, and air quality experts at Total Temperature Control.

Whether you need 24-7 emergency service or a solution to improve your indoor comfort—at home and at work—call us at 781-224-2400 or submit a convenient contact form.