If the rest of the world used air conditioning like the United States, we’d be in trouble. Luckily, that is not the case. The presence of ductless split systems (which are ubiquitous almost everywhere else in the world) in U.S. homes is dwarfed by ducted central air conditioning units. Ducted units circulate air within a house to maintain an appropriate temperature, whereas ductless systems circulate refrigerant. Typical efficiencies of ducted central air conditioners run from 13 seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER), a measure of the energy consumed by an air conditioner based on its electricity consumption, to 21 SEER. Ductless split systems far more efficient; they’re available up to 33 SEER.
Many factors contribute to the slow adoption in the United States. U.S. houses are designed for and typically supplied with ducted systems. Running ducts through wood-framed American homes is far easier than in concrete, stone, or brick houses, which are more common abroad. But, general resistance to change among consumers, contractors, and distributors is the biggest factor that is holding back greater adoption. Ductless manufacturers have acknowledged this and are working to lower the barriers for switching that each stakeholder faces.
Changes to the Equipment
For contractors and distributors, ductless split system manufacturers reduce the burden of inventory management. Systems can come in a variety of configurations. One outdoor condensing unit can be connected to several indoor units (multi-zone) or just a single indoor unit (single-zone). Previously, these configurations required different units for multi-zone and single-zone configuration, and even units that have the same capacity aren’t interchangeable. But, earlier this year, Haier introduced its FlexFit ductless system, which can use the same indoor units in both single-zone and multi-zone configurations.
Similarly, several manufacturers of ductless split systems have eliminated cooling-only units and provide heat pump capability to all units. Mechanically, the only difference between the two is a four-way valve. All heat pumps are capable of cooling, so providing a heat pump for a cooling application does not create any functional problems. Indeed, it appears that the logistics improvements associated with reducing the number of models offset the slightly higher cost of materials.
Is It Enough?
To win over reluctant consumers, LG Electronics has long focused on the aesthetics of the system. A traditional ducted system has a discreet register hidden on a wall, ceiling, or floor. Ductless systems entail indoor units in occupied spaces. To some, the units are unsightly. But, LG’s design-oriented Art Cool product line, featuring low profiles and designer color finishes, is an attempt at making indoor units pretty. Additionally, the company’s Art Cool Gallery hides the indoor unit in a picture frame that can be personalized with artwork or photography.
Navigant Research expects ductless systems to expand in North America in the future. But, even at aggressive growth rates, it will take years for ductless systems to reach parity with ducted ones. Cost remains a factor. Depending on the complexity of the system and whether ductwork already exists, installation of a ductless system can be much more expensive than the installation of a ducted system. Even if the United States never sees the same penetration rate as the rest of the world, though, ductless split systems will drive energy efficiency improvements in residential air conditioning.