ACHRNEWS

Mini-Splits Poised To Enter The Mainstream

June 18, 2004
Ductless mini-splits are not new, but there still seems to be a bit of mystery surrounding these systems. Are they difficult to install? Do consumers really want them? Aren't they reserved for commercial applications? These are just some of the questions contractors have asked when it comes to duct-free systems.

Although some questions linger, many manufacturers are doing their part to enlighten contractors about ductless heating and cooling systems.

In fact, many manufacturers believe that while the systems have not yet been seen as a mainstream solution, ductless is not going away and will continue to grow in popularity as contractors come to understand the capabilities and benefits of these units.

Ductless Growth

"Ductless splits are just becoming known here in the U.S.," said Todd Duckwitz, manager of product planning, unitary products, for Fedders. "This is a relatively new product here. It's more popular overseas, where it's been very well received."

But the United States could soon be catching up when it comes to ductless. "Over the course of the last 10 years, duct-free systems have grown by $7 billion [worldwide]," said Tom White, product business manager for Carrier Duct Free Systems, NA-HVAC. "Closer to home, the U.S. and Canada markets have grown nearly 15 percent in the same period."

Carrier believes that this rise in the ductless market is due to the increase in product knowledge. While some contractors and consumers are still unfamiliar with the benefits of ductless systems, many others are learning what they can offer. Carrier recently expanded its ductless product offerings with the new StreamLine Series of high-wall units.

"As consumers and contractors are educated on the benefits of a duct-free system, they are becoming aware of their great benefits," said White. "These include economical operations that can condition spaces that were once thought of as impossible."

Larry Hershkowitz, marketing manager for Panasonic, agrees.

"[Ductless] is very well received and wanted by the consumer and contractor, both of which like the ease of installation and the clean look and exceptional performance of the product," he said. "Contractors are accepting the product. If anything is holding them back, it is lack of familiarity with the features and benefits of the product and ease of installation."

In order to help more contractors become familiar with ductless, Panasonic is doing what it can to create more visibility for its products. According to Hershkowitz, Panasonic continues to feature split A/C products at trade shows.

Other companies are reaching out to contractors as well.

"At Carrier, we offer extensive training and education on the product to ensure the dealer has all of the latest information on the technology and the products," said White. He also explained that Carrier offers product literature at its Web site.

Tom Crock, national sales manager for the Sanyo air conditioning business, explained his company's strategy for promoting ductless systems.

"We use national advertising campaigns aimed at both the contractor and the end user," he said. "We participate in utility rebate programs and run special promotions through the distributor."

Sanyo also promotes consumer awareness through the company's Web site, and through the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI).

A System For Every Application

Traditionally, ductless systems have been used most often in commercial applications, and they have been seen as an alternative heating and cooling solution.

"Ductless systems are applied when it is impossible to use a conventional system or in an application where installing ductwork is impossible," said Crock.

He explained that ductless systems have been most beneficial when it comes to multi-resident dwellings. "Sanyo has 400-plus units in a high-rise apartment building in Baltimore," he said. "It was less expensive and more efficient than replacing the existing chiller system, which had failed."

Old and historic homes are another traditional location for ductless mini-splits.

"Duct-free systems are most beneficial in historical renovations or whenever it is essential to preserve appearance of the original structure," said White.

Even so, manufacturers are encouraging contractors to think outside of the box when it comes to ductless applications.

White said that ductless can be beneficial in a number of situations. One is to add air conditioning to spaces that are heated by hydronic or electric heat, and lack ductwork. He also suggests add-ons to current spaces, such as an office or a family room addition. Basically, White believes ductless can be beneficial for any room where individual comfort is desired.

Ductless systems are ideal for many specific applications, said Hershkowitz. "[Ductless] can also be the solution for many applications, such as modular and manufactured construction, computer rooms, ATM locations, and telephone switching stations," he said.

Looking Ahead

Many manufacturers believe that the benefits of ductless systems are simple and easy to see, and they are encouraging contractors to present these benefits to consumers.

According to Crock, Sanyo recommends that contractors sell ductless systems as an alternative to conventional products. He also believes contractors should sell the units based on cleaner air, quiet operation, and reliability.

White recommends that contractors sell ductless systems based on versatility.

"With the numerous applications duct-free systems offer, there is no reason a contractor cannot present a solution to a consumer's specific need," he said.

Ease of installation, reliability, and better zone control are a few of the benefits that manufacturers are emphasizing to sell their ductless systems. Another marketing strategy focuses on the look of the units.

"[Ductless] is a more aesthetically appealing solution that frees up window space, letting in more sunlight," said Duckwitz. "With the compressor outside, it is significantly quieter than window-based solutions."

LG Electronics is one company that has put a great deal of focus on the engineering and efficiency of its ductless units. The company made the appearance of its ductless units an important part of its marketing. Recently, the company unveiled its line of Art Coolâ„¢ ductless air conditioners.

The units are designed with aesthetics in mind, and come in a variety of styles and colors, including metal, blue, and wood. LG Electronics also unveiled a mirror design.

"The Art Cool Model is an art piece that can be mounted on the wall to decorate the space and at the same time provide comfort," said Samer Estanbouli, vice president for the HVAC division of LG Electronics.

Estanbouli believes that ductless products will continue to evolve. As this happens, more consumers and contractors will be willing to get behind the systems.

"The future will no doubt rally behind ductless technology," he said. "Ductless offers zoning, energy savings, and a solution to many unique applications."

Estanbouli noted that LG Electronics' spending on research and development exceeded 5 percent of its sales revenue in 2003.

White explained that Carrier ductless units are expanding for both the residential and light commercial markets. He said that Carrier units include microprocessor controls, Puron refrigerant, and inverter-driven compression cycles for efficiency.

Sanyo also sees ductless systems continuing to improve.

"With the advent of variable refrigerant volume systems using multiple indoor units, I see the market growing considerably over the next five years, possibly even doubling," said Crock.

Hershkowitz asserted that ductless systems will continue to grow in demand due to the increased awareness of humidity and mold problems.

"Future product enhancements will include environmentally safe refrigerant, improved SEER energy efficiency, and optional features including oxygen generation and ionizer additions," he said.

Publication date: 06/21/2004