Take the ductless market. It has grown about 20 percent over the last four or five years, even as the ducted market has dropped, said Raj Hiremath, general manager of Duct-Free splits, Carrier Corp. He was quoting figures from the Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Institute (AHRI).
Why ductless, and why now? “People have realized it’s suited well in certain applications,” Hiremath said. “It can be applied in situations that do not or cannot have ductwork. And there is a higher acceptance of this as a legitimate product for these applications.”
“Ductless mini-splits have been growing in popularity for a variety of reasons,” said LeeAnne Perkins, Heat Controller’s marketing communications manager, “but overall, the key is flexibility. Mini-splits allow air conditioning (and heating with heat pump models) to be added quickly, conveniently, and economically - often in locations where installing such comfort systems may not have seemed practical or even possible.”
The economics of the installation can factor heavily into their acceptance. A lower installed cost means that required funds (and loans) are smaller. Smaller loans these days are a good thing with tighter lending restrictions from financial institutions.
But the main reason for the market acceptance is a growing knowledge of the product’s flexibility in applications.
RESIDENTIAL APPLICATIONSApplications of ductless systems can range from residential add-ons and solar rooms, to IT server rooms and ATM spaces to high-rise conversions that require individual comfort control without re-engineering a complicated mechanical system, or just adding cooling to a building that was never designed for a ducted system.
According to Hiremath, “Solar rooms need to be kept localized and separated from the rest of the HVAC system. It’s a zone of its own. The Carrier line has a distinct benefit in those kinds of applications,” he said. “They cool the applications to 20° less than outside.”
In bonus rooms or smaller server rooms, “Instead of upgrading the entire system, you put ductless in there, put it on and off on demand. Both commercial and residential have gained a lot more acceptance. I think it has grown in the recent past due to these unique applications,” he said.
Adding air conditioning to older homes can be expensive and sometimes impractical. “The attractive, unobtrusive appearance of the mini-split’s indoor units makes them a viable option for adding comfort,” said Perkins. Multi-zone models allow different rooms or areas to be conditioned while each one is independently controlled, but they are all tied to a single outdoor condenser.
“Owners of historic homes, along with remodelers and renovators, will appreciate this option because it helps maintain the aesthetics of the homes’ exterior, an improvement over window units that can detract from the home’s appearance,” Perkins said. Depending on the model, the condenser can be sited far enough away from the indoor air handler so that it doesn’t interfere with landscaping or curb appeal. “The single conduit containing refrigerant and electrical lines is inconspicuous.”
For home additions, if the existing HVAC system may not have the capacity to handle the new square footage, “Rather than replacing the entire system, a ductless mini-split heat pump can cool and heat the new space, and save on installing ductwork,” said Perkins. “There’s also a good chance that an addition with multiple rooms or that’s two stories can be conditioned with a multi-zone system.”
COMMERCIAL JOBSResidences aren’t the only structures that can use the new ductless technology. Schools and condos offer great opportunities to apply the technology. “The total system capacity can be used to advantage in larger areas,” said Perkins.
Churches have successfully used two or more tri-zones in the sanctuary or fellowship hall to provide cooling more economically than adding a central a/c system, she explained. “With the wide range of sizes available (Comfort-Aire offers single zones up to 30,000 Btuh and multi-zones to 36,00 Btuh), it’s easy to get the necessary capacity for adequate conditioning.”
In higher-end condo jobs, “It’s possible that there will be more renovations at the higher end,” Hiremath said. “In high rises, our line lengths go to 200 feet. In high-rises, they put the condensing units on the roof.” The horizontal discharge unit has a much smaller footprint. “They take up less space, or they can go on the terrace.
“If it’s a 20-story building, it makes it harder.”
Classrooms in schools and churches are also good candidates for mini-splits. “Because each indoor air handler is independently controlled, individual rooms can be controlled to meet specific requirements or turned down or off when the room isn’t in use, resulting in energy savings,” said Perkins. Multi-zone units that use one outdoor condenser for two, three, or four indoor units are especially suited to this type of application.
Nursing homes and hospitals also can benefit from the individual room control afforded by ductless mini-splits.
“A difficult space to condition is an indoor office in a warehouse or other type of building,” said Perkins. “With no window or exterior wall, a window-mount or through-the-wall room unit can’t be installed. However, a mini-split can effectively heat and cool the space with a fairly simple installation. In a factory setting, for instance, the condenser can be situated in the warehouse itself, as long as it’s in an area where nothing can be damaged from any condensation that might accumulate.” It’s also possible to mount the condenser on the roof and run the lines through a hole in the roof.
“This type of installation is especially useful for computer rooms which need to be temperature controlled,” she said.
“There’s no problem keeping the room at a temperature and humidity level different from the rest of the structure.”
Additional applications could include enclosed ATMs and office lobbies, arena skyboxes, and utility transfer stations.
MONEY“From a cash flow perspective, if there’s a contractor doing business with a builder, there are opportunities to do work with houses that have window units,” said Hiremath. “The nice thing from the contractor’s perspective is that the consumer can do it because it’s broken down into payments. For the contractor, they get paid immediately,” using manufacturer financing.
There are additional incentives. “Certain electric utilities in the U.S. are trying to put programs together on Duct Free specifically,” he said. This is the case where the utility has a number of hydronic customers; “they want to dissuade consumers from putting ductwork in, where the gas utility won’t get the business,” he said. “It keeps revenue to the utility.
“Contractors should keep their eyes and ears open,” he said.
“If I were a contractor, right now I’d be hurting for two things,” Hiremath added: “lack of opportunity with more competition; and with revenues dropping, fixed costs becoming more of an issue.”
Certain markets can generate increased opportunities, either due to the nature of the downturn or the stimulus package, he said. “I think there will be continued opportunities in, for example, schools. We would also expect that there would be continued investment in the infrastructure.”
Additional opportunities would be in the health care market, he said, from clinics and small buildings that don’t have ductwork, to bigger hospitals where contagion needs to be controlled.
In new installations, ductless systems take less labor to install than installing ductwork and equipment, Hiremath said. “There’s no ductwork to be fabricated. It can be installed in four man-hours, with a second person to hold up the inside unit while you install it. Lower labor costs mean they don’t have to keep as many technicians. Or if they can’t afford to keep the technicians, they could still afford to keep the work that they get.”
“A mini-split installation also offers a higher level of security,” said Perkins. “With a room air conditioner, there’s always the worry that access to the home could be gained through the window where the unit is mounted. That worry is eliminated with a ductless system because the only connection point between indoor and outdoor sections is a hole less than 3 inches in diameter.”