At a time when unitary shipments have fallen, ductless systems have been experiencing impressive growth in the U.S. market in recent years, according to manufacturers interviewed byThe NEWS. Ductless manufacturers say there are many reasons for this growth, but one of the main reasons is simply heightened awareness of the technology. Increasing energy prices are also making ductless technology more popular, especially since ductless offers zoning capabilities to reduce energy usage.
DUCTLESS GROWTHThe inroads made by ductless equipment into the U.S. market are even more impressive when compared to the length of time the units have been available here. In fact, Marc Bellanger, marketing manager, Daikin AC, pointed out, Daikin was only introduced to the U.S. market in 2005 and “has enjoyed tremendous growth” since then. He said that some of the reasons behind the growing popularity of ductless include a greater appreciation for zoning and a greater desire for better temperature control, especially in bonus rooms. He added that ductless is becoming more attractive to people who want to improve their home’s a/c and heat without replacing the entire system.
Steve Schmitt, director of sales, commercial air conditioning, LG Electronics USA, noted that his company has only been in the U.S. market for the last six years. “LG has grown substantially each year for the last six, often growing over 50 percent or more year-over-year,” he said. “Residential and commercial contractors have become well versed in the use of ductless products to solve comfort problems in both residential and commercial applications where traditional solutions, such as adding ductwork, might not be practical.”
Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating Solutions has also experienced great growth in the U.S., according to Marc Zipfel, director of product marketing. Zipfel said, “Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating Solutions’ sales have grown steadily over the past 10 years and have consistently increased by double digits over the previous years.”
He explained that the company believes several factors are contributing to this, including increasing awareness among end users and contractors, and increasing interest in green technology. “Contractors are seeing ductless as a growing trend that’s providing incremental income to their business, and are investing in the resources to support the products.” Plus, he noted, “Increasing energy costs have moved the U.S. market to recognize the cost/value proposition ductless represents [with its zoning capabilities].”
At Heat Controller, Michael Delwiche, director of sales, room air products, said, “Over the past 10 years mini-split sales have grown slowly but steadily, with single-digit increases. 2008 and 2009 saw the slowest growth, but these were also poor years for the general economy and the HVAC industry.” In contrast, he noted, “In 2010 our mini-split sales took a big leap forward.” He added that this was due to a number of factors, including “increased focus by the Heat Controller sales team and field reps, as well as stronger market conditions with summer heat throughout the U.S.” Delwiche also attributed the growth to some of the same trends noted by other manufacturers - namely, increased awareness of the products and increased focus on conserving energy.
“There is a better understanding of the products and their applications, better industry awareness of how they can be used effectively,” he said. “Increases in energy prices are driving the need for zoned cooling. No one wants to cool an entire house anymore when 80 percent of it is unoccupied on a given day. It’s simply getting too expensive.”
SOUND LEVELSAnother aspect of ductless systems that makes them attractive to consumers is their low sound levels. According to LG’s Schmitt, “Ductless systems are inherently quiet and accepted by customers as a significant benefit. Our goal is to continue to improve sound levels with every new model launched.”
Heat Controller’s Delwiche commented that while the quiet operation of ductless indoor units has historically been a major selling point, the growing emphasis on minimizing sound levels has only made ductless more appealing to consumers. He added, “Heat Controller indoor units have always been ultra-quiet - in fact, consumers often can’t tell by sound if they’re operating.”
At Daikin, Bellanger noted, the consumers’ desire for low sound levels “has positively affected our bottom line.” He reiterated that ductless systems are “much quieter than the ducted systems found in most U.S. homes,” and said that this feature, when combined with the other selling points of ductless units, has been a “winning proposition” for customers.
Mitsubishi’s Zipfel added, “In many cases, the compressor in a unitary condensing unit is louder than the entire ductless outdoor unit, and indoor unit sound levels are as low as 19 dBa.”
INTERIOR STYLEYet while ductless systems may be easy on the ears, they are much more noticeable to the eyes. “People in the U.S. typically do not want to see their air conditioning/heating systems,” Bellanger said. “With a ductless system, this is impossible to avoid. Overseas, ductless units are more common and this is not an issue. We are trying to gain the acceptance of the American consumer by touting the advantages of ductless systems.”
He continued, “We believe this will outweigh the perceived ‘negative’ of having a visible HVAC system. Once these units become more widespread in this market, people will tend not to notice the ductless unit hanging on the wall.”
To ensure this transition occurs, manufacturers of ductless equipment have focused on making the look and design of their units appealing to U.S. customers. For example, Bellanger noted, “Daikin designs systems to be pleasing to the eye and to blend into the décor in the room. We do this by producing equipment with sleek lines and a low profile.”
Delwiche added that Heat Controller’s approach to appearance “is to keep our indoor units as neutral as possible so that they will fit a broad range of interior designs.” He added that an interesting new trend is that homeowners are becoming more accustomed to the look of today’s technology. “Flat screen TVs are hung on walls rather than hidden in cabinets and armoires. With that in mind, our latest indoor units have a subtle metallic panel that is sleek in appearance, while still unobtrusive.”
According to Zipfel, Mitsubishi Electric has also focused on designing units to blend into a room. “The traditional ductless wall-mounted indoor units blend into a room without taking up any window space and can be professionally painted to coordinate with any décor,” he said. “Besides the traditional wall-mounted indoor units, Mitsubishi Electric has developed a variety of discrete indoor unit solutions. Floor-standing units, ceiling-recessed, and even short-run ducted indoor units are available.”
Schmitt noted that LG has taken a different approach; for many years, it has offered the LG Art Cool Picture model, a ductless system that allows end users to customize the indoor evaporator unit with a photograph of their choosing. “New models are currently being introduced that have a curved mirror finish and optional designer panels that can be added to the unit to match interior décor,” he noted.
FUTURE IMPROVEMENTSAs ductless manufacturers continue to focus on the U.S. market, they will keep striving to respond to the concerns of both customers and contractors. Delwiche noted that, when it comes to ductless systems, the No. 1 complaint he still hears from American customers is the high installed cost, as compared with a room air conditioner. He said that Heat Controller will continue “to strive to attain the combination of higher performance with lower prices.”
Zipfel agreed, stating, “The biggest complaint [of consumers] has been cost.” However, he said, “As the market is coming to recognize the advantages of ductless over conventional technologies that complaint is shrinking. In addition, customers are beginning to have a better understanding of the true value of ductless, such as money savings over time through higher-efficiency operation, and total installed cost.”
Not only do manufacturers intend to respond to concerns about cost, they also want to focus on increasing their system’s capabilities and ease of installation. According to Schmitt, “Contractors would like larger capacity systems with more zoning options. LG is adding higher capacity multizone systems to satisfy this demand.”