Once upon a time, ductless mini-split units only found homes in the U.S. in relatively mild climates. Think a nice stretch of the mid-Atlantic, perhaps, where summer is real enough to feel but where some homes had outdated systems or had been built without air conditioning and ductwork altogether. For some, ductless technology opened the door to overdue comfort in a living room or a bedrooom.

Since that early phase, developments in zoning capabilites have brought mini splits into the multiroom realm. And it goes without mention that the march of engineering progress has taken ductless systems on the road, into parts of the country where no mini split has ever gone before ... and that’s the sound of a new customer handing a contractor his credit card as he gets his first dose of efficient, near-silent heating and cooling.

However, in talking with manufacturers, it appears that at least a couple of factors still restrict the otherwise swiftly growing market.



The technology’s recent success across the map is the result of a two-pronged attack.

“When ductless technology first entered the U.S. market, the available systems weren’t capable of handling extreme temperatures,” said Michelle Robb, director of residential marketing for Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US.

These systems are now being installed in homes that previously relied on ducted systems to effectively cool and heat, she said.

Some equipment can operate in temperatures as low as minus 13°F — making it a viable option in places like Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, upstate New York, and Montana.

This aligns with what Fujitsu General’s Erin Mezle, director of marketing, has observed.

“In northern parts of the U.S. and Canada, we’ve seen a major increase of ductless mini splits for both cooling and heating,” she said, identifying heating performance and efficiency as keys to this “northern migration.”

Basically, it used to be that you could get relief via mini splits a bit north or south of the Mason-Dixon line, but now these VRF units are serving neighborhoods closer to the Montana/Saskatchewan line.

Meanwhile, Dale Fields, director of residential and light commercial sales for LG Electronics, has spotted movement on the other edge of the country and the other end of the retrofit/new construction spectrum.

“More recently, there has been an uptick of construction in the Southwest,” he said.

Why? A greater emphasis on energy efficiency in new construction is driving adoption.



Another change in the mini-split dynamic, like they used to say in the horror movies, is coming from inside the house.

“In the past, mini splits were known for spot cooling,” said Mezle. “Now, they provide both heating and cooling for single-family homes with up to nine zones from one outdoor unit. The technology also allows several indoor unit styles, including both ducted and non-ducted options.”

The single-room solution perception has evolved over the past few years. In fact, multi-zone systems now outsell single-zone units.



Mini splits represent the fastest-growing product category in HVAC, according to Matt Lacey, Daikin North America LLC’s senior product manager for single- and multi-zone systems. So what is standing in the way? For now, he said, education, or the lack thereof.

“The greatest challenge this product category has is that it’s usually thought of as wall-mount units only,” he said. “This is due to the fact that the industry miscategorizes this product as ductless when in fact, there are many ducted solutions.”

He points out that improved efficiency, paired with ducted units’ flexibility, can address a wide range of temperature and IAQ demands. But before the discussion even reaches a contractor’s business or customers’ homes, said Fields, there’s a situation further upstream.

“A lot of HVAC vocational schools still do not incorporate duct-free technology into their curriculum,” he added. “[Our company] is focusing on supporting education and training opportunities for our contractors, from participation in advocate organizations, such as ACCA and the MCAA, to offering more courses at our own training academies and 27 partner facilities, as well as building out more online courses. Additionally, LG has recently begun working with select vocational schools (Tarrant County Community College in Fort Worth, Texas, for example) to develop a curriculum that educates students on duct-free systems so that the next generation of contractors is equipped.”

While vocational programs may be in the middle of a teaching and learning curve, Mezle does see the uptick in training courses offered by manufacturers and distributors as increasing contractors’ comfort level when selling and installing this technology.



Advances in technology have made custom solutions possible, but comfort isn’t the only thing manufacturers are expected to address. Because the equipment is visible inside the room, aesthetics can be a sticking point for some customers.

Daikin’s EMURA™ product is designed to tackle this with a wall-mount unit that offers a sophisticated look.

Mitsubishi Electric comes at that homeowner concern from a different side, highlighting the flush-mounting seams of its MLZ one-way ceiling cassette. That feature and the ability to fit between standard 16-inch joists combine to let the unit blend in with the surroundings.

Meanwhile, Fujitsu cites the industry-wide efficiency push as a motivation for its new line of indoor units that offer a maximum of 4,000 Btu. Mezle said that the line is tailored to not only cool the room but to ensure even temperature and dehumidification in spaces like an office, a small bedroom, or a bathroom.

LG Electronics listed an array of new developments, including the LGRED° technology available on many of the company’s systems, where the “RED” stands for “Reliable to Extreme Degrees.” The unit is built to coincide with the efficiency and extreme temp demands discussed above. It allows units to deliver 100 percent of rated heating capacity down to 5° and continuous heating operation down to minus 13°, according to the company.



As for what’s next, all involved agreed that it may be less about the equipment itself and more about how the users control the equipment.

Fields said that LG Electronics as a whole is investing in smart home technologies and advanced controls to improve the overall user experience and offer a greater level of convenience.

“In the HVAC space, we have doubled down on this front with nearly all of the indoor units being Wi-Fi enabled, including ducted and duct-free models, and controllable via the LG SmartThinQ® app, which is integrated to both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.”

Customers often embrace newer tech in pieces, though, and not always using the same vendors or manufacturers. Along those lines, Fields mentioned that the company’s Dry Contact module is designed to allow incorporation with products like Nest® and ecobee™.

Mitsubishi Electric enters this Wi-Fi-controlled mini-split space with its own kumo cloud® app. The company also strives to increase integration with the growing Google and Amazon voice-activated services.

“It’s an on-demand, customize-everything kind of world these days,” said Robb. “And homeowners are embracing the desire to personalize their home comfort.”

Publication date: 8/6/2018

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