“It’s too expensive. The units are just plain ugly. There’s too much maintenance involved. My contractor won’t install the units.”
HVAC contractors have certainly heard these objections from customers regarding mini-split solutions.
And while ductless HVAC is not without its flaws, the technology has evolved exponentially to now provide customers with numerous configurations at affordable prices appropriate for nearly every application, which is music to the ears of entrepreneurial contractors.
AN AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Once regarded as a niche product developed primarily by overseas manufacturers for overseas applications, ductless mini-split technology is now gaining nationwide acceptance.
While ductless HVAC systems currently make up about 5 percent of the U.S. market today, industry estimates anticipate the market saturation approaching 15 percent over the next five years.
Greg Fox, president, Fox Family Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Rancho Cordova, California, said interest in ductless solutions is at an all-time high on the West Coast.
“People are eager to zone their new or existing homes with ductless technology instead of unitary products,” Fox said. “Apartment complexes in this area find ductless technology to be more desirable for their bottom lines. Those with window a/c units or wall furnaces often opt for ductless technology due to its comfort, zoning capabilities, and efficiency.”
Ron Hall, sales manager, Unique Indoor Comfort (UIC), Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, said UIC has been selling ductless solutions for seven years. This year, the company is on track to double its ductless sales.
“People are more aware of ductless HVAC [systems] and are more open to considering them in their homes than ever before,” Hall said. “Additionally, ductless comes in many more options now. The indoor unit doesn’t have to be a high wall-hung unit anymore. There are floor-mounted options and ceiling cassettes that can be hidden and pulled down when they need to be serviced.”
Hall acknowledges UIC’s Northeastern location is another factor driving its ductless sales.
“We work on a lot of homes built in the 1700s that have never had ductwork and row homes that lack the footprints for conventional condensers,” he said. “Additionally, we’ve installed a lot of 2- and 3-to-1 configurations, where we’re installing two or three air handlers for every condenser. In some cases, we’re installing multiple configurations of that setup, which has really driven sales.”
The upfront cost is one of the primary objections for the customers considering ductless units and the contractors selling them. While the price of the equipment has dropped significantly over the last several years, installing a ductless unit remains a costly endeavor.
Per the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), ductless systems cost approximately $1,500 to $2,000 per ton (12,000 Btuh) of cooling capacity. This is about 30 percent more than central systems, not including ductwork, and may cost twice as much as window units of similar capacities.
In addition to the equipment cost, ductless installations often require line hides with wall inlets, various electrical work, control wires, condensate drain pipes, spray foam, a proper line set evacuation, labor costs, and more.
“Customers are seeing the units online and struggle with the prices we quote them to install the units,” said Fox. “They come back to us saying, ‘We can buy it for this price, why are you charging so much?’ They don’t realize the work required to install one of these units. Additionally, contractors have to spend a lot of money to send techs to training to make sure they’re properly educated on how to install and service these systems.”
When customers are struggling with the cost, Fox stresses comfort, quiet operation, and efficiency to reinforce the investment.
“They don’t have any idea how quiet they are until they hear them running,” he said. “Also, the efficiency of ductless units is out of this world. Carrier just announced a 42-SEER, 9,000-Btu unit. In California, efficiency is driving people toward the ductless market faster than any other reason.”
Hall said one way UIC has made its ductless offerings more attractive is by raising the prices on its unitary equipment.
“For consumers who shop internally with us, this has made our ductless solutions more appealing,” Hall said. “We were due to raise our unitary prices, and this has had a positive impact on our ductless sales, as they’ve made mini splits a more attractive option.”
OPTIONS AND AESTHETICS
Equipment manufacturers are continuing to push the envelope when it comes to the aesthetics of mini-split air handlers.
“We offer cassettes that go into the ceiling as well as ducted options,” Fox said. “We’ve actually had more luck selling ducted mini-split units than we have ductless units as of late. We can install the ducted mini splits with 0.4 inches of static pressure in duct systems that require 0.5 inches of static pressure, and they operate very well.
“Wall units and floor units have their places — most often in bedrooms or rental units, where the owner is not as worried about aesthetics,” continued Fox. “Homeowners who are leery of the aesthetics are happy to hear we can hide the air handlers now.”
The team at UIC utilizes digital photo albums to showcase the different configurations that can be utilized inside homes.
“Our crews take pictures of each of our completed jobs so that we can use them as visualizations on the front end of the sales process,” Hall said. “We’ve learned the techniques necessary to hide the lines as much as we can. We’re going directly through exterior walls and use the cosmetic products necessary to make the installations as clean as possible.”
A WORTHWHILE INVESTMENT
As ductless technology continues to evolve and consumer awareness follows suit, Fox and Hall insist HVACR contractors should at least investigate the profitability of selling mini splits.
“The only thing holding up the ductless market is the contractors themselves,” Fox said. “It’s easier for contractors to replace a traditional ducted unit with another unitary unit. Those who truly care about their customers are recognizing that they can replace that leaky ductwork with a mini-split system that offers better efficiency, greater comfort, and more affordability.”
Hall said UIC’s salespeople offer ductless solutions on every cooling call they make.
“We discuss the pros and cons of four different types of comfort — window units, high-velocity units, conventional ducted a/c units, and ductless mini splits,” Hall said. “More and more people are opting for ductless. The future of the industry revolves around room-by-room comfort. Ductless mini splits are absolutely the wave of the future.”
Publication date: 12/17/2018