The U.S. has ductless fever, and the only prescription is more installs. In fact, the global ductless heating and cooling systems market is currently projected at $78.62 billion, with a compound annual growth rate exceeding 8 percent through 2021, according to MarketsandMarkets. And that growth is not limited to just one sector, as homeowners and homebuilders alike recognize the many benefits ductless systems have to offer.
According to Brian O’Connor, senior sales director – central region, Samsung HVAC, the ductless market is growing at double-digit rates, and that includes multi splits.
“The reason for that is the housing boom of 2003 to 2006 is now reaching life expectancy of the unitary systems of 12 to 15 years,” he explained. “The replacement segment accounts for about 80 percent of all residential sales. There is a strong demand for replacement of traditional unitary systems with ductless in order to achieve higher efficiency, smart home, and independent zoning.”
Michelle Robb, director of marketing, Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US (METUS), noted that she is seeing strong growth in both retrofit and new construction markets. Retrofits have historically been a strong market for split-ductless systems because it’s typically an inefficient use of time and resources to install ductwork in homes where it doesn’t already exist.
“In an older home, it can be difficult to even find space to install ductwork,” Robb said. “Homeowners often lose interior storage space or end up with wall bump-outs. The simplified installation and zoning capabilities offered by split-ductless systems are great for whole home renovations and home additions. Particularly in cases of additions, split-ductless units can also be used to supplement existing heating and cooling systems without the need to resize or restructure an existing system that is performing well.”
On the new construction side, builders, developers, and homebuyers all benefit from installing split-ductless HVAC systems, she added.
“Most split-ductless outdoor units have smaller footprints and are quieter than conventional systems,” Robb said. “This is attractive to multifamily and smaller lot builders. Additionally, today’s homebuyers are increasingly green-minded and value the higher energy efficiency of split-ductless systems.”
Jerad Adams, director of commercial product management, Friedrich Air Conditioning Co., agreed that both markets are growing at a rapid pace, with retrofits still being the most common application for ductless systems.
“That’s because, while the trend is for consumers to adopt ductless regardless of whether or not they have ductwork in place, ductless systems solve a major issue for older residences that have specific rooms where the ductwork doesn’t reach, or they are looking for an air conditioning solution to augment what might already be in place to efficiently cool or heat specific areas that are used most frequently.”
While retrofits initially drove the adoption, demand in new construction is rapidly growing due to the trends in that sector, according to Bill Holder, senior distribution sales manager, Western U.S., LG Air Conditioning Technologies.
“The increased design flexibility provided by duct-free systems over traditional, unitary systems make them an obvious choice in many applications because they do not require space for ductwork, they allow for zoned control, and they typically have superior performance when it comes to sound and temperature range,” he said. “For example: Units with LGRED° heat technology provide heating down to minus 13°F. This means the homeowner gets a system that can reliably keep them warm in the winter and eliminates the need for a supplemental heat source without sacrificing energy efficiency, which translates to savings for the homeowner.”
In recent years, inverter compressors have become increasingly energy efficient, which has in part made air-source heat pumps more applicable in cold climate areas, noted Victor Flynn, senior product manager, Panasonic USA.
“We now see ductless heat pumps being specified and installed as a primary heat source in northern climate zones – Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Washington state,” he said.
Additionally, there has been a trend for cities and states to develop “decarbonization strategies” to reduce their carbon footprint by incentivizing residents to convert from oil and propane to energy efficient electric air-source heat pumps, Flynn added.
“Particularly in northern states where oil and propane heating are used during long winter months, they’re looking to change from carbon heat sources over to electric heat pump sources so they can use renewable electricity for heating homes.”
According to Flynn, rebates are driving a lot of the ductless growth in the northern climates. The additional driver is more educated homebuilders.
“They recognize existing old ducted systems have problems with air leakage and get dirty over time,” he said. “There is also the installation of duct, which takes up space in the house as well as the insulation material and labor costs.”
Tom Carney, director of sales, Halcyon Products, Fujitsu General America Inc., said he is seeing homeowners in colder climates opting for mini-split systems as more and more manufacturers offer systems that operate at temperatures as low as minus 15°.
“The use of multi-zone systems has increased as homeowners are discovering they can have year-round efficient comfort from just one system,” Carney noted. “The main reason the market is growing is due to customer awareness. We are seeing more customers asking for mini splits instead of having a contractor recommend them.”
While homeowners are adopting ductless systems as effective cooling solutions, not as much attention is being paid to their heating capabilities, Adams explained. However, that’s changing rapidly as ductless system manufacturers unveil all-season solutions that increase efficiency and offer optimal performance.
“For example, earlier this year, Friedrich introduced its new Energy Star® 9,000- and 12,000- Btu models, capable of delivering 28.0 SEER/12.5 HSPF, with low ambient heat pump operation down to minus 13°,” he said.
The increasing availability of ductless system options, such as providing room-by-room comfort, customizable to the specific needs of a space, is driving the demand on the residential side, Adams added.
“Many municipality and energy companies, especially in the northwest and along the upper east coast, are offering outstanding rebates for energy-efficient products like these, making it more attractive and affordable than ever for customers,” he said.
DESIGN FLEXIBILITY AND SMART HOMES
As the market for duct-free solutions continues to grow across the U.S., one of the strongest trends Holder noted is the shift from single- to multi-zone systems.
“With the ability to do a mix of indoor unit types, both duct-free and ducted, contractors are able to condition an entire home with a single outdoor unit,” he said. “The technology has advanced such that homeowners aren’t restricted to just a white, wall-mounted unit. From options like the LG Art Cool Gallery that looks like a picture to the sleek Art Cool Mirror to the ability to incorporate ducted units, customers can get a superior system driven by inverter technology that best matches their style.”
Robb agreed, saying there has indeed been greater variety in indoor unit options.
“In fact, the term ‘ductless’ as a category is being redefined as multi-zoned comfort solutions,” she said. “There are multiple offerings of ductless and ducted products that mount in the ceiling as a cassette or are hidden above the ceiling. There are now different designs of wall-mounted units that are sleeker and multicolored that mount either high, near the ceiling, or low, near the floor.”
Another trend Holder identified — one not exclusive to duct-free systems — was connectivity and the HVAC system working within the smart home platform.
“For this reason, nearly all of our indoor units are 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,” he said.
By increasingly incorporating smart controls, manufacturers like METUS can appeal to technologically minded homeowners, Robb noted.
“Many of today’s first-time homebuyers have never lived in a world without the internet and access to information or control at the push of a button,” she explained. “They expect their homes to incorporate smart controls, too. Homeowners want to be able to personalize their homes down to the very last detail — including home comfort. The kumo cloud® app and web service from METUS, for example, integrates with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa to allow homeowners to adjust thermostats without lifting a finger.”
Though the ductless market has had much success in the U.S. in recent years, it is not without its challenges.
Consumer awareness of the product in general, as well as misnomers regarding its capabilities and product offerings, is what Carney believes to be the greatest challenges.
“Fujitsu General America focuses heavily on contractor training and consumer and contractor advertising in the form of education and social media posts,” he said.
Two of the biggest challenges, according to Adams, is greater adoption by the trade as well as making it easier for contractors to sell and provide ongoing service for ductless systems.
“As a relatively recent growth category in the U.S., not all contractors are yet familiar with or have incorporated ductless as part of their business plans,” he said. “A big reason for that is because servicing individual ductless units versus a single central air system can seem daunting at first. That’s why Friedrich is launching FastPro, to streamline the process and help contractors and installers offer ductless installation and ongoing maintenance service plans with confidence.”
Holder agreed, saying the challenges facing the ductless market continue to be contractor acceptance and training.
“LG provides a number of free resources to make it easy for contractors to be successful in installing and servicing LG systems, including training videos, online courses, and classes at LG’s four training academies and 27 partner facilities,” he said. “In addition to the existing educational opportunities, LG is also frequently expanding its training initiatives based on contractor feedback with new courses on the Multi V S, LG’s single-phase heat recovery system. LG also donates equipment and works with select vocational schools, such as Tarrant County Community College, to develop curriculums that educate students on duct-free systems so that the next generation of contractors is equipped to work with this technology.”
O’Connor also said that getting contractors up to speed with all the various mini-split systems available continues to be a challenge.
“To overcome this, Samsung offers local training at the distributor and dealer level,” O’Connor said.
Robb identified the growing labor shortage as a challenge facing the industry.
“There is a shortage of trained personnel, and, as more consumers become aware of the benefits of split-ductless systems and choose them for their homes, it has become increasingly difficult for HVAC contractors to keep up with demand,” she said.
One of the ways METUS is addressing the challenges of both skepticism from consumers and a lack of qualified HVAC technicians is by providing advanced training opportunities to HVAC contractors, who, in turn, can educate their customers,” Robb noted. “When contractors are confident in the systems they sell, install, and service, that confidence often rubs off on consumers, who trust that they’re being offered the right systems for their needs.”
According to Flynn, one of the challenges air-source heat pump manufacturers are facing in North America is what will be the next refrigerant.
“Currently, in North America, R-410A, which is a hydrofluorocarbon, is being used,” he said. “In Europe, they’ve moved away from hydrofluorocarbons and now use R-32. In North America, we have not switched over to R-32. One of the reasons is because it’s a mildly flammable gas, and we don’t have regulations for testing mildly flammable gases used in air-source heat pumps, although this is being addressed by UL and others.
“In a closed system, for example, if you buy a window air conditioner and put it in then take it out, the installer never actually measures the gas in or out of it,” he added.
Air-source heat pump systems can be either single- or multi-zone. They consist of an outside condenser and an inside evaporator, which requires a certified technician to clear the lines — perhaps add some gas or remove some gas — so it’s called an open system.
“When you have an open system device, there’s some concern of flammability and what sort of spark could set off that gas, things like that,” Flynn said. “So there are some issues with what the next refrigerant is going to be.
“R-32 is an available gas with lower global warming potential than R-410A, but again, it’s mildly flammable,” he continued. “So refrigerants are definitely one of our challenges for next generation air-source heat pumps.”
Publication date: 2/4/2019