Ronald Reagan was in office when Ken Rex Heating & Cooling installed their first ductless split system in northeastern Pennsylvania. At the time, their budding ductless sales only accounted for $30,000 annually. Boiler installation and service work accounted for most of the company’s revenue.
When Rex says, “We did ductless before ductless was cool,” he means it. By advertising ductless locally on TV in the late ‘80s, Rex started a big wheel turning — one that’s only gained momentum in the following decades.
Today, the firm’s mini-split sales are approaching $1 million each year, and they enjoy the largest referral list for split systems in the state. That’s saying something, considering that the vast majority of Rex’s territory is rural.
“We were early adopters, and we operate in an area ripe for ductless installations; a lot of old homes lack ductwork and were traditionally heated with oil or coal boilers,” said Rex.
“I’ve been in the heating business for 45 years,” he added. “Even if you’d have asked me 10 years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d see the ductless industry where it is now. The progress that mini-split manufacturers have made, through technological advancements and consumer awareness, indicates to me that ductless systems are the future of heating and cooling in the United States.”
Like many contractors, Rex knows well how to sell mini splits, and his team is among the best at designing and installing ductless systems. The company was one of the first in the nation to become a Fujitsu Elite dealer when the program was inaugurated in 2015.
“New construction isn’t very common for us, but when those projects come, we’re able to apply what we know about saving space and installing refrigerant line sets in places where ductwork would never fit,” said Rex. “Especially when the architecture of the home demands it.”
Ductless in new construction
Ian Blaum and his wife, Kim, built a new home at 2,100 feet above sea level on Penobscot Ridge in Bear Creek, Pennsylvania. The 2,500-square-foot home is well sealed and insulated against the high winds and low temps they can experience at that elevation. Their main goals for the “forever” home were aesthetics, comfort, and efficiency, all of which they accomplished.
“When we were designing the house, we had initially decided to install a ducted unitary system,” said Ian. “After I showed the plans to Ken Rex, he told me that it would be more feasible to get the efficiency and zoning I wanted with mini splits, especially considering the layout and the vaulted ceiling in the great room. We followed his recommendations, and it was one of the best decisions we made during the construction process.”
Two tri-zone Fujitsu Halcyon extra-low temperature heating split systems are now used as the sole source of heating and air conditioning in the home. These systems are capable of efficiently providing heat with outdoor ambient temperatures as low as -20°F. The three bedrooms are served by a 24,000 BTUh condenser connected to three wall-mount units — a 12,000 BTUh unit in the master and a 7,000 BTUh in each of the kids’ rooms.
The main living spaces are handled by a 36,000 BTUh tri-zone condensing unit. Indoor units consist of 12,000 BTUh ceiling cassette in the kitchen/dining area, a 18,000 BTUh ceiling cassette in the vaulted great room, and a 9,000 BTUh wall-mount unit above the garage in a play room.
Northeastern Pennsylvania can get extremely humid in the summer months, and minimizing humidity in the home was a big part of the comfort goal for the Blaums. Rex explained that using multiple ductless heads in the home, as opposed to a single A-coil in a ducted system, would increase the system’s ability to dehumidify. There is simply more coil surface in contact with the home’s air volume. As with all cooling systems, it’s critical to avoid oversizing indoor units so that each zone sees sufficient runtime before satisfying the cooling call.
“On both of the individual systems, the indoor units are slightly oversized for the condensing units,” said Rex. “We’re able to do that because the connected load of a multi-zone system can be up to 120% of the capacity of the heat pump, under the right conditions. We need to know that not all of the zones will be calling simultaneously, and of course you have to start with the correct math. You can’t conduct a block load and expect the heat load number to be accurate enough. When we take this approach, it always begins with a room-by-room heat loss/gain calculation.”
“If I need design or technical support, I reach out to APR Supply,” continued Rex. “I’ve been a customer of their Kingston, Pennsylvania, location for 11 years, and John Crognale always has the answers I need. Kevin Holmes, outside sales, and Greg Breneman, store manager, made sure I always have product, even during the pandemic.”
Looking at the two priorities for the HVAC system in the home, the family knew after the first year that the comfort and aesthetics boxes were checked. Being a self-diagnosed “tinkerer”, Ian wanted to quantify the efficiency of the heating and cooling system. He purchased an Emporia smart home energy management system and installed it on the Fujitsu heat pumps and various other electrical circuits on the property.
“On June 29, our temperatures peaked at 91°F,” said Ian. “The Emporia system recorded the energy use on the larger of the two Fujitsu units, though the small wall-hung unit in the play room was not in use. So for 24 hours, the power used to cool the kitchen, dining, and great room were recorded, showing 5.97 kWh for the day. Multiply that by $0.13 per kWh, and you quickly realize that we spent $0.78 to cool more than half of the home that day, which was the most expensive day we’ve had since we turned on the air conditioning. The icing on the cake was receiving the $715 rebate from the local utility for the installation of the heat pumps.”
Making more happy customers
Like the Blaum family, Cindi and Peter Mailloux were planning to use a ducted unitary system in their lakeside cottage renovation and addition last year. But they trusted the math and the reputation that Ken Rex brought to the table during his initial visit. They also deal with high humidity and high wind, courtesy of living next to a big lake.
The 1940s cottage was 800 square feet before the Maillouxs doubled its size with a large, open living room. Like many of the summer houses in the Pocono Mountains, the original structure lacked a/c and was heated by an oil-fired furnace. Rex suggested a Fujitsu Halcyon system as the sole source of a/c and heat.
“The ability to use a heat pump and avoid fossil fuel, even in an area with big winters and sub-zero temperatures, surprised but definitely interested us,” said Peter. “We took Ken up on his bid.”
“The home didn’t present any unusual challenges, despite its age. Just the ordinary retrofit hurdles, if you can call them that,” said Rex. “Maintaining access to flare couplings and getting enough pitch for proper condensate drainage, that sort of thing.”
Four wall hung units now heat and cool the home, served by a pair of 24,000 BTUh condensing units. Here again, the connected load is just slightly higher than the condensing unit capacity. Since several of the rooms are rarely used, needing full capacity throughout the entire home at any given time is very unlikely.
“We moved here from a home that we heated with oil,” said Peter. “In the winter, we didn’t keep the temperatures as warm as we’d really prefer, due to cost. With the Fujitsu systems, we keep the home a lot more comfortable. The biggest electric bill we’ve received here over the past year was $155. The old home — which, granted, was much larger — had a winter monthly oil bill of $1,000 and an electric bill of $100. It’s hard to compare the performance of the systems with so many variables, but suffice to say that the reduction in energy expense was quite significant.”
Ken Rex closed on 86% of the sales calls they went to last month. They’ve done an outstanding job promoting themselves and the technology they install. The future is bright.
“As I’ve said for a while, I really believe that mini splits are the future of HVAC,” said Rex. “The technology’s headwinds, as I see them are two-fold: convincing people that these systems are more than capable of being a stand-alone heating and cooling solution, and finding the manpower to put them in fast enough — but that’s an industry-wide issue.”
The technology’s prospects, however, far outweigh the challenges. Rapid installation, efficiency, zoning, and the list goes on.
“No matter how many times I run the numbers, ductless systems simply provide the highest profitability per man hour,” said Rex. “Consumers win, too. Who can argue with that?”