Ductless Heat vs. Central Heat: Too Hot, Too Cold or Just Right?

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Ductless units are surprisingly easy for your contractor to install, and they’re much more efficient than baseboard heaters.

HVAC aficionados aside, most of us aren’t too concerned, or thrilled, with our furnace’s inner workings—at least until something goes wrong, when that mysterious ka-thunk in the basement could transform a perfectly relaxing evening into a one-way conversation with a blower fan.

Knowing how your HVAC system works gives you a leg up on maintenance and repair. And it may even keep you sane. Depending on how your current system fares, you may even choose to upgrade or replace your HVAC system entirely.

In this article, we’ll explore the mysterious inner workings of two popular solutions: central heating, specifically furnaces, and ductless heat—the new kid on the block.

Central Heating 101: Furnaces

Although furnaces may seem intimidating on the surface, they’re actually quite simple. If you’ve ever wondered what the commotion in your basement is all about, keep reading.

Essentially, cold air is fed into furnaces and hot air blows out.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Starting in the furnace, the burner produces a flame that warms a heat exchanger—a block of metal pipes that retains heat.
  2. Next, air is blown over the heat exchanger, like a giant hairdryer, and pumped out through ductwork to the air vents.
  3. Waste is blown out the chimney, and return air ducts bring cold air back to the furnace to be reheated. Rinse and repeat.

And that’s what makes your home warm and toasty, folks. Since nothing in life is perfect. Here are some drawbacks to forced-air HVAC systems:

  • Heat leakage from poorly sealed ducts, leading to wasted energy.
  • Poor return ducts can lead to home pressurization and heat escaping outdoors.
  • Air filters get clogged and gummed up.

Going Ductless

As the new kid on the block (well, in North America, anyways), ductless heating systems (sometimes called mini split systems) are turning heads—giving bogged-down central heating a run for its money.

Deconstructing the main idea of central heat, ductless heat systems deliver room-by-room, or zone-based, heating for total home comfort. Typically, you can customize the temperature of any room with a wall-mounted interface, known as a “head.”

All “heads” connect to a single, outdoor air intake/compressor unit, which is easily hidden by a shrub or bush. That might not sound particularly exciting on paper, but you’ll definitely feel the difference. Mini-split systems allow you to control the temperature room-by-room, so you won't need to worry about the upstairs getting too hot while you try to warm up the downstairs. Ductless heating and cooling systems do it better, with a sleek, attractive unit, and programmable, remote-control capabilities.

Installing a furnace isn’t an undertaking for the faint of heart. By contrast, ductless heating units are surprisingly easy for your contractor to install, and they’re much more efficient than baseboard heaters. So if you're looking for energy-efficient HVAC systems, ductless heat is a great option.

Take-Home Lesson

Whether you go ductless, or opt for classic central heating as your HVAC system, let comfort guide you. You’ll be glad you did.


Popular Mechanics — How Your Heating System Works: A Primer

This article and its content are sponsored by Mitsubishi Electric US Inc., Cooling & Heating Division.

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