Suffering through a hot summer may seem inevitable to those with basements or garage workshops not serviced by a central HVAC system. Those with older homes that lack ductwork might also dread the warmest months. Ductless air conditioners present a solution for beating the heat in the summertime without going through an expensive ductwork retrofit.
Ductless air conditioners feature a condenser that sits outside the home and an air handler that mounts to the wall inside. These powerful AC units pump out up to 34,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) of power, which is enough to cool more than 1,400 square feet of space. Many also feature heating functions, making them helpful for keeping a room warm in the wintertime and cool in the summer.
Determining the best ductless air conditioner on the market depends on the unique needs of each home. This guide explores what factors are crucial to consider when shopping for one of these innovative machines.
- BEST OVERALL: Senville SENL-24CD Mini Split Air Conditioner Heat
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Della 12000 BTU Mini Split Air Conditioner
- BEST FOR SMALL SPACES: Cooper & Hunter 9,000 BTU Ductless AC/Heating System
- BEST FOR GARAGES/BASEMENTS: DAIKIN 18,000 BTU Ductless AC Heat Pump System
- BEST SMART: MRCOOL DIY 24k BTU Ductless Heat Pump Split System
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Ductless Air Conditioner
A ductless air conditioner is best suited for cooling an individual room. This might be unfinished space, such as a basement or a garage that functions as a workshop, or it might be a particular room, such as a bonus room, that is significantly cooler or hotter than the rest of the house and may benefit from its own cooling system. Keep in mind that for whole-house air conditioning for a large home, the better choice may be a traditional central air conditioning unit. But for an individual room or small house without existing ductwork, a ductless air conditioner may be the best solution.
Space Size and Zones
One of the most important factors to consider when shopping for a ductless air conditioning unit is zone design. Ductless air conditioning units, also commonly referred to as ductless mini-splits, are available in single-zone and multi-zone units. Single-zone units are for cooling one room, while multi-zone units are for cooling multiple rooms. Multi-zone units have an outside compressor and up to four indoor air handlers placed in different rooms of the home. Some multi-zone units are capable of cooling an entire apartment or even a small house.
Most multi-zone units can cover up to 2,600 square feet, while most single-zone units can handle between 500 and 1,400 square feet.
Just as with window-mount AC units and space heaters, a ductless air conditioner’s power is measured in BTUs. The greater the number of BTUs, the more cool air the air conditioner can produce. The power requirements for a ductless air conditioner depend on several factors, including the space’s square footage, the quality of insulation in the home, and even the climate in which the house is located.
Generally speaking, cooling an area of about 400 square feet requires a ductless air conditioner with about 10,000 BTUs of output, while cooling an area of 1,200 square feet requires a unit with about 21,000 BTUs.
Climate and a home’s energy efficiency also play a role in how well a ductless mini-split performs. A house in a hot environment needs an air conditioner that produces more BTUs than a similarly sized home in a region with milder summers.
Likewise, a ductless air conditioner will more easily cool newer homes with energy-efficient windows and insulation than an older home that may lack these features.
As with a central AC system, ductless air conditioners use filters that prevent the unit’s mechanical parts from getting dirty and clogged. These filters are also effective at cleaning the air in a room by filtering out contaminants such as pollen and dust. Unlike home HVAC systems, which use disposable filters, most ductless air conditioners have cleanable filters. Simply remove the filter, rinse it out with water, and place it back in the unit. This design helps to reduce cost by eliminating the need to purchase replacement filters every few months, which can get costly.
In the same way that many AC units double as heat pumps for central HVAC systems, many ductless air conditioners also have a heating function. This allows them to provide climate control in a home year-round, thereby eliminating the need to have separate appliances to perform heating and cooling tasks. Ductless air conditioners use heat-pump technology to create warm air. The heat-pump function typically mirrors the BTU output and coverage of the cooling function. However, keep in mind that a heat pump may not be adequate for warming in a room in regions that experience subzero temperatures.
Just as with central AC units and window AC units, ductless air conditioners use a condenser to cool air. These condensers are fairly loud at around 50 decibels, which is similar to the sound of a normal conversation. Since the compressor is located on the exterior of the home, as opposed to in the window, noise is typically not an issue with either a central AC or ductless air conditioner unit’s compressor.
Ductless mini-splits and central AC systems have air handlers that use fans to distribute the cool air created by the compressor throughout the home. Most central AC systems, however, place their air handlers (which can be rather loud) in the attic, eliminating the noise issue.
A ductless air conditioner’s air handler is mounted to the wall in the room it is cooling. Since it does not need to distribute air throughout a house, a ductless air conditioner uses a much smaller fan than a central AC air handler. This smaller fan operates at a quiet noise level of about 40 decibels, which is the sound of a whisper. Some ductless models feature whisper-quiet settings that allow them to operate at levels as low as 35 decibels.
One advantage ductless air conditioning units have over window AC units is that they are more aesthetically attractive. Window air conditioning units are an effective means of cooling a room, but their boxy shape and position in a window can detract from the aesthetics of a home.
In comparison, the air handler for ductless mini-splits is inconspicuously placed on the wall near the ceiling. They also feature streamlined designs that allow them to fit more seamlessly into the room. Most ductless air conditioners measure between 30 and 40 inches wide, 10 to 12 inches high, and 6 to 8 inches deep.
Installing a ductless air conditioner often requires complicated tasks that require professional training, such as brazing together copper lines and wiring high-voltage lines. However, there are some models that are designed for DIYers. These ductless mini-splits don’t require special tools or complex tasks and come with detailed instructions designed specifically for DIY installation. This can save hundreds of dollars in installation costs. Labor costs for installing a ductless air conditioner range between $300 and $1,000 depending on the type of installation, according to HomeAdvisor.
Ductless air conditioners come with multiple modes that make them easier to use. A “follow me” mode uses the unit’s remote control to detect the room temperature. Most ductless mini-splits have 24-hour timers that allow the user to set the air conditioner to shut off after a certain amount of time. Sleep mode slowly increases the temperature through the night for optimal comfort. Turbo modes rapidly cool or heat a space, ideal for units that provide climate control only during use, such as a garage. Whisper-quiet modes can reduce the noise of the unit’s air handler to as low as 30 decibels.
Our Top Picks
The list below takes into account the above considerations to narrow the field when searching for the best ductless air conditioner on the market. Since each user’s needs differ, this list is categorized by size, value, and specific features.
With its ability to heat as well as cool, a sleek design, and ultraquiet operation, this ductless air conditioner is one of the best all-around units on the market. It boasts 24,000 BTUs, which allows it to heat or cool an area up to 1,500 square feet. It’s also one of the quieter models on the market. When operating in its whisper-quiet mode, it produces just 32 decibels, which is about the same level as a whisper.
The unit operates via a remote control that includes multiple settings. A timer allows the user to set a shutoff time. The sleep mode slowly increases the room temperature through the night. Other settings include a turbo setting that runs the system at full power to quickly cool off the room. It features a sleek all-white design and measures 40 inches long, 13 inches high, and 9 inches deep.
- Can heat, cool, dehumidify, and ventilate
- 24,000 BTUs conditions between 1,250 and 1,500 square feet
- Very quiet at only 32 decibels
- Remote control with timer, sleep mode, and turbo setting
- Additional clamps, straps, and electrical supplies required for installation
- Not intended for DIY
Quiet operation, ample coverage for its size, and some impressive user features make this unit from Della an excellent option for those looking to cool a room or garage on a budget. Despite its comparatively low price, this model still packs a punch with its 12,000-BTU output, which is enough to cover 750 square feet. A remote control allows the user to adjust the temperature settings and features a wide range of modes, including sleep, energy-saving, and follow me, as well as a 24-hour timer.
This air conditioner is also quiet, with a range of 31 to 40 decibels depending on how hard the air conditioner is working. At 30 inches long, 10 inches high, and 6.5 inches deep, this model’s interior unit is also one of the more compact models on the market.
- Available in a range of BTUs and two voltages
- Inverter technology is very energy efficient
- Pre-charged for pushing air up to 25 feet high
- Built-in dehumidifier and ventilation-only settings
- 220/240 volt plug may require converter
- Interior unit must be placed on an exterior wall
Cooling a smaller space, such as a bedroom or den, doesn’t require a system with a high BTU output. This smaller model, with its 9,000 BTUs, is enough to handle up to 400 square feet. And at 30 inches wide, it’s also one of the more streamlined ductless mini-splits. In addition to a remote control, this WiFi-ready model can be controlled via a smart device. It also includes most of the same features as larger units, including a turbo mode for fast heating or cooling, a sleep mode, and a 24-hour timer. Horizontal louvers allow the user to direct airflow.
This air conditioner also features several helpful auto-maintenance features, including an auto-clean option that prevents mildew from forming inside the unit and an auto-reset for power outages.
- 9,000 BTU size perfect for bedrooms and porches
- Interior unit fits in smaller spaces
- Includes remote control and Wi-Fi connectivity
- Horizontal louvers direct airflow
- Heat works only when outdoor temp is 5 degrees Fahrenheit or above
A ductless AC system is often a good option for heating or cooling a garage or basement that isn’t part of a home’s HVAC system. With an 18,000 BTU output that allows it to service up to 1,000 square feet, this model from Daikin is ideal for cooling down or warming up those spaces, making them more inviting on hot or cold days.
Daikin’s ductless air conditioner comes equipped with helpful mode options, including a power mode that quickly cools or heats a space—ideal for areas that only need to be climate-controlled when in use—an auto shutoff timer, power-saver setting, and quiet mode that allows it to operate at noise levels as low as 37 decibels. The air conditioner’s indoor unit features a sleek white design and measures 48 inches long and 14 inches high.
- Can be used in outbuildings, basements, and attics
- Indoor unit features Quiet Operation setting
- Power Mode heats or cools a space quickly at startup
- Ventilation setting improves airflow in cramped spaces
- DIY installation specifically discouraged
- Pass-through wire harness may not fit existing electrical connection
This model’s smart technology and easy installation make it an ideal addition to a smart home. This ductless air conditioner includes a Wi-Fi smart kit that allows the user to control this system from any location via a smart device or a virtual assistant such as Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. This functionality enables the user to control the system from virtually anywhere, making it convenient for setting the temperature to warm or cool a space so it’s ready for use upon arrival.
In addition to being controllable via smart technology, this system is also easier to install. While many ductless air conditioners require professional installation, this model can be installed without any specialty tools or training, making this an ideal option for those who want to save on installation costs. With its 24,000-BTU output, this model can heat or cool a space up to 1,000 square feet. The inside unit measures 42 inches long, 13 inches high, and 9 inches deep.
- Simple DIY installation
- SmartHVAC app works with Alexa and Google Assistant
- Smart system notifies user when coolant needs to be replaced
- Variable speed fan reduces energy costs
- Must be hardwired, not plugged in
- 25-foot sealed line cannot be cut
A quiet, attractive, powerful unit, the Senville Mini Split is our top overall recommendation. With multiple sizes available to meet the needs of every room and four different modes to heat, cool, dehumidify, and ventilate the space, this Senville will effectively condition the air in your home regardless of the season. While the professional installation requirement may be a small drawback, the power and efficiency of this unit is well worth it, and the total cost will still be far less than a more traditional HVAC installation.
How We Chose the Best Ductless Air Conditioners
We considered several factors when selecting our recommendations. First, the cost of recommended units needed to be low enough that even those requiring professional installations would cost less than hiring an HVAC company to select and install their own equipment. In addition, we considered function: All of these units can provide cooling and heating, with some limitations based on the outdoor air temperature, and they have ventilation options as well. Convenience was also a consideration, and we looked at included remote controls, Wi-Fi connectivity, Follow Me temperature sensing, and noise levels. Finally, we looked at installation requirements. While professional installation is recommended on most ductless systems, the MRCOOL Ductless Heat Pump Split System is one of the few quality systems that are intentionally designed for shoppers who have some know-how to install themselves.
FAQs About Ductless Air Conditioners
If you’re wondering about how a ductless air conditioner works or how durable these units are, then read on for answers to these and other commonly asked questions about these appliances.
Q. How does a ductless air conditioner work?
The most significant difference between ductless mini-splits and a standard central AC system is that a ductless air conditioner does not use ductwork. Instead of having to pump cooled air through the entire house via a series of ducts, a ductless air conditioner simply pulls air in from the room, cools it, then sends it back into the same room.
Q. Are ductless air conditioners durable?
They are more durable than a central AC unit. When properly maintained, a ductless air conditioner will last about 20 years, which is more than the 12- to 15-year lifespan of a central air conditioner.
Q. How do I clean my ductless air conditioner?
Unrestricted airflow is key to the efficiency of a ductless air conditioner. Therefore, its filter should be removed and cleaned periodically. The condenser coils on the exterior unit also require maintenance. First, turn off electricity to the unit and allow the coils to cool for about an hour. Then wipe them down with a soft, dry cloth.
Why Trust Bob Vila
Bob Vila has been America’s Handyman since 1979. As the host of beloved and groundbreaking TV series, including This Old House and Bob Vila’s Home Again, he popularized and became synonymous with “do it yourself” home improvement.
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Tony Carrick is a freelance writer specializing in home improvement, landscaping, and design. A recipient of a degree in journalism and a Master of Arts in English, he spent ten years writing for a variety of local newspapers and business publications before becoming an English teacher. Mr. Carrick now works as a freelance writer from his home in North Carolina. When he isn’t furiously typing away on his laptop or working on his latest home improvement project, he enjoys spending time with his family and cycling through the beautiful North Carolina countryside.