Choosing the Right Cooling System (Ductless vs. Central Air Conditioners)

Central air conditioning systems are standard in most American households – they cool the air in your home from a central point and spread that cool air throughout your home. Ductless air conditioners, however, are different.  They cool rooms in your home directly without the use of ducts. 

Central air conditioners are less expensive to install than ductless air conditioning systems but are not nearly as energy efficient. Ductless air conditioning systems are a flexible alternative to central air conditioners but may require more units to accomplish the same tasks. Both systems offer their benefits that must be carefully considered before installation. 

If you aren’t sure whether you should install a ductless system or go with a traditional central air conditioning system, then you are in the right place. We’re going to go over the pros and cons of each system so that you can see which option is better for your home. 

Central Air ConditioningLow/no profile
Works with existing ductwork
Improves home’s value
New ductwork is costly
Ducts must be checked and maintained regularly
Ductless Air ConditioningFlexibleEasy installation
No ductwork
Energy Efficient
High installation cost
The system must be sized up to cool house

What Is A Ductless Air Conditioner?

A ductless air conditioner is a system that is a pseudo-hybrid of a central air conditioning system and a window air conditioning unit. It consists of an outdoor condenser unit connected to an air conditioning unit inside your home. The condenser provides the air conditioning unit coolant, and heat is transferred back to the condenser – no vents or ductwork are needed.

Ductless Air Conditioner
Ductless Air Conditioner

It is possible to connect more than one indoor air conditioning unit to the condenser. This is a multi-unit or multi-zone option that costs a little bit more but can be more effective in controlling your home’s temperature than a central air conditioner.

What Is A Central Air Conditioner?

A central air conditioning unit uses a series of ducts and vents to control your home’s climate. It is one of the most common types of cooling systems in most homes today since it is so effective in keeping the temperature of a house even.

Central air conditioners get their names due to the fact that all the air is cooled at a central location. The central air is controlled by a thermostat which sets the temperature for your home. 

Central Air Conditioner
Central Air Conditioner

Installing a central air system is usually handled by a certified technician. Most homes are already set up for central air conditioning, but if they are not, ductwork installation is required.

What Are The Advantages Of Using Ductless Air Conditioners? (AKA Pros)

One of the key advantages of a ductless air conditioning system is that they are generally more efficient than central air conditioning systems.  They are also quieter, do not require ductwork, and offer the advantage of ‘zoning’ temperatures in your home.

Ducts are the number one source of lost conditioned air in central air conditioning systems.  Ductless systems do not have this problem, which means that they are more efficient.

Since ductless air conditioners do not have ducts, they are more flexible and can be installed in places where ductwork is impractical. This makes installing a ductless air conditioning unit much easier.  A ductless air conditioning system with multiple units also allows you to control the temperature of individual rooms.

A central air conditioning system must use force to push air through the ducts in your home. This makes central air units ‘noisy’ – there is always a rush of air somewhere in the background. A ductless air conditioning system does not have to use the same force, so it is whisper quiet.

And here is the best part – a ductless air conditioning system lasts about 20 years on average. This is a longer lifespan than traditional central air conditioning units.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Using Ductless Air Conditioners? (AKA Cons)

A ductless air conditioning system is typically more costly upfront and is not as powerful as a central cooling unit. Because they are more specialized, it may also be difficult to find a qualified technician that can install the ductless air conditioner correctly.

An air conditioning unit for a ductless set (like the Mini-split system) can get pretty powerful, but it still does not have the reach of a central air conditioning system. In order to effectively cool a house in the same way as a central air conditioning system, multiple units may need to be installed.

Ductless air conditioning unit installation also tends to cost more than a central air conditioning system. However, they can save you energy costs in the long run, and there are not nearly as many hidden costs upon installation.

Because they are not as common as central air conditioning systems, technicians may have trouble with installation. Incorrect installation is a common source of problems for an air conditioning unit and can cause your new unit to run inefficiently.

One point that bothers some homeowners is the visibility of the air conditioning unit. The outside compressor is smaller, but the inside unit takes up wall space and can be an eyesore.

What Are The Advantages Of Using Central Air Conditioners?

A central air unit is a common approach to cooling your home and has the advantage of being the more inexpensive option and it adds to the value of your home. Central air conditioning is ‘invisible’, and renews the air in your home with fresh air from the outside.

At more than $1000 for the unit only, no central air conditioning unit can be considered ‘cheap’, but they are less expensive than the ductless option.  There are also fairly efficient options that can save you on energy costs.  While it may not be as efficient as a ductless unit, a central air conditioning system may still be more cost-effective than one in the long run.

Central air conditioners also add value to your home, whereas ductless air conditioners do not. This added value can be between 5% – 10% of your home’s value. This is especially true in warmer climates, and home buyers are willing to pay more for a home with central air conditioning than those without.

While central air conditioners do not last as long as ductless air conditioners, their life span is still fairly respectable. The average life span is around 15 years for any given unit, but systems lasting 20 or 30 years are not unheard of.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Using Central Air Conditioners

The primary disadvantage of using a central air conditioning system as opposed to a ductless air conditioning system is the ductwork. Installing and maintaining the ductwork adds to the cost of the central air conditioner unit, and some of the conditioned air is lost through the ducts through inefficiencies.

Central air conditioning necessitates the use of ducts. New ductwork can range between $1,900 to $6,000, adding to the cost of installing a new system. While most homes already come with ductwork, this ductwork will not always work for a new system.

Ductwork also necessarily creates inefficiencies in your home’s system. The air rushing through the ducts will encounter friction along the duct walls, slowing down the air and causing it to lose its ‘conditioning.’ There will also be bends in your ductwork, and each bend will cause a loss of airflow.

Ducts are also subject to corrosion and tears. They must be inspected regularly for damage, as tears can cause air to escape from the system.

Central air conditioners can also be noisy, given that air is being pushed through the ducts. While the noise usually blends into the background, this is sometimes a complaint on the part of the homeowner.

How Much Does A Ductless Air Conditioner Cost?

Ductless air conditioning units are more expensive than conventional central air conditioning units, typically costing about 30% more for the system. Ductless system repairs also cost more due to the more complex technology that is being used. The upside to ductless air conditioners is that there is no cost to installing ductwork.

The cost of ductless air conditioning is also made up for by energy cost savings. Because ductless air conditioning systems are more efficient, they do not consume nearly as much energy to cool your home. Over time, this can help pay for the added costs of installation.

The downside to the costs of a ductless air conditioner system is that they may not add value to your home. If you sell your home in the years soon after having installed the ductless air conditioning system in the first place, you will not recoup the additional costs that you sank into the system.

MakeTop Seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) ratingCost of System (including installation)
LG27.5$3,500 – $6,500
Trane33$4,000 – $8,000
York28$3,000 – $6,000
Samsung28$3,000 – $5,700
Toshiba21$3,500 – $6,500
Carrier42$4,000 – $8,500

How Much Does A Central Air Conditioner Cost?

Central air conditioning systems cost an average of $5,000 to $9,000. This cost includes the unit, which by itself runs an average of $2,000, as well as the cost of installation. However, there are usually many hidden costs, such as ductwork installation or the cost of permits. 

When installing your new central air conditioning unit, you should check local regulations to see if you are required to have a permit or an inspection of the system to ensure it is up to code. If you are hiring a professional to install the system (which is highly recommended), they will likely know what the local regulations are and can advise you of them.

Most of the time, your home will not require new ductwork, since most homes are already equipped with central air conditioning. If new ductwork is required for your installation, the labor of removing the old ductwork will be added to the installation of new ductwork. New ductwork averages out to around $4000.

MakeSeasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) rangeStarting Cost (Unit Only)
American Standard14 – 22$1,345
Trane14 – 22$3,380
Bryant13 – 26$3,300
Goodman13 – 19$985
Amana14 – 24.5$1,310
Carrier13 – 26$1,525

Which One Is Right For You?

The right system for you depends not only on how much the system will cost you in the end, but also on whether you prefer the value added and climate a central air conditioning system can give you

When considering whether to install a central air conditioning system or a ductless air conditioning system, there is no one factor that will make it clear which system you should choose. The best thing to do is to consider each factor carefully and do a comparison of the pros and cons of your particular situation.

The primary factors to consider are cost, installation, lifestyle, and climate control.  Let’s look at these factors one by one.


Baring the costs of new ductwork, the cost of installation of a ductless air conditioning system is higher than a central air conditioning unit. Over the life of your ductless air conditioning system, its efficiency will pay for itself, but you need to be around long enough in that home to realize those savings.


Central air conditioning systems aren’t easy to install. It takes somewhere between four to eight hours to install the system in its entirety.  

A ductless unit, by contrast, is much easier to install, though care should still be taken by the installer.  Depending on how many indoor units you have though, the amount of time it takes to install can still take the same amount of time.


A ductless air conditioning system may require a few units to cool your house. A central air system, by contrast, is guaranteed to cool your house in its entirety. But if you are trying to cool a single room or two only, a ductless system is a much better option. 


A ductless air conditioning system with a single unit can perform well enough to keep your home cool if you live in a mild climate. However, for less mild and extreme climates, they will require more units to keep up with the kind of cooling a central air conditioning system can put out.


Central air conditioning systems are low profile, they can usually work with existing ductwork, and they improve your home’s value. On the other hand, if the system requires new ductwork, it can be costly, and the ducts must be checked regularly to ensure they are well maintained.

Ductless air conditioning systems make for flexible, easy installations thanks to the lack of ductwork, and offer great cost savings in energy. However, they do cost more for the initial installation, can be a bit of an eyesore, and must be sized up to cool a house, which can be tricky. 

As a last note, we have stated that a central air system adds home value, but haven’t said much about whether a ductless system will add value. Because a prospective buyer may not find the system visually appealing, it can be a detraction. However, the power-saving costs may make up for this.

When considering a ductless air conditioning system versus a conventional air conditioning system, there are many pros and cons to weigh between the two systems. If you have more questions about what system is right for you, call a professional.