Last Updated Nov 9, 2018 · Written by Rob Schneider
As summer closes in and the temperature rises, you turn your attention to air conditioning again. You put it off last year because you couldn't decide between a ducted or split system and you're facing the same dilemma this year.
Before you drag your feet through another long, hot summer, read on and learn the pros and cons of ducted air conditioning versus split systems.
There are some essential differences between split and ducted systems, specifically around cost, functionality and installation. Split systems are generally cheaper to buy and install, and can be easily retrofitted to any room or home. Ducted systems are more commonly installed when a home is being built, and offer better performance, though at a higher cost.
Let’s take a deeper look into the two types of air conditioning systems so you can work out which is right for your home and pocket.
If you have no idea what the difference is between a duct and split air con - no, fear we have a plain English explainer right here.
A split system is the most common type of air con system in homes and offices around the world. It consists of an (internal) head unit - typically mounted high on a wall in a room, with an condenser/compressor installed on a wall, roof or balcony outdoors. These are relatively affordable though coverage is on a per room basis.
Pros: Affordable, quick and relatively easy to install, cooling and heating options
Cons: Limited coverage - typically one or two rooms
A ducted system is integrated into your home’s ceiling and wall cavity, and are designed for whole home heating & cooling. They use a system of insulated pipes or ducts in your floor or ceiling cavity to circulate cool air around your home. Vents or grills are installed in the rooms you want covered, and a programmable control panel allows you to specify the temperature and when your system runs. A ducted system can also easily be integrated into a smart home, with control via a wall mounted panel or app. Ducted air cons are visually less intrusive than a split system, but do cost more to purchase and install.
Pros: Zone coverage, more effective at cooling large areas, integration with smart home possible, visually unobtrusive
Cons: Expensive, difficult to retrofit
Learn more: How much does ducted air conditioning cost?
Both ducted and split air con systems will do the job of cooling for you. The main things you need to consider are how many rooms you want to cool/hear and how much you want to spend.
If you only want to cool your living room, a wall mounted split system may be ideal for you. When choosing the system, you'll first need to determine how large an area needs to be air conditioned and match that with the capacity of the system. For an average 25 square metre bedroom, a 2.5 kilowatt (kW) system will usually be enough, but if you want to cool a 70-75 square metre living room, you'll need a 7kW system. The difference in cost between the two can be significant.
A good quality wall mounted reverse cycle 2.5kW split system will probably cost under $900, while an equivalent 7.1kW system will set you back over $2,000. Including the cost of an electrician, installation of a split system can be between $500 and $850.
A ducted air con system operates from a central location and warm or cool air is sent to the various rooms of the house via a network of ducts. A system like this is far more expensive than a split system, but if you want air conditioning throughout the house, it's still less expensive than individual split systems for each room of the house. The more points and zones you add the more expensive your ducted air con system becomes.
Today, most homeowners are opting for ducted reverse cycle "zone" systems that allow you to heat or cool as many or few rooms as you like. As with split systems, the capacity of a ducted air con system is important. Because they are designed to air condition much larger spaces than split systems, the kilowatt output of a ducted system is also much higher.
To air condition 100 square metres total, you'll need at least a 10kW system. One of these can cost between $8,000 and $10,000 (installed) depending on the layout of your home. If you have to air condition 200 square metres, you'll need a 20kW system. A large capacity system like this will cost closer to $15,000 (including installation) and you may need to pay extra to have an electrician set up 3 phase power if you don't already have it.
You will need to work out what capacity air conditioner you need. Factors to consider include:
Floor area and number of rooms or zones: The larger the floor area, the larger capacity your unit will need to be. If you have a multi-storey home then a ducted system may be the best option, though you can still install splits in the rooms you want covered.
Ceiling height: If you have high ceilings your unit will need to generate enough cool air to maintain a comfortable temperature in each room. Low or standard ceilings will work in your favour as there is less area tpo cool/heat.
Number of windows: Windows can account for up to 40 per cent of a home’s heat loss, so you need to factor this in when choosing an air conditioning system.
Now that you know the costs you'll be facing, what's your decision? If you plan on living in the same home for a long time, a ducted air con system might be your best bet. Although it will add to your home's resale value, it won't necessarily repay its cost, so if you are thinking of selling in the near future, you might be better off with a split system in the most used room/s of the house.
Whatever you decide, your air conditioner supplier/installer can help you choose the right capacity system for your room or house. Don't skimp on capacity to save on the cost of your air con system. Doing this will backfire on you when higher energy bills start coming in. A reputable air conditioning expert will help you choose the most cost and performance effective system for your needs.
You need to use properly trained and licensed installers to install a ducted or split system. Installers will generally specialise in one system, so you should choose based on their expertise and experience.
Depending on where you live this could be a split system installer, ducted air conditioning installer, plumber or an electrician. Anyone who handles refrigerants and installs air conditioning units must hold a licence issued by the Australian Refrigeration Council (ARC). They are also required to hold a licence from their state licencing authority - like Fair Trading in NSW. Without this paperwork any work they carry out is effectively illegal.
Besides making sure your installer is licensed, look for a business with who has been around and has a record of doing a quality work. You also need to make sure you get a quote in writing - if they can’t provide that, don’t bother.
A good way of getting a sense of cost is to get a range of quotes from local air conditioning installers. This will enable you to get a sense of what market rates currently are.
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