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One of the biggest rising stars in the world of home heating and cooling is the heat pump: a technology that maximizes energy efficiency in an HVAC system while being environmentally friendly by virtue of not burning any fossil fuels to operate.
Nowadays, homeowners have several options when it comes to heat pump technology: traditional, ducted heat pumps and mini-split heat pumps. Chances are, you’re familiar with the concept of ducts in a conventional forced-air heating system, but what’s a mini-split heat pump? How is it different from regular ducted heating?
The following article will explain the technological principles underpinning heat pump technology and the difference between a traditional ducted heat pump and a mini-split one.
The Downside of Heating Your Home the Old-Fashioned Way
For thousands of years, the only way to effectively heat a building was through burning a fuel source. First, this was wood in a fireplace; later, coal furnaces were introduced. More recently, natural gas and propane have become popular heating methods due to the increased efficiency of those fuel sources.
Despite this increased efficiency, however, even these more modern furnaces still suffer the same drawbacks as all fossil-fuel-burning heating methods. The prime of which is the fact that they produce emissions that can pose a safety hazard to the inhabitants of a building unless they are safely vented away. There is also the cost of the fuel source to consider, which often adds up to a considerable chunk of the average homeowner’s monthly budget.
Heat Pumps to the Rescue
The most significant advantage heat pumps have over older home heating methods is that they don’t burn a fuel source at all. They don’t generate heat at all, not in the same way as a traditional furnace does. Instead, they use pressurized coolant coils to transfer heat energy from outside your home to the inside.
If this technology sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same technological principle underlying one of the most ubiquitous home appliances: the refrigerator. When the coolant in your refrigerator is compressed, the process causes it to heat up. The now-heated coolant is then allowed to return to room temperature and expand back to its original volume. In doing so, it drops in temperature dramatically, which in turn cools the surrounding air. The excess heat energy is then vented outside the refrigerator, leaving the inside cold.
A heat pump works the same way, only in reverse: the coolant absorbs heat energy from outside the home and then vents it inside, allowing the house to warm up to the desired temperature. This means that to heat a building, a heat pump just needs a little bit of electricity to power the coolant coils. There is no fuel source required, however.
The heat “pumping” process can also be reversed, allowing the heat pump to enter “cooling” mode and double as an air conditioner.
Traditional Ducted Heat Pumps: What You Need to Know
While the mechanism through which they provide heat energy may be dramatically different from old-fashioned fossil-fuel heating, traditional ducted heat pumps still circulate that heat throughout the home in the same way it has been done for many years. Once the heat energy has been transferred into the air, that air can then be circulated throughout a building’s ductwork by a large blower fan. As it circulates, the heated air exits the ducts through vents strategically placed inside each room of the building. Eventually, this allows each room to reach the desired temperature.
This method of heating is excellent for large houses and other buildings that require plenty of heat. However, it’s relatively inefficient since often a lot of heat energy is wasted heating areas that no one is currently in. It’s also impractical for smaller spaces, such as apartment buildings, studios, or individual offices, since they do not have the space necessary to install the large-scale forced air technology. They may not even have the required ductwork at all, and installing new ducts in a building that does not already have them may be prohibitively expensive.
How a Mini-Split Heat Pump Works
The answer to a question related to our title—what’s a mini-split?—doesn’t necessarily involve heat pumps at all. However, heat pump technology and mini-split technology have become so synonymous in recent years that they are often interchangeable in most people’s minds.
In simple terms, a mini-split is a type of HVAC system that doesn’t use ductwork at all. Instead, it is made up of a smaller (or “mini”) system that is “split” into two or more parts. These parts include an outdoor unit, which typically contains the compressor and condenser that gather the required heat energy, and at least one indoor unit that is referred to as an “air handler.”
The outdoor unit is connected to the indoor one through conduits installed through the walls of a building by a company like Entek HVAC that specializes in mini-split heat pumps and the related technology. These conduits allow the heat pumps to heat or cool different rooms without ductwork.
Why It’s Different
As we mentioned above, the critical difference between a traditional ducted heat pump and a mini-split system is that the mini-split system does not require ducts. This allows mini-split heat pumps to be installed in buildings that are too small or too old to have a ductwork system in place.
Mini-split heat pumps are also excellent for “zoned” heating and cooling. As we mentioned, ducted heating systems are relatively inefficient because they require a lot of energy to heat an entire building, whether or not every room in that building is occupied. A mini-split heating allows the heating and cooling to be more targeted: in a large building with multiple indoor air handlers, only the ones that are currently needed can be switched on. The rest can be left dormant until they are also required, helping to save even more energy with a system that is already highly efficient.