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Is a Heat Pump the Same as a Mini-Split?

Everyone’s home is different meaning everyone will have different solutions for maintaining their optimal indoor temperature. As we head toward the colder part of the year, you may be in the process of figuring out exactly what your ideal home setup is. Between taking stock of your insulation, thinking about your outdoor climate, and deciding just how cozy you want to be this winter, you may have one question at the forefront of your mind: is a heat pump the same as a mini-split? The answer isn’t really yes or no; things are a bit more complicated. Read on to learn more.

Is a Heat Pump the Same as a Mini-Split?

Defining the Difference

Let’s start by talking about heat pumps. They’re one of the many options for controlling your indoor environment, but they have one key difference from the rest of the pack. Unlike conventional heating implements, such as a forced-air furnace or heated baseboard, a heat pump does not generate heat itself. Instead, it transfers heat from one area to another. For this reason, a heat pump can not only heat but cool as well. If it’s too hot outside and you need to cool down, it can bring the heat indoors outside. If it’s too cold indoors, you can use it to absorb heat outdoors and transport it inside. This flexibility makes heat pumps quite popular with homeowners, particularly in more temperate climates.

A mini-split isn’t a different kind of technology but rather a specific configuration of heat pumps. With a centralized heat pump, your home needs built-in air ducts in order to distribute hot or cold air throughout your home. With a mini-split, instead of a central heat pump controlling your entire home, each room—or zone—has its own dedicated heat pump. It’s a bit like the difference between a square and a rectangle. Not every rectangle is a square, but every square is a rectangle. Likewise, not every heat pump is a mini-split, but every mini-split is a heat pump. This difference in form, in turn, affects function.

Temperature Power and Control

A central heat pump will be able to heat or cool your home as the need arises. Because it’s centralized though, you’ll be giving up some zonal control. While a heat pump can both heat and cool in different areas of your home, a centralized one will only be able to do one at a time.

A mini-split gives you much more finesse in controlling your indoor environment. Since each zone has its own unit, you can adjust each area as desired. If you want to make your family room nice and toasty but don’t want to waste energy heating the empty guest bedroom, you can adjust the units in each room independently of each other. For many homeowners, the precision control of a mini-split is a big plus.

Installation Flexibility

A central heat pump needs to be connected to built-in ductwork to get its job done. If your home already has ductwork, great. You already have the infrastructure set up to use a central heat pump if you want one. If you don’t have ductwork already, you’re in for a good deal more work and expense. Before you can have a central heat pump, you’ll need to tear into your walls to install the ducts. That means more time and money spent on installation.

With a mini-split, installation is much easier and more modular. Since you don’t need to worry about ducts, just about any home can support a mini-split system. Installation only requires a small hole cut through the walls in order to reach the outdoor piece of the unit. Expert installation is definitely required, but you’ll have a lot more flexibility in how you implement your system.

Energy Usage

As a baseline, all heat pumps are comparatively energy efficient. Since they’re not generating heat or cool air, only transferring it, they use much less energy than a standard furnace or air conditioner. That being said, there is still potential for inefficiency. With a central heat pump, you’re going to lose some energy no matter what you do. You’ll have to heat or cool your whole home, which means potentially wasting energy in spaces that probably don’t need it. Also, you’re going to lose some of that energy through your ductwork regardless of your insulation. It’s still more efficient than more traditional heating or cooling, but not the most efficient option available.

A mini-split lets you take advantage of the efficiency of a heat pump while also avoiding the drawbacks of a central system. Without ducts, you won’t have to worry about losing any heating or cooling as air moves its way from the central system through the house. Instead, the individual pumps can directly heat or cool their zones as needed.

Design Aesthetics

One of the bigger innovations that came out of a centralized HVAC system was the ability to hide away the machinery that keeps your home comfortable. This has made homes look uniform and orderly as well as move away loud furnaces or air conditioners that might disturb the peace. A central heat pump offers the same interior design benefits, letting you tuck it safely away in a lesser-traveled section of your house. The only evidence you have of any HVAC systems at all is the unobtrusive vents built into the walls.

By contrast, a mini-split system is going to stick out. You can do what you can to incorporate it into your home’s aesthetic, and there are some models that are more sleekly designed, but there’s no getting around the presence of a machine attached to your wall. For some homeowners, the benefits of a mini-split outweigh the more obtrusive design. As with all things in your home, only you will know if the benefits outweigh the downsides. Depending on how the math works out, you’ll know if a heat pump or mini-split is right for you. If you’re thinking about installing a central heat pump or mini-split in your home, speak with an HVAC contractor to discuss the best unit for your space. The professionals at Entek are experts at installing heat pumps and are ready to give you a hand. Contact us today.

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