Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nuts 'N Bolts - Going Ductless

Installing a multi-zone split heat pump may sound like an intimidating task given the fact that the name alone sounds like a serious piece of hardcore technology. However it might be a lot easier than you envisioned, provided that you have a basic electrical and plumbing know-how.

First, I'll give you a little background as to what exactly one of these units are and how they operate along with what lead us to make the decision to go this route instead of a traditional Furnace/AC combo.

From the Mitsubishi Website:
"Like your refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to pump refrigerant and transfer heat from one space to another. When we transfer heat from within our home to the outdoors, we call it “air conditioning”. Conversely, when we transfer heat from the outdoors to within the home, we call it a “heat-pump”. Because refrigerant is naturally much colder than outdoor temperatures even on a very cold day, it actually absorbs heat from outdoors, and transfers the heat it absorbed outside to within your home. The refrigerant’s physical properties do this naturally. What you pay for is the electricity to pump refrigerant via copper tubing from outdoors to indoors. Because we move the heat rather than create it (as electric baseboard or resistant heat does), we can deliver up to 4 times the heat for the energy we consume!"

The heat pump system is comprised of two main parts, the outdoor unit which houses the pump and the condenser and the indoor unit which distributes the conditioned air. The outdoor unit is similar to the traditional AC condenser that sits in many homeowners front or side yards like an old broken down Chevy. The heat pump condenser is much more compact and can be placed just about anywhere outside the house. The other difference is that this condenser can be reversed to provide not only cool air, but heat in the winter as well.
Indoor Unit
The indoor unit resembles that of an air conditioner and base board heater love-child. Being a multi-zone system you can place multiple units throughout the interior of the house and choose to heat or cool certain areas at a time, increasing efficiency. Depending on the size of the system you can have up to 4 interior units for each outdoor condenser. Our system is designed for 20,000BTU with each indoor unit providing 10,000BTU. The indoor unit is comprised of a blower with vanes which directs the air flow through the apparatus providing hot/cold air into the house. The indoor and outdoor units are connected by copper tubing(to transfer the refrigerant) and electrical wiring.

Outdoor Unit

The outdoor unit has a large fan mounted vertically that acts the same way as your automobile radiator does. It draws air through the metal radiator composed of aluminum fins containing the refrigerant. The unit also contains a pump which transfers the heated or cooled refrigerant to the indoor units. In the summer it uses the air to cool the fins turning the refrigerant into a liquid which chills the air and in the winter it heats the liquid to a gas, creating heat and warming the fins. One downfall of this system is that it is only effective to -15*C, so in the event of any extreme cold temperatures, the system switches to defrost mode and no longer heats the air. As a backup we will be installing a gas fireplace in the basement as well as utilizing the wood fire place in the living room upstairs.

When we made the offer on our house and had our home inspection, (nobody should leave home without one) it was confirmed that the furnace and AC unit were both 20+ years old and on their last legs. We figured they would have to be put out of their misery sooner rather than later and to avoid the risk of losing the house in renegotiation, we bit the butter and made due. Shortly after moving in, we realized that the AC barely made a dent in the upstairs oven we call our bedroom. Fast forward to the fall, Kerry and I attended the fall home show in Toronto in search of a reputable company to price up some new HVAC systems for us.

We grabbed many brochures and talked to various 'experts' on different units and we felt most were just talking heads who just wanted to sell us the most pricey, luxurious model to up their sales quota for the year. We found one guy who truly seemed he wanted the best for us and talked us down from a Cadillac and showed us something more in the Honda range.
I had scheduled an in house visit with him to show him our current system and provide us with a quotation. When he came by we talked about what I was looking for in a new furnace and AC and that I would probably need to upgrade the duct work as well since there was no return air ducting in the upstairs, hence the oven-like quality of temperature at night. We discussed various plans and the quote he gave me was something in the $6000-7000 range for a new system including the duct upgrades(this did not include any and all repairs to the drywall that would be ripped up in the process). It also didn't take into consideration the necessary upgrades to the existing duct work which was a result of the previous installer's less than stellar job.

After presenting the price I discussed doing the duct work myself to save a thousand dollars or more and just before he left he asked me if I had checked out the ductless system at the show. I had never heard of it and how no idea what they entailed. After handing me some literature he priced up the unit for me and instantly I became a fan even though the price was comparable to the furnace/ac combo. However no ducts meant cleaner, filtered air being distributed throughout the house (with two dogs and 2x the fur and dander this was a huge plus) as well as no need for expensive metalwork and drywall replacement.

One of the perks of being in construction is the connections you make along the way. Lucky for us, I had made friends with a subcontractor that had done some welding on my previous project. He had mentioned that he had his HVAC license and dabbled in that work on the weekends. I gave him a call and he told me he would look into pricing one up and get back to me.

Once he had quoted me a price with a savings of nearly $1500 plus installation materials I was sold. Scheduling in time to install the unit was a project on its own as we were both busy most weekends but we were finally able to free up some time after about 3 months of trying and thankfully the installation (which Ill get into in my next post) only took about 3 days.

In Part II of Going Ductless I will go over the installation process which is a lot easier than you may think. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them for you. Cheers.


  1. Hi Brett! It was very interesting reading about the new cooling/heating system. I had never heard about it before. Sounds like you'll do well with it unless the temps drop to -15C all year round. So I guess you should be ok and made a wise decision. Maybe it will be a good selling point when/if you decide to move. Congratulations on your many improvements...Mom and I are proud of you both!!!

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