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Home Cooling Solutions: Central Air Conditioners v. Heat Pumps v. Mini Splits

Central Air Conditioner | Home Cooling Options | Best HVAC Company King of Prussia
A failing air conditioner can be a blessing in disguise, as it gives you the opportunity to evaluate all of your home cooling options. Did you know there are other ways to cool your home besides air conditioners?
Last Revised: February 16, 2024
Read Time: 9 min.


A failing AC unit that’s beyond repair can be a huge source of frustration. From sweltering temperatures in your house to finding out how expensive repairs could be, it could feel like one piece of bad news after another. 

If this sounds like your current situation and you’ve decided that it’s time to invest in a new cooling unit for your home, there’s some good news coming your way. 

Air conditioners are replaced roughly once every ten years or so, meaning now is a great opportunity to take a step back and evaluate all the home cooling options at your disposal. Learning more about modern AC solutions will ensure that you’re making the right decision and give you peace of mind in the years to come.  

At Mattioni, we’re always happy to share some insights into the world of air conditioners and home HVAC systems.  Every year our experts help thousands of homeowners understand how to evaluate their air conditioning needs. We’re seasoned professionals at matching HVAC systems with homeowners based on their homes and priorities.  

In this article, we’re going to look at some of the technology behind today’s home air conditioning solutions so that you can understand the pros and cons of each. You’ll begin to understand the advantages of each cooling system and develop an idea of which is best suited for you.  


What are your AC Replacement Options? 

Before we dive into the technical aspects of modern air conditioning, let’s identify the three options we’re going to be discussing: 

  1. Central Air Conditioners 
  2. Heat Pumps 
  3. Mini Splits 

Many people are completely unaware of heat pumps and mini splits, but after reading this article you should have a sense of how they operate as alternatives to traditional forced air and if they are right for you. 

1. What is a Central Air Conditioner? 

Mattioni Plumbing, Heating and Cooling | Best Downingtown Air Conditioner Company

A central air conditioner houses all of the system’s components in an outdoor unit that typically sits on a concrete slab near the house. Odds are your home’s current cooling system is central air. Central air conditioners are excellent at creating a thoroughly cooled home, but don’t target specific zones within your home to cool.  

Central air conditioners utilize a refrigerant that absorbs heat from your home as it moves through a coil located in an indoor unit. The heat energy is then pumped to a separate outside unit and dispersed to the outdoor air.  

This type of home cooling system produces cool temperatures that are distributed to each room by ductwork. Because there’s no zoning with central air there aren’t any noticeable temperature changes from room to room. 


Efficiency and Air Quality of Central Air Conditioners

While the energy efficiency of newer AC systems has improved by leaps and bounds over the last decade (some new systems have SEER2 ratings over 25,) they are still cooling your entire home, as opposed to specific zones like a heat pump or mini split.  

Central Air Conditioning System Diagram | Best West Chester HVAC Company

Because of this, the operating costs of central air units are typically higher than heat pumps and mini splits. According to Forbes Home Improvement, using a traditional air conditioner to cool your home can cost around $1,000 per year. 

Central air conditioning units also typically have a better air filter than heat pumps and mini splits, which can help reduce allergens and improve indoor air quality. 


Installation Costs of Central Air Conditioners 

Installing a central air conditioning unit should be less expensive than installing a heat pump or mini split. The up-front costs will vary depending on the cooling capacity and energy efficiency of the equipment but are usually in the range of $5,000 to $10,000. 


Maintenance Expectations of Central Air Conditioners

It’s recommended to have your central AC cooling system inspected by a professional once a year. A few simple things that you can do to ensure that your air conditioner is running properly, are keeping all vents and returns open, replacing the air filter, and maintaining proper refrigerant levels. 

If you think there may be something wrong with your air conditioner, learning more about common AC issues can help diagnose the problem. 


2. What is a Heat Pump? 

A heat pump system operates under the same principle technology as an air conditioner when cooling your home. Like central air conditioners, heat pumps utilize the chemical properties of refrigerant to transfer heat outdoors. One major difference between heat pumps and central air conditioning units is that heat pumps can also heat your home in the winter. 

Heat Pump | Heat Transfer | Best Heat Pump Company Kennett Square


Heat Pumps Can Also Heat Your Home 

It’s impossible to talk about heat pumps without mentioning their home heating capability. Heat pumps have a clever reversing valve that changes the flow of heat absorption and allows it to absorb heat from the outdoors instead of indoors. This means the heat energy in ambient, outside air will become the source of heat for the system. 

For many people, this is the most valuable aspect of a heat pump as it can replace both your air conditioner and your furnace or boiler. 

Right now you may only be looking for a cooling solution, but learning about how heat pumps can operate to heat your home is just as relevant now as it is during winter. If your furnace or boiler is also approaching the end of its expected lifespan, this information is very relevant to you. 

You may be thinking to yourself right about now, I need to use my heating system in the winter. How on earth can I rely on frigid, outdoor air as my heating source? This is a great question!


Technical Advancements in Heat Pumps 

Decades ago, heat pumps would run into major efficiency issues and even stopped operating altogether on the coldest days. Sub-freezing temperatures frequently would cause ice formation on the appliance that would lead to stoppages in the heat transfer process to your home. 

Because of this, heat pumps weren’t widely considered a legitimate alternative to combustion-based heating. 

In recent years, however, engineering advancements have led to the development of cold-climate heat pumps. This redesigned type of heat pump is specifically designed to be reliable and efficient in absorbing heat energy on frigid winter days. 

This was made possible largely by cold-weather refrigerants. These have boiling points that are much lower than standard refrigerants, which are typically -15° Fahrenheit. Therefore, these refrigerants can continue flowing through the system to draw more heat energy from the outdoor frigid air. 

Variable compressors were also developed to temper the run speed of heat pumps to minimize the system’s on/off sequences. This means that during extremely cold temperatures the compressor will run at much higher speeds than in moderate weather. This helps limit the amount of energy drawn. 

Today, heat pumps are the leading source of heat in Maine and Norway, two places with famously cold climates.  


Installation Costs of Heat Pumps

The cost of installing a heat pump depends on the size of your home and how complex the system will be. Heat pumps are usually more expensive than air conditioners, however they’ll also see a return on investment as they are more efficient in heating than most combustion-based heaters.  

Installations can range anywhere from $6,000 to $25,000 depending on a variety of factors. Chief among them is the volume of space that needs to be treated, which corresponds to how many air handlers will be needed. 


Efficiency of Heat Pumps

When heat pumps operate in cooling mode, they function so similarly to central air conditioners that there isn’t a superior option. Both heat pumps and air conditioners have seen energy efficiency advancements and have high SEER2 ratings. 

The real efficiency advantage of heat pumps comes as we evaluate their heating performance against furnaces and boilers as a heat source for your home.  

According to, homes operating heat pumps can expect to save an average of $500 per year compared to those operating combustion-based heating. This is because heat pumps do not have the burden of creating heat, they must only transfer it. 

Let’s continue exploring our options by looking at our next home cooling solution. 


3. What is a Mini Split? 

A mini split air conditioning system functions similarly to a heat pump since it also utilizes both indoor and outdoor air-handling units to transfer absorbed heat outdoors. Like heat pumps, mini splits can also be reversed to function as a heat supply.  

Ductless Mini Split Home Heating and Cooling System | Best Phoenixville Mini Split Company

What’s unique about mini splits is that they’re capable of conducting the cooling and heating process entirely without any ductwork.  

Mini splits operate by absorbing heat through indoor air handlers, or heads, and transferring them strictly through refrigerant coils and lines. There are no vents in a mini split system, and air is not heated or cooled until the air handler is turned on. 

Mini splits are great options for homes without existing ductwork, additions, and extensions to rooms that weren’t previously air-conditioned well, or rooms that weren’t air conditioned at all.  


Mini Splits Allow for Zoning and Inconspicuous Mounting Options 

The dominant advantage of mini splits is that they are incredibly flexible and versatile in creating zones within your home. You’ll be able to target specific areas that require constant comfortable temperatures, like your living room and bedroom, and strategically design your cooling solution to eliminate unnecessary zones and costs. This can save thousands of dollars over the long haul. 

Mini splits also have a wide range of mounting options that help to limit visual obstructions in the room. These installation mounting options include flush ceiling, suspended ceiling, wall hung, and standalone floor. Slim duct mini split systems, as their name implies, use ductwork that is smaller than average, which also helps limit visual obstruction. 

Mini Split System Indoor Air Handler Unit | Best Villanova Mini Split Company

Because of this flexibility, your interior design options are open to explore. 


Mini Splits as a Heating Solution 

Ductless mini splits have received all the same technological advancements to improve reliability and efficiency as heat pumps. Cold-weather refrigerants and variable compressors allow mini splits to function throughout the year, even on frigid winter days.  

Although you may only need to replace your cooling system at the moment, considering this advantage of mini splits will make sure that you make the right long-term decision.  


Installation Costs of Mini Splits

The cost to install a mini split will vary greatly depending on how many rooms you want to cool. Every cooling zone requires its own head, or air-handler. Therefore the more zones you are planning, the more expensive the installation will be.  

Smaller installations accommodating for one or two zones can stay in the range of $4,000 to $10,000 while larger ones accounting for four or five zones can approach $14,000 to $25,000. 

Other factors impacting price include just how high of a SEER2 efficiency rating you’re looking for in your cooling appliance. Investing in a system with a higher SEER2 efficiency rating will increase costs at the time of installation, but will begin to provide a return on your investment at some point in the future.  


Efficiency of Mini Splits

Mini splits are the most efficient home cooling and heating solution. To fully understand just how efficient mini splits can be, let’s think about how their design leads to less wasted energy.  

By zoning your home into areas designated to receive more or less air conditioning, mini splits will save energy costs from day one. Each zone will have its own thermostat, and therefore lead to optimized temperature settings throughout your home. 

In addition to this, mini splits avoid the typical energy losses incurred through the ductwork of central air or heat pump systems. According to, duct losses account for over 30% of an air conditioning system’s energy consumption. By eliminating ducts, mini splits retain this energy and put money back into your pocket. 

For these reasons, mini splits almost always achieve higher SEER2 ratings than central air conditioners and heat pumps when operating in cooling mode. 


Central Air Conditioners, Heat Pumps and Mini Splits: Which is Best for You? 

Each home cooling option offers something unique and advantageous over the others. Your priorities will ultimately be what dictates which system you move forward with. 

If you’re already satisfied with your home’s current heating system and are solely focused on cooling, you’re probably not considering heat pumps or mini splits. In this situation, purchasing a new central air conditioner is a rational decision. 

Maybe you’re taking a step back to think about the long-term efficiency and costs associated with both cooling and heating your home. If this sounds like you then you’re probably interested in learning more about installing a heat pump or mini split. 

Or if you’ve recently put an addition on your house or finished your basement, you might need an easy answer to creating heating and cooling zones without ducts. In this case, the most practical answer would be to move forward with a mini split system. 

Regardless of your priorities, becoming well-educated on all the options at your disposal is step one in making a sound decision for you. Planning ahead for any HVAC appliance replacement is another great idea to ensure you don’t lose comfort in your home when making the decision. 

If your air conditioner is out of warranty and repair costs are high, it’s time to start thinking about these options. Scheduling an in-person consultation with an HVAC Professional is a great idea to help narrow down your search and get a free quote. 

Call today at 610-400-8510 to speak with one of our friendly representatives about your options. 

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