I gave in: Mini-Split A/C

FujitsuHeatPumpSystem-9-12-15RLS2-1024x682

A Hot Summer

2012 was a hot one. We’ve had at least 31 days over 90F, something which hasn’t happened since 1988, and July 2012 was the second warmest July on record in the Twin Cities. This is a departure from the norm; for example the average number of 90F days is 13 – we almost tripled it this year.  The 1930’s homes in our neighborhood weren’t built with AC, and retrofitting ductwork is tough.  And although I obsess over our energy use like some people obsess over Kim Kardashian, we do have to be able to function on those sweltering days.   Last year we struggled through the hot week with a single 8,000 BTU window unit upstairs, which was cumbersome, noisy, ineffective, and inefficient.

Enter the Mini-Split

This year we decided to give in and install something more efficient, permanent, attractive, and convenient – a Fujitsu ductless mini-split AC (our model is here).

These units come in various configurations, but simple ones like ours have an outdoor compressor/condenser similar to central AC and a single indoor air handler that hangs on the wall.  Refrigerant, power, and control lines run back to the outdoor unit.  Because it’s a matched set, and because there are no ducts to blow through a hot attic and leak air, they can be very efficient – ours is 25 SEER, 13.8 EER for cooling.  For comparison, Energy Star standards for central AC require >=14 SEER/ >=11 EER.

We weren’t going for perfect comfort, just something to keep it tolerable, and keep the upstairs cooler at night for sleeping.  One consideration with these units is that they are a single point of conditioning, and distribution can be an issue*.  We installed only one unit at the top of the stairs, figuring some cold air could fall and hot air could rise.  If we’d been going for more consistent whole-house comfort, at least one more head would have made sense, and we may still do that in the future.

mini_split

In the end, we selected a single 12,000BTU (1 ton) unit after doing a whole-house heat gain analysis to determine the necessary cooling capacity.  I contacted the fine folks at The Neighborhood Energy Connection in Saint Paul to do the analysis.

*other configurations have a small unit above/below the living space with short duct runs to different rooms to solve this issue, at the cost of some efficiency.

Effectiveness & Energy Use

Overall, it’s been pretty good.  We put it in just before a perfect storm of hot:  103F days, both sides of the family visiting, and a birthday requiring use of the oven to bake a cake.  That was a struggle, but it kept things reasonable – around 80F downstairs – and much drier, which makes a huge difference.  Distribution was a bit of an issue; it’s hard to cool a hot kitchen with a unit on the 2nd floor.

Here might be a more representative day: Sept 11 2012 had a high of 93F.  We closed the house and set the unit to 74F at about 11:00AM, and turned it back off around 7pm.  The bigger spikes are likely the espresso machine.  ;)  Stuff later in the evening is cooking & running the dishwasher.

93F_day-1024x388

The graph shows indoor & outdoor temperatures, solar PV power production, and household power use.  Outdoor temp peaked at 93F at 4pm, and indoor temps on the first floor peaked at about 76.5F around 1pm.  On the energy side, we used 13kWh and produced about 13.5kWh.  If we’d anticipated a string of hot days, we would have just left it on 24/7 to keep things cool and dried out.

In July 2011, with the window unit struggling to keep up, we used 33kWh-38kWh per day for the hot days.  In July 2012, with the mini-split running 24/7 on the hottest days, we used between 19kWh and 28kWh per day – quite an improvement.

It Heats, Too

The unit can also work in reverse, as an air-source heat pump, with an HSPF of 12.0, meaning for every BTU watt-hour it consumes, it moves 12 BTUs of heat into the house.  Converted to Coefficient of Performance, this indicates that it transfers about 3.5 units of energy into the house for every unit of energy it consumes – or 3.5x more efficient than a resistance space heater.  It maintains rated heating capacity down to 20F outside, and continues to function even in -5F weather.

I haven’t yet decided if we’ll use it much for heating, but it might make sense in the “shoulder seasons” when our 83 AFUE boiler would be operating infrequently and at lower efficiency.  Because these electric units can heat and cool so efficiently, they are often used in the design of well-insulated net-zero or near-net-zero homes with PV installed.

The Verdict

Overall I’m pleased with this thing.  It’s quiet, efficient, attractive, and made the hottest weeks quite tolerable.  It helps that we’ve done air-sealing and insulation of our home, so the single unit is better able to meet our cooling load.  I may experiment with sun control screens on the south windows next year to cut down on solar heat gain.

It’s handier, so we did run AC more days than we did last year, which is a risk if we’re trying to conserve energy.  And although some studies have shown that window ACs actually save energy for that reason, in our case we used 588kWh in July 2011, and 488 kWh in July 2012, and July 2012r was hotter:

                    Cooling Degree Days
                    (Base65)   (Base50)
                  Month Dept. Month Dept.
                  Total from  Total from
                        Norm.       Norm.
July 2011          433   174   898   179
July 2012          475   199   940   202

Less energy + more comfort = win.  We might be tempted to put one more unit on the first floor next year.  I’m not sure how that will affect overall energy use, but because the home’s cooling load will be the same (and we won’t need a bunch of fans to blow the cool air downstairs) I wouldn’t expect it to rise significantly – we’ll see.

38 thoughts on “I gave in: Mini-Split A/C

  1. Depending on latitude, you may be able to benefit from external window shading/awnings that shade during the hottest months, yet still lets light in during the cooler months when the sun’s angle is lower. This is in some ways more practical than permanent window shading like films/screens which typically reduce the transmission of daylight making the rooms darker – so you turn on the lights more.

    • Just to be clear, what I was talking about was insect screens which block solar heat gain. I already have “normal” half-window screens, I’d get new full frames and put the solar screening in those. So it wouldn’t be permanent like a window film.

      I agree that an option which requires no effort, such as built-in passive solar design with proper overhangs, or awnings, might be nicer. My wife doesn’t like awnings though. :) We are talking about doing some renovations on the house, and I definitely want to take passive solar design into account.

    • Hi Mary! It’s not bad at all, I’ll update the post with a photo in a minute. And update that it was the NEC who did the heat load analysis for me, what was I thinking, leaving that out. :)

  2. Pingback: Heating with a Mini-Split? Looking at costs & emissions. | Eric's Blog

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    • I eventually decided your post wasn’t spam. ;)

      There are a lot of good mini-splits out there. If your concern is energy efficiency, I don’t think the model you link to is any better; it’s listed at 11.64 EER for cooling and a COP of 3.41 for heating;; the Fujitsu model I chose is rated at 13.8 EER for cooling and a COP of 3.516 for heating. However, the model you linked to has a larger cooling capacity, which can impact efficiency; there are 3 Fujitsu models in the line I chose from, and the smaller-capacity models are more efficient.

    • I’m not familiar with AC ratings in horsepower – but 1HP is about 2000BTU/h capacity, which is very small. And you didn’t give units for your 13×13 room, so I don’t know if that’s meters, feet, etc. Even so, at best a room size would yield only a very rough guess for AC requirements. To properly size an AC, you need to be able to calculate the cooling load of a room, which includes internal gains (people, refrigerators, computers), and external heat gains (solar, thermal transfer through walls, infiltration, etc), design temp for the region, etc.

      An undersized AC will obviously not reach the desired temp. But an oversized AC will cool the room very quickly without removing humidity; then you’ll be left with a cold, clammy room.

      If in doubt, I’d look for a rule of thumb published by the manufacturer of the AC you’re considering. That said, the Energy Star guidelines for window AC units say that 100-150 square feet would need around 5,000 BTU/h of cooling capacity.

  4. you don’t mention the price that you paid, fully inclusive. would you mind? I’ve been given a quote of $11K for a fujitsu system that is 12000 btu downstairs and 2 x 7000 btu systems upstairs, all off of one outdoor unit. that price includes everything. Was your price close?

  5. How many square feet is your home? I am getting all new windows so the last thing I want to do is put window ACs back in next summer. I was thinking that a mini-split would be perfect if we could get by with one head in our stairwell landing (the stairs turn 180° halfway up). Question is whether or not the unit will keep the whole house comfortable or not. We have about 700 sq feet of living space per floor and prefer to sleep with our bedroom door open anyway. Thanks for your article!

    • Our home is about 1700 square feet above ground now, and we now have 2 heads, one on each floor.
      When we put this one in, it was about 1200 square feet.
      Remember that it’s a point source of cooling, so distribution can be an issue. Halfway up the stairs, it’s probably not going to cool the 2nd floor much at all, because heat rises.
      How much cooling you need depends on the cooling load of your home, which goes beyond square feet – south-facing windows, wall & ceiling insulation, etc can all make a very big difference. A good cooling contractor would do a proper load calculation, and figure out how much cooling capacity you need. But even with the right AC tonnage, keep that point-source nature of a mini-split in mind. (We sometimes use floor fans to push the cool air around, on the hottest days).
      For what it’s worth, you can also get “ducted” mini-splits, with short duct runs off a head installed in the attic. more expensive to install, and not quite as efficient, but still a very good option.

  6. I am wondering about how effective the single unit is at keeping bedrooms cool on the second floor?

    I would love to install a single zone for efficiency and ease of installation, however I think a multi zone (one in each bedroom) would be more effective at cooling.

    • It is mounted on the second floor – we later added about 600 square feet, and put another unit on the first floor. It works pretty well, though we do sometimes use an oscillating fan to distribute the cool air around a bit more.
      One head unit per bedroom would almost certainly be oversized, and you will wind up with cold clammy bedrooms when it reaches the setpoint before it’s had a chance to dehumidify the room.
      Another option is a single unit in the attic with short duct runs to each bedroom and a central return – Fujitsu makes units like this.

      • Wondering about Fujitsu model numbers for “single unit in the attic with short duct runs…” I am not thrilled with mini-split linesets on outside of house, but was thinking one compressor outside and two heads to two bedrooms distributed from attic could work. Is this what you mean?

        Sounds like you have two heads, one upstairs and one downstairs. One compressor? How did you run lines from heads to compressor?

        • Hi Jennifer – I think this is the Fujitsu model; I’m sure a contractor could tell you more.
          We have 2 heads and 2 compressors, mostly because we installed them at two different times. That arrangement is slightly more efficient, too, though probably more expensive.
          The one downstairs is a very short line run over and up and through the wall, maybe 10 feet total.
          The one upstairs goes through the foundation, across the basement ceiling, back through the other side of the foundation, up the wall to the top of the 2nd story, and back through that wall to the head. It’s a long run. :)

  7. Have a aircon mini in a bonus room. Lineset is super hot in heat mode but no warm air coming from air handler. Any suggestions.?

  8. I am very interested in how average consumers clean and maintain the blower wheel in their Fujitsu mini-splits. They were sold in as basically maintenance free; just clean the filters. Three years later, this isn’t so. The blower wheel gets caked with dirt and who knows what. It appears the only way to resolve is to have installer remove blower wheel (incredibly costly–particularly when you have several units) or use a bib kit and specialized coil cleaner (which is again incredibly costly if you have the installer do it) and time consuming and of questionable efficacy if the consumer does it. Not cleaning it, as I am sure you know, puts undo strain on the motor and fan and a decrease in operation (or, in my case, total breakdown). Anyone I’ve talked to regarding a maintenance contract to clean the blower wheel tries to ignore it. I can’t be the only one with this question/concern. Please let me know what you think.

    • I agree that cleaning can be an issue. I clean the filters, but can tell that there’s a bit more goop inside. I’ve never inspected the blower wheel, but I’ve disassembled my bath exhaust fan and yes, it’s covered in lint & dust. I imagine my mini-splits may be the same.
      Is it possible to see the blower wheel without disassembling the unit? I’ll have to look.

      • Thank you so much for answering! This became an issue when I noticed all the units spitting out what looked like dried leaves!!! Really, it was dust and crude. Yes, you can see blower wheel without dissembing. Turn off the wall unit. Gently open the lovers. Take a flashlight and shine thru the cage. OMG is all I can say. Fuzz, dust, layers of filth. What happens is this collection throws the wheel off balance which causes the fan/motor to work harder and/or just makes the wheel too heavy, thus having same effect on fan motor. There is one Mitsubishi unit that allows the squirrel cage to be opened and the blower wheel to be pulled out (but that is not what you and I have). What do you think?

        • I just checked out my older unit – it’s dusty, but not horrific. It was a good reminder to clean the filters, though :) I’ll have to look for disassembly instructions to get to the blower wheel, I can see it becoming a problem eventually, and I agree that the design seems to make this unnecessarily difficult.

          • Mine are three years old? Yours? We live in a very wooded area, off the main road so that might account for my filth. Getting the wheel out is apparently quite a task. On my unit in which the fan/blower stopped working, it took the tech who did the installation almost 4 hours! Talk about stupid design built to fail! I think I am going to have to opt for the bib kit and pressure spray (see BBJ mini split first aid kit available online at IAQ supply house). Gee, may be my next gig–mini split blower wheel cleaning service,

          • We too, only for a/c. My house is pristine. Probably it’s our proximity to the highway and we did construction. I have 6 indoor units and two outside condensers, so you can imagine the investment so I am concerned about maintenance and utterly shocked that when confronted most installers have a clean the filters, that’s it point of view. If you did in, you’ll see that the coils and filters do not get as dirty as this troublesome blower wheel issue. What are you going to do with yours?

          • So, your questions prompted me to have someone come clean the unit. They used the SpeedClean apparatus, but their own sprayer and cleaner. It didn’t look too bad on the outside, and they almost recommended against it, but the bucket was full of nasty black water when they were done. Glad we did it, even for $250 which hurt a little. After seeing what came out of it, I feel better breathing the air now. :)

          • Thank you for getting back to me. I’m glad it worked out for you. That is the price these crooks charge, so you can imagine my problem since I have 6 units. I don’t have that kind of money. So, I used the speedy clean bib kit and BBJ micro coil clean and a pressure washer which I sprayed on the coils and the blower wheel. It took with set up about an hour per unit. I got the most filthy bucket of water and hunks of slime you could imagine. When I turned on the bedroom unit, it vibrated terribly for a few days–I guess until it was completely dry. I thought the blower wheel was clean but, alas, whatever remaining gunk formed a hard mud. I bought some long tiny paint brushes, dipped them in alcohol and proceeding to stick through the cage, rotate the wheel with the brush and manually crack off the hardened dirt which was about 75% effective and nearly broke my neck!!!! Seriously, I’m thinking of inventing some kind of narrow stick with a strong brush and developing some prototypes as the US is way behind Europe in cleaning these things. I hope my next go around I will concentrate almost exclusively on the blower wheel and not worry about the coils which only get minor dirt. I am so infuriated by this situation as these were sold to me, three years ago, as state of the art and maintenance free.

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