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Air-source heat pumps transfer heat that is in the outside air into the home. The most common ones transfer this heat into the indoor air, and are called air-to-air heat pumps. There are three main types of air-to-air heat pumps: central, mini-split, and multi-split.

A central heat pump distributes heat and cooling through ductwork connected to vents in each room.

A mini-split heat pump does not rely on ductwork to heat and cool the home. Instead, mini-split heat pumps use a series of one or more indoor heads located throughout the home. An outdoor unit connects to wall-mounted indoor heads by a small bundle of cables, including the refrigerant line. A remote control is used to adjust settings for maximum efficiency, comfort and control.

While the term mini-split can be used to refer to any ductless type of heat pump it typically refers to a system that only has one indoor head. The term multi-split is often used to describe a heat pump system that has multiple indoor heads.

Not all mini-splits are completely ductless! A ducted mini-split heat pump uses short ductwork to connect a single indoor unit to multiple rooms. In these systems an indoor unit is mounted in the attic, where short ducts distribute air to multiple rooms.

The type of heat pump you choose will depend on a number of factors:

  • Size and layout of your home: Mini-split/ductless heat pumps can be used in homes of various sizes, but they are ideal for smaller homes or homes with an open plan layout.
  • State of your ducts: It’s important to check the ducts of your old heating system. Depending on their size and airtightness, they may or may not be suitable for a central heat pump.
  • Interest in removing ducts: If you are interested in removing the ducting in your home to provide you with more headspace or a more efficient utilization of space, installing a mini-split/ductless heat pump will allow you to do so.
  • Zonal heat: If you want to set different temperatures in different parts of your home, a ductless heat pump is recommended for zonal heating. Each indoor unit installed in your home can be set to different temperatures.
  • Outdoor temperature: The heat pump you choose should be compatible with your region’s climate. Some models perform better than others in colder winter temperatures.
  • Secondary suites: Mini ductless heat pumps can effectively be used as secondary heating systems for separately heated suites.

Other types of heat pumps

  • Air-to-water heat pumps also take heat from the outdoor air, but they transfer it into a liquid distribution (hydronic) system. Air-to water heat pumps can be used for both space heating and domestic hot water.
  • Ground-source heat pumps are another type of heat pump. The steady, moderate temperature of the ground allows these heat pumps to have high year-round efficiency. Ground-source heat pumps often do not require a backup heating system but typically have higher upfront costs than air source heat pumps. Installed cost will vary depending on your site geology and available space.

Did you see a building science or energy efficiency term you did not understand? Check out our glossary.