Are Ductless Minisplits Overpriced?
An installer’s estimate has one homeowner wondering whether he should install the unit himself
Ductless minisplit heat pumps have received a tremendous amount of attention in the last several years, and Peter L. would like to include one in his own house. There's only one problem: an estimate that seems far higher than it should.
"I was quoted $4,800 to purchase and install a Mitsubishi Mr. Slim 1-ton unit (MSZFE12NA)," Peter writes at GBA's Q&A forum. "That seems very high. Especially since it's a new build and the 3-inch hole is already in the wall."
Installers see minisplits as a niche market, Peter says, and because they're not making money on the ductwork that a conventional heating and cooling system would require, they are charging "crazy install prices" to make up the difference.
In this case, Peter estimates that the installation should cost about $500, not the $2,000 his contractor has in mind.
That makes installing the system himself an attractive option.
"I might go the route of the DIY minisplit from Home Depot — Mr.Cool," he says "I can get a 1-ton unit for $1,300 and install it myself since the refrigerant lines are pre-charged. The Mr. Cool unit (17 SEER(SEER) The efficiency of central air conditioners is rated by the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. The higher the SEER rating of a unit, the more energy efficient it is. The SEER rating is Btu of cooling output during a typical hot season divided by the total electric energy in watt-hours to run the unit. For residential air conditioners, the federal minimum is 13 SEER. For an Energy Star unit, 14 SEER. Manufacturers sell 18-20 SEER units, but they are expensive. ) is not as efficient as the Mitsubishi (26 SEERSeasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) is the total cooling output (in BTU) of an air conditioner or heat pump during its normal annual usage period divided by its total energy input (in Watt-hours) during the same period. The units of SEER are Btu/W·h. SEER measures how efficiently a residential central cooling system operates over an entire cooling season. The relationship between SEER and EER depends on location, because equipment performance varies with climate factors like air temperature and humidity.) but at $1,300 for the 1-ton unit that cannot be beat. Even if it dumps out at 7 years of age, I got my money's worth."
Smart plan or not? That's the topic for this Q&A Spotlight.
You're paying for less risk
The question has come up before, GBA senior editor Martin Holladay points out, when Justin Fink, the editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine posted a question about installing a minisplit himself when he renovated his garage shop. That was back in 2013.
"If you pay for installation by a qualified contractor, you are paying for warranty service and future callbacks," Holladay adds. "You are also ensuring that Mitsubishi doesn't void the equipment warranty because of an installation error."
Ben Balcombe suggests there's more to a higher-than-expected estimate from a small company than Peter might realize.
"Like many, I've been through these thoughts and discussions about how an $1,800 unit can cost $4,000 installed," Balcombe says. "Personally, I work for a company that employs [about] 20,000 people, so I have no experience in the costs of running a small business, but when you actually step back and think about all the costs that a small HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. company has to incur, you quickly get to big numbers."
That includes wages, taxes, real estate, the purchase and maintenance of work vehicles, training, liability insurance, and medical insurance.
"All of that is included in the price," he says. "It's not that Bobby HVAC is pocketing $2K for a couple of hours' work that you could do yourself. If I was working out my budget for a project I would look to do the 'easy stuff' myself (framing, painting, basic plumbing, and electrical) and use what I save there to pay for a pro to install a minisplit."
No, $2,000 is way too much
To Tim Brown, who runs a small business himself, the $2,000 installation charge is way too much, and reflects a belief in the HVAC community that minisplits are a "cash cow" not unlike photovoltaic(PV) Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. systems.
"What I'm finding with the minisplits (at least in northwest Ontario) is [they] are new, exotic, and well outside the comfort zone that most of the companies work in. The attitude is Hey, if you really want that fancy new unit, you gotta pay whatever I ask. It is particularly true when there are only a couple of companies that have ever touched a minisplit.
"I have to pull the trigger this summer on a minisplit and will install it myself before I pay what I consider a predatory rate to have a 'pro' do it," Brown continues. "I can buy two units: screw up the first one/throw it away and get another for the cost of one professionally installed unit."
When Brown runs the numbers, he comes up with no more than an eight-hour day, and that includes an hour to test the system and have a cup of coffee with the customer before leaving. At most, $1,000 ought to cover it.
"Just throwing that our for discussion," he says.
Brown's claims ring a bell with Steve S., who writes that the oversized effort to get a minisplit installed in his house was simply too much.
"I had five different contractors look at our project — a 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom Cape Cod that I had just spray foam insulated, which I thought was a perfect candidate for a minisplit system, and all of them talked about how it would be better to install traditional HVAC," he writes.
"I gave up on the minisplits."
The answer depends on system complexity
Jimmy Black says he's probably saving a couple of thousand dollars by helping a local contractor install a 3-ton, two-head ductless Midea system, but the potential savings of doing the whole job himself weren't that enticing.
"I priced doing the system myself, but by the time you add up all of the ductwork (I have some custom pieces), lines, and time involved I was well into $4-$5,000," Black writes. "Not to mention that simply troubleshooting any problems is going to cost you big bucks, since you have to evacuate the whole line set for many issues. Expect $200-$400 per service call.
"I'm spending the extra to make sure it's done correctly, but mostly to have a 24/7, no questions asked, 10-year warranty."
If he had installed the system himself, he might still be covered by the manufacturer's warranty, but then had to ship a defective unit back and wait for a replacement to arrive. "In Florida, 2-3 weeks without AC is not an option," he adds. "I also wish to never again mess with maintenance after my renovation is done. I'm ready to relax!"
That said, if you're installing a small, simple system — one outdoor unit and one indoor unit — do it yourself, Black says.
"If you have multiple zones, you can still do DIY," he adds. "Do several 1/1 units. That way if something goes wrong, only the one head is offline, and it will be much easier to troubleshoot, and if all else fails simply replace the unit."
The installer is offering an outdated unit
Dana Dorsett checks the details of Peter's original post and offers this thought: the Mr. Slim minisplit included in the quote is a 10-year-old model that has been discontinued. "You don't want it," he says.
A new model, Mitsubishi's FH12NA, "has a significant efficiency advantage over the FE12, which would only be sold by third-party remainder and surplus houses these days, not standard Mitsubishi distributors, though you can still get repair parts for them," Dorsett says.
Dorsett says that in his area, the FH12 would cost about $4,000. "I'd only consider installing an FE12 if it came in under $3,000," he says.
"If you're using it primarily for AC, note that the FH tests a SEER 26+, whereas the FE is SEER 23, which is still a double-digit percentage difference, if not quite as much as the heating efficiency delta," Dorsett says. "Of course, unless you did an aggressive Manual J — well enough to have a real handle on the heating and cooling loads — there's no way to know if either of those models is appropriate for your house/zone."
Wait a little longer, an anonymous poster tells Peter, and you'll be able to buy an even more efficient Mr. Cool minisplit — and one that includes a warranty for DIY installation.
"The Mr. Cool DIY series comes with a warranty for DIY," the poster says. "And by the way, minisplit costs about $50 (US) to install in China. You can get in the U.S. a Midea 24,000 BtuBritish thermal unit, the amount of heat required to raise one pound of water (about a pint) one degree Fahrenheit in temperature—about the heat content of one wooden kitchen match. One Btu is equivalent to 0.293 watt-hours or 1,055 joules. /h unit for $1,300, 20 SEER. Oh, Midea [has] got a 40 SEER (yes, 40 SEER) unit coming out this year, and it should be dirt cheap, too.
"More kids should get into the HVAC business instead of college," the post adds. "Easy money."
Our expert's opinion
Here's what GBA technical director Peter Yost thinks:
I checked in with a local high-performance HVAC contractor, ARC Mechanical, on the issue of affordable installation of simple ductless minisplit heat pumps. ARC completed approximately 150 minisplit heat pump installations last year, many of them for single-family homes. Alex Wilson in our shop recommended I talk with Mark Russwick, the guy he worked with on the HVAC system in his own home.
Mark started off by saying that he admires anyone who likes to take on technical challenges on their own home. “It’s the Yankee in us, and I include myself this way,” said Mark. “But I think there are good reasons to go the pro route on minisplit heat pump installations, and in fact, the $4,800 total cost is not that far off the mark.”
Here is what Mark laid out for me in our interview, in a really clear way:
You need a vacuum pump. Even if the compressor and the line set come charged, you will need to purge the interior head, which will not come pre-charged. And if you don’t ensure that the entire system is pressurized with just refrigerant, you run the risk of inefficient operation and probably damage or reduction in service life of the compressor.
These are relatively new systems and certified training ensures a warrantied install. ARC is an elite Diamond installer for Mitsubishi Electric, which means all of their installs have a 12-year warranty. “The trainings are important because these are high performance systems and the field is changing and improving really fast. Tough to stay on top of the game,” Mark stated.
The cost of equipment is about $1,750. Mark showed me an actual invoice for a Mitsubishi 1-ton, single-zone, Hyper-Heat, including the compressor, indoor head, line set, controllers, concrete pad, and 18-inch compressor stand.
Mark also showed me a spreadsheet that ARC had worked up for Green Mountain Power for ARC to complete about 200 projects. So these are quantity-discounted costs. The install included:
- $150 line hide, including wall inlet, two straight sections, one coupling, one end outlet, spray foam, and caulking for a standard 30-foot line length.
- $60 control wire and drain, at $2 per foot.
- $1,280 labor — two guys, five hours each at job, including travel time.
- $725 electrical work — 240-volt 20-amp wiring 50 feet to panel, and including code-required exterior GFI duplex service outlet (labor and materials).
The total cost, Mark said, is “right around four grand.
"Given the quantity-discount in our numbers and the fact that our labor rates might be lower than your GBA poster (Pacific Northwest), not as far off from $4,800 as you might expect,” he said.
Finally, I checked in with mechanical engineer Bart Bales and he added an interesting perspective:
“One consideration for all types of heat pumps is the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) standard test for performance conducted at 47° F. Organizations such as the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership (VEEP) and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) are advocating for testing and Output/Coefficients of Performance (COPEnergy-efficiency measurement of heating, cooling, and refrigeration appliances. COP is the ratio of useful energy output (heating or cooling) to the amount of energy put in, e.g., a heat pump with a COP of 10 puts out 10 times more energy than it uses. A higher COP indicates a more efficient device . COP is equal to the energy efficiency ratio (EER) divided by 3.415. ) for temperatures of 17° and 5° F.”
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