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Q&A Spotlight

Hiding a Ductless Minisplit Head

Ductless minisplits get high marks for performance, but not everyone likes looking at them

The minisplit head mounted on the wall to the right might be unattractive to some homeowners. But when a dozen people were asked to comment on the general aesthetics of this photo, it made no impression on three-quarters of them. Photo courtesy of Peter Yost.

Ductless minisplits have become the standard for heating and cooling in many high-performance houses. These air-source heat pumps have many advantages over more conventional HVAC equipment, and also what some homeowners consider a glaring flaw: the indoor fan units that are typically hung on an interior wall are not especially attractive.

Such is the case with CarsonB, who recently posted his plans for concealing a ductless minisplit head in the Q&A forum.

“Here’s my idea to hide a minisplit head,” he writes. “Please critique and tell me why this won’t work. Keep in mind that the ducted install was a lot more expensive and the floor units are large and just don’t look good IMHO.”

CarsonB outlines his approach with these three steps:

  1. Mount the Mitsubishi head just 18 inches off the floor, a tip that CarsonB found at BuildingGreen in an article posted in 2013.
  2. Inset the head into the wall as far as possible.
  3. Build what he calls a “console table” one with no face or back to block the flow of air, over the head to keep it out of sight.

An HVAC contractor is concerned about air from the head bouncing off the floor and interfering with the system, but CarsonB still finds the idea attractive.

“Sounds ideal for hiding it,” he says. “I don’t think anyone would ever notice it.” Or, is the idea crazy? That’s the topic for this Q&A Spotlight.

Don’t mess up the flow of air

Yupster cautions CarsonB not to disrupt the flow of air that  engineers envisioned when they designed the head. “These are carefully calibrated units,” Yupster writes. “Mess up the airflow, you mess up the unit. You also need access for maintenance, both for the inevitable mechanical breakdown and the regular filter cleaning.”

A better option, he adds, would be to place the head high on a wall and install a 12-inch-deep shelf directly below it. After you put a few knickknacks on the shelf, the minisplit head will just fade into the background.

Just buy a floor unit

Manufacturers already make indoor units that sit on the floor, so why not just buy one of those? asks Walter Ahlgrim. As Bruce Harley explains in the article that Ahlgrim suggests CarsonB read, research has found that floor-mounted units perform better for heating than indoor units that are mounted high on a wall.

“Sure,” replies CarsonB, “but as I said they just don’t look very good IMHO. I think it’s a shame they update the wall units a lot, but the floor units get few updates.”

It will be easier to get the right air flow with a unit designed to sit on the floor, adds Dana Dorsett, and if CarsonB is planning to build some type of enclosure around the unit to disguise it, who cares what the thing looks like.

“I was concerned about building an actual cabinet for airflow reasons,” CarsonB writes, “so it’s still visible. Though you are right, the hope is that no one…will notice it. Perhaps I could paint it black.”

(Indoor units, Dorsett points out, can be ordered in black.)

Ducted units were too expensive

CarsonB’s original post said a ducted minisplit would be too expensive, and Brendan Albano is curious about the cost difference between a very simple ducted system and a ductless head. He pulls up several sample installations, including the suggestions from Fujitsu (see the drawing below).

Some options for minisplit installations from Fujitsu.

The price difference was “huge,” CarsonB replies.

“It’s apples to oranges because the contractors specified different units,” he adds. “I should go back to the one that quoted the ductless units and get one for the same condenser. It was almost 20K. To put labor costs in perspective, it’s over 2k just to install a branch box so I’m going with the 30k hyper condenser that doesn’t need one.”

Other options for a ducted unit

GBA reader Andy suggests that CarsonB install a ducted indoor indoor unit vertically in a lower end cabinet. It would take up a space just 9 inches wide.

Ductwork, he adds, could be kept to a minimum. It might even be no more than a simple manifold attached to the unit. “Not rocket science,” he says. “easy to DIY with parts from the box store, some self-tapping screws and foil tape.”

CarsonB may have a point that it would be hard to find an HVAC contractor willing to commission, but not install, a unit. But he might offer them a deal—he would pay full retail for the unit and their full labor rate for commissioning.

And despite CarsonB’s misgivings, Keith Gustafson says he’s had good luck with DIY installations. He’s installed three units in his house and has gone a decade without a failure.

Visually, the units are not a big deal

And then there are the GBA readers who think CarsonB may be exaggerating the visual impact of a wall-mounted indoor unit.

“You get used to them,” says Gustafson. “In a house full of stuff they are not a focal point.”

“To each his own,” says Rick Evans. “I am amazed that some people balk at the [sight] of a minisplit head but willingly accept an ugly, hissing radiator, a dull grill, or an underperforming baseboard panel. I celebrate our minisplit head as it is so efficient and practical that it transcends aesthetics. It is a thing of beauty in its own right.”

And, adds George Smith, might this same conversation have taken place when radiators were first introduced? People simply added radiator covers to keep the radiators out of sight. “Now,” he adds, “they’re ignored as part of the background just as minisplit heads will be when they become more common.”

“Most people I’ve talked to who have wall-mounted minisplits say that they quickly forget they’re there,” says Michael Maines.

Our expert’s opinion

Peter Yost, GBA’s technical director, had this to say:

I checked in with my local go-to HVAC guy, Mark Russwick of ARC Mechanical on this issue.

“The setup described will probably work,” he said, “but boy, do we get a lot of ‘creative’ installs that compromise the supply and return free-flow intended.”

Mark suggested CarsonB consider this optional part from Mitsubishi, its Air Guide Accessory MFZ-KJ just released midyear 2019. It’s essentially a manufacturer-approved redirect of air flow that allows you to recess a floor unit into a wall cavity.

But on the issue of minisplit heads and aesthetics, GBA covered this back in 2014. I thought it worth including a recap because the issue of aesthetics for these units comes up quite a bit.

At the time, I sent out an informal survey to about a dozen friends and colleagues with the photo you see at the top of this column. I basically asked for an aesthetic reaction to the photo without telling anyone I was looking for comments on the minisplit head specifically.

When I heard back from people, I let them know that I had been asked to comment on a GBA blog in which an older couple found the minisplit head “homely.” I thought it would be interesting to ask folks from different walks of life how much they really noticed the head in a nice-looking kitchen with a lot of different aesthetics along the “old” and “new” lines. Just to see how much, unprompted, their eye was drawn to or affected by this “homely” head.

And now for the results:

  • I got 12 responses, with respondents varying in age from about 30 to 65. The sample size was just too small to claim any differences in response based on age or their area of expertise (which ranged from building professionals to a sculptor).
  • Only three of 12 respondents mentioned anything about the interior minisplit head, and two of those three were more concerned with the “distracting” large open wall space just below the head.
  • There were some common themes, but they had more to do with other elements in the room rather than the minisplit head itself. Responses were all over the map, from “one of the ceiling planks is a different shade than the others” to “the white duplex outlet on the left hand end of the island should not be white” to “I love that etching of the owl.”
  • One personal impression I must share: “I like how the photo shows the minisplit head and the wood stove, another neat juxtaposition of ‘old’ and ‘new,’ a neat theme of this kitchen overall.”

So, I think the aesthetics of new technology, even something as “bulky” and “homely” as an interior minisplit head, can be more about the aesthetic context than anything else. And we can get desensitized to the aesthetic impact of the conventional and sometimes a bit hyper-sensitive to the new.


-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine. Our Expert” is Peter Yost, GBA’s technical director and founder of a consulting company in Brattleboro, Vt., called Building-Wright

29 Comments

  1. User avater
    Fernando Pages | | #1

    We use them always in Latin America, and you get used to the appliance as you get used to seeing return air grills, dishwashers, and other household artifacts. Living in Guayaquil, where it's always 85-F or more, and always 100% humidity, we used the mini-split only in the bedroom on still nights without a breeze. It works very well, and there's no need to cool the whole house. Now we live in Houston and live year-round without AC, ceiling fans only. If you limit airconditioning, you don't need such complicated sealing techniques and costly HVAC systems. Simple, point cool and let your body adopt to the climate.

    1. Yupster | | #2

      I'm pretty sure if I let my body adapt to my climate, I would die of exposure. ;) #canada

    2. CarsonB | | #6

      you are a lot tougher than most Americans. I lived a few years in Austin after moving there from colder climates and couldn't imagine living there without AC. Heating is a definite must for survival where I am now though.

    3. John Clark | | #16

      I could only sorta adapt in Panama because very few places were air conditioned. I could never adapt in Houston with the heavy use of AC in buildings.

  2. CarsonB | | #3

    Wow, I never expected this to reach the spotlight. I will try to post results when our house is finished.
    I really appreciate the suggestion for the kit to set the floor unit behind the wall - that seems to solve the issue I had with not being able to mount the Mitsubishi ducted unit vertically and seems a lot more DIY friendly than trying to setup the Fujitsu unit upside down with a custom duct. I was unable to find any such installation in searches.

  3. CarsonB | | #4

    minor correction: "(Indoor units, Dorsett points out, can be ordered in black.)" Indoor "wall" units can be ordered in black. The mitsubishi floor units are only available in white. I'm not sure how easy it would be to paint the units, I'm assuming you would want to remove the plastic casing before painting which hopefully would not void the warranty.

  4. Keith Gustafson | | #5

    My decision making process. I had one of two walls in the main area of the house. The first is the view as you walk in the front door, so you would be staring at it as you walk in
    The second is obviously where it ended up. You only see it head on or from a small section of the dining room.
    No one mentions it
    As you can tell, there is no way to mount one on most exterior walls.

    [edit] you can tell I am bored with social distancing, I bothered to take pictures, resize them and figure out how to attach them]

    1. User avater
      Dana Dorsett | | #7

      That's some WEIRD looking tropic fish you have in the tank under the mini-split, with some unique aquarium lighting too! How do you get that neutral-density turquoise to work? :-)

      1. Keith Gustafson | | #9

        My daughter watching Johnny Test on a break from her online studies

    2. Malcolm Taylor | | #8

      Keith,

      Great example of a mini-split hiding in plain sight.

      1. Keith Gustafson | | #10

        Yeah, when you place it so it is not the focus when you walk in the room, it really does not stand out. That and minimizing the side profile[they are so much thicker than they look in pictures]

        today i would totally go with the ducted units, if you look at the top right corner of the pic taken from the stairs, you can see a detent in the wall, and the beginning of a ceiling for the little short hallway. That is where the entirety of the 'attic' in the house is, and would easily hold a 2 ton ducted unit. In almost the same place on the lower floor, a 1 ton unit would handle the bedroom and family room, and a 3rd for the other bedroom would mean that I could have heated/cooled with essentially the same number of units. But ducted units were much more expensive and less efficient 10 years ago.

    3. Rick Evans | | #11

      Keith, house is looking good! I am a big mid-century modern fan.

      It's hard to believe that this lovely residential style of the 60's co-existed with the more urban Brutalist movement.

      1. Keith Gustafson | | #18

        Hard to believe this house was built with single pane glass!

        I would hate to see an entire city of Brutalist buildings, would see so very soviet, but people are starting to see the 'charm' if you will.

  5. Lance Peters | | #12

    I could easily live with and celebrate a minisplit head. My wife, no way in heck. I mentioned it to her and she immediately wanted nothing to do with it and insisted our place have conventional ductwork. So much for that idea.

    1. CarsonB | | #20

      Same. That’s why I’m going with unconventional conventional ductwork :)

    1. Lance Peters | | #14

      Anything more than a standard wall mount unit seems to double the price while reducing performance, making them financially unsuitable, in my opinion.

      1. Keith Gustafson | | #17

        The pricing is not as bad as it once was

        They are still not state of the art WRT performance, but as with all things, the incremental improvement as the numbers go up is smaller

      2. CarsonB | | #21

        The material cost of the ceiling cassetts aren’t that bad. Installation may be another matter, probably dependent on how many your contractor has installed. Unfortunately for my application the cassetts weren’t an option as there’s no ceiling cavity to put them in.

  6. Rick Evans | | #15

    My wife is from Central America where ductless mini split air conditioners are common place. She actually thinks grills and ductwork are weird!

    We went for a modern look with our house. Everything is white so you barely notice our Fujitsu unit. This one unit heats and cools our entire house for very little money. What's not to love?

    1. Malcolm Taylor | | #19

      Rick,

      Your photo sure provides another convincing argument for leaving them exposed.

    2. CarsonB | | #22

      Attitudes likely will shift in the US eventually, especially when people actually look up how much they are paying for all that ductwork in both labor and efficiency. Still, shiny white plastic boxes don’t fit in every home. Fortunately mitsubishi at least recently introduced a matte black option for their wall units. LG is far and away the leader in stylish head units, unfortunately no one in my area installs them :/

  7. Brad Depies | | #23

    What's the likelihood of the lineset having a leak in it at some point in the future and needing to be replaced? I built a house in 2017 and besides my wife not liking the the head unit, I didn't want to deal with running linesets in the walls, only to rip apart the wall in the future to get at the lineset.

    Having worked with refrigerants as a mechanic, at some point, the current refrigerants are going to be replaced with something more friendly to the environment. With the changing of refrigerants, HVAC techs prefer to switch out the linesets to ensure a proper install instead of dealing with cleaning out the current lineset.

    With those ideas in mind, burying any of the head units is only creating more hassle in the future unless the homeowner ensures there is access built in. Neither of the HVAC contractors I talked with thought of future proofing the installation.

    Just a thought.

    1. Lance Peters | | #25

      The 2004 AC unit on the side of my townhouse still has the factory fill of R22 (I think) and, touch wood, still works as intended. 16 years and counting, and I don’t see why you wouldn’t expect a similar life from a decent mini split?

      Yes R22 is phased out, but if this thing gave up tomorrow it wouldn’t owe us anything.

      Most linesets are put straight through the wall behind the wall unit, so as long as the new wall unit covered up (or used the same?) hole you’d have no worries about drywall repair.

    2. Keith Gustafson | | #28

      i think a line leak is very unlikely

      Of course care in hanging shelves and pictures helps

      you can see from my pics the issue in my house, there is no unwindowed space on the long walls of the house, at all.

      The line sizes appear to have remained unchanged for a given size for quite some time. I installed my first 15 years ago, and it would be a drop in to change it today

      I think most repair guys are assuming the lines are over 40 years old, and maybe then the lines should be replaced. If we get to that point, we might be changing more than just an AC unit. I hope to get 20 years out of my units, and by that time they will seem really inefficient.

  8. Jason Volstad | | #24

    We're doing a black one on a dark 'feature wall" that will also have a large tv and a sound bar on it, this will cool the main open concept living/kitchen areas, and a similar one in the master bedroom disguised similarly. the guest area (2 bedrooms and a jackand jill bathroom) will only have fans as they will be unoccupied 90% of the time. I'm hoping the north facing office area will be ok without one but we could add another specific to this area later if we have to.

  9. emdog | | #26

    I'll soon be installing one, and with airflow & maintenance in mind, I'm going to recess it into a floor to 'ceiling' bookshelf, after veneering it with stained wood

  10. Malcolm Taylor | | #27

    A couple of decades ago it was refrigerators that were suddenly seen as unsightly. You could buy kits to cover the doors to match the cabinetry. I remember FHB Magazine had an article on how to do it. Then, just as suddenly, no one cared.

  11. User avater
    Peter Hestevold | | #29

    I have a design-build firm in Northern New Jersey and we have been using mini-splits for several years now with great success. I do however agree that the wall units are not particularly attractive. Our projects over the past few years have used ducted mini-splits. When designed and used for a new master suite, small apartment, or similar combination of rooms, the cost is very competitive. A 12K Fujitsu slim-duct has handled the heating & cooling needs of several 600 SF spaces very well, including below zero winter conditions. In New Jersey, the utility company currents offers a $2,000.00 rebate for ducted mini-splits, which makes them extremely affordable.
    We are in design for a new lake house, using four ducted mini-splits for a 3,200 SF house. The house will be also have a PV solar system with battery back-up.
    My belief is that natural gas boilers & furnaces will quickly become the pot belly stove's of yesteryear.

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