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:
- Mount the Mitsubishi head just 18 inches off the floor, a tip that CarsonB found at BuildingGreen in an article posted in 2013.
- Inset the head into the wall as far as possible.
- 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).
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.