I installed ductless minisplits for the HVAC in my new house because I had a good experience with them on my earlier renovation, and I wanted to run an experiment in eliminating ductwork. The experiment worked out well, but the equipment and installation have been problematic from the beginning.
For starters, the installer I selected—a Mitsubishi Diamond Contractor, a program that is supposed to recognize the most qualified installers of the company’s equipment—made mistakes in the installation that I was not experienced or observant enough to identify. They installed the line sets on the wrong side of all three indoor heads, requiring drywall removal to disconnect the refrigerant lines to service the equipment. Had they installed them on the correct side, the heads could have been removed by separating the flare connections outside instead of inside the wall.
The issue became apparent when another problem arose—the failure of an indoor coil. The first coil started leaking about two years after the house was completed. Less than a year later another coil leaked. I have no idea why two out of three coils have failed within three years. I have three older units in another project that have been trouble-free since they were installed almost 10 years ago, so I attribute it (without any evidence) to problems with the manufacturer’s new design.
Mitsubishi did not have any suggestions as to why my units failed, and I was told that there are no reports of excessive failures in the field. To add to my frustrations, although they were still under a parts warranty, the labor costs were over $2000 per unit to repair. After the first repair, I elected to switch HVAC contractors. The new contractor identified the second coil failure during a routine maintenance visit. While this company appeared to be more knowledgeable and experienced, they had their own issues.
Everyone makes mistakes
When the second coil was replaced, we opened up drywall again, but this time the installers brazed the connection in the wall and rerouted the lines so any future service requirements can happen without removing drywall. Everything seemed to be working but a few weeks after the repair, I noticed dampness in the wall next to the head. In the process of repairing the coil, they had inadvertently scraped off the ribs on the thin plastic corrugated condensate drain line, allowing water to drip into the wall cavity. Luckily, I caught this before any structural damage occurred, so the repairs were limited to insulation, drywall, trim, and paint. The installer accepted responsibility and covered the cost of the repairs, and all is well. I will make the same changes the next time a head fails. I plan to bite the bullet for the wall repairs, and hopefully I will not have to make them ever again.
What could I have done differently?
All of this got me thinking about the original house and HVAC design, and what I could have done better. Based on a design by Allison Bailes of Energy Vanguard, I installed the indoor heads on two exterior walls and one interior wall, as indicated on the plans in the gallery of images above. These locations condition the house well, but based on my experience with the repairs completed to date, even if the refrigerant lines had not been incorrectly located, I would have been better off placing the heads on interior walls, where I could have installed panels inside closets to provide access for repair and replacement. (See the gallery for potential alternate locations.)
A minisplit installer recently told me that he always recommends installing the line sets on the exterior walls rather than the inside walls for maintenance. While I wouldn’t do this on a new house for aesthetic reasons, it does make some sense, and providing access panels would have been a good idea regardless.
I suppose designers and contractors with more experience may have come to these conclusions already, avoiding some of the mistakes I’ve made. While I have learned from this experience, I could have done without all the trouble.
Carl Seville is a green builder, educator, and consultant on sustainability in the residential construction industry. After a 25-year career in the remodeling industry, he and a partner founded SK Collaborative. Photos courtesy of the author.