WHEELER ON HVACR: The Evolving Minisplit
Just a little trivia for you: It was sometime in the 1960s, I believe, that a few of the first residential air conditioners were shipped from the USA to Japan. They were a rather unusual form of split-system window air conditioners manufactured by Dayton that never really got popular here, but they were the inspiration for the systems that we refer to as minisplit (ductless) air conditioners today. And when the Japanese started shipping their versions back to us in the early 1980s, they referred to them as “American” air conditioners.
It was in late 1986 that I went to work as the national service manager for the first Japanese HVAC company to enter the United States. And there was always a question as to where we would market these unique products. The problems with them included:
So, our market niche was in the South, in specialty applications (I saw one cooling an ATM booth an hour ago), or in northern states where hydronic heating systems predominated, as easy-to-install air conditioners. However, they never caught on for new construction.
But, recognize that these air conditioners predominate throughout the rest of the world, where they have the same problems that we do, so it isn't surprising that minisplits are evolving and will soon become a more important product in the North American market. What have we found?
The first claim to fame of the company I worked for (Daikin) was with a multi-zone system - one condensing unit serving up to four air handlers. And although the unattractive look, the lack of supplemental heat and the high price kept it from catching on in many areas, it was a super energy-efficient system, because it costs less (and makes more sense) to cool just the rooms you are in, not a whole house. And it was far quieter than split systems manufactured in North America.
Also, I've seen that far more efficient minisplits that serve even more zones are now becoming available.
Then the prices started dropping, because Japanese and American manufacturers started having them built in Third World countries. And here is another bit of trivia: I doubt that any minisplits are manufactured in Japan anymore; most come from Thailand, Vietnam, China, Korea or Mexico.
And what about the heating problem? Modern compressor designs now do a better job in the heat-pump heating mode. I saw that at least one manufacturer is now salvaging the heat from its motor-drive electronics to really boost the output to the levels of Btus that are required in northern climates.
But what about that aesthetically displeasing look? Well, I reported on this after the last AHR Exhibition in Chicago. A Korean manufacturer (LG Electronics) had come up with a flat-panel air handler design that can be used as a picture frame. But even more recently, I found out that this major appliance manufacturer is now coming out with a front panel that is a FLAT SCREEN TV!
It's true that all these great innovations are driving the prices back up, and new construction in the United States is still a down-and-dirty market. However, other than price, it appears as though minisplit manufacturers have addressed all the problems that we had with marketing this product back in the mid-1980s. Now they have come up with some ideas to make their air conditioners and heat pumps far more desirable aesthetically than the plain vanilla products that we manufacture in North America, the names of which few consumers remember.