Distributed Heating and Cooling
5.8a Resilient Energy Systems:


Distributed Heating and Cooling

Decentralized and high-efficiency heating and cooling systems distributed throughout a building can help avoid flood damage while lowering operating costs. Distributed systems are most effective in buildings with high-performance windows and well-insulated, airtight envelopes.

Description + function


Distributed systems provide heating and cooling inside a residential unit, giving residents greater control over the temperature in their apartment and dramatically reducing distribution losses. Dedicated boilers, warm-air furnaces, window-mounted air conditioners or through-the-wall heating/cooling units can be installed in individual apartments. Air-source variable refrigerant flow (VRF) units, also known as mini-splits, are a newly viable option for residential multifamily buildings. A split system locates some hardware indoors and some outdoors. Mini-splits are much smaller than commercial split systems.


A mini-split interior unit provides localized heating and cooling. The exterior unit is connected to the interior unit via small refrigerant pipes


Until recently, VRF units were not very efficient, especially in colder climates. New units work much better, even in northern areas.

Conversion from a central to a distributed system provides many advantages:

  • Virtually eliminates flood risk because almost all the equipment is located above the basement.
  • Improves climate control efficiency by heating or cooling only spaces in use—not the entire building.
  • Provides residents with a significantly greater control of temperature in their homes.
  • Allows sub-metering of heating and cooling energy (where permitted by law).
Mini-splits can be significantly less expensive to operate than many fossil-fueled systems. An online fuel cost calculator developed by BuildingGreen, Inc. compares operating costs of different heating options.

Strategy into action


Installing equipment.

Outside condenser units can be mounted on raised platforms outside the building, on special brackets on exterior walls, or on the roof, depending on the building. All exterior units must be sufficiently anchored against high winds.

Connecting the inside and outside components of the mini-split system will require drilling through interior and sometimes, exterior walls.

Operations + maintenance


Residents who do not have air conditioning may have increased electricity costs with the installation of a sub-metered mini-split system. Tenants should be informed about how to operate their units cost-efficiently.

Mini-split maintenance includes cleaning filters and condenser coils, and regular refrigerant charge, and inspection of drain pan, blower wheel, fan, condensate tubing and electrical connection.



Mini-splits on a roof above the risk of flooding.
Image: The Bluestone Organization.

Estimated Cost


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Supporting Strategies




Case Study: Distributed Heating and Cooling System

Case StudyDistributed Heating and Cooling System


The Bluestone Organization pioneered the use of distributed heating and cooling in affordable multifamily housing at Norman Towers, a 101-unit building in Jamaica, Queens, NY.


Each Norman Towers apartment has its own heat pump. External components of the distributed system are located on the roof and at ground level in a covered carport.

Bluestone paired the distributed heating and cooling system, with a high performance envelope to create low-energy, efficient housing. In case of a power outage, the building is sufficiently insulated to maintain livable temperatures in residents’ homes.


Installed cost for the mini-splits was $6,200 per unit.

Norman Towers roofs showing solar panels and green roof area.
Outdoor components of the mini-splits.
Images: The Bluestone Organization.
90-11 160th and 90-14 161st St.
Queens, NY
101 Units
$6,200 / Unit
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