Many modern homes have an HVAC system. HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, and these systems are designed to keep your home a comfortable temperature all year round. If you’re considering installing one of these systems, this guide will help you understand the different types of HVAC systems and ultimately choose which is the right one for your home.

Christian Delbert / Shuttershock

Your guide to HVAC systems

In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of HVAC systems and highlight the key differences between each type of HVAC system. We’ll also explain the pros and cons and let you know where to find unbiased reviews to help make a final purchase decision.

HVAC systems overview

HVAC systems are used to keep homes cool in hot weather and warm during the colder months. In addition to a heating and/or cooling component, they typically contain a thermostat that allows the user to control the temperature and an air filter that removes impurities and keeps the air clean. Most systems also have ducts and vents that distribute the heated or cooled air throughout your home.

There are four basic types of HVAC systems:

  • Split systems are the most common type of HVAC systems. These systems are split between a heating unit, which is typically located inside and runs on oil or gas, and a cooling unit, which is located outside and runs on electricity.
  • Hybrid split systems, or hybrid systems, are very similar to split systems. However, these systems have one additional feature: they can be switched between gas and electric power. This allows the homeowner to have more control, save money, and reduce energy usage.
  • Duct-free systems, or mini-split systems, place individual HVAC units in each room. Each unit has its own indoor and outdoor component, eliminating the need for ductwork.
  • Packaged systems are systems that combine heating and cooling abilities into one single unit. They are most often powered by electricity.

There are many reasons to install an HVAC system. Most older homes – and even a few newer ones – weren’t built with central heating and cooling. Installing an HVAC system can help reduce the energy bills in these homes when compared to running space heaters and window AC units, not to mention making things more comfortable for the occupants. If your home already has an HVAC system, you might need to consider getting it partially or completely replaced. This could be due to age or to update your antiquated system with something more energy efficient.

HVAC systems pros

One of the biggest concerns for homeowners when installing an HVAC system is the cost to operate the system on a regular basis. Some types of HVAC systems are more efficient than others. Ductless HVAC systems are typically the most energy efficient and will therefore generate a lower energy bill over time.

Choosing the right type of HVAC system will also depend on the size of your home. For larger homes, split systems are typically more energy efficient. If you live in a small home or apartment, you’ll get better value from a packaged system. On the other hand, if you’re looking to add an HVAC system to a guest house, workshop, garage, or other auxiliary space that isn’t consistently used, you might want to consider a duct-free system that can be individually controlled.

HVAC systems cons

The main drawback of installing HVAC systems is the upfront cost. This will depend on the size of your home and whether or not you have existing ductwork. If your home already has a functioning system of vents and ducts, you’ll be best off replacing your existing HVAC system with another split or hybrid split system. Installing ducts alone can cost up to $5,000 at a hefty price of $35 to $55 per foot.

In addition to the cost of installation, you’ll also have to plan for maintenance and eventual replacement of your HVAC system. Duct-free systems often require the most ongoing maintenance, a hefty price to pay for a lower energy bill. Even with maintenance, many HVAC systems will need replacement every 10 to 15 years.

Finally, physical appearance is a major consideration between HVAC system types. Most people are accustomed to seeing ductwork in homes, and vents are easy to hide, making split systems the most aesthetically pleasing. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to find a place for a large outdoor cooling unit, which can often be an eyesore. Duct-free systems aren’t always the easiest to incorporate into your interior design scheme, though. Their large indoor units must be mounted on a wall in each room and are nearly impossible to camouflage.

HVAC systems reviews

One of the best ways to get reliable HVAC system reviews is by asking an installation expert. HVAC technicians have years of experience installing and replacing systems and can easily refer you to the most reliable and affordable solution for your home.

However, there are also a few online resources to look at. Consumer Reports has updated ratings for dozens of HVAC systems. The U.S. Department of Energy also has a rating system called SEER, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, which measures the energy efficiency of different HVAC systems and can be used to predict how much one will cost to operate. The higher the SEER rating, the better.

When installing a new HVAC system, keep in mind that purchasing a cheaper system upfront doesn’t mean you’ll save money in the long term. Take into consideration the energy efficiency of the system, the cost of electricity and gas in your area, and the anticipated maintenance and lifespan for the system.