4 Different Types of HVAC System: Here’s Everything You Need To Know

Kenneth Wilson

With many different residential cooling and heating systems, the concept seems to be complicated to grasp for many homeowners.

However, you’ll find that the basics of HVAC (which stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems) are pretty understandable– as long as you know the function and purpose of the different types.

Generally, there are four primary categories of HVAC systems in different specifications and sizes. Newer units come in additional advanced options, such as variable fan speeds and multiple heating and cooling stages.

Let’s discuss the four different types of HVAC systems in the market today.

The 4 Main Types of HVAC Systems

1. Heating and Cooling Split Systems

Heating and cooling split systems are considered the most common type of HVAC system. They are most widely used as they are highly versatile, without specific needs or environmental conditions.

True to its name, the system is split into two primary units– one for heating and the other one for cooling. Heating and cooling systems are notable as they have indoor and outdoor units.

The outdoor unit is a cooling system using compressors, coils, and a refrigerant to cool your air. Then there’s the heater, commonly located in the basement or other standard storage spaces in the home. It utilizes gas to warm your home, and the warm air is distributed using a fan or evaporator.

Split systems are commonly configured in several ways to address your home needs:

  • AC and Furnace: Commonly called forced air systems, this uses blower fans in the furnace to distribute the air through the ducts.
  • Heat Pump and Air Handler: Suitable for warm climate regions. The heat pump absorbs ambient heat instead of generating heat, making it highly energy-efficient. Absorbed heat circulates via the ducts and the air handler.

A traditional thermostat is used to control the temperature so that you can keep your home within the temperature you find most comfortable. Fortunately, most units come with purifiers and humidifiers.

2. Duct Free (Mini-Split)

The next HVAC system type is the duct-free/mini-split system, which may cost you more in the upfront costs. Regardless, it presents many benefits in terms of specific applications and needs.

This HVAC system unit has individual units in every room, giving you complete control. These units are commonly mounted on the interior walls, and they are often attached to an outdoor compressor.

For your reference, ductless mini-split systems have the following:

  • Heat pump unit located outdoors (consists of a compressor, condenser, and a fan)
  • Compact fan coil
  • Refrigerant wires and tubes to connect the outdoor unit to the fan coil
  • Thermostat/control panel
  • Additional accessories to improve air quality

Some homeowners may have up to 4 indoor handling units (AKA 4 zones/rooms) for every outdoor unit. Another notable benefit of these HVAC systems is their energy efficiency, as every room is heated. It keeps any unused space from wasting energy.

If you are looking to downsize your home, you may want to install these systems. Note that mini-split systems often need intensive and regular cleaning/maintenance to avoid costly repairs and replacements.

3. Hybrid Split System

Another HVAC system type is hybrid split systems, similar to heating and cooling split systems with a few key differences. The outdoor unit contains the compressor and condenser, with the indoor unit holding the blower and evaporator coil. Meanwhile, its indoor unit is commonly connected to a furnace or heat pump.

Hybrid split system types are gaining more popularity by the day as they are more energy-efficient than their electric hybrid counterpart. The main difference lies in its ability to switch between gas power (quicker and sufficient) into electric (more energy-efficient and relatively quieter) in heating your home.

Accordingly, this HVAC system type is more suitable for properties located in mild climates where you can get by using electric heat during months when it’s not too cold.

The system also utilizes traditional ducts, thermostats, and every benefit you can expect in a split design. Additional benefits include an energy conservation feature to reduce your bills.

Expect for HVAC split systems to have the following:

  • Outdoor unit (condenser coil, compressor, electric components, and a fan)
  • A refrigerant circulates to and from the indoor/outdoor unit using a series of pipes
  • Evaporator coil located above the indoor furnace
  • Blower to send warm air over the cold evaporator coil, absorbing the air’s warmth
  • Ducts that disperse air throughout the building; supply ducts pull in air, with return ducts blowing it out
  • Thermostat to set your preferred temperature
  • Additional accessories to improve indoor air quality, including air scrubbers, humidifiers, and purifiers

4. Packaged Heating and Air

A packaged heating and air system contains a heating and air unit stored indoors. Usually, you can find this HVAC system in the top floor storage room, such as the attic.

It serves two purposes: to cool and heat your home. The compact size of a packaged heating and air system is suitable for smaller homes and spaces. Additionally, it is highly efficient and has easy maintenance.

You’ll find that packaged heating and air systems are commonly used in warmer climates, as their heating system is not as powerful (compared to other choices). The heat is mainly generated by electricity, but others can combine gas with electric sources.

Standard packaged HVAC systems contain the following:

  • AC and heat pump with the fan coil and evaporator in a single unit
  • Thermostat (control interface)
  • Air quality improvers (optional) such as cleaners, air purifiers, and ventilators

Expert Tips in Choosing the Right HVAC System for Your Needs

To help you finalize your choice, we’ve rounded up some expert-backed tips to select the right HVAC system that meets your needs.

  • Homeowners planning for an HVAC system replacement can save choosing a similar HVAC type as their previous one. This cuts down the infrastructure cost, especially with systems that have ductwork.
  • Determine your home’s energy efficiency goal. A geothermal system will benefit you the most to reduce your carbon footprint and create greener choices for your home. However, this may take up to 10 years for the cost charges to subside and reap the cost-saving benefits.
  • Consider the general climate in the region where your property is located. Suppose you are situated in an area with a warmer weather. You may be better off choosing a furnace split system or a heat pump system, given their heat efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Those living in cold climate regions may choose a traditional gas furnace (with/without a central AC unit). A hybrid system also helps maintain your ideal temperature even in freezing climates.
  • Lastly, select your HVAC system's correct AC unit and furnace size. A common misbelief is that larger-sized systems will provide more efficiency, but it may result in excessive spending (paying for more than what you need). This can be an issue as well. If you choose a system that’s too big for the installed area, it may lead to excessive condensation, mold, and rot.

Final Thoughts

That’s it for the four primary types of HVAC units! Now that we’ve discussed how each system varies from the other, we hope you have more knowledge in choosing and deciding which is the right HVAC system for your home needs.

Split systems are the crowd-favorite choice, but hybrid HVAC systems are now increasingly more popular by the day due to their energy efficiency. If your area is quite limited, choose packaged heating instead.

Remember that each HVAC unit type has its own set of pros and cons. (Related: How Long Do HVAC Systems Last?) To determine the best one for you, consult a local HVAC expert to get professional assistance.

Kenneth Wilson
January 21, 2022

Kenneth Wilson

Retired contractor. Currently residing in Southwest Florida. Now in semi-retirement, I write and manage this blog focused on helping home owners make savvy decisions when it comes to finding contractors and getting their projects done. I also operate remodeling design service for homeowners.

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