A Guide to HVAC Systems for the Home: From Purchase to Maintenance

February 15, 2024

Image by IntelligentVisualDesing on Pixabay

One of our homes' critical appliances is heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. They control the indoor climate by regulating temperature, airflow, humidity, and air quality. They also impact energy efficiency and monthly utility bills.

Whether you're a first-time homeowner or seeking to upgrade your unit, investing in a new HVAC system is a significant decision. Understanding which type, unit, and model suits your home and lifestyle requires a discerning eye.

As such, this comprehensive guide will outline everything you should know about HVAC systems. From purchase to maintenance, it will help you find one that balances comfort, efficiency, and sustainability.

Types of HVAC Systems

You shouldn't confuse HVAC systems and air conditioners. While HVAC systems have air conditioning capabilities, not all air conditioners provide heating and ventilation functions.

HVAC systems have dedicated features that help circulate fresh air and remove dust, pollutants, and allergens. Meanwhile, air conditioners often only have cooling systems, making them a part of HVAC systems.

Here are the types of HVAC systems based on specific use:

Cooling and heating splits

Cooling and heating split systems are the most common types of HVAC systems in residential properties. They provide two components—one for cooling and one for heating—and use traditional thermostats to regulate the temperature.

The heating units are typically located in basements, utility closets, or other indoor storage spaces in these structures. Meanwhile, the cooling systems are installed outside and connect to a property's ductwork through tubing.

The heaters are gas-powered and use fans or evaporators to push heat to the ductwork. In contrast, the coolers use coils, compressors, and refrigerant to create cool air and fan hot air away from your home.

Hybrid splits

Hybrid split HVAC systems have the same structure as split systems. However, they don't rely on gas to generate heat. While the heaters can burn gas, they can also switch to electric power.

Electric heating is usually less powerful, but this power source helps you control your energy consumption, reducing electricity bills.

Ductless systems

Ductless HVAC systems heat and cool your space without air ducts. They have various sizes and are typically used in small buildings and temporary work sites.

The types of ductless systems include:

  • Mini-splits – Electric units with indoor heat pumps, air-handling units, power cables, outdoor condensers and compressors, and refrigerants. They are standard fixtures in offices, multifamily homes, and hotel rooms.
  • Hydronic Heating – Units that use liquid to radiate heat. They use boilers to heat water and distribute it through pipes under the floors.
  • Portable Spot Coolers – These portable AC units can run in any location with electricity. They can cool down and remove humid air from large rooms and outdoor spaces.
  • Portable Heat Pumps – These units are similar to spot coolers but offer additional heating functions. They have reversing valves that let users switch between heating and cooling.

Packaged

Although less common, packaged heating and cooling systems are best for small properties because of their compact design. Their heating and cooling components are usually stored on roofs or attic spaces.

Packaged HVAC systems connect to a property's supply and return air ducts through a single hole in the wall.

You can install a packaged air conditioner with an air handler with optional heat strip elements or a packaged heat pump with evaporator coils. Both options often cost less to install and are easier to maintain than split systems.

Zoned

Zoned HVAC systems divide homes into multiple zones. Each zone is powered by its thermostat, allowing you to regulate different temperatures in different rooms or floors rather than heating or cooling the entire house to just one temperature.

Since the systems are separate, this zoning requires installing two or more heating and cooling units.

Image by Elimende Inagella on Unsplash

Factors To Remember When Choosing an HVAC System

Before buying an HVAC system, you must take note of the following factors:

Ratings

You might be unfamiliar with HVAC technologies if you're a first-time homeowner. On the other hand, technology has changed significantly since the last time you bought one if your HVAC is 10 to 20 years old.

It's best to go for the units with the latest technologies. These units have ratings that tell you what to expect. They include:

Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER)

SEER refers to the energy the cooling system consumes in a specific time frame. The higher the number, the less energy the cooling system consumes.

SEER ratings range between 13 and 21. However, some units can go higher depending on the brand.

Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER)

EER is the efficiency ratio of HVAC systems at a specific temperature condition—usually 95°F outside and 80°F inside with a 50 percent relative humidity level. The ideal EER ratings are 8.5 and above.

Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE)

AFUE measures a furnace's efficiency in converting fuel into energy. The minimum AFUE rating is 80, mid-efficiency is 90 to 93, and high-efficiency ranges from 94 to 98 percent.

Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF)

HSPF determines the heating efficiency of heat pumps. The ratings can range from 6.8 to 13.5.

However, the lowest rating for Energy Star-rated HVAC units is usually 8.2 for single-packaged units and 8.5 for split systems. Energy Star is a rating backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that indicates a product's energy efficiency.

Size

The size of your HVAC unit must be appropriate for your living space because oversized or undersized systems may cause costly issues.

  • Oversized systems may use more energy than needed to regulate the temperature and ventilate little spaces, making them less efficient.
  • Undersized systems may not have the functions to warm or cool down your home appropriately.

Noise levels

Noise level recommendations in decibels (dB) for HVAC systems are as follows:

  • 45 dB – acceptable for indoors in residential areas
  • 55 dB – outdoor areas with human activities
  • 70 dB – limit before hearing loss

Costs

It's natural to go for cheaper options if you're budget-conscious. However, cheaper units don't necessarily mean they're better. Low-value systems typically have lower efficiency ratings and may require costly repairs.

But this doesn't mean you should buy the most expensive system. Being cautious with both options by assessing their features is essential. It's best to pick a unit that accommodates your budget and matches your home's heating and cooling needs.

How To Keep Your HVAC System in Optimal Condition

To avoid frequent and costly repairs, remember the following maintenance methods to keep your HVAC system in optimal condition:

Conduct monthly visual inspections

Monthly visual inspections help you find potential problems before they escalate. Here's how to check your unit:

  • Check your thermostat's battery status
  • Ensure the condensate system is draining properly
  • Securely close the filter access and cabinet door
  • Keep all the returns and registers open and unblocked
  • Ensure the flue system is intact
  • Inspect the registers for mold

Replace the filters

Filters collect dust, hair, pollutants, allergens, and other particles to keep the indoor air fresh and healthy. When the pollutants accumulate in the filter, your HVAC system exerts more effort, increasing energy consumption.

As such, experts recommend you change your filter every 30 days or depending on your unit. Clean filters let more air pass through, making the system more efficient.

For most units, filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating between seven and 13 offer the ideal balance of maximum airflow and filtration.

Clear the areas around your unit

Clutter around your units can block the vents, reduce air circulation, and pose safety risks. These issues can make it challenging to perform repairs and maintenance.

Thus, keeping the areas around your indoor and outdoor HVAC units clear helps prevent these problems. Wipe the dirt, remove the debris, and trim your plants to maintain proper airflow.

Other DIY maintenance methods include:

  • Change your thermostat batteries at least once a year.
  • Test your carbon monoxide detector monthly, change its batteries every six months, or consider a replacement if necessary.
  • Monitor your energy bills for spikes or gradual increases in energy consumption.
  • Consider replacing your unit or certain parts if issues persist. For air conditioner units, use high-quality AC parts to enhance your HVAC unit's performance and longevity.

Schedule routine maintenance

Routine maintenance is essential to ensure expert advice and checkups. HVAC technicians and installation companies will thoroughly inspect and troubleshoot your unit to prevent breakdowns.

They will also do the following:

  • Tighten electrical connections
  • Lubricate moving parts
  • Inspect and clean the condensate drain
  • Adjust blower components
  • Inspect fuel lines
  • Clean evaporators and condenser coils
  • Check the burner combustion, gas pressure, and heat exchanger

It's best to schedule routine maintenance for air conditioning during spring and one in the fall for the heating.

Understanding HVAC systems—from choosing the appropriate unit to ensuring efficient operation—is crucial in maintaining a comfortable living space. With informed choices, you can select a unit that provides the optimal indoor climate, blending seamless functionality and energy efficiency that prioritizes your and your loved ones' well-being.

 

Urban Splatter

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