HVAC Installation & Buying Guide
Aside from your home’s plumbing and electrical, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system plays the biggest role in your family’s comfort. It’s also one of the most costly, which is why it makes sense to thoroughly research available options before upgrading or installing an HVAC system. There are several factors to consider that can not only improve your home’s comfort, but may also help you save on your energy bills.
Types of HVAC Systems
There are several types of home HVAC systems, and which one you install will depend on a few factors, including the design of your house, your budget, fuel options, and personal preference. A few of the more popular choices for HVAC systems today include split systems, mini-splits, furnaces, and boilers.
While there are eco-friendly furnace options available, including geothermal and solar panel, our focus is on three of the most popular types of HVAC systems: mini-splits, furnaces, and boilers.
Mini-Split HVAC Systems
A mini-split HVAC system (also known as a ductless system) uses heat pump technology, which helps maintain the temperature of your home. Heat pumps move warm air from one location to another through a process of evaporation and condensation, as a refrigerant substance cycles through the system via a compressor pump. Mini-split systems consist of an outdoor compressor unit, and indoor air handling units.
Some pros of mini-split HVAC systems include:
- Easy to retrofit into older buildings or homes without ductwork.
- Ability to create zoned heating and cooling areas, so that you are only heating and cooling the rooms you’re using, which saves on energy costs.
- Incredibly energy efficient, which makes them an eco-friendly choice.
- Provide excellent temperature distribution. Whereas a central system may not cool all rooms throughout your home evenly, a mini-split system works much better as each room has its own indoor air handling unit.
Some cons of mini-split HVAC systems include:
- Their price. A mini-split HVAC system is not a cheap choice with regards to upfront installation, but does save on monthly operating costs.
- A mini-split system also requires regular maintenance by a qualified professional, which may be hard to find since they aren’t a super popular choice. The filter also needs washed monthly, or dust buildup will affect airflow.
- The indoor air handling units do stick out where mounted, which may not be ideal for someone looking for a clean aesthetic look.
- Some colder climates require an additional heating source and heat pump technology offers an extra expense.
Furnace HVAC Systems
Furnace systems (known as forced air system or ducted system) feature a heating and/or cooling unit. Typically, this units requires installation in a basement or utility room. Plus, an HVAC system includes a series of metal ducts and registers that distribute air throughout the home. This is the most common type of HVAC system.
Some pros of forced-air HVAC systems include:
- Lower upfront costs. A gas-powered furnace and ductwork will typically costs less upfront than a ductless or boiler system, but may have higher monthly operating costs.
- Ductwork used for distributing hot and cold air, which means adding an air conditioning unit later (as needed).
- They heat and cool quickly, which is essential to maintaining a comfortable environment.
- Widely available, which means plenty of qualified professionals in the area capable of HVAC installation and service.
- Lower repair costs because of widely available parts.
Some cons of furnace HVAC systems include:
- Heat loss. Ductwork in a traditional HVAC system accounts for energy loss of up to 30%, which means you’re paying for heat you’re not using. However, proper duct insulation eliminates some heat loss. Plus, careful planning ensures fewer runs through cold spaces, such as attics and garages, as possible.
- They aren’t easy to reconfigure, as ductwork needs must be considered. This could mean tearing down walls or cutting through floors in order to run new ducts.
- You may experience hot and cold spots with a furnace HVAC system, but this can usually be avoided with a good design.
- Forced air systems can increase your cleaning needs as they are blowing air, and thus dust and allergens, throughout the home.
- If your system burns fuel, you will need to be aware of carbon monoxide issues.
Boiler HVAC Systems
A boiler HVAC system (known as a hydronic or radiant heat system) consists of a water heating unit, distribution pipes, and radiators. Frequently, these systems remain in older homes, but offer a popular choice for new builds.
Some pros of boiler HVAC systems include:
- The piping required for a boiler HVAC system is typically smaller in size than forced air ductwork, which makes it an ideal choice for homes where installing ductwork would not be practical.
- Boiler heating systems are quite energy-efficient, making them cheaper to operate on a monthly basis.
- They heat the room more evenly than a forced-air system.
- They are not as drying to the air as a forced-air system, which is more comfortable, especially during winter months.
- With no registers to blow air from, a boiler system is much quieter than both a mini-split and a forced-air system.
Some cons of boiler HVAC systems include:
- They do not provide cooling, so if you want air conditioning you will need to install an additional system.
- They are expensive to install and repair.
- If your system burns fuel, you will need to be aware of carbon monoxide issues.
HVAC System Features: What to Look for When Purchasing an HVAC System
Energy or Fuel Source
This might be determined by what’s available in your area, or simply a matter of personal preference. There are three main types of fuel used for HVAC systems: electric, gas, and oil. Mini-split systems are only available in electric models, whereas boilers and furnaces are available in all three fuel sources.
Electric systems are a great choice for areas that do not experience intense winter weather, and generally have lower initial upfront costs. They can be expensive to operate, depending on electricity prices, but are considered fairly energy efficient in areas that don’t experience extreme cold temperatures. Electric HVAC systems are generally compact and easy to install, and easy to maintain. Most units should last anywhere from 15-20 years.
Gas systems are the most popular type, and are excellent for climates with extreme winter weather. While the upfront costs are higher with a gas HVAC system versus an electric, monthly operating costs tend to be lower. They are a very energy-efficient choice and can heat and cool your home quickly. Gas furnaces can sometimes be converted for use with propane with a conversion kit that costs about $20-$100. It’s essential to have a carbon monoxide detector installed in your home if you have a gas-fuelled HVAC system.
Rising oil prices mean that oil-fuelled systems are not as popular as they once were, but they are still on the market and make a good choice for areas with harsh winter weather. A fuel storage tank is a must for oil-fuelled systems, and regular maintenance and inspections are key. While monthly operating costs are eliminated, you will have larger quarterly or semi-annual bills when it comes time to fill the tank. You need to make sure you have enough fuel on standby so you aren’t caught without heat. It’s essential to have a carbon monoxide detector installed in your home if you have an oil-fueled HVAC system.
Ensuring that the HVAC system you want to purchase has the capacity necessary to heat and cool your home means that your unit will be more energy-efficient and keep your family comfortable. Aim for approximately 30-60 BTUs for each square foot of living space. Number of windows and doors, local climate, and age of your home will all factor into HVAC system load calculations. Just because a furnace has a particular BTU rating doesn’t necessarily mean it is suitable for your home -- you must also consider its AFUE rating.
A furnace or boiler’s annual fuel utilization efficiency, or AFUE rating, measures how energy efficient it is at converting its fuel source into heat over the course of a typical year. This lets homeowners easily compare different models and fuel sources.
For a furnace with an AFUE of 80%, 80% of the energy in its fuel is converted to heat, with 20% being lost through the duct system or piping. So if a furnace has a 100,000 BTU capacity, with an AFUE rating of 80%, its maximum output is 80,000 BTUs. Purchasing an Energy Star-rated unit will ensure you’re getting a high-efficiency system, and is worth the investment for those living in climates that experience extreme or fluctuating weather.
The best way to find an HVAC system suitable for your needs is to perform what’s called a load calculation. This takes into consideration factors such as house size, location, foundation type, window type and location, and many others that influence home heating and cooling needs. A qualified HVAC professional is the best person to perform a load calculation for your home.
A major perk of installing a new HVAC system is the warranty, since it means most repairs or defects will be covered for a period of time. Warranties typically range from 5-10 years, depending on the manufacturer, and are typically better on premium brands. Extended warranties are often available for additional cost.
Finally, you’ll need to decide on an appropriate installation spot, ensuring there is adequate space for the unit’s requirements.
There are a few other features that aren’t essential, but certainly contribute to overall ease of use and comfort. They include:
- Air filtration: An integrated filtration system will help cut down on the dust and allergens within your home.
- Ignition system: This helps increase efficiency by eliminating a continuous-burning pilot light.
- Variable heat output: Available on units with variable-speed blowers, this feature increases both comfort and efficiency.
- Variable-speed blower: Reduces swings in temperature by delivering air in a more controlled, slower, and quieter manner.
- Dual heat exchanger: Draws heat from burned gas to ensure maximum efficiency.
- Zoned heating: Heat only the areas of your home you need, so you’re not using energy where you don’t need it.
Average HVAC System Costs: How Much Should You Expect to Pay?
An HVAC system on a new build may give homeowners a bit of sticker shock. A forced air system on a 1,000 square foot home can cost anywhere from $6,000-$12,000. A boiler-based system can cost from $6,000-$14,000, and a mini-split system with one indoor air handling unit costs approximately $3,000 to $5,000, with the price rising with additional heads.
Costs vary based on factors such as location, local climate, type of unit, brand of unit, experience of installer, size of your home, extent of ductwork and plumbing required, and fuel source. If electrical work needs to be carried out, that will also factor into the overall costs.
You should also budget for permit fees, depending on your municipal regulations. You may also be required to have an inspection on any HVAC work, depending on local bylaws.
When purchasing an HVAC system for your home, less is not always best. It’s tempting to go with the lowest priced system, but given the crucial role your HVAC system will play in your family’s day-to-day life, it’s worth whatever investment you can make. Same with choosing an installer -- you may be tempted to save a few bucks by hiring the cheapest-quoted company, but you need an installer that has the right level of experience, expertise, and can provide the quality service necessary for your system over the years.
HVAC Installation: Step-by-Step
HVAC installation is a complicated and labor-intensive endeavor. This is not a DIY project. Although you may save on the HVAC installation fee, experience is required for proper installation. For example, HVAC systems contain several complicated components including electrical, ducting, plumbing, and gas. Proper installation requires expertise and specialized tools of a qualified HVAC professional. It may cost more in the long run if you damage something or install it incorrectly.
Still, it’s good to have a basic understanding of HVAC system installation. Here’s a generalized step-by-step breakdown of the process. Note that not all steps will apply to all systems.
Step 1: Choose Your System and Select the Location for Installation
Determine the best HVAC system for your needs. Next, identify where any vents, radiators, blowers, piping, ductwork and the main unit itself will be situated. Manufacturer instructions, the load calculation, and your home’s layout will influence these decisions. Ensure areas are cleaned of any dust or debris before you begin. Run piping or ductwork accordingly.
Step 2: Position the Main Unit Appropriately
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure adequate ventilation, drainage, and electrical needs are met. Ensure it is balanced, level, and secured.
Step 3: Connect to the Plumbing or Ducting System
Once the main unit is adequately positioned, you can begin connecting it to the blowers, plumbing, or ducting system. Ensure that any joints are adequately sealed to prevent leaks.
Step 4: Connect Vent Pipes
Next, connect your furnace or boiler’s intake and exhaust pipes. Ensure they are on a slight angle sloping towards the unit, so that any condensation drains properly.
Step 5: Connect Fuel Supply
Ensure adequate shutoff and ventilation, and when complete be sure to check for leaks.
Step 6: Connect Electrical Supply
Before starting your new system for the first time, check the instruction manual to verify your wiring.
Step 7: Connect Condensate Drain
This usually goes to a drain hole in your basement’s floor.
Step 8: Check Your Work
Turn the unit on and run it through a heating and cooling cycle to ensure temperature outputs are suitable. Double-check any gas leaks or electrical, and ensure any drains are draining properly.
Again, HVAC installation remains a complicated undertaking and requires qualified professionals. The steps listed above merely provide a snapshot of what’s involved in the process of HVAC installation.
Options for HVAC System Repair
Simple tasks like cleaning or replacing an air filter can safely be performed by any weekend DIY-er. However, major HVAC repairs are best left to a qualified professional. Plus, scheduling yearly maintenance on your HVAC system ensures everything is working properly. Additionally, standard and routine maintenance helps reduce monthly heating costs and prolongs the life of your system.
Additional Reading on HVAC Systems
- From the Ground Up: HVAC
- A Guide to Energy-Efficient Heating and Cooling
- Alternative HVAC Systems
- Fight Allergies and Save Energy by Checking Your HVAC System
- 5 Common HVAC Odors (And What Causes Them)
- What to Look for In A Furnace
- How to Install Room-By-Room Zoning in an HVAC System
- Helpful Tips To Keep Your Home Warm
- How to Seal Leaky Duct Joints
- Is a cold climate heat pump right for you?
- Heating System Buying Tips
- Energy Star HVAC Quiz
- How Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating Works
- Home Air Filters 101
- How to Clean a Furnace Filter