The 4 Most Common Types of HVAC Systems

D.P. Taylor
Written by D.P. Taylor
Updated December 17, 2021
A father carrying his son on his shoulders while the child adjusts the temperature using a thermostat
Photo: Westend61 / GettyImages

The four main types of HVAC systems are packaged heating and air, split, duct-free, and hybrid

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Whether you’re building a new home or looking to overhaul the heating and cooling system in your current house, you must put careful consideration into what kind of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system you should use.

After all, this system will dictate how comfortable you're going to be in your home during the summer and winter months. If you’re stumped, don’t worry; we’ve broken down four of the most common types of HVAC systems so you can see a side-by-side comparison.

1. Split Systems

Heating and cooling split systems are the most common type of HVAC unit. True to its name, this type of system has a unit for cooling the air and another for heating it.

The cooling system is outside of the home. It uses refrigerant to cool the air and a fan to keep hot air out. You may notice these units outside homes or businesses, as they make a bit of noise during the summer.

The heating unit of the system is inside the house. It heats the air and then spreads it through the house via a fan or evaporator.

Typical cost: $3,800 to $7,500

Who is this best for?: For most homes, this is an ideal system because it provides the power you need in both the winter and the summer. This aspect is particularly important in areas that experience high temperatures in the summer and very low temperatures in the winter.

Pros:

  • Provides comfortable temperatures in the summer and winter

  • You can customize each part of the system to fit your needs best

  • Fairly low maintenance

Cons:

  • Can be noisy

  • Installation can involve more work than some other systems

2. Duct-Free Systems

Also referred to as mini-split or ductless mini-split systems, a duct-free system has individual HVAC units in each room of the house rather than two big units like a split system. This configuration makes the system more expensive than the traditional split system, particularly in terms of installation costs. But the benefit of them is that you can better control the temperature in specific rooms.

You'll often see these types of systems installed in businesses where individual control of temperatures in rooms is key, such as in a hotel. But they're also used in homes, particularly if you build an addition to the house and want to control the temperature better in that one area.

Also, these systems are more efficient and may save you on energy costs in the long run.

Typical cost: $2,000 to $14,500

Who is this best for?: This system is best for homeowners who want more control on the temperature room to room. If you’re willing to spend money upfront, you should consider going for this option, as it could save on energy costs later on.

Pros:

  • Allows for more temperature control, especially room to room

  • More energy-efficient than many other systems

  • May be quieter than traditional systems

Cons:

  • Installation may be more costly than other systems

  • Requires more maintenance, as each unit has its own filter

3. Hybrid Systems

Hybrid or hybrid split systems are similar to a split system in terms of setup. They also function in basically the same way.

The difference is a hybrid system can switch between gas and electricity to be more efficient. This can be good for the planet as well as your utility bill.

Instead of simply using gas to produce heat, this system pulls air through a heat exchanger that is powered by the electricity already running through your home, warming the air. A blower pushes this heated air through the ductwork in your home. 

Typical cost: $2,500 to $10,000

Who is this best for?: If you live in a climate that typically doesn’t experience extreme temperatures, you can take advantage of a hybrid system and use the fuel source that will be most efficient at the time.

Pros:

  • Can switch between power supplies to be more efficient

  • Can be set to switch automatically at certain temperatures 

Cons:

  • Not ideal for those in areas that experience extreme temperatures

  • Installation can also be pricier for this option

4. Packaged Heating and Air Systems

A packaged heating and air system is a less common type of HVAC system. These systems typically are installed as high as possible in the structure and act as one contained unit to produce both heating and cooling.

These systems are much smaller than other HVAC systems and run relatively efficiently. The downside is that the heating system does not run as well as the cooling system.

Typical cost: $10,000 to $14,000

Who is this best for?: Because the heating function of these systems isn’t as powerful as other HVAC systems, it's best to use this in a home that is situated in a warmer climate and therefore won't be subjected to intense cold snaps.

Pros:

  • Relatively energy efficient

  • Compact

  • Quiet

Cons:

  • The heating system may not be strong enough for some climates

  • Installation can be tricky

How to Figure Out Which HVAC System Is Right for You

A HVAC system in a yard
Photo: Thelma Lanteigne / EyeEm/EyeEm / GettyImages

Ultimately, the best way to determine what kind of system you need and avoid making a big HVAC mistake is to talk to a professional. When you hire an HVAC expert, they can describe these in more detail, take a look at your home, and make some recommendations, as well as quote you some prices. Many times, they’re even willing to do a free consultation.

Consider the following when making a decision about an HVAC system: 

  • Your location: If your area stays balmy year-round, you’ll want to focus on adding a system with a strong AC unit rather than focusing on heat, for example. If your area gets fairly cold, something like a packaged system may not be your ideal HVAC option.

  • Efficiency: Ensuring your system is energy-efficient should be important to everyone, especially if you are focused on making your home greener, so be sure to ask your pro about the best option for your home and budget.

  • The size of your home: This aspect can help determine not only what type of system you choose but its size as well.

  • Budget: The average cost to replace an HVAC system is $7,000, with a typical range of $5,000 to $10,000, so you want to make sure you choose the right system the first time.

Contact an HVAC contractor near you and schedule a time to get a consultation. With their expertise, you can be confident you’re making not only the right decision today but years from now.

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