When you hear people talking about the HVAC industry or HVAC considerations for the home, that simply stands for “Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning.”
Making the temperature comfortable inside your home year-round means getting just the right balance between all three factors — cooling, heating and the best way to enable the circulation (ventilation) of these temperature-controlled air conditions.
Not so long ago, all cool and heating systems were separate elements. You had a furnace of some kind supplying heat. For cooling, an air conditioner might be propped in a window. Later, central AC was introduced powered by outdoor units. It could deliver cooling air through a home’s ducting system.
Thus, in a sense, all homes were once equipped with “split systems” for cooling and heating. But today there is something called a “package unit.” What’s the difference between a split system and a package unit?
Simply put, a package unit has all heating and cooling components in a single “box.” The split system, as we have described, has these separate units inside and outside the home. One system is not necessarily superior to the other. The key is knowing which is the best set-up for your home. You want the best situation for maximizing what you spend on HVAC costs, get the best results of the product and achieve the most efficient use of your space.
Split Systems: A Closer Look
Think of split systems in two broad categories:
- Central Split System
- Ductless Split System
The central split system has two components that handle the indoor temperature using vents that distribute air to all areas of the house. The cooling unit consists of an evaporator and furnace inside the home. The compressor-condenser is placed outside.
The evaporator coil collects hot air from the inside living space. When air is passed through the unit, a gas called a refrigerant cools the air and expels the excess heat outside through a condenser. Cool air comes into the room through a vent.
The other part of the central split system does the heating. It uses an indoor furnace, usually powered by gas or electricity. When heat is generated from these energy sources, a blower sends cold air through an exchanger. The exchanger heats the air and sends it through the ducts to distribute it evenly throughout the home.
This evenness is what makes every room and/or space in your home comfortable while using energy efficiently. Note that an exhaust flue is also part of this system. For example, when gas is burned it produces waste that must be safely expelled outside of the house.
Let’s Take a Look at the Ductless Split System.
A ductless split air conditioner incorporates an indoor evaporator with an outdoor condenser. These systems employ what is called a “single-zone” or “multi-zone” heat pump condenser. The latter transfers heat throughout a home. However, instead of using vents, the ductless split system moves temperature-modulated air through the house with a wall unit.
One benefit of the ductless system over the split is that it saves energy when compared to a central system. A mini-split air conditioner is a highly energy-efficient piece of equipment. Using them (in a ductless system) can save you up to 20% on energy expenditures.
What are Package Units?
As we said, package units are heating and cooling component houses together in a single unit. These units most often are placed in some hidden or inconspicuous location inside the home, such as a crawl space or an attic. There are generally four types of package units:
- Package Air Conditioner
- Package Heat pump
- Package Air Conditioner and Gas Furnace
- Package Heat Pumps and Gas Furnaces
Here is a brief description of each:
The package air conditioner is an all-in-one cooling system made up of an air conditioner and an air handler. It’s powered by electricity and only produces cold air. However, a HAVC technician can install strips in one of these units that will provide an additional source of warmth during chilly days.
The package heat pump also runs completely on electricity. It most often serves as a cooler and a heater. It is well suited for southern regions with limited days that feature freezing temperatures. They are not so good for colder regions because package heat pumps tend to degrade in efficiency in cold climate regions.
The package air conditioner and gas furnace can handle both cooling and heating. Better yet, they can be fitted into very small indoor spaces. In these units, cooling is driven by eclectic power while the heating is handled by burning gas. This is an excellent choice for homes located in colder climates because they heat homes efficiently at a reasonable cost.
The package heat pump and gas furnace are for homes located where below-freezing temperatures are the norm for the largest part of the year. These are “dual-fuel” systems that use an electric heat pump to cool air. A gas furnace provides heat during the winter.
Which is Best for Your Home?
Now you know a lot more about split systems vs package systems. You are probably wondering which is better for your home. Perhaps more importantly, how do you make that important decision? After all, installing these HVAC systems will be your indoor temperature control system for years to come.
The first thing to consider is the size of a house. The strong appeal of package systems is that they are ideal for homes with limited room. A larger home is probably better for a split system because they are more likely to have a significant crawl space, full-blown basement and/or an attic — more room for more equipment.
Here are some key things to keep in mind about each kind of unit:
They are highly compact. That makes them great for small homes with limited space. They are usually easily placed out of sight. For example, they are often installed on a roof or mounted on the side of a home where they are least likely to be seen — that means your guests will likely never see or notice it. Again, package air conditioners are far more compact than split system air conditioners. The latter takes up space inside.
They have two components so that naturally means more space is needed. This is why larger homes are better for this option. Note that the outdoor compressor/condenser requires that it be installed on a concrete platform outside. A ductless split system needs a wall unit that attaches to the wall of a living area. Some opt to decorate around such an outdoor unit to make it less noticeable.
So, in general, if you have a small home, you will be best served by a package unit. Larger homes are better suited for split systems. Keep in mind that package units work well with small homes because they have less interior space to cool and heat. That’s why they may not work well for larger homes that have more interior space to handle.
Some Final Considerations
Other factors may go into your decision to purchase either a package unit or a split system. Let’s look at a couple of the most important.
Which is Quieter?
You may be familiar with those noisy wall-mounted air conditioners. They may provide you with some blessed coolness on a sizzling day, but you pay for it with the noise they make. The good news is that both package units and split systems are much quieter. The loudest operation of either unit takes place outside the house.
A split system air conditioner is so quiet it is barely noticeable. That true for split systems inside the house or outside the house.
Which is Easier to Maintain?
The bottom line in this important maintenance issue is that a split system is both cheaper and easier to maintain. They also last longer. However, package units have a strong record of breaking down less often. They tend to be more expensive to maintain overall, however. Also, a package unit may not last as long as a split system.
In general, the installation of a package system is more cost-effective than a split-system. Thus, if you are looking for long-run cost efficiency, then a split-system is the best choice. Again, in general, split systems are more efficient than packaged systems in the long run — although sometimes the size of your home makes the decision for you.