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Types of HVAC Systems Buying Guide

On this page:
  • Understanding how HVAC systems work
  • How many types of HVAC systems are there?
  • How to choose the right HVAC for your home?

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What is an HVAC System? 

HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. HVAC systems are meant to give you control over your home’s heating and cooling temperatures. Most people refer to HVAC systems by their more common names, such as central air conditioners, ductless AC units, furnaces, heat pumps, or boilers. They sometimes come in combined packages that offer heating and cooling in one unit or in areas with more predictable climates you may only need one or the other.

An HVAC system can be any combination of a heater unit and a cooling unit, all of which are described in the sections below.

HVAC Buying Guide

Purchasing a new HVAC “Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning” system is an important investment for your home that takes research and general knowledge to get the best prices and system. This home heating and cooling buying guide will help you ease into the HVAC installation project by giving you common technical terms and meanings associated with each system, average costs, and which unit is best for your home.

How does an HVAC system work?

HVAC systems are responsible for regulating temperature and maintaining air quality through proper ventilation. There are three basic components – heating system, cooling system, and ventilation, to deliver efficient results.

HVAC systems heat the environment with the help of a heat pump by absorbing heat from the outside, distributing it inside. Or with the help of a furnace where heat is generated either through electricity or burning a fuel source which is then ventilated inside.

In warm climates, the air conditioning system absorbs the heat within the environment and moves it to the outdoor unit, where the warm refrigerant gas is taken to the compressor to remove ambient heat and turn it into its liquid form. This liquid refrigerant is then passed through a condenser and evaporator coil, which converts the liquid refrigerant into cool air that is passed through the vents and air ducts. Read in detail about how HVAC system works to cool your home.

how hvac works - central air conditioner - illustration

HVAC Common Terms

To understand the process in detail, you’ll need to know the importance of some typical parts of the system and its function. Below is a list of the components that contribute to an efficiently working HVAC system.


This is the most interactive part of the entire HVAC system. It controls the heating and cooling devices by switching them on or off or by regulating the airflow to maintain the desired temperature.

Central Air Conditioners

Air conditioners distribute cool air throughout your home using a circuit or series of connected ducts. A refrigerant circulates between the condensing and evaporator coils, and the air is cooled as it passes through the evaporator coil. A blower assembly — fan and motor — provides the necessary circulation to distribute the conditioned air. Central air conditioner installation is most common in warmer climate regions.


A furnace is part of the forced air family. There are various types of furnaces, with the most common using gas combustion or electric resistance heat strips to produce the necessary heat. Most furnace installations are equipped with a blower assembly to distribute the heated air throughout the home. Since a furnace can only produce heat, it is sometimes retrofitted with a central air conditioner to provide cool air during the summer months.

Heat Pump

A heat pump is a variation of a central air conditioner. Heat pumps are capable of delivering both heated and cool air. They work by transferring the inside heat outside during the summer months to cool the home and extract heat from outside air or ground inside during the winter months. Heat pump systems are one of the most energy-efficient systems available today. Although a system with a heat pump will cost you more upfront, the energy savings realized over the first few years of its operation usually pay for the additional costs.

Air Return

Air return is the starting point of your ventilation. Its main purpose is to suck the air along with its pollutants and contaminants from the environment through filters to be cooled or heated. This also helps to maintain air quality and airflow.

Exhaust Outlets

Exhaust outlets are used to remove heat and gas from the environment, and it can be done through chimney flue or vent stack.


Ducts help to distribute heated and cooled airflow to maintain acceptable indoor quality of air.


A compressor is part of the outside AC unit that helps to turn the warm refrigerant gas into liquid. It is in this compressor the heat is removed from the gas with the help of pressure.

Evaporator Coil

The liquid refrigerant is passed through the evaporator coil, and the coil helps to convert the liquid into cool air, which is then circulated into the environment.

Heating + Cooling Unit Combos

All home heating and cooling systems can be categorized into 4 types of HVAC systems. Your HVAC contractor will be able to help you decide which combination of units will work best for your home’s size, the climate in your area, and your overall budget for the project. Once you decide which HVAC unit is best for your home, you will want to compare air conditioner type and installation costs. Here are the different combinations of HVAC systems that they may suggest after discussing your home’s heating and cooling needs:

Heating & Cooling Replacement Options
Cooling Units:Heating Units:System Category:
Air HandlerHeat PumpSplit
Central Air ConditionerElectric FurnaceSplit
Central Air ConditionerGas FurnaceSplit
Central Air ConditionerOil FurnaceSplit
Central Air ConditonerBoiler & Radiant HeatSplit
Heat PumpGas / Oil FurnaceSplit
Mini Split Heat Pump*All in OneHeating & Cooling
Geothermal Heat Pumps*All in OneHeating & Cooling

HVAC System Costs by Type

HVAC System Costs by Type
HVAC Installation CostsLow CostHigh CostHeating / Cooling
Central Air Conditioner Installation$3,500$7,600Cooling & Heating
Ductless HVAC System$3,000 $5,000Cooling & Heating
Electric Furnace Installation$1,500$2,500Heating
Gas Furnace Installation$4,000 $5,000Heating
Oil Furnace Installation$5,500$6,500Heating
Air Source Heat Pump Installation$5,000$6,500Heating & Cooling
Geothermal Heat Pump Installation$20,000$27,000Heating & Cooling

HVAC Replacement Cost Calculator

Take Me There

What are the Different Types of HVAC Systems?

The list below represents the most popular  types of HVAC systems and how they are most commonly combined to heat and cool the air in your home. Depending on if you need a new HVAC system installation or simply a replacement of either unit for heating or cooling, you will need to know the basics components that can make up an HVAC unit.

  • Heating and Cooling Split Systems (Separate units)
  • Ductless AC Systems (Mini Splits)
  • Packaged Heating and Air Conditioner Combinations (all in one units)

Compare local heating and cooling contractors with our HVAC Contractors Near Me page to compare quotes from reliable HVAC contractors in your area who can help you make the best choice for your home’s cooling needs.

1. Heating and Cooling Split Systems

The most common type of HVAC system is the heating & cooling split system. Split HVAC units have two main systems one dedicated to cooling your home and one dedicated to heating your home. They usually contain one indoor unit such as a furnace (found in a garage, utility closet, crawl space, garage, attic, or basement) and one outdoor unit such as a central air conditioners often located outside on a flat cement foundation called an AC pad.

The split systems can be configured in different ways according to the needs,

  • AC and Furnace: These systems are very popular and are also called forced air systems because they use blower fans in the furnace to circulate the air through ducts. They absorb untreated air and push treated air into the environment.
  • Heat Pump and Air Handler: Heat pump split systems are usually ideal for warm climate regions which do not experience freezing temperatures. The heat pump does not generate heat (instead absorbs ambient heat), so it is energy efficient. So the absorbed heat is circulated through the air handler via ducts. The heat pump’s function is reserved to distribute cold air in mild warm climates.


central ac and furnace split system


Pros and Cons of Split System

Pro: They are quite popular, efficient, and cost-effective HVAC systems. It is easy to replace the existing duct system without doing minor or no modifications. They are highly energy efficient in areas that require less heating or cooling.

Con: The forced air system may disperse dust and allergens around your home, and it might also disperse your kitchen odor to the parts of your home. The system also requires ductwork, which may be expensive for homeowners.

2. Hybrid Split System

A hybrid split system is a similar option to the split HVAC system mentioned above and are very energy efficient in comparison due to the fact that they have an electric hybrid heater system. This gives the homeowner the ability to choose between gas power or electric power to heat a home. These split hybrid heating and cooling systems are great for climates where you need to be able to choose your home’s temperature due to changing climate in your area during colder months. This HVAC system is also controlled by a thermostat located within the home and forces air through your home’s ductwork.

hybrid furnace & central ac


Pros and Cons of the Hybrid Split System

Pro: They are energy efficient as they have a hybrid of electric and heater systems. And as they are hybrid split systems, they have more effective heating capacity than other systems.

Con: The forced air in this system may also spread odor, dust and allergen around your home. It also requires ductwork, which would be a costly affair if you don’t have existing ducts. These systems can cost more than AC and furnace or heat pump systems but can save you money long term by decreasing high energy bill costs.

3. Ductless AC  – Mini Split Systems 

A ductless HVAC system, or mini split unit is beneficial for some homes based on certain needs for your household. A ductless system has multiple inside units located in each room that you would like to have controlled heating and cooling. The mini split units are mounted on your home’s walls and connect to a compressor located outside of the home. Mini split units are easier to install than a central AC system but usually cost more upfront.

* Some reasons you may be interested in a duct free AC unit would include:

  • You want to cool or heat only one particular room, such as a garage or a new room that was added to the house.
  • You do not use all of the rooms in your home and you would like to be energy efficient with your air conditioning use for only rooms you utilize.
  • You prefer independent control of room temperature across multiple areas of your home.

ductless air conditioning system

Pros and Cons of Ductless AC – Mini Split System

Pro: They have lower energy costs than most of the split systems, and it is your best high-energy efficiency option. The biggest pro is that you don’t have to worry about ducts because they are ductless, so no extra infrastructure is needed.

Con: These systems are low heat effective, so if you live in cold climatic areas, getting an effective mini split system will be impractical and costly as mini split systems are costlier than traditional ones. Also, maintenance can be expensive in some areas as it is hard to get parts for the system. Consult with your HVAc contractor to know which would be the best option for you.

4. Heating and Air Conditioner Packages

Packaged heating and cooling systems are a combination unit that contains both the heating & air unit all in one. This HVAC type is usually installed in the attic or in a multi-story home’s top floor in a storage space. It is able to cool and heat a home with one unit and is incredibly energy efficient. It’s often used in areas where warmer climates are common. The heat is electrically generated and can fall short in comparison to more powerful heating options. However, there are advanced combo units that utilize both gas and electric heat output in order to be powerful and energy efficient when needed.

packaged heating and cooling hvac systems


Pros and Cons of Heating And Air Conditioner Packages

Pro: As these systems are installed inside the house, they don’t create much noise as the mechanical components are outside the house.

Con: The con is that there are fewer options in the packed systems than traditional and ductless systems; that’s why they are less heat efficient. It might be costlier to buy a powerful, energy-efficient system.

5. Geothermal Heat Pump System

Geothermal heat pumps circulate water in the pipes below ground level to use the earth’s stable temperature to facilitate heating in cold climates and cooling in warm climates. While heating, the refrigerant absorbs or collects heat from the ground more efficiently rather than collecting heat from the cold and sub-freezing areas. And while cooling, the heat is dumped into the ground to maintain the perfect temperature. The efficiency and renewable energy consumption makes it a favorite of pro environmentalist homeowners.

geothermal heat pump system

Pros and Cons of Geothermal Heat Pump System

Pro: They are highly efficient systems, so their annual operation cost is very low. They have a higher equipment cost, but that amount is subsided due to the energy savings over the system’s lifetime.

Con: The repairs tend to be costly if the ground looping system requires work. And these systems may require a duct if you are using an air handler, so that can be an added infrastructure cost for geothermal systems.

You may also be interested in knowing about the top air conditioning units or the best furnace brands on the market.

Tips for Choosing the Right HVAC System for you

Go through these general tips that can help you finalize your options, and if you are unsure of your choice or want to discuss them, do give us a call!

  • If you are replacing your old HVAC system we recommend you opt for the existing system type to reduce any infrastructure cost. So, if your previous system included ductwork, then the most cost-efficient option would be to stick with a duct system like a standard split system, geothermal system, or electric furnace.
  • Select your efficiency goal. If you are an environmentalist, then you will opt for a geothermal system. But you should consider how long you  plan to stay in your home as it will take as many as 10 years to reap the benefits and subside the cost charges you’ll have to pay to install them.
  • Climate plays a huge role in deciding which HVAC system you should opt for. So this decision should be taken after considering the climatic conditions of the area you reside in.If you are living in a warm climate area, you can opt for a furnace split system or heat pump system as both are cost-effective, and their heat efficiency is perfect for warmer conditions. But if you are going to spend more than 10 years in your home and can increase your budget, then go for geothermal systems.If you are living in a cold climate area, then you can opt for a traditional gas furnace with or without a central air conditioner would be the most cost-effective system. You can also opt for a hybrid system to maintain an optimal temperature in cold and sub-freezing climates.
  • It is also crucial to select the right size of furnace and AC unit for your HVAC system. Homeowners will sometimes make the common mistake of purchasing a larger size system for more efficiency, but that may amount to excess spending. In fact, if the system is too big for the square footage area it is cooling, this will lead to excessive condensation, rot, mold, and decreased comfort.

Finding a Reliable HVAC Contractor

The most important part of your HVAC installation process will be hiring an HVAC contractor. When dealing with such a big investment, it is important to compare quotes, talk to 3 or 4 reputable local contractors, and feel comfortable with your decision. 

The average homeowner who uses Modernize saves money on their HVAC installation project. Our knowledgeable and trusted contractors can help you make your decision. Our contractors are here to help and happy to answer any questions you have throughout the process.


Here are a few questions for contractors and tips that will help you find a reliable HVAC contractor.

  • Familiarize yourself with the basic principles of HVAC, the basic terminology of the main components, and how they work together to maintain your comfort levels. This will make the communication easier with your contractor during the course of the job.
  • Use Modernize as a reference for finding reliable contractors. We only work with reliable HVAC contractors known for their quality of work and extensive knowledge in the field to help you make the best decision for your HVAC replacement. It also does not hurt to ask around and get referrals from friends or neighbors who have had a new system installed or an old HVAC unit replaced recently.
  • Whether you hire a qualified contractor within the Modernize network or go with an outside source, there are a few things to be sure of, and always ask about your project. A good contractor will always be able to prove that they are knowledgeable, qualified, and trustworthy.
  • You should always ask your contractor for a list of the necessary building permits for your particular project. Though you can obtain this yourself, quality contractors should be willing to do this for you. Having the HVAC contractor request this document adds another layer of protection and trust for you. In doing so, they will have to produce a valid contractor’s license with applicable insurance to obtain it.
  • During the bidding process, contractors should calculate your home’s required cooling and heating capacity using a recognized method such as the ACCA’s residential load calculation Manual J, and Manual D for ductwork. This allows them to assess the necessary cooling and heating requirements on a room-by-room basis. If they fail to do this or simply try to sell you the same sized system, be very wary. Many variables can affect an HVAC system’s performance besides room size, including your home’s window and door quality, type of construction, and degree of insulation. Your contractor should inspect and consider all of these areas when sizing the new unit and give you a printout of calculations, assumptions, and ductwork design when applicable which you can use in price negotiations with other contractors.
  • The contractor should verify if your home’s existing ductwork is adequate for the new HVAC system replacement or installation. If he/she finds that it falls below industry standards or is incorrect, they should point out the problem and discuss avenues to correct it. This will increase the cost of the total installation and should be included in the final estimate.
  • Do not sign any contracts until you have interviewed at least three contractors and received written estimates from all of them. If they throw “this deal is good for today only” at you, consider that another red flag and move on to a contractor that doesn’t force a sale.
  • After receiving the HVAC installation estimates, go over each one with a magnifying glass. Take into consideration the contractor’s level of experience and knowledge he/she conveys during the interview process as well as reviews and ratings they may have built up for their business.

After Completing Your Project

After you complete your HVAC installation, it is in your best interest to protect your investment by scheduling annual maintenance with the HVAC contractor you chose. Some HVAC companies even offer discounted labor rates for customers who sign up with their yearly maintenance programs. Periodic maintenance keeps your unit running at peak efficiency and prevents unexpected breakdowns that can lead to costly repairs. Although most maintenance procedures require a trained technician, you can do your part by cleaning or replacing the filter as needed.