An All Inclusive HVAC Buying Guide
Purchasing a new HVAC “Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning” system for your home is a major home improvement project that should not be taken lightly. You will face crucial decisions along the way such as selecting the right contractor, type of system, as well as negotiating a price. There are many HVAC buyers’ guides available that focus on the fundamental principles of HVAC systems and how they work. However, most of those guides fall short when it comes down to the most critical question, how to buy the right HVAC system for your home.
Since you will probably not install, repair, or perform the necessary maintenance procedures for your HVAC, this buyer’s guide will focus mainly on the basic principles of purchasing a new HVAC system for your home and the important questions you should ask yourself as well as your contractor before starting the project.
Types of HVAC Systems
The list below represents the most common types of HVAC — forced air — systems and the basic principles of how they work.
Central Air Conditioners
- Central air conditioning systems distribute cool air throughout your home using a circuit or series of connected ducts. Split systems — both an inside and outside component — are the most common types. 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.
- 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 to the outside during the summer months to cool the home, and extracting heat from the outside air or ground to the inside during the winter months to warm it. Heat pump systems are one of the most energy efficient systems available today. Although a heat pump will cost you more up front, the energy savings realized over the first few years of its operation usually pay for the additional costs.
- A furnace is part of the forced air family as well. There are various types of furnaces with the most common using gas combustion or electric resistance heat strips to produce the necessary heat. Most are equipped with a blower assembly to distribute the heated air throughout the home. Since a furnace is only capable of producing heat it is sometimes retrofitted with a central air conditioner to provide cool air during the summer months.
The Worst Approach
When it comes to purchasing a new HVAC system, most consumers approach it as they would any other home appliance purchase. This is a critical mistake. To explain this further, we will use a new refrigerator as an example. Homeowners purchasing a new refrigerator usually go to their local appliance dealer or home improvement center. They peruse the appliance aisles examining the many models, types and styles available before choosing one. After talking to a sales clerk, they sign the check and accept delivery. The new appliance arrives; a deliveryman removes the box and packing material, rolls it inside and plugs in the unit.
A refrigerator is a factory-finished product. Meaning all the necessary adjustments, fine tuning and testing is performed at the factory. It is plugged in, and you walk away. This is not the case with a new HVAC system. Although the components are fabricated at the factory, they must be assembled, connected, charged with refrigerant, tested and fine-tuned by your contractor, who is basically the last man on the assembly line. Finding a qualified contractor will ensure against a poorly installed system prone to failure, lowered life expectancy, land poor energy efficiency and performance.
What all this means is that when it comes to purchasing a new HVAC system, your system is only as good as the technician or contractor installing it.
How to Choose an HVAC Contractor
Now that we have determined how important it is to choose a qualified contractor for your project, it is time to learn how to find the right one for your installation.
- 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 allow you to communicate with your contractor easier during the course of the job.
- Compile a list of local HVAC contractors and read their references and reviews. Check with the BBB “Better Business Bureau” for listed complaints or lawsuits, check with your state and local building departments to verify they have the proper licenses and insurance required for your area. It does not hurt to ask around and get referrals from friends or neighbors who have had their system installed or replaced recently.
- Schedule estimates and interviews at a time when all decision makers are present.
- Ask the contractor about the necessary building permits and who is responsible for obtaining them. If the contractor suggests you obtain the permit, watch out because the red flags should be waving. Although you can certainly obtain your own permit, having the contractor do it adds another layer of protection, as they will have to produce a valid contractor’s license with applicable insurance to obtain it.
- During the bidding process, contractors should calculate the required cooling and heating capacity of your home 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, show them the door. Many variables can affect a HVAC systems performance besides room size including window and door quality, type of construction and the degree it is insulated. Your contractor should inspect and consider all of these areas when sizing the new unit as well as give you a print out of calculations, assumptions and ductwork design when applicable.
- The contractor should verify any existing ductwork is adequate for the new 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 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.
- After receiving the estimates, confer with your trusted allies and go over each one with a magnifying glass. Take into consideration the contractor’s appearance, personality and the level of experience and knowledge he/she conveys during the interview process.
Replacing an HVAC System
Many homeowners assume that they can replace their old system with a new one of the same size. Although it is a possibility, it should not be assumed. Many variables are involved when sizing a unit. These variables could have changed since the old equipment was installed. Window and door replacement, deteriorating or inadequate insulation, landscaping and room additions can all affect the heating and cooling requirements. It could be that the last HVAC contractor miscalculated when they installed the old equipment. A quality HVAC technician will make their own determination with new calculations.
Today’s HVAC systems require a minimum SEER “Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating” of 13 and higher. The higher the SEER rating, the more efficient the system will be. In addition, more efficiency means more savings for you as the system will consume less energy. HVAC systems with the highest SEER ratings will cost you more upfront, however, the energy savings should pay for the additional costs in just a few years.
Maintaining your new HVAC system should be calculated in your budget. It is in your best interest to protect your investment by scheduling annual maintenance with your HVAC contractor. Some HVAC companies 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. A dirty filter restricts airflow, which puts undue stress on the system. The extra load will cause it to use more energy increasing your utility bill and shorten the life expectancy of the equipment.
HVAC systems have many parts and components. A poorly installed system will never meet its efficiency standards or reach its expected life span. So, the question remains, how do you buy the right HVAC system for your home? The answer is simple, choose the right HVAC contractor. In the end, it does not matter which brand you buy or how much you spent, your new system is only going to be as good as the contractor who installed it.