With the growth of smart home technology, the systems that heat and cool our homes have transformed. Many new systems now incorporate sensors, wireless connectivity, and smart thermostats that allow homeowners to remotely control their heating and cooling systems from their phones or other devices.
These devices can learn users' preferences and adjust the temperature automatically based on factors such as occupancy and weather patterns. As technology continues to advance, it is likely that we'll see even more innovations in heating, cooling, and ventilation systems in the years to come.
I have used the Nest Thermostat for years now and it has definitely helped me save money with its self-learning schedule and Home/Away assist features.
In this article, I dive into the various types of heating, cooling, and ventilation systems available for modern homes. While there are plenty of non-smart versions of these systems available, the majority of newer systems have integrated smart tech to improve convenience for users operating the system while helping them to reduce energy consumption.
There are a wide variety of heating, cooling, and ventilation systems in use in homes across the world.
- In the US, forced air systems are the norm, with a furnace delivering warm air and an air-con unit generating cool air.
- In Europe, warm water systems are typical, with a boiler delivering warm water through a series of pipes and radiators. Southern Europe also sees more air con units used in summer due to its warmer climate.
- In Australia, ductless split systems are common for heating and cooling.
Heating and cooling systems can vary dramatically from country to country, and even within a region, based on climate, building design, infrastructure, and local resources available.
Note: In this article, I use the terms “HVAC” and “Heating and Cooling System” interchangeably. While this may make sense in North America, the term HVAC is rarely used in a residential context outside of the US. So if you are reading from a different country, you can consider HVAC to refer to a “Heating and Cooling System” or “Central Heating and Air Conditioning System”
What is a Residential HVAC System?
A residential HVAC system, which stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning, is a system that is designed to regulate the temperature, humidity, and air quality of a home.
This system typically includes heating and cooling equipment such as furnaces, air conditioners, and heat pumps, along with air ducts and vents that distribute air throughout the home.
Additionally, HVAC systems may include air filtration and purification systems to improve indoor air quality and smart controls that allow homeowners to adjust settings and monitor energy usage.
General Types of Heating & Cooling Systems
1. Standard Heating and Cooling Split Systems
Standard heating and cooling split systems are the most popular and common types of residential HVAC systems. They have separate units for heating and cooling purposes. One of them is an indoor unit, and the other is an outdoor unit.
The cooling unit of such HVAC systems is installed outside. The outdoor unit consists of compressors, refrigerant, and coils for cooling purposes. Moreover, there is a fan to blow out hot air.
The heating unit or indoor unit is placed somewhere in a storage area. This unit is typically a gas furnace. The temperature is controlled using a thermostat, and the hot air is distributed in the house via a fan through ductwork.
You can easily control this HVAC system with a simple thermostat to maintain the temperature inside the house. These are the simplest units in terms of installation.
- The heating and cooling split systems are cheaper compared to other HVAC systems.
- They have lower operating costs as gas furnaces are more affordable as compared to oil furnaces or boilers.
- Their efficiency ranges from 80% to 99%. Low-efficiency furnaces are more budget-friendly.
- Installation of a standard split system requires ductwork.
- There is a risk of carbon monoxide leaks or explosions because of the gas furnace.
2. Heat Pump System
Heat Pump systems are very popular these days, and the industry is booming. There are 3 broad categories of heat pump systems.
- Air-to-Air: is used in modern HVAC systems (as an alternative to a furnace and air conditioning unit)
- Air-to-Water: transfers heat from the air into the water which is distributed in pipes under floors and into radiators
- Ground/Water-to-Water: transfers heat underground or from rivers/lakes to pipes in the home.
Heat pumps perform both heating and cooling operations. They use refrigerant (circulating it with a compressor’s help) to achieve high and low-temperature requirements.
For cooling purposes, the refrigerant absorbs heat from the air. The refrigerant turns into a high-pressure liquid from low-pressure gas. The compressor then sends the refrigerant to the outdoor unit, where the fan blows the heat out of the refrigerant, leaving a low-pressure gas behind.
In heating, the process is reversed as refrigerant absorbs heat from the outdoor unit and releases it to the indoor coils.
The indoor unit is like an air handler that spreads the hot/cool air through the system with a blower’s help.
- They have relatively lower equipment costs as compared to geothermal heat pumps.
- The air source heat pumps have lower operating costs.
- They are less efficient when it comes to heating in extreme cold. Moreover, the heat pump system requires a secondary heating system to meet the requirements.
- They require ductwork for installation.
- As the refrigerant absorbs and releases the air into the atmosphere, it can spread odor and dust.
3. Hybrid Split / Dual-Fuel System
The Hybrid Split HVAC system is more like a Standard Heating and Cooling system with add on features. As the name implies, the dual-fuel system, the hybrid split runs with two different heat sources depending on the weather conditions.
When the temperature outside is freezing, the hybrid split system uses furnace heat for heating the home. As the temperature outside rises above the freezing point, the hybrid system switches to a traditional electric heat pump mechanism.
The ability to switch between gas and electric power distinguishes the hybrid split system from other HVAC systems. These systems can be controlled using thermostats and are compatible with traditional ductwork.
Hybrid Split systems are energy efficient and are a great way to reduce energy costs in mild climate areas.
- The Dual-Fuel system is energy efficient, reducing annual energy costs.
- You can control the system using simple thermostats.
- They are compatible with traditional ductwork.
- They perform efficiently in colder regions.
- They are costly compared to the traditional split or dedicated heat pump systems.
- They require ductwork for installation.
4. Mini-Split System
Mini-Split systems come either as an air conditioner or as a heat pump that performs both heating and cooling. They have an indoor and outdoor unit and can support multiple indoor units. The indoor unit disperses the air through the fan.
Multiple indoor units allow independent control of temperature in each room. You can either use a single indoor and outdoor unit or go for multiple indoor units accompanied by a single outdoor unit having large BTU values.
They function just like a standard heat pump using inverter technology. These systems are ductless.
Installing a mini-split system can be more expensive. But these initial costs can save you money in the long run. You can easily conserve energy by only using the units in the occupied rooms hence saving the cost of heating or cooling an empty room.
- The annual energy costs of mini-split systems is less.
- Ductwork is not needed for installation
- You can heat up or cool down individual zones.
- These are high-performance HVAC systems.
- The setup cost is high.
- The system can require regular maintenance.
5. Packaged System
The packaged system has all its heating and cooling components in one large unit and is best suited for small houses. These systems can be placed in outdoor or even indoor storage areas.
The packaged system has a blower for dispersing the hot/cool air throughout the house and withdrawing the atmosphere’s untreated air.
The packaged system performs heating and cooling, depending on the type of unit installed.
The most popular units are:
- Gas/Electric: An air conditioner and a gas/electric furnace
- Heat Pump: Both heating and cooling are performed by a single unit
- Hybrid: A heat pump and a gas furnace as a secondary heating device
This system is very efficient and budget-friendly. The maintenance costs are also lower. But such systems are not best suited for excellent heating performance in extreme cold.
- The equipment cost is less compared to other HVAC systems.
- They have a small physical footprint.
- The maintenance costs are lower.
- They offer fewer options compared to other standard HVAC systems.
- They are not as efficient when it comes to heating.
6. Water Based Boiler System with AC
Water-based boiler systems are efficient but costly. Such HVAC systems use hot water that is distributed throughout the house in pipes to generate heat.
They are the norm in most of Europe and growing in popularity in the US.
The boiler system sets up zonal control allowing different temperature settings in each room. They can be installed without ducts, but this is only for heating purposes. If you need central air conditioning, you have to install vents.
Boilers come in different sizes and types. You can use gas, oil, or electricity to heat the boiler’s water, mostly a sealed vessel. The hot water is finally sent to the radiator or a fan coil that heats the atmosphere.
You can also install hot water pipes in the subfloor to radiate heat through the floor. This provides a comfortable and cozy environment during winter.
- It is an efficient heating system.
- You can get hot water for domestic needs like laundry and bathing using combi boilers.
- It is expensive to install boilers and radiant floor pipes.
- You need to install radiant floor pipes.
- Such heating systems take time to reach the desired temperature and operate slowly.
7. Ground Source / Geothermal Heat Pump Systems
Geothermal heat pumps are favored as they use renewable energy. Geothermal systems achieve heating and cooling requirements by circulating hot and cold water in the pipes underground.
The water in the pipes has refrigerant that helps in absorbing heat from the ground in winter. It is easier to absorb heat underground as the temperature is 50 to 60 degrees below ground.
In summer, the refrigerant absorbs heat from the house and dumps it into the relatively cool ground. It is an eco-friendly mechanism for heating and cooling the home.
Geothermal heat pumps are very efficient and great for delivering desired temperatures. The annual energy costs are far lower than other HVAC systems. But setting up a geothermal system is quite expensive.
- Geothermal heat pumps are very efficient and eco-friendly.
- They are energy and cost-efficient to run
- They are very expensive to install
- Maintenance and repair are costly and challenging at the same time.
8. Electric Furnace / Electric Resistance Heaters & AC System
Electric Resistance Heaters and standalone AC Systems are affordable but consume the most energy. They are best suited for homes that require the least amount of heating. Such systems convert electricity into heat. Electric resistance heat is achieved through either of them:
- Baseboard heaters
- Radiant heaters
- Space heaters
- Wall heaters
For heating, the air is blown through a heating element, which moves to resistance coils through blowers. The heated air then disperses throughout the home through supply ducts.
For cooling, the air is cooled using AC’s cooling coil, connected to the furnace fan that blows the hot air over the cooling coil and then distributes the cool air throughout the home using the same air ducts.
These HVAC systems are the most effective as the electrical energy is dedicated to heating and cooling only. They are also eco-friendly as carbon monoxide is not produced.
- It is the most effective heating and cooling system.
- This HVAC system is budget-friendly and is relatively inexpensive.
- It consumes the most energy resulting in higher utility costs.
- They are best for occasional heating requirements.
Smart Heating Systems
A Smart Heating System is an advanced, energy-efficient solution for managing and controlling the temperature of a building or living space. It utilizes intelligent technology to monitor and adjust the heating settings based on various factors such as user preferences, occupancy, outdoor temperature, and time of day.
The primary goal of a smart heating system is to optimize energy consumption and enhance comfort while reducing overall energy costs and environmental impact.
Types of Smart Heating Systems
- Smart Forced Air Systems: These systems use a central furnace or heating unit to heat air, which is then distributed throughout the building via ductwork and vents. Smart technology can be integrated into these systems through zoning, occupancy sensors, and air quality sensors, allowing for more precise control and energy efficiency.
- Smart Heat Pumps: Heat pumps work by transferring heat from one area to another (e.g., from outside to inside during winter or vice versa during summer). A smart heat pump can be connected to a home automation system, enabling remote control and monitoring of energy consumption. Some models also incorporate advanced features like variable-speed compressors and intelligent defrost cycles for improved efficiency.
- Smart Radiant Heat Systems: These systems deliver heat through radiant panels, underfloor heating, or ceiling-mounted systems. Smart controls can be used to manage individual zones, monitor energy consumption, and connect to other smart devices for a fully integrated experience.
- Smart Hydronic Systems: Hydronic systems use hot water or steam to distribute heat through a network of pipes and radiators. Smart Thermostatic Radiator Valves (TRVs) can be installed on individual radiators, allowing for precise temperature control in each room or zone. They can also be connected to a central smart controller for remote access and monitoring.
- Smart Baseboard Heaters: These electric heaters are installed at the base of walls and use convection to heat the surrounding air. Smart baseboard heaters can be equipped with individual thermostats, occupancy sensors, and connectivity features, allowing for better control and energy efficiency.
- Smart Geothermal Heating Systems: These systems take advantage of the stable temperatures underground to provide heating and cooling for a building. They use a series of underground pipes filled with water or refrigerant to exchange heat with the ground. Smart geothermal systems can be integrated with home automation systems, allowing users to monitor and control the system remotely and optimize energy efficiency.
- Smart Ductless Mini-Split Systems: Ductless mini-split systems are a type of heat pump that does not require ductwork to distribute heated or cooled air. They consist of an outdoor unit and one or more indoor units, which are installed in individual rooms. These systems can be equipped with smart controls for remote access, temperature control, and energy monitoring, making them a popular choice for homes with limited space for ductwork or those looking for zoned temperature control.
- Smart Pellet Stove Systems: Pellet stoves use compressed wood pellets as fuel to generate heat. Smart pellet stoves can be equipped with features like automatic pellet feeders, programmable thermostats, and remote control options. Some models can even be connected to a home automation system for seamless integration with other smart devices.
- Smart Solar Heating Systems: Solar heating systems use solar energy to heat water or air, which can then be used for space heating or domestic hot water. Smart solar heating systems can be integrated with home automation systems, allowing users to monitor and control the system remotely. They can also be combined with other heating systems to optimize energy efficiency and reduce reliance on non-renewable energy sources.
- Smart Fireplaces: Modern fireplaces can be equipped with smart technology, such as remote control, temperature sensors, and even voice-activated features. Some smart fireplaces can be connected to a home automation system for seamless integration with other smart devices.
- Smart Space Heaters: These portable heaters can incorporate smart features like remote control, built-in timers, and energy-saving modes. Some models can connect to a home automation system or be controlled through smartphone apps, providing users with greater convenience and control.
Smart Cooling Systems
A Smart Cooling System is an advanced and energy-efficient solution for managing and controlling the temperature of a home or living space during warmer months.
It incorporates intelligent technology to monitor and adjust cooling settings based on factors such as user preferences, occupancy, outdoor temperature, and time of day.
The primary goal of a smart cooling system is to optimize energy consumption, enhance comfort, and reduce overall energy costs and environmental impact.
Types of Smart Cooling Systems
- Smart Central Air Conditioning Systems: Part of a forced air HVAC setup with a furnace for heat, these systems use a central cooling unit to chill air, which is then distributed throughout the home via ductwork and vents. Smart technology can be integrated into these systems through zoning, occupancy sensors, and air quality sensors, allowing for more precise control and energy efficiency.
- Smart Ducted Heat Pump Systems: These systems use a heat pump, which can both heat and cool, to condition the air that is then distributed throughout the home via ductwork and vents. Smart ducted heat pump systems can be integrated with zoning, occupancy sensors, and air quality sensors, allowing for more precise control and energy efficiency. Additionally, they can be connected to a smart thermostat or home automation system for remote access, temperature control, and energy monitoring.
- Smart Ductless Mini-Split Systems: Ductless mini-split systems are a type of heat pump that provides both heating and cooling without the need for ductwork. They consist of an outdoor unit and one or more indoor units, which are installed in individual rooms. These systems can be equipped with smart controls for remote access, temperature control, and energy monitoring, making them a popular choice for homes with limited space for ductwork or those looking for zoned temperature control.
- Smart Window Air Conditioners: These are individual cooling units that can be installed in a window or through a wall. Smart window air conditioners can be controlled remotely via smartphone apps, allowing users to adjust settings, create schedules, and monitor energy consumption. Some models also have built-in sensors for detecting room occupancy and adjusting cooling accordingly.
- Smart Portable Air Conditioners: These portable cooling units can be moved from room to room as needed. Smart portable air conditioners can incorporate features such as remote control, built-in timers, and energy-saving modes. Some models can connect to a home automation system or be controlled through smartphone apps, providing users with greater convenience and control.
- Smart Evaporative Coolers: Also known as swamp coolers, these systems use the natural process of evaporation to cool the air. Smart evaporative coolers can be equipped with sensors to monitor humidity and temperature, as well as remote control capabilities for convenient adjustments. Some models can also be integrated with home automation systems for seamless control and monitoring.
- Smart Ceiling Fans: While not a traditional cooling system, smart ceiling fans can help to circulate cool air more effectively throughout a room. These fans can be controlled remotely via smartphone apps or integrated into a home automation system, allowing users to adjust fan speed, create schedules, and even control the direction of the airflow.
Key Features of Smart Heating & Cooling Systems
- Smart thermostat: A central device (integrated or standalone) that allows users to set and control the temperature of their home or building remotely, often via a smartphone app or web interface. It can learn user habits and preferences over time and automatically adjust settings to maintain optimal comfort.
- Zoned heating and cooling: The ability to divide a space into multiple zones, each with individual temperature control. This enables more efficient heating and cooling by only targeting areas that need it and avoiding unnecessary energy waste.
- Sensors: Smart heating and cooling systems often use sensors to monitor various factors like room occupancy, humidity, and outdoor temperature. This data helps the system make informed decisions on when and how to adjust the heating.
- Connectivity and remote control: These systems be remotely accessible and can connect to other smart devices/home automation systems. This enables seamless integration and control of various aspects of a home's environment, such as lighting and security.
- Energy monitoring: Smart heating and cooling systems often provide users with real-time data on energy consumption, enabling them to make informed decisions about their usage patterns and identify opportunities for increased efficiency.
- Machine learning: Advanced algorithms learn from user behavior and other factors to optimize temperature settings and energy consumption over time.
Smart Air & Ventilation Systems
Smart Air & Ventilation Systems are solutions designed to manage and control the air quality, circulation, and humidity in the home. These systems utilize smart technology, sensors, and connectivity to optimize indoor air quality and comfort while reducing energy consumption and maintaining a healthy environment.
Examples of Smart Air & Ventilation Devices & Systems
- Smart HVAC System: A ducted heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system that incorporates smart technology to optimize temperature, humidity, and air quality control. These systems can be connected to a home automation platform or controlled via smartphone apps, allowing for remote monitoring and management of the entire HVAC system.
- Smart ERV/HRV Systems: Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERV) and Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV) are devices that exchange stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air while recovering energy in the process. Smart ERV and HRV systems can be integrated with sensors and home automation systems to monitor indoor air quality and regulate ventilation rates for improved energy efficiency and comfort.
- Smart Vents: These are intelligent air vents that can be installed in a building's existing ductwork. Smart vents can automatically open or close based on factors such as room occupancy, temperature, and user preferences. They can be controlled remotely via a smartphone app or integrated with a home automation system, allowing for better control over air distribution and energy efficiency.
- Smart Ceiling Fans: These fans come with built-in smart technology, allowing users to control fan speed, direction, and scheduling through a smartphone app or home automation system. Some models also have integrated sensors to detect room occupancy, temperature, and humidity, enabling the fan to automatically adjust its settings for optimal comfort and energy efficiency.
- Smart Humidifiers: These devices maintain optimal indoor humidity levels by adding moisture to the air as needed. Smart humidifiers can be connected to a smartphone app or home automation system, allowing users to monitor and control humidity levels remotely. Some models also have built-in sensors to measure the room's humidity and temperature, enabling the device to automatically adjust its operation to maintain a healthy and comfortable environment.
- Smart Air Purifiers: These devices help to improve indoor air quality by filtering out pollutants, allergens, and other airborne contaminants. Smart air purifiers can be controlled remotely via smartphone apps or integrated with home automation systems. They may also include sensors to monitor air quality and automatically adjust their operation based on the detected pollutant levels.
- Smart Extractor / Exhaust Fans: These fans help to remove excess moisture, odors, and pollutants from specific areas like bathrooms and kitchens. Smart exhaust fans can be controlled remotely or integrated with home automation systems, allowing users to set schedules or adjust fan speed as needed. Some models also have built-in humidity and occupancy sensors to optimize operation and energy efficiency.
- Smart Air Quality Monitors: These devices are designed to measure and monitor indoor air quality by detecting pollutants, allergens, and other airborne contaminants. Smart air quality monitors can connect to a smartphone app or home automation system, allowing users to receive real-time information about air quality and take appropriate action to improve the indoor environment.
- Smart Attic Fans: These fans help to maintain proper attic ventilation, which can improve energy efficiency and extend the lifespan of roofing materials. Smart attic fans can be controlled remotely or integrated with home automation systems, allowing users to monitor and manage attic temperature and humidity levels for optimal performance.
- Smart Window Openers: These devices can automatically open and close windows based on factors such as indoor air quality, temperature, and humidity. They can be controlled remotely or integrated with home automation systems, providing a convenient way to regulate natural ventilation and improve indoor air quality.
What is the difference between forced air and radiant heat systems?
A gas furnace produces forced air heat. The air gets heated in the furnace and then blown into the duct system to get distributed throughout the entire house.
The forced air heating technique is used in most common HVAC systems in the United States, including standard heating and cooling split systems, heat pump systems, and hybrid systems.
Radiant heat is more efficient as it is distributed through subfloor pipes. The heat is distributed evenly in this method. Radiant heat is used in water-based boiler systems and geothermal heat pump systems where hot water is radiated through pipes in the house to in-room radiators.