How to Choose an HVAC System For Your Home: A Buyer’s Guide

Woman checking specifications of air conditioners in a store

As they say, there’s no place like home. And what makes a home comfortable? Besides cozy blankets and warm hugs, it’s a reliable heating and cooling system. While it keeps your living space cozy all year, it will also help maintain good air quality and lower utility bills. But with so many options, how do you choose the right HVAC system for your home? A buying guide always comes in handy. 

So put on your investigative hat, and let’s explore the world of HVAC systems.

Choosing the right HVAC system depends on many factors, like its efficiency, the size of your home, local climate conditions, and how much you want to spend. However, before plunging into these aspects, it’s pivotal to grasp the essence of an HVAC system and what options are available. Though it might seem overwhelming at first, with the right information, you’ll become a savvy homeowner in no time.

Understanding HVAC Basics

An HVAC system is a three-in-one solution focusing on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to manage a building’s temperature, humidity, and overall air quality. It works like a push-and-pull mechanism, drawing in air, filtering it, adjusting its temperature and humidity levels, and then circulating it back into the room. This cycle is on a loop until the optimum temperature is hit.

Most HVAC systems have the following major players:

  • Cooling equipment: It could be a traditional air conditioner, heat pump, or chiller. A heat pump is a popular option as it can both cool and heat the house. 
  • Heating equipment: Options include furnaces, boilers, or, again, heat pumps. Furnaces and boilers have different power sources like gas, oil, or electricity, while heat pumps are electric-powered.
  • Distribution system: This is a fancy way of talking about the pipes or ducts that spread the conditioned air throughout your home. If you don’t like the idea of ducts, you can also look at mini-split systems. It is a ductless alternative that works best for smaller spaces or homes without a pre-existing duct system. 
  • Ventilation system: It involves exhaust fans, a crucial element to keep your house’s air quality in check. This prevents the build-up of harmful pollutants and allergens.
  • Thermostat: A device that monitors and controls the temperature. It could be a simple dial or a programmable thermostat that allows you to set schedules and adjust the temperature remotely.

For those who need a little extra, there are also add-on features like air purifiers, UV germicidal lamps, humidification or dehumidification units, and even air scrubbers. These options aid in maintaining clean air and preventing dust buildup. 

Consider Your Home’s Needs

Before diving further into the vast ocean of HVAC options and their features, it’s essential to understand what your home truly needs: 

  • Size of your home: Larger homes may require more powerful systems or even multiple units. BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is a standard unit used to measure an HVAC system’s heating and cooling capacity. A higher BTU rating indicates a larger system. 
  • Local climate: Houses in colder climates might prioritize heating over cooling and vice versa. For instance, while an individual in Alaska might prioritize heating, someone in Florida could focus more on cooling and dehumidification.
  • Existing infrastructure: Some homes might already have ductwork or other components in place, affecting the choice.
  • Insulation: Check the insulation levels in your home. Better insulation often means you’ll need a less powerful system or at least smaller energy bills.
  • Energy Source: Gas, electricity, or dual-fuel? Each has its own benefits.

Types of HVAC Systems

Over the years, HVAC technology has grown, offering solutions tailored for different homes and climates. Nowadays, the most common types of HVAC systems are:

HVAC Split Systems

AC unit central split system hanging outside
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Among all HVAC systems, the split system is probably the most versatile and widely used option across the US. A standard split system has two parts:  

  • Outdoor Unit: It houses the condenser coil, compressor, and fan. These components work together to release or collect heat, depending on your thermostat’s settings.
  • Indoor Unit: It contains the evaporator coil, fan, and blower. 

The two are connected by refrigerant lines that absorb and release heat, managing the temperature and humidity of your house. 

Split systems also have various configurations. Some of the most popular ones are:

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are a smart way to handle both warmth and coolness. Rather than making heat, they just move it around. In the winter, they pull warmth from the outside to warm the inside. In the summer, they do the opposite. This method is really good at saving energy.

There are primarily two types of heat pumps:

  1. Air-Source Heat Pumps: These are the most common types and are suitable for moderate climates. They extract heat from the air and transfer it either indoors or outdoors based on the heating or cooling needs.
  2. Ground-Source Heat Pumps: Also known as geothermal systems, they are designed to extract heat from the ground. Since the ground maintains a more consistent temperature than air, geothermal systems can be more efficient but are costlier to install due to the need to dig underground.

Heat Pump Pros:

  • Can provide both heating and cooling.
  • No combustion taking place means a more eco-friendly solution.
  • No gas lines or storage tanks are required, making them safer to operate.
  • Can reduce energy bills by up to 50%.

Heat Pumps Cons:

  • Higher installation cost as compared to other options.
  • The backup heating element can increase energy bills in cold climates.
  • In colder regions, air-source heat pumps may not be efficient when temperatures drop below freezing. In these cases it can be paired with a gas or electric furnace as a supplementary heater for backup.
  • Ground source heat pumps require a significant amount of land space for installation.

Air Conditioners

An air conditioner (AC) is primarily used for cooling. They extract heat from the air in your house and release it outside, along with excess moisture. Central ACs are optimal for big houses, while window or portable units suit single rooms or tiny apartments.

A central AC is perfect if you live somewhere really hot most of the time. You can also team it up with a furnace or a heat pump to keep your home cozy all year. But remember, while heat pumps can warm up your home in the cold, regular ACs can’t. Some ACs have little heaters called heat strips, but they’re not super powerful.

When shopping, check the SEER2 rating (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio). Think of SEER like a car’s miles per gallon: a higher number means it uses less energy. AC units with energy ratings above 14 meet Energy Star standards, making them a good pick for your pocket and the environment.

AC Pros:

  • Effective cooling of large areas.
  • Boosts indoor air purity.

AC Cons:

  • Consumes more power than heat pumps.
  • Central AC necessitates a duct network, adding to the installation cost.


An old but gold method, furnaces are great for cold climates, warming your home by heating air and sending it through ducts. Depending on your location, they can run on gas, oil, or electricity. If you’re in a place with mild winters but hot summers, consider pairing your furnace with an AC or heat pump.

Electric furnaces are cheaper to install but might cost more to run depending on local electricity prices. Gas furnaces are generally more efficient, especially if natural gas is affordable in your area. Though oil furnaces are less common, they might work for you if oil is easily accessible.

If winters are milder, a heat pump can be a game-changer. It cools in the summer and warms in the winter. But when it gets really cold, a furnace is your trusty backup. Think of pairing the two as a hybrid system, letting you switch between them based on the weather.

Furnace Pros:

  • Affordable installation.
  • Long lifespan (20 to 30 years).
  • Reliable heating in cold weather, especially the gas-powered units.
  • Low maintenance cost, especially for electric options.

Furnace Cons:

  • Requires a duct system for air distribution.
  • Electric furnaces have high operating costs.
  • Gas furnaces can pose risks of carbon monoxide leaks if not maintained properly.

Pro tips: 

  • Remember, you can always combine two or more HVAC units (ACs, heat pumps, furnace, boiler, etc.) according to your needs, energy consumption, and comfort level. That’s the beauty of split systems, giving you the flexibility to mix and match.
  • If you replace any part of your split system, make sure it’s compatible with the existing components in order to avoid additional costs.

Packaged HVAC Systems

Graphic of a house with a packaged HVAC system
Photo Credit: Juan Rodriguez

A packaged HVAC system combines the functionalities of both the heating and cooling equipment into a single outdoor unit. These units are typically installed on the roof or ground level near the foundation of the building. Packaged HVAC is commonly used in residential and commercial buildings where indoor space is limited or where a rooftop installation is preferred. 


Always check with local building codes before installing any HVAC roof units, as some areas might restrict them. 

Like with split systems, you can choose from a range of packaged HVAC units like:

  • Packaged air conditioners: Ideal for cooling large spaces. 
  • Packaged heat pumps: They are versatile, providing both heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. 
  • Packaged gas-electric systems: Best suited for colder regions, they combine the capabilities of an air conditioner with a gas furnace. 
  • Packaged dual fuel system: An eco-friendlier high-efficiency alternative that combines a heat pump with a gas furnace.

Packaged HVAC System Pros:

  • Space-saving, as all units are enclosed in a single unit.
  • Easier and quicker installation compared to split systems.
  • Lower maintenance cost, with everything in one place.
  • Option for outdoor or rooftop installation.

Packaged HVAC System Cons:

  • Might be noisy if installed near living spaces.
  • Less energy-efficient than some high-end split system options.
  • Not suitable for all home designs or locations with limited outdoor space.

Ductless Systems

Man adjusting the temperature of a mini-split AC with a remote control
Photo Credit: Antonio_Diaz / Canva Pro / License

When you mention a ductless system, you’re typically talking about a “mini-split” or “multi-split.” But it really means any system that doesn’t need ducts. These systems are great for older homes, small spaces, extra rooms, or places where adding ducts just isn’t practical. Here are some popular choices you can explore:

Ductless Mini-Splits

The ductless mini-split system, often referred to simply as the “mini-split,” is an innovative and versatile heating and cooling solution. Its unique feature is that, unlike traditional HVAC systems, it doesn’t rely on ducts to distribute air throughout your home. Here’s what you need to know:


  • Outdoor Unit: This contains the compressor and condenser.
  • Indoor Unit: These are compact devices that can be wall-mounted, ceiling-mounted, or even floor-standing, depending on the design and your preference.

Types of Mini-Splits:

  1. Single Zone Mini-Splits: Designed to serve one specific area or “zone” in your home. They consist of one outdoor compressor and one indoor air handler..
  2. Multi Zone Mini-Splits: As the name suggests, these systems are made to heat or cool multiple rooms or zones within a home. They consist of one outdoor compressor but can connect to multiple indoor units, sometimes up to 8.

Ductless Mini-Split Pros:

  • Small size-saving space and providing flexibility for zoning. 
  • Quick installation, as no complex ductwork is needed.
  • Energy-efficient, saving up to 30% energy compared to central systems.
  • No ducts mean no energy loss.
  • Zonal temperature control. 

Ductless Mini-Split Cons:

  • Costlier than other options.
  • The indoor unit may not fit every interior design style.

When to consider a mini-split? 

If your home lacks ductwork or if you’re adding a room and don’t want to extend the existing ductwork, a mini-split might be ideal. They’re also beneficial for those looking to improve energy efficiency or control the temperature in specific rooms independently.

Window AC

Popular for single rooms and smaller apartments, window air conditioners fit into a window frame with an external part to release the hot air outside. They don’t require any ductwork or pipes and cost less than big systems. 

However, if you’re looking for a more efficient and less noisy option, go with mini-split systems. Window units sometimes only cool a small part of the room.

Window AC Pros:

  • Easy on the wallet.
  • Easy to install.
  • No need for ducts or extra components.

Window AC Cons:

  • Cannot cool more than one room with a single unit.
  • Not efficient in cooling compared to central air conditioning or heat pumps.
  • Higher energy consumption, especially if you need multiple units for different rooms.


Boilers are great for heating a house through the distribution of hot water. The hot water, in turn, travels through radiators or under-floor systems to heat up your home. They do not cool down the space, so you’ll need another cooling unit in addition to it. Boilers work in different fuels like gas, oil, or electricity. Most people use gas. 

You’ll usually find them in basements or hidden places. Remember, they don’t use ducts but need pipes and radiators.

Boiler Pros:

  • Lasts a long time (up to 15 years).
  • Cleaner air compared to forced-air systems.
  • Lets you set temperatures in specific rooms. 
  • Fewers breakdowns and repairs due to no ductwork involved.
  • Allows fewer air leaks in the house.

Boiler Cons:

  • Requires separate heating, ventilation, and AC options for cooling needs.
  • Might be pricey to set up.
  • Takes up some space.
  • Water leaks might cause damage if not inspected regularly.

Table: Most Common HVAC System for Homeowners

Central Air ConditionerUses ducts to distribute cool air throughout the home.
Ductless SystemsIndividual units in each room, no ducts required. Great for older homes or additions.
Heat PumpsCan both heat and cool a home. Ideal for milder climates.
FurnacesUse fuel to generate heat and require ductwork.
Hybrid SystemsCombination of a furnace and heat pump. Can switch between the gas furnace  and electric heat pump.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an HVAC System

When considering an HVAC system for your home, various factors come into play. Balancing these elements can ensure that you pick a system that aligns well with your specific needs and local climate conditions. Here are the crucial factors to consider:

HVAC Energy Efficiency and Ratings

Energy efficiency chart
Photo Credit: Miguel Guasch Fuxa / Canva Pro / License

The energy efficiency of an HVAC system is arguably one of the most critical aspects to consider. An energy-efficient system can drastically lower your utility bills and reduce your carbon footprint. When looking at different systems, keep an eye on these ratings:

  • SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio): Represents the cooling efficiency of air conditioners and heat pumps. A higher SEER means better efficiency. For energy savings and environmental considerations, it’s recommended to go for a system with a SEER rating of 14 or higher.
  • AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency): AFUE tells us how good a furnace is at turning fuel into heat. The higher the AFUE percentage, the better the furnace is at this job. Nowadays, most modern furnaces are between 80% to 98% efficient.
  • HSPF (Heating Seasonal Performance Factor): Represents the heating efficiency of heat pumps. A higher HSPF means the system is more efficient.


Many utility companies and government agencies offer rebates and incentives for installing energy-efficient HVAC systems. Check local programs to see if you qualify.

HVAC Capacity

It refers to the ability of an HVAC system to heat or cool a specific area. It is typically measured in BTUs or tons. It’s essential to select the right capacity for your home. If you opt for a system too small, it might work overtime, increasing energy consumption and possibly breaking down sooner. 

On the other hand, an oversized system can cause frequent on-off cycling, leading to inconsistent temperatures and higher energy costs.

Consider the following:

  • Insulation levels: Homes with better insulation might require less capacity since they retain conditioned air more effectively.
  • Number of windows and their orientation: Windows can lead to heat loss or gain, affecting your HVAC’s workload.
  • Size of your home: Square footage plays a pivotal role in determining the capacity you’ll need. Typically, an average size home of 1,500 to 3,000 square feet will need a 3-ton HVAC unit. A ton is equivalent to 12,000 BTUs per hour. So, by following the standard sizing method an average home would require 36,000 to 72,000 BTU.

A professional HVAC technician should perform an energy assessment and factor in insulation levels, window sizes, etc., to determine the right capacity.

Price Range and Budgeting
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On average, a new HVAC system can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $9,000, including installation. While price is always a concern, it’s not just about the upfront cost. Think about:

  • HVAC installation expenses;
  • Operating costs; 
  • Potential savings from tax credits or rebates for energy-efficient models;
  • Maintenance and repair costs.

Pro tips: 

  • Seek multiple quotes from dependable HVAC dealers and compare the cost of different options. 
  • Factor in long-term energy savings when calculating budgets.
  • Energy efficiency is one critical aspect to consider. Look for the ENERGY STAR label before making a final decision. An ENERGY STAR-compliant HVAC system might have a high initial investment cost but will save you significantly in lower energy bills over time.

Maintenance and Longevity

spraying water on air conditioning unit for cleaning
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Every HVAC system requires maintenance to operate efficiently. Research how frequently the system you’re considering needs servicing. Also, consider the system’s longevity. While most HVAC systems last between 15 to 20 years, some, like furnaces, can last up to 30 years with proper care.

Noise Levels

When choosing an HVAC system, it’s vital to consider the noise levels, especially if the system will be installed near living spaces or bedrooms. Every HVAC unit comes with a decibel (dB) rating. A lower decibel rating indicates a quieter operation.

Here’s a quick breakdown of typical noise levels:

  • Whisper: 25 to 30 dB
  • Normal Conversation: 60 to 70 dB
  • Traffic: 70 to 80 dB
  • HVAC System: 50 to 60 dB outdoor units, with quieter models averaging 40 to 50 dB.

One of the quietest options is ductless mini-split systems with noise levels around 30 to 35 dB. Here are some tips for reducing HVAC noise:

  • Use sound-absorbing materials around the HVAC system.
  • Install a duct silencer.
  • Have the HVAC system regularly inspected and maintained by an HVAC pro.

Additional Features

While the main function of an HVAC system is to heat or cool, many come with additional features:

  • Programmable Thermostats: Set temperatures for specific times of day.
  • Variable Speed Motors: Adjust speeds for enhanced comfort and efficiency.

Moreover, HVAC systems play a significant role in maintaining indoor air quality. Consider systems with:

  • Effective filtration to keep out dust, pollen, and other allergens.
  • Humidity control features, especially if you live in very humid or dry areas.
  • Optional add-ons like air purifiers, UV germicidal lamps, or humidification/ dehumidification units.

Brand Reputation and Warranty

Always research the reliability of the brand and model you’re considering. Some brands have a reputation for lasting longer and requiring fewer repairs. Check for:

  • Warranty duration: A longer warranty period often indicates the manufacturer’s confidence in the product.
  • What’s covered: Some warranties might cover only parts, while others might cover labor as well.
  • Exclusions: Be sure to understand any conditions or exclusions that might void the warranty.

Comparative Table: Most Common HVAC Systems

FactorsCentral Air Conditioning SystemHeat PumpsDuctless Mini-SplitsHybrid Systems
EfficiencyModerateHighHighVery High
Installation ComplexityMedium-HighHighMediumHigh
Operating CostMediumLowLow-MediumLow-Medium
SuitabilityLarge homesModerate climatesRoom-by-room control;
Moderate climates.
Very cold climates with occasional hot days
Energy TypeAC unit: Electricity, Natural Furnace: Usually natural gasElectricityElectricityHeat Pumps: Electricity,Furnace: Usually natural gas
Benefits Effective cooling of large areas, boosts indoor air qualityEfficient for both heating and cooling;
Can reduce energy bills
Flexibility in zoning and space;
No ducts required;
Quick installation;
Energy efficiency
Flexibility in energy source – can switch between gas and electric
LimitationsRequires a duct network;
Consume more power than heat pumps
Higher upfront costs;
It is less efficient than a furnace in a very cold climate
Might not fit all interior designs
Complexity in installation and maintenance

FAQ About Choosing an HVAC System

How do I choose an HVAC system for my home?

Picking out an HVAC for your home can feel like a maze if you don’t know the ABCs. Remember, the more you know, the better choices you can make. Dive into some research about the various HVAC systems available and their functionalities. 

Think about your home’s size, the weather in your area, your existing setup, energy source preference, and how much you want to spend. Also, consult with HVAC professionals to get tailored advice for your specific needs. 

Generally, heat pumps work well for moderate climates, while furnaces come in handy in colder regions. 

What are the three main considerations to be looked at when choosing a HVAC system?

There are many factors to consider when choosing an HVAC system. But the three main considerations are the heating and cooling efficiency, the size of your home, and the system type. Other essential aspects to look at are climate, budget, installation requirements, and energy source. 

  • Efficiency: Look at the system’s energy ratings, such as SEER, AFUE, and HSPF. Higher ratings mean more energy efficiency, which can lead to savings on utility bills.
  • Size/Capacity: Ensure the system’s BTU or is suitable for the size of your home to prevent overworking or frequent cycling.
  • Type: Depending on your needs and existing infrastructure, decide between central air conditioners, heat pumps, furnaces, hybrid systems, or ductless systems.

What is the most efficient residential HVAC system? 

Ground-source heat pumps are currently the most efficient heating & cooling systems on the market. They use renewable energy from the ground to both cool and heat your home, consuming less electricity compared to traditional HVAC options leading to significant savings in utility bills. However, the initial cost might be more compared to other systems. 

Other efficient options include ductless mini-split systems and hybrid split systems which use a heat pump and furnace combo for maximum efficiency.

Get Professional Advice

Selecting an HVAC system for your home is a decision that requires careful consideration, knowledge, and a little bit of homework. With the wide variety of options available, from traditional systems to the more modern, energy-efficient ones, homeowners have more flexibility than ever to choose a system tailored to their unique needs.

Bear in mind, while reading up and researching is essential, there’s no substitute for professional advice. HVAC experts can give you the specific guidance you need, considering the unique characteristics of your home and helping you make a well-informed decision.

Don’t navigate the world of HVAC on your own. Reach out to a trusted local HVAC professional to get personalized advice and ensure your home remains comfortable, efficient, and inviting all year round.

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Luminita Toma

Luminita Toma is a nature-loving writer who simply adores anything pretty, from colorful flower gardens to chic interior design. After plenty of research on landscaping and home improvement, she’s got a keen eye for what makes a home beautiful. When she’s not sharing what she’s learned, there’s nothing she enjoys more than chilling with her friends, hitting the theatre, or traveling.