Packaged vs. Split HVAC Systems

Packaged vs. Split HVAC Systems
Arne Jacobsen
Residential Sales Professional

I have been in heating and air conditioning trade for 44 years. In that time, I have installed, serviced, designed ductwork, sold, and sized thousands of residential heating and cooling systems.

About This Article

What are the differences between packaged and split heating and cooling systems? And when should you consider a packaged system instead of a traditional residential split system?

Packaged vs. Split HVAC System

Packaged HVAC systems include outdoor heating and cooling units in the same large cabinet. Packaged systems are more routinely found in commercial buildings, while most residential homes have split systems. However, mobile homes, slab homes, or others without basements are often candidates for packaged HVAC systems.

You’ve probably seen a packaged HVAC system, possibly even for a residential home. They’re rare, but not unheard of. More importantly, they are occasionally viable options for homes where the construction prohibits the installation of a split system, or at least makes a split system trickier to accommodate.

Before we start comparing these types of systems, I should reiterate that packaged HVAC systems won’t be the best solution for any home that’s already fitted for a split system. Here in Columbus, OH, they’re especially rare in residential homes. However, that doesn’t mean packaged systems don’t have their uses.

What Is a Packaged HVAC System?

To clarify, a packaged system includes both heating and cooling units in a single, packaged unit. That generally makes them larger than split systems, which separate most heating and cooling equipment. You’ll often see them on the roofs of businesses, or outside mobile or slab homes.

Packaged HVAC System

Space, Location, and Noise

I mentioned that packaged systems are larger because they’re essentially a 2-in-1 package. This has certain benefits, but also drawbacks.

For one, you’ll need to find the space outside to house these larger units. Homes that packaged units are sometimes used for often tend to be smaller than average, and rarely have large yards. Generally, it’s not too hard to find this room, but it can be a consideration.

Moving everything outside does have at least one unexpected advantage, though: it can reduce noise.

Lastly, since your entire unit will be outside with a packaged system, this means the entire system is subject to the elements. If you live in a climate with harsh winters or animals that could damage the equipment, these can be considerations.

For commercial rooftop units, wind-breaking barriers are often installed to lower the strain on the system. While residential units won’t need this, you will want to make sure that grass and plant growth don’t interfere with it, and that you keep the unit clear of icicles and snow buildup when it’s in use.

Installation Considerations

The primary unit(s) need to be prepared and installed much the same way regardless of whether it’s a split system or packaged system. That said, there are a few key differences.

Since the majority of a packaged system is put together and shipped together, there can occasionally be fewer steps, meaning that an installation can go more quickly. This isn’t always true, though, because there are other steps that sometimes need to be taken.

In particular, the size of the packaged unit requires a base to be installed so that the unit remains level. Depending on the size and nature of this base, it can add extra cost to the installation.

Ductwork, Gas Lines, Wiring and Insulation

The biggest consideration is ductwork. With any central air system, proper ductwork needs to be installed. To have improperly sized ductwork is to damage your comfort and the health of your equipment.

This is particularly true with packaged systems. If both units are outside your home, chances are, there’s an area that is going to be relatively far away. The result can be a room or area that never heats or cools as well as you’d like it to.

This can be a problem even with split systems, though the ability to centralize much of the equipment in the basement often helps in reducing this disparity. But you’ll still see master bedrooms, for example, that are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. One of the culprits of this is often ductwork.

RELATED: HVAC Ductwork: Best Practices for Cleaning, Modifying and Care

Another consideration is that because the ductwork will need to originate outside, it will need extra insulation so that you aren’t losing heat (and thus money). Because many homes with packaged systems lack the room for a lot of indoor ductwork, sometimes the ducts have to travel around the outside of the home. The longer this length is, the more it will need to be properly insulated against the elements.

While packaged systems can utilize a variety of fuel sources, the most common are going to be electric and natural gas. If your home uses a gas system, you already have a gas line running to it.

Sometimes, though, gas lines or electrical wiring isn’t installed in a house with a packaged HVAC system in mind. In these cases, you may need to run a gas line to the packaged unit’s location, or have new wiring installed so that the system can function properly.

While these considerations can be true of any installation, it’s important to know that they may increase labor costs for specific projects.

Maintenance on HVAC Equipment

Maintenance Differences

If everything is in one place, it should be easier to service, right?

Actually, yeah, that’s often the case. Packaged systems can often cut down on the need to inspect multiple locations in a home when performing tune-ups, maintenance and repairs.

Additionally, having them on a roof or in a yard instead of a basement or attic means that there’s often more room to work. While our technicians adhere to all necessary safety precautions when performing maintenance, some equipment is simply easier to work on because we’re not having to fit into tight spots with low light and very little room.

Otherwise, everything that’s true about maintenance for split systems is also true for packaged systems. You’ll want to schedule regular tune-ups and maintenance for both heating and cooling units to ensure that they’re running smoothly.

Ductless Mini-Splits vs. Packaged Systems

This article is about split systems vs. packaged systems, but I think we’d be missing an important part of the conversation if we didn’t discuss ductless mini-splits.

The reason for this is simple: mini-splits are beginning to replace packaged systems in some residential markets. Many times, there’s a good reason for this.

To recap, ductless mini-splits are a split system, with an indoor and outdoor unit. But they’re designed for a single room or area, and the airflow goes directly between the outdoor and indoor units. There’s no ductwork to run through the home.

RELATED: Ductless Mini-Splits vs. Central Air: Pros and Cons

This has obvious advantages for mobile homes, slab homes, and others that are strapped for space to run ductwork. Mini-splits are also often used in homes with fully ducted systems, but for areas like garages, finished basements, master bedrooms, and home additions.

Things become a little bit trickier when you start to talk about covering an entire home with mini-splits. However, this is completely possible. The most frequent mini-split style has only one indoor unit, or “head.” But mini-split systems can easily have 4-5 heads in the home to cover a larger space.

It’s likely that a single ductless mini-split head won’t be able to properly heat or cool your entire home, but installing more than one can be a viable and efficient way to solve your heating and cooling problems.

Packaged HVAC System vs. Ductless Mini-Split

Who Should Consider a Packaged HVAC System?

We’ve talked about mobile homes and slab homes a couple of times, and those are obvious candidates. Additionally, many homes in the southern United States don’t have basements. While some of these are still set up for split systems (the indoor equipment would usually be in a utility room), occasionally a packaged system can be considered.

Lastly, many older homes (think 80-100 years old) weren’t set up to house modern HVAC systems. A Packaged system may be the best option in these rare cases.

Here in Columbus, OH, I’ll be honest, it’s not something we see often except in commercial buildings. But that doesn’t mean packaged systems don't have uses in other areas of the country, or in the specific instances listed above.

Choosing the Best System Type

As we mentioned at the start, if you have a home that is set up to be a split system, there’s never going to be a reason to switch to a packaged system. It’s simply how most residential homes are constructed, and it’s going to give you the best mix of efficiency and comfort.

The harder decisions are when you’re in a situation like the ones we listed above, where a split system may or may not be possible. In those cases, knowing all of your options (including ductless mini-split options) can help you figure out what will be best for your home.

At that point, a no-obligation discussion with a trusted HVAC contractor is your best step. You’ll be able to get options and pricing to meet your needs. And if you’re in the Columbus, OH area and are ready to take that step, fill out the box below to get started. We’re looking forward to meeting with you!

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