HVAC basics: what you need to know about home heating and cooling before you buy

Learn the basics of home heating and cooling like costs, key terms, products, basic maintenance schedules and more.

Confused about home heating and cooling? Don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry. Before you start a project or make a major purchase, get up to speed on what you need to know to make the best choice for you and your home.

Illustration of school chalkboard
Getty Images: Igor Zakowski

OVERVIEW – WHAT IS HVAC?

HVAC stands for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. This system is responsible for heating and cooling your home and includes products like furnaces, air conditioners, heat pumps as well as ductwork, thermostats and other home comfort controls.

HOW MUCH DOES A NEW AIR CONDITIONER OR FURNACE COST?  

Prices can vary from state to state and depend on multiple factors like the make and model you choose and even the size of your home. That’s why we recommend contacting your local Trane dealer to schedule your custom, in-home evaluation and estimate. Check out our free online estimate and recommendation tool or our pricing guide for more details.

WHAT FACTORS AFFECT THE COST OF A NEW HVAC SYSTEM?

Good news, there are many ways to save on a new Trane that you can only get when talking to your local dealer. They include local rebates, tax credits and special limited time offers. In addition, here are some of the main factors that affect the cost of a new heating and cooling system.

LOCATION
Region and climate matter when finding the right system for your home and saving energy. The heating and cooling needs will differ in the hot and humid south and cold north. Also, installation costs can vary by as much as 20% depending on where you live.

HOME SIZE AND CONSTRUCTION
A large home will need a larger unit or even multiple systems to properly maintain a comfortable temperature — which of course will cost more than a smaller home. In addition, proper seals on windows and doors and the quality of your home’s insulation will affect your monthly heating and cooling costs.

DUCTWORK
Ductwork plays a crucial role in determining how comfortable your home is from room to room. When properly designed and installed, a duct system can maximize comfort and minimize energy use. If you’re installing a new HVAC system in a newly constructed home or replacing ductwork in a current home, adding ductwork will add as much as $2,000 – $3,000 to the total cost of your HVAC system.

PROJECT DIFFICULTY
If your new system is planned for a hard to reach space or if you live in a historic home that requires retrofitting, you’ll see your HVAC installation price increase. Only with an onsite evaluation will these kinds of costs be discovered.

SPECIAL FEATURES
Along with your traditional heating and cooling system, you have options to enhance the overall air quality of your home with a Trane CleanEffects™ air cleaner or add climate zones with a ComfortLink™ II Zoning System or and take advantage of the latest smart home, connected thermostat controls.

HEATING AND COOLING PRODUCTS

FURNACE
All furnaces consist of four main components: 1) burners that deliver and burn fuel, 2) heat exchangers, 3) a blower and 4) a flue that acts as an exhaust for gaseous by-products. A furnace burns fuel and distributes it throughout the house.

AIR CONDITIONER
An air conditioner draws heat energy out of the house and transfers it to the outside air. The most common setup for residential homes is a split system, which includes an inside-the-home evaporative heat exchanger and an outside condensing unit heat exchanger.

HEAT PUMP
A heat pump is an energy efficient option to consider if you live in a mild climate zone. It uses the outside air to heat a home in winter and cool it in summer.

AIR HANDLER
An air handler most commonly works with a heat pump to circulate air throughout your home. If you’re searching for a traditional air conditioner or furnace, you won’t need an air handler as those systems have the internal parts needed to circulate air.

DUCTLESS SYSTEMS
Ductless systems are a great option to heat or cool a single room in your home without the hassle of adding ductwork.

THERMOSTAT
Thermostats are generally split into two classifications: traditional or connected controls. Basically connected controls can integrate with other smart home systems and learn over time how to most efficiently heat and cool your home. Traditional controls are simpler – but several offer programmable features as well.

HEATING AND COOLING TERMS

AFUE
Measures a furnace’s efficiency in converting heat to energy. A higher percentage means higher efficiency and lower energy costs.

SEER
Measures air conditioner or heat pump cooling efficiency. A higher number means greater efficiency and lower energy costs.  

HSPF
A ratio for the heating efficiency of heat pumps. An HSPF of 8 or more is considered high efficiency.

SPLIT SYSTEM
A split system has two parts: an outdoor unit and an indoor unit. Split systems are the most common HVAC systems in modern homes.

PACKAGED SYSTEM
Packaged systems are all-in-one solutions, with most of the components for heating and/or cooling housed in a single cabinet.

HEATING STAGES
Refers to the number of settings a furnace or heat pump has. Variable or multi-stage systems offer more precise temperature control and run more efficiently than single stage systems.

COOLING STAGES
Refers to the number of settings an air conditioner or heat pump has. Variable or multi-stage systems offer more precise temperature control and run more efficiently than single-stage air conditioners.

ENERGY STAR®
The ENERGY STAR designation is designed to help consumers identify energy-efficient products.

SEASONAL MAINTENANCE SCHEDULE

Whether your system is new and still under warranty or over 10 years old, routine maintenance service can get you ready for the upcoming season, extend the life of your system and catch problems before they become costly repairs.  

Heating system (furnace or heat pump)
Schedule an appointment in late summer or early fall, before heating season.

Air conditioner
Schedule an appointment in late winter or early spring, before cooling season

REPAIR OR REPLACE? HOW DO YOU KNOW?

Replace your system when:

  • It needs frequent repairs.
  • It’s suffering from poor performance.
  • Your energy costs rise.

Replace your air conditioner if:

  • It’s over 10 years old.
  • Is rated 10 SEER or less.

Replace your furnace if:

  • It’s over 15 years old.
  • Is rated 80% AFUE or less.

Replace your heat pump if:

  • It’s over 10 years old.
  • Is rated 10 SEER or less | 8 HSPF or less.

FINANCIAL TIP: FOLLOW THE $5,000 RULE
Take the age of the equipment and multiply that by the estimated repair cost. If the number is more than $5,000, then you should consider replacing your unit.  

WHY YOU SHOULD TALK TO A DEALER?

A dealer is your best and only resource to truly evaluate your home HVAC needs. Plus they can work with you to recommend a custom solution that fits your home and budget. They can help you with:

  • Custom Home Evaluations
  • Emergency repairs and seasonal maintenance
  • Indoor air quality evaluation
  • Local rebates and special offers

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Over half of the energy usage in your home goes towards heating and cooling.*
  • You can save an average of up to $576 on energy costs each year by upgrading to a more energy efficient HVAC system.**
  • If you upgrade to a qualified, energy efficient HVAC system, you may be eligible for tax credits and rebates.
  • Your local dealer can offer special offers and local rebates.

One last tip

Now that you know the basics, talk to your local Trane dealer for a detailed evaluation and recommendation for what heating and cooling solution is right for you.

*Department of Energy, 2010. ** Based on Energy Star’s Savings Calculator for a 3-ton 21 SEER/10 HSPF heat pump and programmable thermostat versus the industry standard 13 SEER/7.7 HSPF 3-ton heat pump and standard thermostat in St. Louis, MO.