HVAC zoning: customize your comfort and save on utilities
Zoning is the latest trend in the HVAC industry. Traditional central HVAC heats and cools your entire home equally at the same time. Zoning lets you customize the temperature in different rooms or areas of your home.
This article will help you decide if a zoned HVAC system is right for you. It will also explain how HVAC zoning is achieved and whether it’s a DIY project or one for the pros.
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What is HVAC zoning?
HVAC zoning breaks your home into zoned areas that can be heated or cooled to different specifications. A zone can be a cluster of several rooms or a single room.
In a traditional central HVAC system, you set the temperature for your entire home on a single thermostat. Your AC/furnace or heat pump turns on and off based on the temperature sensors in the thermostat.
But sometimes, temperatures vary across your home. Maybe the rooms in the front of your house are usually hotter because they get more sunlight during the day. Or perhaps your bedroom is always cold in the winter because it’s the farthest room from your furnace.
HVAC zoning allows you to heat or cool each zone in your home differently, depending on that zone’s unique needs. Zoning involves using multiple central HVAC systems, mini splits, or a smart thermostat with room sensors and duct dampers.
🤷 Can I zone an existing HVAC system?
Absolutely! But you will probably have to purchase some new equipment.
Your options range from revamping your entire AC system to adding a mini split for supplemental heating and cooling.
It’s up to you to weigh your comfort needs versus your budget. Learn more about your options here.
Pros and cons of zoned HVAC systems
|✅ Pros of zoned HVAC||❌ Cons of zoned HVAC|
|Individualized comfort for each zone||Investing in new equipment can be costly upfront|
|Increased energy efficiency||Having work done in your home is disruptive|
|Utility savings as you only heat or cool where you need it||It may not be worth it in small homes|
As with any home improvement, you’ll need to consider the benefits against the cost of installing a zoned HVAC system.
Pros of zoned HVAC
Most obviously, zoned HVAC keeps each area of your home comfortable. If your kitchen can’t stay cool in the summer, you don’t have to freeze the rest of the house. You can set a zone for that room alone and adjust the thermostat accordingly.
This, in turn, helps you reduce electricity consumption. By heating and cooling each zone individually, you won’t waste energy. Additionally, if you don’t frequent certain areas of your home, you don’t have to heat or cool them when they’re not in use.
A subsequent benefit is that your utility bills will be lower. No more wasting energy on heating and cooling your whole home at once. With zones, you only use what you need.
Cons of zoned HVAC
If you’re starting from scratch with a new build or a completely re-vamped HVAC system, it’s worth it to create zones. However, turning a traditional central HVAC system into a zoned one takes some expense and effort.
Depending on the type of system you choose, you could spend tens of thousands of dollars to create HVAC zones. Not to mention the inconvenience of having technicians working in your home. You may have to engage multiple types of contractors, including an electrician and a drywall specialist.
Finally, zoned HVAC is not suitable for certain homes. If you have a smaller house and don’t experience any especially hot or cold spots, installing a zoned system may not be worth the hassle.
Different types of zoned HVAC
If you have a multi-story home, you may already have a rudimentary zoned system. Homes with more than one story often use two AC condensers for cooling.
Since heat rises, it’s notably warmer upstairs in some houses. Homes with two ACs, each controlled by a dedicated thermostat, can stay more consistently cool.
In this example, the upstairs AC works harder, while the downstairs AC has an easier job. In the long run, you’ll save electricity and likely preserve the life of your HVAC system since it’s not constantly working to keep up with the high temperatures upstairs.
You don’t need a multi-story home to benefit from dual HVAC systems. If you have a large one-story house, you may be able to zone your system this way. It can be especially useful if one wing of your home includes bedrooms that are uninhabited during the day.
Mini splits enable whole-home heating and cooling without ductwork.
Each mini split comprises an outdoor heat pump and an indoor air handler connected by electrical wiring and refrigerant lines. In a zoned system, you can have multiple air handlers throughout your home, which you can adjust individually.
Instead of using a central thermostat, a mini split’s air handler typically has a remote control. You can turn it on and off, choose the temperature, and select the fan speed. Or you can set it up to run automatically on a schedule.
Mini splits are perfect for older homes that don’t have existing ductwork. They’re also great if you have specific areas of your home that tend to stay hotter or cooler than the rest.
For example, if your central AC just can’t keep a particularly sunny bedroom cool, you can install a mini split. This will create a new zone that offers supplemental cooling.
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Central HVAC zones
Zoning your existing central HVAC system is possible but difficult. It’s much easier if you’re starting from scratch with a new home build or a completely refreshed HVAC system.
Your equipment needs to be dual-stage or modulating to zone your existing system. You’ll need to purchase a new AC condenser and furnace/heat pump if you have single-stage equipment.
Additionally, your ductwork needs to be sized and connected properly for the system. If it’s not, it may require some updating. Altering ductwork can be a headache since your technician may have to cut through walls.
Your HVAC contractor will install a smart thermostat with sensors in a zoned central HVAC system. They’ll also add dampers to your ductwork. These dampers open and close to direct air where it’s needed.
Can I DIY a zoned HVAC system?
Installing a zoned HVAC system is not a DIY job.
If you want an inexpensive DIY option, we recommend a smart thermostat with room sensors like this one.
While not a true zoned system, a smart thermostat with sensors will help your home stay more consistently comfortable in each area with a sensor.
How much does a zoned HVAC system cost?
The cost of a zoned HVAC system depends on which approach you decide to take.
If you opt to install multiple systems, like in a multi-story home, a new unit will cost about $7,000, according to HomeAdvisor.
HomeAdvisor says installing a mini split with one air handler costs about $3,000. Additional air handlers for zoning cost $400-2,000 each.
Zoning a central HVAC system costs many thousands of dollars. The average cost to replace ductwork is $1,181. Installing new ductwork ranges $3,000-7,500. Each automated duct damper costs about $200 – the number you’ll need depends on the size of your home. Smart thermostats cost between $100-300. Some may require an ongoing monthly subscription to manage.
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The bottom line on zoned HVAC
We think zoned HVAC is a smart choice. Not only does it let you customize your home comfort, but it potentially saves energy.
However, zoning an existing central HVAC system is costly and a lot of work. Instead of overhauling everything, we recommend installing a zoned mini split to provide supplemental heating and cooling in rooms that need it.
If you’re starting from scratch with a new build or a remodel, zoned HVAC is the way to go!