Packaged vs. Split HVAC Systems: Does It Matter?

Couple Deciding Between Packaged and Split HVAC

If you're like most homeowners we work with, your home has a split heating and air conditioning system. You know you have this kind of system when there are two main components: one that lives outdoors and one that's inside.

The outdoor unit contains the air conditioner compressor and condenser coil. It looks like this:

Split HVAC System Outdoor Unit

The indoor unit contains the air conditioner's evaporator coil and blower. If you have a gas furnace, the indoor unit also houses the furnace burners and heat exchanger. It lives in your attic, crawlspace, basement, garage, or utility closet. From the outside, it looks like this:

Split HVAC System Indoor Unit

We call this a split system because it's literally split into two different units. It's the most common central AC system you encounter in our area. But it's not the only type.

Packaged HVAC units bundle all those parts together

Unlike split systems, packaged heating and air conditioning units are, well… packaged. Not split.

Instead of having two separate system components, everything lives inside a single large box. A package, if you will. Basically, the components that would normally live inside if you had a split system — the evaporator coil, blower, and furnace — reside within the same unit as the compressor and the condenser coil.

Oh, and the whole thing stays outside. There is no indoor unit.

Packaged systems look like this:

Packaged HVAC System

So, what's better? A packaged system or the more common split system? In our view, there are actually pros and cons for each type.

Split HVAC system pros and cons

One thing homeowners like most about split systems is their small physical footprint. Compared to a packaged unit, the outdoor part of a split system is pretty small, which makes it easier to tuck away behind the house where most people won't see it.

Filters for split systems are also of a standard size. Your HVAC installer won't have to do much custom ductwork rigging to get the filter size right.

At the same time, the indoor units are often installed in hard-to-access places. The homeowner might have to enter an attic or crawlspace to change the air filter, which is a disincentive to change it regularly. And since split systems are tasked with draining water from a space inside your home, they can cause damage to ceilings, walls, and floors if they leak.

Pros of split systems

  • Smaller and less obtrusive on the outside
  • Standard filtration sizes
  • Usually have shorter duct runs on the return side
  • Can be easier to access for service in some installations

Cons of split systems

  • Hard to access for service if the indoor unit is in an attic or crawlspace
  • Difficult to change or clean the filter
  • Potential for water damage if certain components fail
  • Need to be careful about furnace combustion and CO leaks

Packaged HVAC system pros and cons

Most people prefer not to have a packaged system for one simple reason: appearance.

The units are big! They take up a lot of space; they're pretty noticeable when someone's in your backyard; and since they contain both the outdoor and indoor unit components from a split system, they tend to be louder than their split counterparts.

They also have a reputation for bad ductwork and poor filtration, but this is more the fault of the installer than the HVAC equipment. Packaged units usually have two dedicated duct trunk lines, and there's just a lot of opportunity for error and/or sloppy workmanship on the installation side. Because of how the ducts connect to the unit itself, your installer will usually need to craft a filter housing that's the proper size. If they don't do a good job, you'll have poor filtration.

Currently, packaged units don't offer variable speed compressors or efficiency ratings above 16 SEER. You'll have to settle for a standard, "on/off" style HVAC system, which is probably what you have already.

But packaged systems are really great — you might even say essential — when your crawlspace is too small to accommodate a split system's indoor components.

In fact, a lack of crawlspace clearance is the number one use case we see for packaged units in the Atlanta area. Can't fit a blower under your house? No problem. That's what packaged units are for!

Since the packaged unit is 100% outside, they're also really easy to service. And your risk of dangerous CO leaks from the furnace is minimal since the heat exchanger and burners aren't located inside your house.

Pros of packaged HVAC systems

  • If you don't have space for a split system's indoor unit, you can still have central heating and air for your home.
  • Easy for your HVAC technician to service
  • Minimal risk of CO leaks into your home
  • Minimal risk of water damage since all the drainage happens outside

Cons of packaged HVAC systems

  • Some people find them unsightly
  • Large and loud
  • Difficult to properly size the air filter
  • Lots of opportunity for error for the ductwork installers
  • Fewer efficiency options compared to split systems

So, which is the better HVAC option? Split or packaged?

Neither is technically better.

While a split system might be smaller and have shorter return duct runs, a poor installation will still result in sub-par performance — even if you buy the newest system with all the latest and greatest features!

And while a packaged system might be larger and louder on the outside of your home, a capable installation technician can ensure the ducts are properly sized, positioned, and sealed in addition to creating a quality filter housing. So those "problems" you often hear about with packaged systems definitely aren't prophecy.

Since the packaged system's blower isn't inside your home, it might even be quieter from the inside. In other words, that "whoosh" of air you hear when the system kicks on might be way less obvious.

Your choice of split vs. packaged HVAC systems depends on your situation

The installation of your HVAC system matters a whole lot more than the type of system itself!

If your home can't easily accommodate a split system, there's no reason to be concerned that you have to get a packaged system instead. When you hire a capable, conscientious company that provides high quality HVAC installations, you're going to be pleased with the system's performance.

If you live in Metro Atlanta and are interested in service or replacement for your packaged HVAC system, split system, or other heating and air equipment, drop us a line! We'll visit your home, analyze your existing setup, and point you in the right direction.