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Commercial HVAC – Everything You Need To Know About

Owners and managers of commercial buildings might find it challenging to choose the right HVAC system for their facility as there are way too many options available nowadays.

If you have a small business, then going for a regular single-split system (the same that is used in residential HVAC) is the most common choice. Larger businesses prefer to opt for water-cooled chiller systems and variable-refrigerant flow systems.

What other commercial heating and cooling systems are there and which are the most efficient ones? Here is everything you need to know.

What Is a Commercial HVAC System?

In general, when talking about ‘commercial HVAC’, people refer to the heating and cooling equipment installed in large properties. For example, restaurants, hospitals, business buildings, and so on.

Commercial HVAC differs a lot from residential heating and cooling mainly due to the scale. Typically, commercial equipment is a lot larger and more complex. Moreover, in the majority of cases, it’s modular, meaning that the system allows new units to be added to it once such a need arises.

A lot of commercial heating and cooling systems are placed on the roof of the building. This helps reduce noise pollution and save valuable space. Such a location also makes it easier to serve the units.

Read: Are HVAC Service Plans Worth It?

How Does Commercial HVAC Work?

Three things are required to control the climate in commercial property – equipment that is going to be creating warm or cool air, an air distribution system, and devices that will be controlling all these processes.

  • Warm and cool air – commercial buildings can use all kinds of units to cool or heat the air in the building. Those include gas-burning furnaces, heat pumps, air conditioners, and boiler systems
  • Distribution – every commercial building should be equipped with a mechanical system that is going to be circulating the air throughout the property
  • Controls – some commercial properties might feature the same thermostats as ordinary homes. However, more complex direct digital controls can be used as well. Those include a central computer with multiple sensors that monitor and automate the temperature schedules throughout the building

Read: How To Do Air Balancing HVAC In A House?

What Are the Different Types of Commercial HVAC Systems?

There are quite a few different types of HVAC systems that are used in commercial buildings. We have listed all the heating and cooling systems starting from the most energy-efficient ones and ending with the least energy-efficient options.

1.    District Cooling Plant

This is a centralized cooling plant that is able to supply chilled water through underground pipes to multiple buildings. It is considered to be the largest type of HVAC systems and it is extremely energy-efficient.

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Such plants use gigantic centrifugal chillers. It is a modern way to efficiently air condition a network of buildings in campuses or cities.

2.    Water-Source Heat Pump System

Water-source systems can only be used in buildings that are located close to a body of water. These units are expensive to maintain and build, but they’re incredibly energy-efficient.

Water-source heat pumps can use lake water and even wastewater to function. However, river water is the best water source for such a system as the continuous flow will be constantly providing additional energy.

Read: Is Closing Vents Bad For HVAC?

3.    Ground-Source Heat Pump System

All ground-source systems use the thermal energy of the ground to operate. These units are rare as a lot of digging is involved in the installation of such a system.

The best thing about utilizing thermal energy is that the underground temperature remains relatively constant throughout the year.

4.    Water-Cooled Chiller System

Water-cooled chiller systems are the most common heating and cooling systems used in commercial buildings nowadays. There are different types of such systems with water-cooled centrifugal chillers being the most efficient of them all.

A chilled water system is a type of refrigeration system that uses water as the secondary refrigerant.  Water-cooled chillers feature a water-cooled condenser that is connected to the cooling tower. They are typically used in relatively large commercial buildings that have a sufficient water supply.

Read: Should You Replace Or Repair Your HVAC?

5.    Water-Cooled VRF System

Variable-refrigerant flow systems have been becoming more and more popular as they are able to cool or heat several separate spaces in a building. A simple VRF system consists of a single outdoor unit and plenty of indoor evaporators.

A water-cooled variable-refrigerant flow system is more energy-efficient than an air-cooled system, but the former would require the installation of water source units that will be helping comprise the system.

6.    Water-Cooled Packaged System

Unlike air-cooled packaged systems that use fans to transfer heat, water-cooled systems use water.

One of the main ‘pros’ is that the indoor unit can be very compact, but, at the same time, the outdoor unit might require a significant amount of space as it needs condenser pumps and water towers in order to operate.

7.    Hybrid Chiller System

Such a system is a combination of a small cooling tower and an air-cooled chiller. In hybrid chillers, the refrigerant absorbs heat energy from the chilled water.

The systems come in modules and they can easily be joined if there is ever a need to increase cooling capacity. The more modules there are, the more reliable the system would become as each separate compressor can be a backup for the others.

8.    Air-Cooled VRF System

A VRF system is, basically, a multi-split system with refrigerant controls. Such units have one set of refrigerant pipes; this allows the outdoor unit to be connected to multiple indoor units via a refnet joint.

9.    Air-Cooled Chiller System

Air-cooled chiller systems absorb the indoor heat and release it outside using fans and refrigerant-to-air coils.

Read: Is Air Balancing The HVAC System Worth The Cost?

10. Multi-Split System

A multi-split system is not the most energy-efficient option, but it’s great for commercial buildings that need to save space. In such a case, one outdoor unit gets connected to up to 8 indoor units.

11. Single-Split System

This is the most used heating and cooling system in small commercial properties (such as shops and offices). The system consists of indoor and outdoor units that are connected by refrigerant pipes.

12. Air-Cooled Packaged System

Such systems include window ACs, rooftop units, central AC, and portable air-cons. As the name suggests the system has only one unit that is ‘packaged’ together. Such units are among the most affordable heating and cooling options.

What Is the Most Efficient Commercial HVAC System?

Even though district cooling plants and heat pumps are the most energy-efficient HVAC systems, they are extremely expensive to install and maintain and are definitely not a fit for every facility.

A multi-split system is the best choice for the majority of commercial buildings. They are among the most efficient systems as indoor units can be controlled independently.

How Do You Maintain Commercial HVAC?

Even though some maintenance tasks should be performed only by qualified professionals, there are certain things that any person can do:

  1. Replace air filters
  2. Keep the vents clean
  3. Keep the outdoor unit clean
  4. Check drainage lines
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How Long Does a Commercial HVAC System Last?

The expected lifespan of a commercial HVAC system would depend on its type and the maintenance schedule, but, on average, you can expect the heating and cooling equipment to last for around 15-20 years.

Differences Between Commercial ; Residential HVAC

 Commercial HVACResidential HVAC
SizeTypically, larger and more powerfulSmaller
LocationIs usually placed in swamp coolers or on the roof of the buildingIn the backyard or the attic/closet/basement
DrainageThe drainage system consists of multiple pipes and pansIn a lot of cases, a single pan is enough
ComplexityCommercial HVAC systems can be modularResidential units are typically manufactured as stand-alone systems
MaintenanceMaintaining a large commercial HVAC system would require a lot more time and moneyEven though maintaining a residential heating and cooling unit is not the easiest job in the world, it is a lot simpler and cheaper


Both commercial and residential HVAC systems are designed to accomplish the same goal and there even are units that are successfully used in regular homes and shops or hotels, for example.

Large commercial facilities, however, require a completely different approach and usually go for VRF or chiller systems.