Package HVAC Units: Make the Change!

Last week, my wife and I went for a walk in an upscale neighborhood here in Kingsport TN.  Beautiful brick houses, perfectly manicured lawns, big garages… the very height of suburban paradise.  Some even had waterfront views of the Holston River. Because the neighborhood was so nice, I was shocked to see all of the packaged heat pump units outside of these homes!  So much so, that I took a picture of one. You are perhaps not as shocked as I was, but let me explain what is a packaged unit and why they were so out of place on those homes. A packaged unit is a combined condensing unit AND air handler all in one giant box.  They sit outside and duct underneath the home where they connect to the rest of the ductwork. This is in contrast to the much more common split system.  A split system separates the air handler (usually in the crawl space, basement, or attic) from the condensing unit which goes outside. Of course, there are appropriate applications for package units, but for most homes – I avoid them.  So, let’s start with the good things about packaged units:
  1. Because the entire system is outside, a package unit can fit in an application with a very short crawl space.
  2. Servicing a package unit is easier too since it is out in the open and not in a cramped crawl space.
  3. Initial installation is easier: there is no refrigerant tubing to run and there is only one power line to run (instead of one to the indoor and one to the outdoor unit in a split system).
But now the bad…
  1. Options – There are precious few options in package units. While you may be able to choose from 6 separate split systems with various efficiency ratings and features, you are lucky to get 2 different package units to choose from. Package units are not volume products for HVAC manufacturers and they just don’t make that many options.
  2. Efficiency – the cooling and heating efficiency ratings for package units are Poor. Really poor.  Trane makes 13 and 15 SEER2 heat pump package units (with very poor heating (HSPF2) ratings too).  But they make a 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20+ SEER2 split systems!
  3. Critters – After a few years, a package unit is all but certain to attract a family of critters. And since the unit connects directly to the ductwork, these critters have direct access to under your home!
  4. Cost – package units are expensive. Considering the middling performance ratings, it is especially unsettling to pay so much for a package unit.
  5. Unsightly – that big giant box sitting outside your home is a bit of an eyesore
  6. Longevity – since a package unit sits outside (all of it), it is subject to weather conditions and just doesn’t seem to last as long. I anticipate 8-12 years for a package unit in contrast to 12-20 years for a split system.  For that matter, the house I bought here in Kingsport had a Trane XL12 split system heat pump that was still running after 35 years!
  7. Noise – package units make a fair amount of noise outside.
    Ok, now that we know the pluses and minus for package unit… what should you do if you have one?  First, I would poke your head into the crawl space and measure the height.  If it is 3’ or more, you don’t need a package unit.  Next… see how old it is.  If you don’t have the original installation paperwork, just read off the serial number to a local dealer – they should be able to tell you when it was manufactured.  If it is more than 10 years… plan for a replacement.  And when the time comes for replacement, call a reputable HVAC company and tell them you want a quote on a split system (including a patch to the side of your home where the ductwork used to go.  You will like the split system much better, your electric bills will be lower, and your neighbors will like it too!
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