5 Essential Factors for Choosing the Best Multifamily HVAC System

At the very start of planning and designing a large multifamily development, the cost is a determining factor for many decisions. But without the right information and the right vision, the desire for low initial costs may create long-term issues. HVAC design is part of this equation. When choosing the best multifamily HVAC system for your development project, it’s worth doing the research and cost analysis upfront. That initial low investment may seem wise until the high operational costs catch up. So let’s explore the different aspects of HVAC systems for multifamily housing that factor into the final decision.

What to Consider When Choosing a Multifamily HVAC System

At its most basic level, choosing the best multifamily HVAC system for housing complexes comes down to balancing comfort with cost. As each option is weighed against others, these two factors remain the focal points for investors and developers alike.

Installation and Operational Costs

The upfront investment costs for multifamily HVAC systems are a large part of the development cost. In many cases, cutting costs at this point can keep a project on budget and on track. However, operating costs can often counterbalance the advantages of systems that are less expensive to install. The efficiency of more complex systems can compensate for the initial cost over the lifetime of the HVAC system.

Peak Load Flexibility

Seasonal peak load demands change the efficiency of any HVAC system, but that impact is magnified in large systems like those in multifamily housing complexes. If the system is not optimized to adjust its peak load, developers could lose significant money to inefficient operating conditions.

To provide peak load flexibility and the associated cost savings, multifamily HVAC systems must be more complex, offering several different compressor and air handling capacities.

Ease of Maintenance

Knowing that the maintenance for these HVAC systems will often require access to tenant-occupied spaces, it’s critical that ease of maintenance is addressed in the design phase. Systems that require frequent maintenance should be easily accessible. But if the system’s lifetime maintenance is minimal due to higher quality fabrication, installation design, and technology, aesthetics can take a higher priority within the units.

Tenant Comfort

More than anything, tenant comfort is a key component to sustaining profits. When tenants can stay more comfortable, they are more likely to remain in their apartments. Likewise, better comfort often leads to better building maintenance in general, as tenants consider their rental spaces more as homes than temporary residences. However, tenant comfort can increase daily operating costs due to less efficient interior climate choices.

Centralized versus Decentralized Multifamily HVAC Systems

The ultimate defining characteristic of the different multifamily HVAC systems is whether the temperature controls are centralized or decentralized. A centralized system does not provide individual control of rooms, zones, or units.

The greatest benefit of this design is the ability to engineer an incredibly efficient system that runs at its optimal settings without interference. However, this takes temperature control out of the hands of individual tenants, creating a less desirable living environment. While cost savings may be substantial, the rate of tenant attrition often makes up for and even surpasses, these savings.

Instead, most multifamily HVAC systems are designed as decentralized systems. In these systems, the air handling unit and compressor installation process allow multiple points of control. These controls can be for entire units or individual rooms, depending on the system chosen.

In most cases, decentralized systems provide far more benefits than centralized systems for multifamily housing complexes. When cost is weighed against comfort, comfort provides better living conditions and, thus, a more dependable income structure.

Types of Decentralized Multifamily HVAC Systems

Decentralized multifamily HVAC systems clearly offer benefits for your tenants, but the benefits for investors and developers vary from one type of system to another. While one system may provide the most economical installation, another offers better operational efficiency instead. Here’s a rundown of the three most common types of multifamily HVAC systems today and the positive and negative qualities of each.

Multihead and Mini VRF Systems

A mini VRF (variable refrigerant flow) system is more complex than other options, but it provides a few key advantages. The multi head design of this system can offer a duct-free solution for apartment complexes and multifamily units. The system utilizes an interior head unit, or air handling unit, with an exterior compressor. The two components are connected with copper tubing, providing a flow system to transfer refrigerant between the two.

The greatest advantage of the VRF system is that it eliminates the need for ductwork while providing multiple zones within a single unit. Its easy installation and quiet operation make it desirable for both contractors and tenants. However, its initial cost is high, and it does not provide mechanical ventilation.

Vertical Terminal Air Conditioning Systems

Vertical terminal air conditioning (VTAC) systems are relatively inexpensive, and their design makes it easier to place a VTAC unit in smaller spaces like hotels. From installation cost to the overall life cycle, a VTAC system can provide developers with an alternative to more expensive unti-level climate control solutions.

Both the condenser and the air handling unit are contained in a single piece of equipment, allowing the VTAC system to take up very little space in an apartment or room. They are built with enough capacity to cool or heat multiple rooms and larger areas, and they are relatively quiet.

The disadvantages of the system are in the ductwork requirements. This system, unlike the mini VRF, requires ductwork and terminals, as well as exterior louvers, to dissipate heat. Ceiling space is also required, which impacts the engineering and design process. It’s also necessary to build a small closet space adjacent to an exterior wall for proper ventilation. But since they are self-contained, VTAC units do not require ground or roof space for exterior condensers.

Split Air Handling Unit Systems

Split air handling unit (AHU) systems are common, and they provide some significant cost advantages in both installation and operation. Most split AHU systems offer high SEER and EER ratings, so they’re efficient and low-cost to run. They run quietly, and they can be built into enclosed spaces, making them unobtrusive for tenants.

Their more complex installation requirements, however, typically cost more at the start than other options. And, like VTAC systems, ductwork and ceiling space are required. These systems also require outdoor space for the condenser, either on the ground or on the roof.

How to Choose the Best Multifamily HVAC System for Your Project

Today’s multifamily HVAC options each have distinct advantages, but ultimately, the choice comes down to balancing tenant comfort with the installation cost. As you begin planning and designing your multifamily housing development, consider budget constraints, environmental impact goals, and tenant demographics when making a decision. While initial savings may seem like the smart choice, it may be wiser to invest now for a long-term gain over the first ten years.

Our experts can help you find the right solution to match your budget and vision for your development. With decades of combined experience, and a focus on engineering HVAC for large residential structures, Innovative Engineering Solutions will guide you through each step of the process, ensuring that your project meets and exceeds your expectations, both today and for decades to come. Contact us today to start the process.