5 Types Of Mechanical Systems

Common Mechanical Systems  

1. Variable Air Volume (VAV) Rooftop Units 

VAV systems are one of the most traditional types of mechanical systems. They are self-contained units, usually located on the roof of commercial and large residential properties. Connected to ductwork, they condition fresh air and cycle it through the building. 
Although traditionally used for cooling, many rooftop units have a heating component. In heating mode, air blows over gas-fired or electric coils before cycling through the building.VAV systems have the lowest initial cost, but long-term costs depend on the unit’s efficiency. Generally, the greater the efficiency of a rooftop unit, the higher the initial cost.  
Traditionally, the heating components use natural gas, making VAV systems less sustainable than other options. Electrifying the system is one way to reduce your carbon footprint, though its efficiency will depend on your building type and size.  

2. Boiler/Chiller Systems 

Boiler/chiller systems are another popular option with large commercial and residential properties. These systems are hydronic, meaning they use water rather than forced air. Water moves through different air handlers to either remove or transfer heat. 
Generally, boiler/chiller systems are more efficient than VAV options. They also allow multiple mechanical zones (thermostats in different areas) to heat and cool a building simultaneously. 
While more efficient, these systems often come with a higher initial cost. Additionally, they often rely on natural gas, increasing carbon emissions. 

3. Variant Refrigerant Flow (VRF) Systems 

As the name suggests, VRF systems use refrigerants for heating and cooling. The refrigerant moves through pipes, an innovation that makes them more efficient than forced air systems. Ductwork is still necessary for fresh air requirements, but it is much smaller and has lower fan requirements than a VAV system.  
VRF systems fit a variety of applications, including large commercial and smaller residential properties. Their ability to heat and cool with smaller ducts makes them popular with adaptive reuse and historic renovation projects. Market One in Des Moines, for example, used a VRF system to comply with federal historic tax credit requirements. 
VRF systems tend to have a higher initial cost than VAV and boiler/chiller systems. However, their efficiency can provide a return on investment through energy savings. They also do not rely on natural gas or other fossil fuels, making them a more sustainable option. 

4. Air-Source Heat Pumps 

A heat pump is a device that uses a small amount of energy to transfer heat from one location to another. In heating mode, they pull heat from the outside and transfer it into the building. The process can also be reversed for cooling. 
Heat pumps are some of the most efficient systems available because they transfer heat, rather than burn fuel to create it. 
However, heat pumps are at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of initial costs and may not fit everyone’s budget. Air-sourced systems also work best in more temperate climates. If you experience more drastic seasonal changes, you may need a supplemental heating system or explore the use of a ground-source heat pump.  

5. Ground-Source Heat Pumps 

Ground-source heat pumps use the same principles as air-sourced systems but rely on geothermal heat. They utilize the earth’s relatively stable temperature to heat and cool a building throughout the seasons. 
Of the five systems discussed here, ground-source heat pumps are among the most efficient and sustainable. However, they often require additional on-site equipment installation, increasing the initial cost. Geothermal energy is often regulated by the Department of Natural Resources, and you will need to determine the local restrictions before planning this approach.  

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