Ultimately, the decision comes down to several factors, from installation and long-term maintenance costs, aesthetics and energy efficiency, as well as the size of the property. Low-rise buildings, for example, tend to have unique needs compared to mid-rise or high-rise developments.

Beyond this, multifamily developments also have unique HVAC requirements, compared to single-family homes. Multifamily HVAC units must deliver:

Ultimately, the question remains: Which systems are the most energy efficient?

Centralized vs. Decentralized HVAC Units

HVAC units for multifamily buildings fall into two categories: Centralized and decentralized systems. Centralized HVAC systems are like a home’s heating and cooling systems. Heat and/or AC are feed from a central location – typically a mechanical room in the basement or in a penthouse of the building. Centralized systems do have a higher cost, and therefore, they’re more common in mid-rise and high-rise properties with many units.

Decentralized units, on the other hand, are compartmentalized. Each unit is treated as its own building, and separate heating and cooling systems are delivered to the individual units. These units are typically considered “self-contained.” Baseboard heat is another type of decentralized system.

Energy Efficiency of Centralized and Decentralized Systems

In general, centralized systems outperform decentralized HVAC systems in terms of energy efficiency. Yet, the higher installation costs may make these systems cost prohibitive. Common types of centralized HVAC systems include:

Comparatively, decentralized systems are, on average, more cost-effective to install, but most do not deliver maximum efficiency.

Additional Tips for Developing Energy Efficient HVAC Systems

Ultimately, your choice of HVAC unit will set the standard for the system’s efficiency, but there are additional steps that can be taken as well. For example, properly sealing heating and cooling ductwork can instantly optimize a system. Additionally, improving the insulation of the building envelop can reduce the system’s overall heating or cooling load.