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(707) 539-4533 |  Sonoma Napa and Marin Counties

updated 02/13/24


Commercial heating and cooling systems differ to residential solutions in numerous ways, primarily because commercial HVAC systems need to be larger and more powerful than those used in households. For example, a single split system may not be suitable for a high-rise office block or industrial commercial AC unit. However, such a solution may be perfectly fine for small commercial businesses, such as restaurants, shops, and individual offices within a building.


Deciding which type of commercial HVAC systems to purchase can be challenging, which is why you might benefit from hiring an HVAC contractor to determine your needs. Qualified HVAC specialists will bear in mind your space’s dimensions, climate, insulation, energy regulations, running costs and a range of other factors to recommend the most suitable commercial HVAC system for you.


In this article, we take an in-depth look at light commercial HVAC units, many of which are similar or identical to residential solutions. If you have any questions or want to know how commercial HVAC systems work, you can always give a heating and cooling contractor a call or arrange a site visit.


HVAC 101 Everything you need to know


Types of Light Commercial HVAC

While regular commercial HVAC systems tend to come in only a few different styles, light commercial HVAC has more options available, more like residential systems. Each of these units has advantages and disadvantages and finding the one that’s best for you can be a little tricky. That’s why it’s always a good idea to consult with an HVAC contractor before you make any purchases. As long as you’re able to think about and articulate what you’re looking for in an HVAC system, a contractor will be able to easily tailor that to the specifics of your building, the climate, and anything else that might be relevant.


In this next section, we’ll talk a little bit about the main types of light commercial HVAC units on the market today, and the pros and cons of each one. Each of these options could be perfect for your business, but the only ones who can figure out exactly what you need are you and a trusted HVAC contractor.


Light Commercial Air Conditioning

While some parts of the country never get cold enough to require a furnace, the summertime heat is unavoidable pretty much everywhere. An air conditioner is the foundation of any good HVAC system and is one of the most important things you can get for your place of business. Here are a few of the most common types of light commercial air conditioning units.


Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioning

Ductless mini-splits are pretty much exactly what the name suggests – a smaller version of a split-system air conditioner that blows air directly into the room instead of through the vents. That allows them to be significantly more energy-efficient than their larger cousins, making them increasingly popular for residential use. With a mini-split system, a single outdoor unit is connected to several indoor units, called air handlers. Each air handler has its own thermostat and controls the climate for a single room or section of the building, giving this system built-in zoning.


Mini-splits are mostly used by residential customers because they’re so expensive to purchase and install, especially in large buildings. Installing enough ductless air handlers to cool an entire commercial building is often prohibitively expensive, making them less popular for commercial use. However, they can be useful as an auxiliary unit to cool down a garage, office, or other single room that sees more use throughout the workday than other spaces.


As mini-splits become more powerful and less expensive, we could see them become more popular in commercial spaces. For now, they’re best suited for relatively small buildings and apartments.


Light Commercial Heating

If you live somewhere with chilly winters, then having a good heating system is just as important as air conditioning. Here are a few of the most popular options for light commercial heating solutions.


Solar Heating

Many businesses these days are using passive solar heating techniques to assist a furnace or other standard heating system. Passive solar involves designing a building in a way that takes advantage of the local climate to provide heat without using electricity. A workplace designed with passive solar heating in mind can end up with significantly lower power bills every month. If you have the opportunity, we highly recommend using passive solar heating techniques when building your office or storefront – your wallet will thank you and so will the environment.


Windows are a great source of natural solar heat during the day, and placing them properly will make sure you’re getting as much sunlight as you can. For solar heating, windows should be placed as close as possible to due south, and can’t be blocked by any roofs or trees during the day. As an added bonus, natural light can have a major effect on the morale of anyone working inside. Note that you’ll need to shade the windows during the warmer months to avoid overheating inside the building.


You can also install active solar heating equipment in your place of business. Active solar heating systems use solar energy to heat a working fluid that then transfers that heat inside or to a storage tank. Solar heat collectors are often used with radiant heating systems or hot water radiators. Typically, water-based radiators use a boiler to heat up water, which is then sent through pipes into radiators throughout the building. By using the sun to heat up the liquid instead of an electric boiler, you can save plenty of money on your power bills. These systems are often best used along with other, primary heating systems like a heat pump or a traditional furnace.


Single Split System

commercial ac unitSingle split systems are one of the most affordable commercial HVAC systems for small buildings, which is why they’re a popular choice. They’re suitable for shops, restaurants and buildings with several rooms and small offices as they allow you to control the temperature in individual spaces.


You control these commercial HVAC systems using a control panel or thermostat, which you should position away from doors and drafty areas. Your single split system will likely consist of an air conditioner and a furnace evaporator coil, and circulates air using a system of ducts.


There are two primary benefits to using single split units as commercial HVAC systems. First, they’re more affordable large central systems, and second, they’re self-contained. One unit can fail while the others remain functional.


However, every indoor commercial AC unit requires the installation of an outdoor unit, which can take up space on your property, especially if you need many units.


A single split-system air conditioner is the most commonly used AC system for both residential and light commercial customers, and it maintains that popularity for good reason. They’re effective, affordable, and offer a ton of flexibility when it comes to zoning. As the name suggests, a split-system air conditioner is split up into two different units. The outdoor unit holds the compressor and the condenser coil, and the indoor unit holds the evaporator coil and the blower fan. Once the system has cooled the air, it’s blown into the vents to be distributed throughout the building.


Split-system air conditioners come in a wide variety of sizes, which allows you to customize them to the dimensions of your workplace. They’re controlled with thermostats that you can place anywhere in the building, and you can use baffles and other vent covers to create zones. You can also use multiple split-systems in a single building, each one connected to its own thermostat. Using multiple smaller split-system units can sometimes be better than a large single unit because if one of them fails, the others will continue to run normally.


The main downside of any split-system air conditioner is that the vents tend to reduce the efficiency of the system as air is lost through small holes or trapped in corners. Any central air system is going to have the same problem, including alternatives like packaged air units. Split-system air conditioners also take up a little more space than some of their competitors, since each one needs two separate units, one inside the building and one outside.


Packaged Units

Not all packaged units can be considered ‘light’ commercial HVAC systems. However, because they can weigh anywhere between three and 25 tons, there may be a lighter option that’s suitable for your requirements.


In addition to size, packaged commercial HVAC systems differ in the features they provide. For example, heavy systems (12.5 to 25 tons) usually have a horizontal downflow to cover large areas and control airflow. Light commercial AC units (three to 10 tons) include a gas or electric air conditioner or heat pump, or a combination of both. Others can provide commercial heating as well as cooling.


Almost all package units come with durable scroll compressors to ensure they work efficiently, though routine maintenance is a requirement. Often, packaged units are more expensive to run than single split systems, but because all components are stored in one unit – usually on your roof – they’re beneficial if you need to save space while still accessing the power of commercial HVAC systems


Packaged AC units work fairly similarly to split-system ones, except that everything is put together into a single unit. This can be a bit more convenient, especially if your office building is fairly short on space and doesn’t have room for two different AC units. Many people choose to put packaged air conditioners up on the roof since there’s nothing else up there. That also makes it easier to connect them directly to the vents, which are often in the ceiling.


Packaged air conditioners typically come in sizes between three and 25 tons, which is a wide range. When talking about HVAC systems, “tons” refers to the power of the system rather than the actual physical size. More specifically, it refers to the amount of heat that the system could remove from the air every hour – each ton is 12,000 BTUs of heat per hour. Generally, anything above 12 tons is considered to be a heavy system, while light commercial systems are usually between three and 10 tons.


Packaged AC units typically cost a little more to run than split-system units, making them a somewhat less efficient option. However, they do save you plenty of space by containing all the components in a single container. They’re also usually less expensive to purchase and install and are extremely durable, which can be nice if you live somewhere with heavy weather. Many light commercial packaged air conditioners include a built-in heat pump as well, which allows them to both cool the air in the summer and heat it in the winter. Electric heat pumps can be a little expensive to run if it gets very cold in your area, but buying an air conditioner with a heat pump built in is a great way to save a little money on installation.


Geothermal Heat Pumps

Also known as ground source heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps are highly efficient because they concentrate existing heat rather than produce it, making them a renewable source of energy. They’re becoming increasingly popular in small commercial buildings and households across the US.


The temperature beneath the Earth’s surface remains relatively constant throughout the year, colder than the air above ground during summer and warmer in winter. A geothermal heat pump transfers the heat stored underground into a small commercial space during the winter and extracts heat back into the ground during summer. In other words, the surface beneath the earth acts as a heat sink during summer and heat source in winter.


Geothermal pumps can also provide hot water. Because this technology is relatively new, initial installation costs can be high. However, as a renewable source of commercial heating and cooling, they can reduce your running costs in the long run while helping you protect the environment.


Geothermal heat pumps are popular options for anyone who prioritizes energy efficiency in their heating system. Rather than creating heat from electricity or by burning fuel, geothermal heating systems draw existing heat from the earth and transfer it into the air. This saves the owner plenty of money on their monthly power bills while also easing the strain on the environment.


Geothermal heating technology works because, below the surface, the earth stays at a pretty standard temperature year-round. During the summer, the ground is cooler than the air, and during the winter, it’s warmer. That means geothermal systems can work both ways by drawing heat from the earth during the colder months and using it as a heat sink during the summer. The system uses pipes buried below the surface of the earth to transfer heat through liquid working fluid. When the system is in heat sink mode, the liquid absorbs heat from the earth and transfers it into the air above, and during the summer, it works in reverse.  Geothermal heating systems can also be used to heat water instead of a traditional boiler. This is a popular application in residential spaces but is somewhat less commonly used in light commercial buildings.


The primary downside of geothermal heating is the high initial cost of installation. The technology is still fairly new and therefore costs quite a bit to purchase and install into a building. However, if you can afford to spend a little more now and install a geothermal heat pump, you can expect to see some savings on your monthly power bills moving forward.


Dust Mites in your HVAC Ducts

Is Light Commercial HVAC Right for You?

The most straightforward way to determine which commercial HVAC systems you require is to call a contractor to assess your needs. You may assume because you operate in a high-rise building, light commercial HVAC systems are not an option. However, there are plenty of high-rise residential blocks that don’t feature a large-scale, centralized HVAC system, requiring individual condominium owners to purchase a small HVAC solution. The same may apply to individual companies with just a few office rooms in a large commercial building.


Light Commercial HVAC Solutions

Every building has unique needs when it comes to HVAC services. When you hire an HVAC contractor to set a system up in your home, they’ll first visit and do a walkthrough to note the dimensions, overall size, climate, and anything else that might be relevant before they can recommend a certain air conditioner or heater for you. There’s also the question of what your needs are as a customer – your temperature preferences, environmental priorities, budget, and so on. That’s why there are so many different types of HVAC systems available, each one serving a slightly different purpose to the consumer.


Commercial heating and cooling systems are different than residential ones as well. The needs of a high-rise commercial skyscraper are always going to be completely different than a house, which means they’ll need a totally different HVAC system. Commercial HVAC systems need to be very carefully sized, which can be a complex process. Keeping tens or even hundreds of workers comfortable is a tall order for any system, especially if the dimensions of the offices are different, so commercial HVAC systems are typically pretty large. However, some business owners aren’t looking for something quite so powerful.


That’s where light commercial HVAC comes into play. In this post, we’ll take an in-depth look at light commercial HVAC units, how they differ from regular commercial units as well as residential ones, and how you can figure out exactly which system is best for your needs.

Basics of Commercial HVAC Systems

No matter what kind of business you have, a functioning climate control system is a must. If your business is customer-facing, then potential customers will expect to be cool and comfortable as they browse your products or take meetings with your salespeople. Even if you’re not bringing customers into your building, you still need to make sure your workers aren’t too hot or too cold throughout the day. Studies have shown that productivity takes a nosedive when the temperature is uncomfortably hot or cold, so it’s in your best interest as well as theirs to keep your workforce happy and comfortable.


 The most important thing to figure out when installing a commercial HVAC system into a building is the scale. Most business owners prefer to use a single central air system to heat and cool the entirety of the workplace, which means you’ll need to install something powerful enough to take on every room at once. The calculations for sizing an air conditioner can be fairly complex and take into account the size of the building, the number of windows, how many workers you have, and the unique dimensions of the space, especially any areas where employees are regularly working. The result is generally a very large, powerful HVAC system that can heat or cool the entire building at once, although we highly recommend breaking the building up into zones so you can have a little more control over each section of it.


Efficiency is often a concern for commercial HVAC systems, so there’s a lot of technology out there that works to prevent any wasted energy while the system is running. Zoning is a great start to that process. If you split the building up into zones, each one with its own thermometer, you can save power by only controlling the climate in sections that are currently occupied. You can even improve this system by including motion sensors and other current tech designed to detect when somebody is in the room. That way, you won’t have to manually turn each zone on or off by yourself.


Proper maintenance is also key to making sure your commercial HVAC system is running as smoothly as possible. For a commercial system, we’d recommend at least two yearly inspections from an HVAC technician to make sure that everything is working the way it should. Any damage to the units themselves will reduce the overall efficiency of the system, forcing the units to work harder and wasting electricity. The same goes for any dirt or dust that might get caught up inside the ducts or elsewhere in the HVAC system. Buildup inside the ducts can cut down on the air flowing through the system, reducing the efficiency and again forcing the units to use more electricity. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, as the reduction in efficiency creates more wear and tear on the parts inside the HVAC units, further reducing the efficiency. Commercial HVAC systems use a lot of power, so it’s a good idea to make sure they’re running as efficiently as possible.


Light Commercial HVAC Systems

The biggest downside of a commercial HVAC system is that it uses quite a bit of electricity. Commercial air conditioners and furnaces tend to be extremely powerful. Not only is it bad for the environment to use that much power, but it can also be serious overkill for some smaller businesses. Restaurants, retail stores, gyms, and small office buildings require a more robust HVAC system than the average home, but a standard commercial system will draw too much power and end up short-cycling anyway, which can damage the parts inside. The solution is a third category – light commercial HVAC systems, which bridge the gap between the residential and commercial worlds. A light commercial system will be more than enough to keep your business cool and comfortable year-round without leaving you with sky-high electricity bills.


Light commercial HVAC systems tend to start small and use auxiliary methods of heating and cooling to boost their efficacy without forcing the system to work harder. These methods include geothermal heating, improved ventilation, and other natural sources of heat or cooling power that don’t require the system to run quite as often. Smart technology is also in high demand for light commercial HVAC customers, who love to use cutting-edge tech to improve the efficiency of their system and save a little money while making things easier and more convenient for their employees.


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Light Commercial HVAC Maintenance

Even with the aid of solar heating and other techniques, your business’s HVAC system is most likely going to be the largest consumer of energy in your building. That means you should do everything you can to make sure it runs smoothly, otherwise, you could end up with some serious spikes in energy consumption. It’s important to stay on top of regular maintenance for your HVAC system, both to make sure it keeps running efficiently and to prevent minor problems from becoming major ones. Properly maintaining your system will also extend its lifespan by a significant amount.


The foundation of preventative HVAC maintenance will be regular service appointments with your preferred HVAC technician or contractor. Typically, when you’re having a new system installed, the contractor will offer to set up a maintenance schedule for you. As long as you trust the contractor you’re working with, then sticking to that schedule is a good idea. You can often save a little money by signing a service contract that lasts for about a year or so and will get you discounts on labor and replacement parts.


Your maintenance schedule should include at least two regular appointments every year, one in the spring for your cooling system, and one in the fall for the heating system. These appointments act as a tune-up for your HVAC system and involve a full inspection and cleaning of every unit in your building. If you notice anything strange going on with your heating or cooling units at any point throughout the year, you should set up an additional appointment to have them checked out. When it comes to furnaces and air conditioners, small problems can quickly become big ones if you’re not careful.


You should also make sure your maintenance staff is checking the HVAC air filters once every three or four weeks and replacing the filters as directed by the manufacturer. Cleaning and replacing the air filters frequently can reduce your energy consumption by up to 15% just by itself. Regularly cleaning the vents is also important and will make sure airflow isn’t being blocked anywhere in the building.


If you have any other questions about light commercial HVAC systems, or you’re interested in setting up an appointment for a more in-depth discussion, you can give Valley Comfort Heating & Air a call today at (707) 539-4533 or get in touch with us through our website.


Learn More about Commercial Heating and Cooling

You undoubtedly want to keep your running costs to a minimum, which means you should purchase commercial HVAC systems that have an ENERGY STAR label, proving they comply with EPA regulations. Moreover, it’s essential to remember that all HVAC solutions lose efficiency over time, making annual maintenance and even periodic duct cleaning crucial. If you have any questions about light commercial HVAC systems or want to discuss your options with a qualified contractor, don’t hesitate to give us a call.