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If you’re looking at air conditioner systems and debating on a VRF vs split AC, there are several differences to be aware of. The best air conditioner for your home or commercial building will depend on factors like the number and size of rooms, the climate you live in, and, of course, your budget.
While you’re looking at your options, you may want to look into split vs. packaged air conditioner systems as well. You could also check out the pros and cons of single-stage vs. two-stage air conditioners
Upgrading your compressor unit can help make a VRF system up to 50% more effective in terms of cooling power.
Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) and split air conditioning systems are two common types of HVAC that are used in both commercial and residential buildings, but there are significant differences in their cost, efficiency, cooling power, and installation that make one a better choice than the other depending on your needs.
While VRF systems boast a lot of cooling power, they’re significantly more expensive than split systems both at initial purchase and in installation cost, and only really become cost-effective for enormous spaces (like office buildings) of 10,000-80,000 square feet. Split systems will do a decent job even for somewhat large spaces but are overall better suited to small and medium-size rooms with lower operational costs. On the balance, split systems have the edge here.
VRF systems unquestionably have the edge when it comes to cooling power since they’re primarily made for larger commercial spaces. They’re also more versatile since they are capable of simultaneous heating and cooling of different rooms, something split systems usually can’t do. But that power is only cost-effective in larger spaces.
In terms of efficiency, in a general sense, VRF systems have the edge. They’re a more modern technology designed with efficiency and power in mind. That said, using a VRF in a space that’s less than 10,000 square feet isn’t cost-effective in terms of energy savings, so efficiency isn’t meaningful and energy bills will be higher without any real benefit. On the balance, though, you’ll want to go with VRF for efficiency.
VRF systems are more suited to larger commercial spaces than small residential spaces, where their superior power and performance would be wasted and not cost-effective.
What’s the monthly energy cost of a VRF system?
It varies with use, but the average VRF system costs about $18 per square foot per month in energy costs. A code-minimum set-up can be cheaper, though, at around $12-15 per square foot.
Where are VRF HVAC systems generally used?
Because of their high cooling capacity and increased initial costs, VRF systems are mostly used in large commercial building applications. This includes retail spaces, office spaces, hotels, and medical facilities.
What’s a Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) system?
A VRF system (sometimes also called Variable Refrigerant Flow Control) uses a single compressor but several smaller air handlers (also known as an air handling unit) to control airflow to each room individually in a space or building. This allows rooms to be cooled to different temperatures simultaneously, and if a heat pump is present, for some rooms to be heated while others are cooled.
How does a split AC system’s internal thermostat work?
The internal thermostat of a split system detects warm air, which activates its outdoor compressor component. The compressor then transmits refrigerant gas, which cycles into a liquid and is cooled, then evaporated again as cool air, which is piped into a room or rooms.
STAT: VRF systems are between 20% and 30% more efficient than conventional HVAC systems. (source)