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What is a Split Air Conditioner?  The Difference Between Split and Packaged Air Conditioning Systems.

What is a Split Air Conditioner?  The Difference Between Split and Packaged Air Conditioning Systems.

We are often asked the question, what is a split air conditioner?  But the difference between a split air conditioner and a packaged air conditioner is simpler than you might think.  It really comes down to a matter of how much space you have in your house.  A split air conditioner takes up more room than a packaged air conditioner, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a package is better.  If you have read some of our articles before, then you know that All Systems Mechanical is a small, U.S. Veteran-Owned heating and air conditioning company located in Southern California, and we pride ourselves on giving straight, honest answers to peoples’ questions.  This will be no different.  Today, we will start by showing you what a split air conditioner is, we will then discuss what a package air conditioner is, and we’ll be taking a look at the pros and cons of each along the way.

Split Air Conditioner vs. Packaged Air Conditioner – Which is Better?

what is a split air conditioner - how split air conditioners work

How Split Air Conditioners Work

Before we go any further into what the difference is between a split air conditioner and a packaged air conditioner, you have to realize what these names actually refer to – the way in which these units are structured.  No one type is better than the other.  The type of unit used is typically based on the structure of your house, with split air conditioning systems being the most common.  In the simplest terms, central air conditioners are broken down into two categories:

  1. Split Air Conditioners
  2. Packaged Air Conditioners

Each of these types of air conditioners works in the exact same way – they use the expansion of refrigerant to rapidly cool a coil, which, in turn, cools the air passing over said coil (more on this can be found in: How Does Air Conditioning Work?).

The difference between split and packaged systems is based strictly on how these types of units are set up.  Think about your car – if the engine is in the front, it is called a “front-engine car,” whereas if your engine is in the back (like my beloved Porsche 911), then it is called a “rear-engine car.”  They are both cars, and they both work the same way – by combustible engine – but yet, they have different names based on how they are set up structurally.  It is the same way with a split air conditioner and a packaged air conditioner.  But let’s dive a little deeper into each.

You might also be interested in: What Size Air Conditioner is Right for My House?

What is a Split Air Conditioner?

When someone refers to a split air conditioner, they are referring to the way in which the unit is set up.  A split air conditioner is composed of two separate units, a condensing unit and an evaporative coil (known as a “condenser,” and a “coil” respectively in short-hand or slang).  It is from these two separate units that a split air conditioner gets its name.  These units are joined by a set of copper tubing known as a “line-set,” which transfers refrigerant from one unit to another.

What is a Split Air Conditioner?  Condenser and Coil.

Although taking an in-depth look into the components of a split air conditioner is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to understand what each of these components is.  The easiest way to tell if you have a split air conditioning system is to see if you have two parts to your air conditioner.  If you have one part inside, either in the attic or in a closet, then you have a split unit.  If your air conditioner has only one piece (that is typically on the roof), and a piece of ductwork going into the roof, then you have a packaged unit.

what is a split air conditioner? Condenser

Split Air Conditioner Condensing Unit

The Condensing Unit.

The condensing unit, or condenser, is the part of a split air conditioning system that is located outside.  In its simplest explanation, an air conditioner uses electricity to take the heat from inside of your house, and transfer it outside (making the inside of your house cooler).  The condenser is where the compressor is housed.  So, to keep it simple, the condensing unit is where the compressor actually compresses the refrigerant, causing it to heat up.  As the fan blows outside air over this refrigerant (which is now housed in a metal coil), the refrigerant loses much of this heat.  Simply put, the condenser is where the heat that was inside your house is thrown into the outside air.

If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment: turn your split air conditioning on full blast for a few minutes, and once it is starting to blow cold air, go outside and put your hand over the condenser (which you now know is the outside portion of your split air conditioner).  It will be blowing hot air…this hot air is the heat that was removed from the inside of your house.  Pretty neat, huh?  If anyone actually goes outside to check this instead of taking my word for it…

The Evaporative Coil.

The evaporative coil is the part of a split air conditioner that is inside of your home.  When gasses expand rapidly, they cool, as I’m sure you all know from high school physics…none of you skipped that, right?  I wish I could have, but I was a Naval Aviator – they actually made me learn this stuff…but I digress.  The evaporative coil, aka the coil, is the part of your split air conditioner that is located inside of your home; usually in a closet or up in the attic.  This is where the refrigerant that was once outside is now expanding rapidly (through the expansion valve, since I’m sure that you were just dying to know) in order to cool down to just above freezing (if it were cooling to below freezing, your coil would become a block of ice from the natural humidity in the air – if this has happened, see Why is My Air Conditioner Freezing Up?).  As the air inside your home is blown over your coil, the refrigerant absorbs the heat that is inside of your house.  Simply put, the evaporative coil is where the air inside of your house actually cools down in a split air conditioning system.what is a split air conditioner - evaporative coil

Why is a Split Air Conditioner in Two Pieces?

The biggest difference between a split air conditioner and a packaged air conditioner is their size.  Split air conditioners are typically three times the size of a packaged unit, when you add all of their parts together.  That is part of the reason why split air conditioning systems come with two separate pieces – one inside, and one outside.  So, you might ask, why the hell would I get this behemoth?  There are several reasons, actually – let’s take a look at the pros and cons of a split air conditioner.

Split Air Conditioner Pros:

  1. Split air conditioners allow them to engineer a very efficient unit, with SEER values that are well into the 20’s these days (see: What is a Good SEER Rating?).
  2. Split air conditioners can be placed in various locations: closets, attics, garages, etc.
  3. Split air conditioners are easier and cheaper to fix and maintain.
  4. They are typically quieter.

Split Air Conditioner Cons:

  1. They can be difficult to access sometimes, often times located on the far side of the attic.

So with all these benefits to a split air conditioning system, why would you ever get something different?  Keep reading and find out…

For more on Split ACs, take a look at Wikipedia: Split Air Conditioner

what is a packaged air conditioner

Packaged Air Conditioner

What is a Packaged Air Conditioner?

So you’ve read an explanation of what a split air conditioner is in the section above, so let’s talk about a packaged air conditioner.  If you remember, a split air conditioner is an air conditioner that is split into two different parts, hence the name.  A packaged air conditioner, however, has both of these components integrated into one, nice, neat little package, giving it its name – packaged air conditioner.

A packaged air conditioner contains all of the components that a split air conditioner does, but it puts them in a smaller, more compact system.  So, you might still be wondering – why would I want a split air conditioner if I could just get a package system?  We’ll discuss the pros and cons of a packaged air conditioner in just a second, but the biggest reason that people use packaged air conditioners over split HVAC systems is actually a result of space – packaged air conditioners are typically used when there isn’t enough room for a split air conditioner.  Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of a packaged air conditioner.

Packaged Air Conditioner Pros:

  1. Packaged air conditioners can be used in situations where there isn’t enough space in the attic or closet for a split air conditioner.
  2. Packaged air conditioner is on the roof – out of sight, out of mind.

Packaged Air Conditioner Cons:

  1. Packaged air conditioners, due to their smaller size, aren’t available in high-efficiency ratings (typically not higher than 14 SEER.  Also see: SEER vs. EER).
  2. Packaged air conditioners typically need to be mounted on the roof, which if not sealed properly, can lead to leaks over time.
  3. Packaged air conditioners need to be mounted on custom welded roof racks – most companies don’t have this ability (yes, we do of course).

split air conditioning system condenserSplit Air Conditioner vs Packaged Air Conditioner – Which Type of Air Conditioner Should I Choose?

The Decision: Split Air Conditioner or Packaged Air Conditioner.

If you are replacing your existing air conditioner:

  • Replace it with the same type of air conditioner that you currently have.

If they didn’t integrate a split air conditioner into the house design, then has that really changed just because you are buying anew unit?  Probably not.  Both types of air conditioners accomplish the same end-goal, and to be honest, no one type of air conditioner is better than another.  They are just different ways to skin the same cat (or skin the same apple, if you are a cat person).

Price of a Split Air Conditioner vs Packaged Air Conditioner.

Despite what many salesmen will have you believe, split air conditioners and packaged air conditioners (for comparable SEER models) are about the same price.  Some will tell you that the packaged systems are cheaper because they require less time, but a packaged unit will still require a decent amount of time if done properly.  A reputable company will check the integrity of the roof, reseal all of the breaches, and modify the plenum to make sure that everything fits properly with the new unit.  Don’t skimp on your contractor, trust me…it will cost you more in the long run.  Here is an article that might be useful: How to Choose an HVAC Contractor.

Related articles that might also be useful:

How Much Should I Pay for my New Air Conditioner?

The Best Time to Buy an Air Conditioner

Top 10 Air Conditioner Brands

Final Thoughts on Split Air Conditioners and Packaged Air Conditioners.

At the end of the day, if you are replacing your air conditioner, replace it with the same type that you have now.  One isn’t better than the other, even though the split air conditioner has more available efficiency features than a packaged air conditioner.  We are often asked, what is a split air conditioner, or what is a packaged air conditioner?  Well, now you know, and you can go toe-to-toe with your HVAC contractor while designing your new air conditioning system.  Take a look at more subjects like split air conditioners on our ASM Air Conditioning Blog.  I hope this has helped answer some of your questions, and if you live in Southern California, then you are probably in our service area!  Click below and see.

Click Here to See if You Are in ASM’s Service Area

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