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Smart Vents vs. Zone Heating: What's the Difference?

With all the modern options available for your heating and cooling system, it can AdobeStock_62300008.jpegbe a challenge to keep them all straight. A common question from homeowners is "What is the difference between using smart vents and zone heating and cooling?" Both are options to optimize the efficiency of your HVAC system and provide optimal comfort for you and your family. But they do so in different ways and have different advantages and disadvantages. This article will help you determine which one may be right for your home.

Smart Vents

Smart vents work in conjunction with a smart thermostat and (usually) a smartphone app. They can typically be installed without modification to your existing HVAC system. Unlike traditional vents(sometimes called registers or supply registers), which are simply “open,” smart vents open and close dynamically. First, they determine how much air is needed in each room to maintain its target temperature. Then, they adjust the airflow to match that room’s need. Some vents are very sophisticated, even able to detect when a room is in use to maintain top comfort levels.

Advantages

  • Smart vents can usually be installed quickly and easily with little or no modifications to your current system. And they’re significantly less expensive than installing a zoned system.
  • They’re simple and convenient to operate using remote controls and/or a smartphone app.
  • You and your family will enjoy greater home comfort, and if you choose vents with built-in filters, you’ll even enjoy better air quality.

Disadvantages

  • Smart vents require a smart thermostat that works with your existing thermostat. If you don’t already have one, there will be a moderate, added expense for the thermostat itself and installation.
  • The Smart vent thermostat does not control your furnace and air conditioner, it only modulates the air through the individual vents. This can lead to airflow problems if there are too many Smart vents that are closed and the main thermostat is telling the furnace to run.
  • Since the motor / actuator is built into the Smart vent, it blocks a portion of the airflow. If your vents / registers are not oversized to allow for the blockage you may experience some air noise or airflow related problems with your HVAC equipment.  You may be able to enlarge your vent openings to accommodate an oversized Smart vent to maintain the full-flow, but obviously that will add cost to the installation.
  • If you select vents with built-in filters, they need to be inspected and changed on a regular basis.

Best Uses

Smart vents are probably best suited to only one or two rooms in a home and homes that don’t have extreme temperature differences between rooms. They’re also best suited if you have a limited budget for optimizing your system or don’t want the hassle of modifying ductwork or adding components that may be required with a zoned system. Because of the potential for airflow problems, an HVAC Pro should be involved in the process to evaluate the system both before and after installation.

Zone Heating and Cooling

With a zoned system, your home is divided into areas — or zones — that are individually temperature controlled, with each zone having its own thermostat. Depending on the size and configuration of your home, zone heating and cooling may or may not require multiple furnaces or air conditioners. If you’re upgrading an existing system, installing a zoned system can mean additional ductwork and/or reconfiguring of your system. For systems that need only one furnace and AC, electronic baffles are installed that control the appropriate flow of air to each zone.

Advantages

  • A zoned system can mean exceptional comfort and consistency in your heating and cooling.
  • You have total control over the temperatures throughout your home, and family members can adjust temperatures to suit their individual tastes.
  • You can save on energy costs if you set lower/higher temperatures in less-used rooms.
  • Zoned systems are extremely easy and convenient to use with remote controls and smartphone apps.

Disadvantages

  • Zoned systems are more complex than conventional ones, with more moving parts and typically more complicated ductwork. That means the system itself and the installation costs will be higher than a conventional system.
  • More moving parts mean the possibility of increased maintenance and repair costs down the line.

Best Uses

Zoned systems are best suited to larger homes or homes that have significant temperature variations throughout. New home construction may be the best time to opt for a zoned system, although retrofitting an older home is definitely possible.

If you’re ready to add smart vents or zone heating and cooling to your home, be sure to work with a qualified HVAC pro. They’ll be able to do a full assessment of your home, recommend the best type of upgrades for it, and advise you on the most reliable products currently on the market.

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