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How much to budget for HVAC?

Last updated: 11-14-2020

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How much to budget for HVAC?

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Compliance with building regulations..."The design of a technically sound building depends upon many factors beyond simple compliance with building regulations"
2010 NBC of Canada
Teachers parable, "each of you start my class with an A grade and only you can control where it goes from there."
Consider this: When clients are told by industry to budget 3% to 5% of construction cost for HVAC they need to understand they are getting a "Built to Code" system; a Grade of D, the lowest allowed system before an inspector is obligated to fail it.
When the architect, builder or client tries to negotiate down the mechanical engineer and HVAC trades below D, the lowest allowed by Governments what exactly do you think the outcome will be? A better lower cost system? Look folks, you can't go any lower than D unless you want an "F" - i.e. total failure.
Based on my 30+ years of experience in building construction and HVAC engineering my advice to the educated is - do your homework. Put just as much time into researching indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency as you did when you were working on your first diploma or degree. You don't need to become an engineer but at least get a handle on desired outcomes.
Make a list of your IEQ and energy expectations and find an architect, builder and HVAC designer and trades who can commit to meeting your expectations.
If you need help use our client support services .
Copyright © 2013, Robert Bean, R.E.T., P.L.(Eng.) . All rights reserved.
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The illustration below is our grading method for residential indoor climate systems (not to be confused exclusively with HVAC) with associated budgets based on using % of construction costs. These are generalized values and will vary based on options, geography and economic climate. See: Costing Tables for pricing examples and our Self Assessment Form for planning your renovation or new project .
Note to consumers: Building codes define the lowest grade allowed before inspectors are obligated to fail a component or system. It is why I differentiate between HVAC systems and indoor climate systems. The former meets the needs of the building code and focuses on mechanical solutions whereas the latter meets the specific needs of the occupant and includes the enclosure and interior finishes.
This is not semantics as some would argue. Why? Because it is explicitly clear that according to codes, you don't need the occupants to approve an HVAC system only an inspector. However an indoor climate system will ultimately be judged by the occupants regardless if the HVAC system met codes and herein lays the difference. To learn more about this differentiation read, Built to code: What does it mean for consumers .
Figure 1. D grade, Built to Code HVAC systems will have standard construction, forced air heating, medium to high efficiency furnace with low efficiency air filter and no zoning; exhaust air system without heat recovery; and a fuel fired tank type water heater. The intent of built to code systems is to meet the minimum requirements of (you guessed it) the building code . However, progressively better indoor climate systems (A-B-C) focus more on the specific needs of the client with improved enclosures , carefully selected low VOC finishes , more thermal comfort features , higher efficiency equipment and better environmental health features.
Read carefully: A $300,000 home or a $3,000,000 home both "built to code" will have the same D Grade "built to code" HVAC system as opposed to an indoor climate system; i.e., a big shack with a big budget does not translate to better indoor climates. All you have to do is look at all the multi-million dollar high rise buildings with indoor climate problems to see the disconnect between construction budgets and indoor environmental quality.
Here's the short strokes: if you dislike dry, muggy, noisy, contaminated, drafty and inconsistent environments with cold interior surfaces such as floors, walls and windows; and large temperature differences between your ankles and head you must increase your budget for your indoor climate ( see common complaints ). This could be a combination of improvements to the enclosure and interior finishes along with improvements to the HVAC system...message you cannot obtain a energy efficient Grade A indoor environment for a Grade D price; and read this next statement very carefully...unless you negotiate otherwise, the building code only requires the decision makers, that being the builders and contractors to meet the Grade D benchmark and no more.
Some (not all) builders will tell you the built to code Grade D system is a Grade A system but you can put this to a test by asking if the home will have/has;
low VOC interior finishes verified by modelling and ratings.
All the above plus many more are traits of a Grade A indoor climate system. If he or she says these are all upgrades...you now know what you are getting is a downgrade from a score of "A". Yes when you buy a built to code system you are paying for the downgrade.
Grade A systems come from meeting energy and indoor climates Standards but Standards unless enforced, are not mandatory code requirements. If a builder says they meet all the Standards - have them provide a list of what they meet and ask them what 3rd party testing is done for verification. Typical housing Standards include ASHRAE 62.2, 55, and 90.2; however not all programs such as Energy Star or LEED have a requirement to meet ASHRAE Standard 55 - Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy .
Final recommendations: If you are buying or building and there is only one more page you have time to read right now, read our discussion called, " Built to code: What does it mean for consumer thermal comfort? "
It won't cost you a dime to read it but it's worth a fortune if you grasp the principles.
Sample Projects:
Sample #1 : drawings and specifications for an owner built infill project
Sample #2 : drawings and specifications for a owner built gut and renovation project
Sample #3 : drawings and specifications for a new owner built project
Sample #4 : drawings and specifications for a new owner built project
Suggested Resource:
Energy Vanguard : Raising the bar in energy efficient indoor climates.
Allison A. Bailes III, Ph.D., is a physicists and building science specialist. He operates Energy Vanguard and along with his industry colleagues has been leading a charge for practical and sustainable solutions to buildings and their indoor climates.
Allison tackles the fundamentals of day to day challenges facing builders, contractors and home owners through building education programs, energy auditing programs and building and HVAC system designs.
I always learn something from his site and so will you.
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