Your HVAC system: Understanding the basics

Homeowners usually don’t think about their HVAC system. We take for granted that our homes stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter — until there is a problem.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t need to become an HVAC professional, but you should understand how that valuable heating and cooling system in your basement works. Let’s take a look at the general basics of the HVAC system together.

Have an HVAC emergency? Schedule service right now.

What does HVAC stand for?

Good question. The answer is very straightforward:


Your HVAC system is the primary contributor to indoor home comfort. The heating part of the equation part keeps you warm and the air conditioning part keeps you cool. Ventilation keeps air circulating, removes humidity, dust, odors and heat while keeping your home from getting stagnant and stuffy. The ventilation process exchanges indoor and outdoor air and circulates air within enclosed spaces.

Read more: How to make sure your air conditioner is working right

The first HVAC system

Different methods of heating and cooling have been around for centuries, but modern technology for indoor air quality systems developed out of a series of inventions and scientific discoveries. Today’s air conditioning technology can be traced back to the work of Willis Carrier, whose “centrifugal chiller” was developed in 1925 to reduce humidity in the printing plant where Carrier worked. Carrier’s next chill spot was a New York movie theater, and the gradual adoption of cooling technology in businesses and homes has continued unabated ever since.

Read more: Make sure you have the right cooling system

Home heating was once reliant on wood-burning fireplaces or stoves. Wood furnaces, however, are an inefficient (and sometimes dangerous) home heating system. Alice H. Parker was granted a patent for a gas heating furnace in 1919 that would revolutionize residential central heating.

How does an HVAC system work?

Different methods for heating and cooling a home exist. A standard HVAC system can include a boiler, furnace or heat pump, and heat can move throughout a home by convection, conduction or radiation.

Read more: The pros and cons of baseboard heat

Water or steam heat systems rely on pipes to transport heat and conduct warmth via radiators, coils or exchangers. A warm air system relies on a series of ducts. Proper functionality depends on cleanliness, regardless of the system.

Air conditioning systems rely on a chemical agent to cool and dehumidify the air. That cool air is then distributed throughout your home by a system of fans and ducts. A compressor, condenser and evaporator are used to convert chilled liquid to a gas — the cool air you feel when you crank up the AC.

The ventilation component of the system regulates the quality and humidity of your indoor air. That’s very important in the muggy summer months in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

Read more: Summer air conditioning — Your guide to keeping cool

HVAC maintenance and repair

Regular HVAC system maintenance means avoiding big repairs and saving on utility bills.

A good rule of thumb: have your HVAC system tuned up twice a year. Your HVAC system should be checked by a local HVAC service in the early spring and the late summer. 

Our HVAC technicians serve the Washington, D.C. metro region, including northern Virginia and Maryland. Need HVAC work or a system check? Schedule HVAC service today.

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