Dan LeFebvre

Smart vents and zone heating both offer the possibility of room-by-room climate control. However, while the two have similar functions, they use different technology and hardware to provide this control. As a result, they offer various benefits and installation challenges.

These are the key differences between smart vents and zone heating, and how builders can determine which is the best for a particular home.

What Are Smart Vents?
Smart vents are automated air registers. They open and close automatically to allow or block airflow from the HVAC system into certain rooms of a home.

The vents are controlled by a central system that communicates with one or more smart home thermostats or temperature monitors. It uses these monitors to determine how much air is needed to hold the home at a certain temperature. When the temp rises or falls above this setting, the system either opens or closes the smart vents as necessary.

Smart vents can provide some significant savings on home heating and cooling costs as a result. They may also enable homeowners to lower temperatures without increasing energy consumption.

People can also use smart vents to emulate zone heating and achieve room-by-room climate control by setting up monitors for each area that needs a specific temperature. Typically, this kind of effect is only achievable with a home HVAC zoning system.

Unlike a conventional air conditioning system, where the registers are always open, smart vents can also be closed remotely.

When to Use Smart Vents
Typically, smart vents can be installed quickly and cheaply, without changes to existing ductwork.

Smart vents are best suited for smaller homes and those with existing IoT technology—particularly smart thermostats. They can also be a suitable alternative to more expensive options, like zone heating, when the HVAC budget is limited.

These vents may be a good option for houses that are already smart because they can take advantage of existing IoT infrastructure. However, any home can benefit from a smart vent system.

At least one smart thermostat is needed for the smart vents to work. Typically, manufacturers will offer one that’s compatible with their system. Additional smart temperature monitors or thermostats will be required for the smart vents to approximate zone heating, as well. If a home only has one central smart thermostat, the vents can only automatically adjust the temperature of the entire house.

Homeowners could run into issues if the smart thermostat does not also control the furnace. For example, the smart vent may close while the furnace continues to run, causing airflow and pressure problems. They may also cause airflow and noise problems in an HVAC system that isn’t built to handle many closed vents.

Smart motion sensors can extend the functionality of smart vents by providing information on room occupancy. For example, a homeowner can configure their vents to not direct air to rooms that are unoccupied for a certain period of time.

However, interoperability may be a challenge as the number of smart devices increases if they are not from the same manufacturer and intended to be used together.

What Is Zone Heating?
Zone heating works on a similar principle to the intelligent zoning that is possible with smart vents. However, the approach requires more significant adjustments to a home HVAC system and relies less on smart technology by default.

With a zoned system, the home is divided into different areas. Each of these zones has its own thermostat that allows homeowners to set the temperature of each zone.

Zone heating systems typically use dampers to direct the flow of air around the home and maintain different temperatures. These dampers are similar to smart vents in that they control the flow of air through the home’s ductwork. However, they are interior to the system rather than exterior like vents.

Depending on the size of the home, multiple furnaces and air conditioners may also be necessary for zone heating.

Retrofitting an existing HVAC system with zone heating can be challenging, depending on homeowner needs and existing configuration. In some cases, additional ductwork may be necessary, and vents may need to be reconfigured.

The complexity of zoned systems means they are more expensive to install. Additional moving parts also means more room for failure, meaning homeowners may have to adhere to a more complex maintenance schedule than they would with a simpler HVAC system.

Failure in an interior component like a damper may also be harder to repair than an exterior component, like a smart vent controller.

When to Use Zone Heating
If a home is particularly large or is constructed in such a way that there is significant variation in room temperature, zone heating can be an effective solution. Homeowners will have much more control over the temperature of individual rooms, which can improve comfort. Zone heating can also help homeowners reduce heating and cooling costs.

The equipment in a zone heating system will typically come from the same manufacturer. This means there is little chance you’ll have to coordinate between different smart devices developed by various manufacturers. This can happen in homes with smart vents that use existing IoT technology.

Zone heating can also be made smart with the right thermostats, enabling remote control and zone heating automation. Smart zone heating also offers additional energy savings or improved comfort without extra heating and cooling costs.

Smart Vents vs. Zone Heating for Home Builders
Both smart vents and zone heating are great options for home builders who need to outfit a house with room-by-room temperature control. However, the two solutions may only be a good fit in certain situations.

Zone heating will likely work best in larger homes. The budget must support ductwork revisions or complex HVAC systems with multiple furnaces or air conditioning units.

Smart technology is a better fit for smaller homes and scenarios where in-depth work on the HVAC system isn’t practical. Vent controllers and smart thermostats can be installed without revisions to existing ductwork—though they may cause problems in HVAC systems not designed for closed vents.

Determining the better system must be done on a case-by-case basis to provide optimal results.