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Heating and ventilation systems are an important part of everyday life especially for people living in countries with extreme temperatures. Certain principles of heat transfer and thermodynamics must be understood to create proper heating and cooling systems. For example, heat cannot flow from a colder body to a warmer one, our normal blood temperature of 37.5 C is usually higher than the temperature of our surroundings so we function best when we are giving off heat to our environment rather than having our environment heat our bodies above normal.

Before the design of any other complex HVAC systems, people relied on the most available resource they had; the sun. Not only was it valued as a way of heating homes and giving light, but in many cultures, was worshipped and considered a god. For example, the Greeks thought of the sun, moon and skies as individual powerful gods (Apollo, Artemis and Zeus respectively). Open fires were the most popular way to heat homes for many years. Eventually, people began experimenting with new controlled ways of heating and cooling their homes.

One of the oldest forms of an HVAC system is the Roman hypocaust. These systems were created around 100 A.D. It was a primary and secondary system as it was able to create heat and distribute it. The hypocausts were primarily used for the public bath houses in creating sauna rooms by adding a pool of water, heated by the same fire heating the air below. A hypocaust consisted of a raised floor (usually two feet high), supported by columns of stone every few feet, with the space below kept open. A furnace, with a constant fire burning, created the heat that flowed through the space below the raised floor, and heated the floor and rest of the room. Once the air cooled it could escape through flues in the wall and out of vents in the roof. The furnace was so large that it was usually located in a separate room. To save space, the flues were built directly into the walls. The air flow system consisted of stone or brick tunnels (ducts) underneath the floor which lead into the large open space under the raised floor and into the wall flues, (which were also a source of insulation). The rising hot air created a barrier which kept the warmth inside of the building.

Although the hypocausts were effective, they had a few dangerous drawbacks. Carbon monoxide fumes created by the fire in the furnace easily crept into the main space from the area below the floor. The Romans would not have known anything about carbon monoxide, neither its detection nor prevention. Another problem is the chance of the furnace fire getting out of control and spreading throughout the building.

A modern day adaption of the hypocaust is called radiant floor heating. Instead of fire, radiant pipes imbedded in concrete or stapled underneath the floor are used to heat a room.

The idea of central heating was later revitalised by the Cistercian monks using river diversions combined with indoor wood-fired furnaces.

Around 1700, engineers from Russia were beginning to design hydronics based systems for central heating. One of the best examples of this system was used in the summer palace of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg. In 1716, came the first use of water in Sweden to distribute heat through buildings. This method was used by Martin Triewald for a greenhouse at Newcastle upon Tyne.

A French architect named Jean Simon Bonnemain was the first to introduce the technique to industry on a cooperative, at Château du Pêcq, near Paris.

In the 1830s, Angier March Perkins developed and installed some of the earliest steam-heating systems, the first of which was installed in the home of Governor of the Bank of England John Horley Palmer so that he could grow grapes in England's cool climate.

Central heating became increasingly popular in the early 19th century when the Industrial Revolution initiated an increase in the size of buildings for industry, residential use, and services.

In 1885 Fayette Brown patented the first Blast Furnace Charger. At the beginning of the 20th century, central heating could be found in the homes of most Americans thanks to William Baldwin, who invented the radiator. It was made of cast iron.

The cooling system had an equally interesting history. The first attempt to create an air conditioner was made by an American physician named Dr. John Gorrie, in Apalachicola, Florida. It was there during the 1830s that Dr. Gorrie created an ice-making machine that blew air over a bucket of ice. It was used for cooling the hospital rooms of patients suffering from malaria and yellow fever.

The next improvement was made in 1881, when President James Garfield was dying. Naval engineers built a box-like structure containing cloths saturated with melted ice water, where a fan blew hot air overhead. This device was able to lower a room by 20 degrees Fahrenheit but consumed half a million pounds of ice in just two months.

The first scientific system to clean, circulate, and control the temperature and humidity of air was made in 1902 by an American engineer named Willis Haviland Carrier. The machine was called "Apparatus for Treating Air" and was designed by Carrier only one year after he graduated from Cornell University with a Masters in Engineering. The apparatus used chilled coils to cool air and lower humidity to 55%, although the machine was precise enough that the humidity level was adjustable. It was originally built for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, New York. The company had been struggling with fluctuations in heat and humidity which would cause the dimensions of the printing paper to keep altering slightly, enough to cause a misalignment of the coloured inks. Carrier’s new air conditioning machine created a stable environment and aligned four-color printing became possible.

After the success of Willis Carrier’s invention, air conditioners began to flourish. They first reached industrial buildings such as printing plants, textile mills, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and hospitals. The first home to be air conditioned belonged to Charles Gates, son of gambler John "Bet a Million" Gates, in Minneapolis in 1914. During the first wave of their installation, Carrier's air conditioner units were big, expensive, and even dangerous due to the toxic ammonia that was used as coolant.

In 1922, Willis Carrier made two big improvements which made the air conditioners smaller and much safer. He replaced the ammonia with a benign coolant dielene and added a central compressor to reduce the size of the unit. Next, he was able to sell his invention to movie-theatre operators, with a grand debut in 1925 at the Rivoli on Broadway in New York City. Soon after, air conditioners were installed in office buildings, department stores and railroad cars. They became very popular and were even installed in the United States House of Representatives in 1928, with the Senate, White House and Supreme Court following suit in the years after. After the Second World War, window unit air conditioners were introduced, with sales escalating from 74,000 in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953.