What’s the Difference Between an Air Handler and a Furnace?

HVAC technician performing a check on an air handler in an attic.

When it comes to heating your home, you may be familiar with using a furnace to serve that purpose. Similarly, air handlers can also serve as a way to heat your home. Both furnaces and air handlers are very much alike in many ways but still retain quite a few differences. In this blog, we’ll go over those differences, how each unit works, and how to choose which is best suited for your home. 

What Is an Air Handler?

An air handler is a unit that moves both heated and cool air within a forced-air type of system. This system uses a powerful fan, a blower, to push that air through air ducts. An air handler indoor coil plays a major role in its air conditioning and heating modes.

While in air conditioning mode, the air handler’s blower will pull in warm, moist air through the air ducts. That air then travels over the indoor coil, which contains refrigerant that takes the heat and moisture from the air to cool it. The cooler air is then pushed through the supply ducts into your home.

While in heating mode, the refrigerant within the coil captures the heat from outside and pushes it through the ducts. The refrigerant then enters the coil, causing it to release heat and become hot. The blower then pushes that heat through the supply ducts and throughout your home.

What’s a Furnace?

A furnace is a heating appliance most homeowners are familiar with using. They come in three different types: gas, oil, and electric. These types correlate to how they are powered. Like air handlers, furnaces also contain blower fans.

Furnaces are connected to thermostats. When the thermostat is turned on and calls for heating, gas and oil furnaces will begin burning fuel, while electric furnaces will heat a heating coil akin to a space heater. When the heat exchanger or coil gets hot, that’s when the blower fan pulls in cool air into the furnace, heats it, then pushes it through supply ducts throughout your home.

The Difference Between an Air Handler & a Furnace

Though air handlers and furnaces can serve the same function, they have two key differences.

  1. An air handler is not a direct heat source. A furnace is.

Furnaces use power sources to create heat themselves, while air handlers merely distribute the heat produced by a separate appliance — a heat pump.

  1. Air handlers require the use of a heat pump or AC coil, but furnaces don’t.

Unless an HVAC system includes central air conditioning, there’s no need for a furnace to utilize a coil. However, air handlers require coils because they don’t make heat on their own

Which Is Better?

This answer will depend on where you live and the usual climate within that area. If you live in an area where it’s warm most of the year, a heat pump and air handler system will offer a more energy-efficient solution, saving you in monthly utility costs. In areas where it’s cold most year-round, heat pumps can become ineffective as it can be challenging to collect enough heat from outside — in which case, a furnace would be a better option. A dual fuel system is another option to consider, though it is recommended for most northern areas.

Ask a Professional

If you find that you’re having a difficult time deciding which system would best suit your needs, get the help of a professional. Our technicians at Air Experts have the knowledge, experience, and resources to answer all of your HVAC-related questions. We can help you make the right call for your home.

Call now at 919-480-2727 to speak with one of our experts today or get in touch online.

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