Furnace Vs Air Handler: Complete List Of Difference Between Them

Furnace Vs Air Handler

Whether you’re a newbie in the world of HVAC heating and cooling equipment or a pro who’s been there, done that, and seen it all it is not a matter of surprise if you’re having somewhat of a problem distinguishing between two specific kinds of heating systems: the air handler and the furnace. 

Often boggling the minds of most people out there, these two devices seemingly have a similar role to execute, so it often leads to confusion when customers go through different models of air handlers and furnaces without knowing which one they should buy.

It doesn’t help that both air handlers and furnaces display likeness in appearance as well while working towards the apparently same goal of producing heat and warming up an area. 

However, there are certain myths surrounding these units that ought to be clear so as to give you a more precise idea of which model to pick in accordance with what benefits you the most. 

In fact, we’ll start off by eliminating some doubts for you right away. Take, for instance, the manner of operation of both units. Where an air handler is an all-electric system run on your home’s circuit, a gas furnace functions on the basis of using gas or propane to heat your home.

Another example of such a difference is that an air handler often has an additional source, such as a heat pump, which aids in its generation of heat; whereas, a furnace generates heat on its own and moves it around as well. 

This is neither where the differences end nor where the similarities start.

If you want to truly be able to have a distinct idea between the two units and be able to judge for yourself which one would be more resourceful to you, we have provided below information on both the devices, along with a list of differences and similarities between them.

Air Handler Explained: What is it and What does it do?

If you’ve heard of forced air systems, you will be able to better understand air handlers. For your reference, a forced-air system is one in which a blower or the fan regulates air throughout your home’s ductwork, and moves it around.

The blower, then, is largely responsible for the exchange of hot and cold air in your house. And so, the origin of the name ‘air handler’- the handling of the movement of air by the blower, which is a crucial part of the system.

With an air handler in the house, the air is moved, circulated, and distributed through the different ducts and out of different grates into various rooms of your home.

As mentioned, the air handler makes good use of a ‘heat pump’ which is also involved in the ductwork and ventilation system of your home.

However, the heat pump is the component doing most of the work, as it does the primary task of heating the air. It is then that the air is taken charge of by the blower and moved through the different ducts.

With regards to the inner workings of the heat pump, you can equate it to your knowledge of the operation of a refrigerator. In low temperatures, warm air is absorbed from outside and circulated indoors through the air handler.

A similar process is undertaken during high summer temperatures. The heat pump is also electric, which in itself gives it a distinctive quality compared to the gas furnace.

The relation between the heat pump and the blower, then, is that they are directly connected and work off of each other.

When a thermostat sends back a signal, the heat pump is activated and sends hot or cold air based on what is required. The air is then evenly distributed by the blower.

Another important part of the air handler is the so-called indoor coil, which is relevant in ensuring the smooth progress of the air conditioning and heating modes of the air handler.

The indoor coil contains refrigerant. It is the refrigerant that contains heat or refrigerant cooling. The refrigerant, then, is positioned right amidst the forced air system and influences the air traveling in this pathway by increasing or decreasing the temperature. The refrigerant is subject to two modes:

AC Mode

In the AC mode, the blower absorbs hot and usually humid air through the ductwork. The refrigerant coil that is placed in the path of traveling air takes in heat emanating from the warm, outside air, and thus effectively leaves it cool.

The cooling of the refrigerant also stimulates it to remove moisture from the air and reduce humidity.

Then, the blower once again takes on its role- now moving the cooled air through the supply ducts and grates and finally blowing it into the room.

The indoor coil, however, does not stop there. It also has the responsibility of sending the now heated refrigerant to a radiator-like coil, which is helpful in disposing of the heat.

Heat Mode

The process of the Heat mode is the exact opposite of the AC mode. Air is pulled in by the refrigerant from the heat outdoors. This heat is then moved into the coil, thus maintaining it at a high temperature.

Then, the blower does its task of absorbing cold air, which is sent over the coils and warmed up before it is circulated into the home.

Furnace Explained: What is it and What does it do?

You must have already noticed that the air handler has most of its work cut out. It is only majorly involved in the movement of air. Furnaces, on the other hand, are termed creators of their own heat.

This is done by the burning of fuel in a combustion chamber or a heat exchanger, within which cool air from the outside is circulated courtesy of the blower fan. 

Once the air is sufficiently heated, it travels through the ducts and grates to heat up the rooms. Much like an air handler, the working of a furnace begins with a sign from the thermostat. 

When a set temperature is achieved and the thermostat alerts the system of such a condition, the furnace stalls burning fuel to produce heat until it is required again.

Meanwhile, once the heated air is blown into your home, any harmful gasses that may be produced as a result of the fuel-burning are passed out.

Air Handlers vs Furnaces: The Differences

Knowing how both these systems work is a good way to begin differentiating between them.

The biggest marked difference between them, as you probably noticed, is the process of heating. Where the air handler is concerned with moving, circulating, and distributing the heat that is created by a different source (the heat pump), a furnace is involved in the creation of its own heat.

A furnace has a conveniently positioned internal combustion box or chamber and thus does not need to borrow from an external source.

The second difference that is also concerned with heat regulation is the presence of the indoor coil. You’ve read that the Air handler has an indoor coil.

This presence of this coil makes an air handler more similar to an AC with an added heat extension. Most furnaces, on the other hand, unless specifically attached to an air conditioning system, don’t contain an indoor coil.

Air handlers are generally known for their ability to function independently even without the use of a heat pump, relying solely on the indoor AC coil in climates that have harsher summers and flimsy winters.

Furnaces, thus, don’t have this advantage of being able to run on just the coil and refrigerant. However, they do have a leg-up on the handlers in extremely cold weather.

Furnace Vs Air Handler Similarities

Despite the differences, air handlers and furnaces share some significant similarities with each other.

The most well-known similarity is that they both use a blower in order to distribute the air effectively and move it through the home’s ductwork system.

Additionally, another component that is common to both units is the thermostat, which kick-starts the heating process for the air handler as well as the furnace.

Also, both furnaces and air handlers come in a variety of single-speed and variable–speed models. As the speed of the system is the concern of the blowers, it makes sense that both systems share this characteristic.

Which One Is Better?

Clearly, both the air handler and the furnace are attributed with their own unique features and working model. The question of, “Which is better?” falls flat, as owing to their differences- they cannot be compared purely.

Rather, it is more useful for a customer to know which heating system is more suitable for their living conditions and lifestyle. One of the main factors to consider in that aspect is the climate.

Air handlers are considered more advantageous in lands that are bullied by harsh summers, while furnaces have displayed brilliant resilience in the face of extremely low temperatures.

At the same time, air handlers are also capable of handling mild to moderate winters well, thanks to their heat pump extension.

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