furnace-vs-air-handler

Furnace Vs. Air Handler: Everything You Need to Know

When it comes to dealing with the temperature in our homes, various devices help us achieve that goal. However, while some devices and equipment are straightforward in what they do, they might collide with the functions of others, making them hard to differentiate.

One such scenario is when dealing with furnace vs air handler devices. Both of them are designed to help us warm our homes. However, there are still some major differences amidst all the similarities.

If you’ve been struggling to pinpoint the difference between air handler and furnace devices, here is everything you should know about them.

  1. Mode of Operation

Since both of these devices help us to heat our homes, the best way to distinguish them is by looking at how they operate.  

How Does a Furnace Work?

A furnace is arguably the most common heating device in most homes. It is designed to create and distribute heat in our homes, keeping our indoors comfortable.

In essence, a furnace is a complete device that generates heat, warms the air, and distributes the warm air throughout the house. And it comes in various types depending on the fuel used.

For instance, some furnaces will use natural gas, while others use propane, oil, or electricity. The heat it generates is then transferred to the heat exchanger, which transfers the heat from the hot gasses into the air being blown over it. After the air heats up, it is blown through the ductwork by the blower into the desired spaces of your house.

Generally, a furnace is part of a forced–air system. The system involves air being pushed through it and into the rooms. The process starts by drawing air into the system from the rooms, heating it, and redistributing it to the necessary spaces via the vents.

How Does an Air Handler Work?

Like the furnace, an air handler works to heat our homes. But, its mechanisms are different.

For starters, an air handler doesn’t generate its own heat. Instead, it just blows air using the blower fan across the system. The blown air can either pass through the heat pump coils or the air conditioner, depending on the goal. When it passes through the coils, it heats up, and warm air is distributed throughout the house.

On the other hand, if the air is pushed through the air conditioner, it cools down, and the cooler air is redistributed in the house. Air handlers are generally the indoor components of air conditioner units (mini-splits). The outdoor component is known as the condenser, and together they form the split air conditioning system.

Typically, an air handler can heat or cool the house based on the mode and thermostat setting. When on heat mode, the heat pump coils heat up the air and, subsequently, the house. And when it’s on the cool mode, the refrigerant in the AC system draws heat from the air, cooling it down.  

  1. Where Each Device is Ideal

Furnace

Generally, a furnace can be seen as the best equipment to heat a home. This is because it has more heating power and can work even in extremely low temperatures.

Therefore, if you live in a place that experiences very cold winters, a furnace will be a great choice.

Air Handler

As mentioned above, an air handler doesn’t generate its own heat. Instead, it uses the heat pump coils to heat the air. For this reason, its heating power is limited.

Also, since the heat pump draws its heat from the external environment, the device isn’t reliable in very cold temperatures. The good thing about an air handler is that it can heat or cool your house. In this sense, it’s a great device in areas that are not extremely cold, as you can use it both in winter and summer.

  1. Furnace Vs Air Handler: Advantages

When looking at the air handler vs furnace differences, we must consider their advantages. Here are the main ones:

Furnace

  • Has high heating power
  • Works best even in extremely cold climates
  • Its energy efficient
  • Electric furnaces are safer
  • Cheaper to install

Air Handler

  • Offers both heating and cooling options
  • Best for climates that don’t experience extreme winters
  • Doesn’t have gas or carbon monoxide leaks
  • It’s energy-efficient
  • Less indoor footprint
  1. Air Handler Vs Furnace Cons

Furnace

  • They are somewhat louder compared to heat pumps
  • Doesn’t have any cooling options
  • Use fossil fuels
  • Has more indoor footprint than air handlers
  • Possible gas and carbon monoxide leaks
  • Short lifespans for gas furnaces
  • Expensive to operate

Air Handlers

  • The outdoor unit (condenser) is loud
  • An indoor blower can also be loud
  • Unreliable in extremely cold temperatures – below 30°F
  • Possible refrigerant leaks from AC or heat pump coils
  • Needs frequent maintenance
  • Has high replacement costs

Hydronic Air Handler Vs Furnace

Both of these devices help us heat the surrounding air to keep our homes comfortable. However, how they achieve this goal is what differs.

For example, hydronic air handlers, as the name goes, use water to heat the surrounding air. They are a bit more complex than the normal air handlers and furnaces, but they are also more reliable and efficient.

For furnaces, heat is generated by burning fuel such as natural gas, oil, propane, etc. This heat, which is in the form of heated gasses, heats the indoor air blowing over the heat exchanger. The warm air is finally blown into the house through the ductwork.

As with the hydronic air handlers, they use hot water running through the coils to warm your indoor air – that’s when it’s on heat mode. When indoor air is blown over the coils containing hot water, it absorbs the heat from the coils. The warm air is then distributed throughout the house.

When in cooling mode, the water in the coils is cold and therefore draws the heat from the indoor air. And the process of distributing the cooler air follows.

Furnace vs Air Handler — Which is Better in the Long Run?

At the end of the day, the winner of the air handler furnace debate depends on your heating requirements. For instance, if you live in moderately cold areas, an air handler will suffice. But, if the weather gets extremely cold in your area, a furnace is more reliable.

Secondly, if you want a device for both seasons, an air handler is ideal. A furnace can only heat a space but not cool it. Seek the counsel of a qualified technician to establish the best heating device for you. 

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