Air Handler vs Furnace: What’s the Difference Between Them?

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Are you looking to improve your home comfort? If your aging HVAC system is not performing well, it may be time to explore modern replacements. If the task seems daunting, get the assistance of a seasoned HVAC contractor. They can help you navigate the technicalities and assess your needs to choose the right equipment for your home. This article explores the distinctions between the air handler vs furnace, providing valuable insights to help you make the best decision for your HVAC upgrade.

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Air Handler Vs. Furnace: What Is the Difference?

You probably have heard positive things about air handlers and furnaces. Choosing between the two for your home can be challenging. These are similar devices that share common characteristics. To be honest, there is no definitive solution here. The right choice depends on your specific circumstances and needs. Take the time to understand their distinctions, benefits, and drawbacks. Once you know the basics, making a choice can be much easier.

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What Is an Air Handler?

In a forced air arrangement, rooms receive air through a network of ducts throughout the house. Air will not circulate on its own; an external force is necessary. This is where a strong fan, sometimes called a blower, comes into play. In HVAC systems, the enclosure housing the blower is known as the air handler.

The air handler also houses coils that can affect indoor air temperature and humidity.  For instance, cold coils can absorb heat from the surrounding air, decreasing the temperature. These coils will trigger condensation, leading to a reduction in humidity levels. 

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What Is a Furnace?

A furnace is a heating equipment that generates heat within a confined space, typically to provide warmth. Most of the country uses natural gas as a fuel source, except for the Northeast, where heating oil is a more popular option. Electric furnaces are also available, although they are less popular due to their lower efficiency.

Each furnace comes equipped with a dedicated blower fan. When the temperature inside the house falls below the desired level, the furnace initiates the heat generation process. This prompts the blower to start. The furnace draws in cold air, warms it, and distributes the heated air through the duct system.

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The Key Difference Between Furnaces and Air Handlers

1. An Air Handler Cannot Generate Heat 

The focus of an air handler is air circulation. It propels or pushes air through the vents to evenly distribute it throughout the house. It cannot independently generate heat. Only a furnace can harness fuel sources to generate heat and warm the air.

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2. All Air Handlers Have Coils that Conditions Air

Despite their inability to generate heat, all air handlers have coils that can produce the same results. The coils can affect air temperature and humidity. The heat circulated through the coils comes from an external air conditioning or heat pump unit. Furnaces, on the other hand, may or may not have coils, depending on whether the system has a central air conditioning component.

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Key Similarities of Air Handlers and Furnaces 

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Each manufacturer develops their own version of these devices, so similarities between them are expected. The following resemblance will be evident:

1. Single and Variable-Speed Models For Both

These are offered in classic designs with blowers that run at a single speed – either at rest or operating at full capacity. You can also get more modern variants that function at variable speeds, going from low to high settings to achieve enhanced efficiency and superior performance.

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2. Can Be Used During Winter

Furnaces are very dependable during colder months. They efficiently generate heat to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature, even in the harshest conditions. Air handlers that use heat pumps can also warm the air during cold seasons, although only in mild or moderate conditions.

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3. Both Rely On a Thermostat

Both devices rely on the thermostat to determine when to start or stop. When the user settings and indoor air temperature do not match, the blower fans initiate and circulate warm air through the vents.

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4. Both Come In a Range Of Sizes

The appropriate equipment size depends on your home’s specific heating requirements. You can ask your HVAC contractor to make HVAC size calculations so you can determine the best match.

Pros and Cons: Furnaces vs. Air Handlers

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  • Superior heat generation 
  • Increased energy efficiency
  • Reduced energy bills


  • Not versatile compared to air handlers with a heat pump
  • Not suitable for regions with mild winters and hot summers
  • Not as environmentally friendly due to the use of fossil fuels
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Air Handlers


  • Works well with heat pumps for heating and cooling
  • Easy to install due to its smaller size
  • No risk of gas leaks and carbon monoxide poisoning


  • Noiser due to a loud indoor blower
  • Prone to refrigerant leaks through the coils
  • Poor performance under 30 degrees Fahrenheit

Which is More Cost-Effective?

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Directly comparing these two is not particularly helpful due to their distinct roles. Furnaces can generate and circulate heat, while air handlers are dedicated solely to air distribution. However, when paired with a heat pump, air handlers create a more effective and efficient.

In terms of the cost of the unit and installation, air handlers with heat pumps are double the price of furnaces. Heat pumps are pricey, although it is not necessarily a determining factor.

Remember that air handlers with heat pumps provide both cooling and heating, making them suitable for year-round use. Furnaces, on the other hand, are exclusively for heat production, limiting their use to colder months.

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If you live in regions with mild winters and hot summers, an air handler with a heat pump is the better choice. This ensures year-round comfort for you and your family. However, a furnace might be a more cost-effective choice if you live in an area with moderate summers and harsh winters. If you are unsure, don’t hesitate to contact your HVAC contractor for help and guidance. 

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Call Lawes Company For All Of Your HVAC Requirements

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Lawes Company is the premier provider of heating and cooling solutions within the Jersey Shore region. Our team comprises top-tier certified technicians adept at delivering exceptional HVAC tune-ups, repairs, installations, replacements, and more. Our technicians have the knowledge and hands-on experience to service your HVAC system proficiently.

At Lawes Company, we offer the most competitive rates for HVAC services in the region. Our maintenance and replacement services are designed to enhance comfort, elevate energy efficiency, and reduce your HVAC expenses. If you need repair or replacement services, we can recommend the best solution for your home while keeping your budget in mind. We are committed to our customers, so we offer a satisfaction guarantee.

To schedule a service or maintenance appointment, don’t hesitate to contact Lawes Company today. We also provide complimentary, in-home estimates.

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