Difference Between Air Handler and Furnace

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Choosing the right heating system for your home can be a complex decision, with several factors to consider. Two common options that homeowners often consider are air handlers and furnaces. But which is the right choice for you? This guide will take you through a detailed comparison of both systems, evaluating their similarities, differences, benefits, drawbacks, and the specific situations where each one may be the ideal choice.

What is an Air Handler and a Furnace?

An air handler and a furnace are two integral components of a home’s HVAC system, each with distinct functionality and use cases.

An air handler, as its name implies, is responsible for handling the air in your home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. This crucial component works to circulate conditioned air throughout your living space. The air handler is composed of various parts including an evaporator coil, blower motor, and air filter. The evaporator coil cools the air when the thermostat is set to a lower temperature, and the blower motor moves the air throughout the ductwork. The air filter is vital in ensuring the circulated air is free from dust and allergens. Air handlers are often used in systems that have a cooling unit or a heat pump, and they serve a crucial role in maintaining indoor air quality and comfort levels.

A furnace, on the other hand, is a heating unit that functions by blowing heated air through ducts that deliver the warm air to rooms throughout the house via air registers or grills. This heating process starts with the combustion of the fuel source, most commonly gas or oil, which produces heat. This heat is then transferred to the air, which is subsequently distributed throughout the home. Furnaces are primarily used in cold weather conditions and are particularly useful in areas with prolonged winter seasons.

Key differences between an air handler and a furnace

  1. Functionality: An air handler circulates air throughout your home and regulates the temperature using both heating and cooling systems. On the other hand, a furnace solely provides heat by combusting a fuel source such as gas or oil.
  2. System Compatibility: Air handlers are typically used in systems that have a cooling unit or a heat pump. Furnaces are standalone heating units and can operate independently from the rest of the HVAC system.
  3. Energy Efficiency: Furnaces often have a higher energy efficiency rating than air handlers, especially if they are high-efficiency models.
  4. Climate Suitability: Furnaces are generally more suitable for colder climates, as their primary function is to provide heat. Air handlers, with their dual heating and cooling functions, are more versatile and can be used in a wider range of climates.
  5. Maintenance: Furnaces typically require more maintenance than air handlers due to their combustion process. This includes regular cleaning of the burners and heat exchanger.
  6. Lifespan: Furnaces tend to have a longer lifespan than air handlers. A well-maintained furnace can last over 20 years, while air handlers usually need to be replaced after 10 to 15 years.
  7. Installation: Furnaces are more complex to install due to the need for a venting system to expel the combustion gases. In contrast, air handlers are generally easier and less expensive to install.
  8. Indoor Air Quality: Air handlers can improve indoor air quality through their built-in air filters, while furnaces do not have this capability.
  9. Cost: While costs can vary widely based on the specific models and installation factors, furnaces are often more expensive than air handlers due to their more complex installation process and greater heating capability.
  10. Fuel Source: Furnaces use gas or oil as a fuel source for heating, whereas air handlers use electricity to operate the blower motor and any supplemental heating elements.

Key Similarities between an air handler and a furnace

  1. Functionality: Both air handlers and furnaces serve a crucial role in creating a comfortable indoor environment. They regulate temperature and improve the quality of the air we breathe indoors.
  2. Blower Component: Both the furnace and the air handler utilize a blower to distribute air throughout the home or building. The blower sends conditioned air into the ductwork, which then carries it throughout the structure.
  3. Air Filtration: Both systems contain filters to clean the circulating air. These filters trap particles such as dust, pollen, and other allergens to improve indoor air quality.
  4. Thermostat Compatibility: Both furnaces and air handlers are regulated by thermostats. These devices signal when to start and stop based on preset temperature settings.
  5. Part of HVAC System: Both air handlers and furnaces can be part of larger HVAC systems. They can be integrated with other components like air conditioners or heat pumps to provide complete climate control solutions.
  6. Need for Regular Maintenance: Both systems require regular maintenance to operate at their peak performance. This includes tasks such as cleaning or replacing filters, inspecting for any wear and tear, and ensuring all components are functioning properly.

Pros of Air Handler Over Furnace

  1. Versatility: Air handlers are versatile and can handle both heating and cooling, making them ideal for climates with varied seasonal temperatures.
  2. Electric Operation: Unlike most furnaces, air handlers run on electricity, making them a suitable option for homes without access to natural gas.
  3. Advanced Air Filtration: Some air handlers can be equipped with advanced air filters that can remove smaller particles, potentially resulting in better air quality.
  4. Efficiency with Heat Pumps: When paired with a heat pump, air handlers can operate very efficiently, providing effective heating and cooling with less energy use.
  5. Less Noise: Air handlers tend to operate more quietly than furnaces, which can enhance overall comfort.
  6. Integration with Air Conditioning: In systems that include air conditioning, an air handler can circulate both heated and cooled air, eliminating the need for a separate distribution system.

Cons of Air Handler Compared to Furnace

  1. Limited Heating in Very Cold Climates: Air handlers paired with heat pumps may not provide sufficient heat in very cold climates, making furnaces a better option in these areas.
  2. Electricity Costs: While they do not require fuel like furnaces, the electricity costs for running an air handler can be higher, particularly if electricity prices in your area are high.
  3. Upfront Costs: Air handlers can have higher upfront costs compared to some types of furnaces, particularly if you’re also installing a heat pump.
  4. Space Requirements: Because they often need to be installed inside the living space for optimal air circulation, air handlers may require more space or more complex installation than furnaces.
  5. Maintenance: Air handlers can require more frequent maintenance, including regular filter changes to maintain air quality.
  6. Lifespan: Depending on usage and maintenance, air handlers may have a shorter lifespan than some types of furnaces, potentially leading to higher replacement costs over time.

Pros of Furnace Over Air Handler

  1. Superior Heating in Cold Climates: Furnaces are typically better suited for cold climates than air handlers, as they can generate higher heat levels.
  2. Variety of Fuel Sources: Furnaces can run on various fuel types such as natural gas, propane, or oil, providing flexibility based on what’s locally available and cost-effective.
  3. Potential Cost Efficiency: Depending on the local cost of natural gas versus electricity, running a gas furnace can sometimes be more cost-efficient than running an electric air handler.
  4. Longevity: Furnaces often have a long lifespan, with many models functioning well for 20 years or more with proper maintenance.
  5. Stand-Alone Operation: Unlike air handlers, which are often part of a complete HVAC system, furnaces can operate independently, providing flexibility in system design.
  6. Installation Flexibility: Furnaces can be installed in various parts of a home, including basements, closets, or attics, offering more flexibility compared to air handlers.

Cons of Furnace Compared to Air Handler

  1. Lack of Cooling Function: Furnaces only provide heating. If you require cooling as well, you’ll need a separate air conditioner or a full HVAC system, unlike an air handler that can handle both.
  2. Potential for Higher Fuel Costs: While natural gas is often less expensive than electricity, oil and propane can be costlier in some areas, potentially leading to higher operating costs.
  3. Limited Filtration Capabilities: Furnaces may not have as advanced air filtration systems as some air handlers, which could potentially impact air quality.
  4. Maintenance of Combustion System: Furnaces require regular maintenance of their combustion system, including the burners and heat exchanger, which can add to their operating costs.
  5. Potential Safety Concerns: If not properly maintained, furnaces can pose safety risks, such as carbon monoxide leaks. Regular inspections are necessary to ensure safe operation.
  6. Environmental Impact: Depending on the fuel type, furnaces can have a larger carbon footprint compared to electric air handlers, particularly if the electricity is sourced from renewable energy.

Situations When Air Handler is Better Than Furnace

  1. Moderate Climates: In regions where the climate is moderate, and heating and cooling are both required throughout the year, an air handler is often a better choice due to its ability to handle both functions.
  2. Integrated HVAC Systems: For homes with a central HVAC system that includes a heat pump, an air handler is typically more compatible and efficient.
  3. Electricity is the Primary Energy Source: In situations where natural gas is not readily available or cost-effective, an electric air handler can be a more practical choice.
  4. Desire for Advanced Filtration: If superior air filtration is a priority, especially for individuals with allergies or asthma, an air handler might be more suitable as it can accommodate more advanced filtration systems.
  5. Noise Considerations: If quiet operation is a significant concern, an air handler may be the better choice, as they typically operate more quietly than furnaces.
  6. Space Constraints: If the available installation space is within the living area, an air handler may be the more appropriate choice as it is designed to circulate air within these spaces.

Situations When Furnace is Better Than Air Handler

  1. Cold Climates: If you live in a region with harsh winters, a furnace can provide more robust heating than an air handler, making it the better choice.
  2. Availability of Natural Gas: If your home has access to a natural gas line, a gas furnace can be a more cost-effective and efficient way to heat your home.
  3. Separate Cooling System Already in Place: If your home already has an independent cooling system like a standalone air conditioner, a furnace can be a suitable choice for heating.
  4. Lower Upfront Cost Concerns: If upfront cost is a significant concern, a furnace, particularly a natural gas model, can be less expensive to purchase and install than an air handler with a heat pump.
  5. Long-Term Use: If you’re planning to stay in the same place for many years, a furnace could be a good investment. With proper maintenance, a furnace can last longer than an air handler.
  6. Environmental Regulations: In some areas, electric heating devices like air handlers are discouraged due to their high energy consumption, making a gas furnace a more suitable option.

Air Handler vs Furnace Summary

The choice between an air handler and a furnace is not a one-size-fits-all answer, but rather, depends on a variety of factors like the climate, the available energy sources, the need for integrated heating and cooling, and the specific needs of the occupants. Understanding the pros and cons of each system, as well as the situations where each one shines, can help you make an informed decision. For the best results, always consider consulting with a professional HVAC installer to ensure you choose the system that best suits your unique needs. Remember, a well-chosen and well-maintained HVAC system can offer you years of comfort and efficiency.

Air HandlerFurnace
DifferencesBetter for cooling, versatile, quieter operationBetter for intense heating, can use various fuels
SimilaritiesRegulate temperature, contain filters, use blowers, regulated by thermostats, part of HVAC system, need regular maintenanceRegulate temperature, contain filters, use blowers, regulated by thermostats, part of HVAC system, need regular maintenance
ProsVersatility, electric operation, advanced air filtration, efficiency with heat pumps, quieter, integration with ACSuperior heating in cold climates, variety of fuel sources, potential cost efficiency, longevity, stand-alone operation, installation flexibility
ConsLimited heating in very cold climates, higher electricity costs, higher upfront costs, space requirements, more frequent maintenance, shorter lifespanOnly provides heating, potential higher fuel costs, limited filtration capabilities, maintenance of combustion system, potential safety concerns, environmental impact
Situations where it’s betterModerate climates, integrated HVAC systems, electricity is primary energy source, superior air filtration needed, quieter operation preferred, space constraintsCold climates, availability of natural gas, separate cooling system already in place, lower upfront cost concerns, long-term use, environmental regulations
Air Handler vs Furnace Summary


How often should I replace my air handler or furnace?

The lifespan of both air handlers and furnaces can greatly depend on the specific unit, the quality of the installation, and how well it’s been maintained. Generally, air handlers can last around 10 to 15 years, while furnaces can operate effectively for 15 to 20 years or more. Regular professional maintenance can help extend the life of both systems.

Can I switch from a furnace to an air handler, or vice versa, without major modifications to my home?

Switching from a furnace to an air handler or vice versa can involve significant changes to your HVAC system and may require extensive modifications, especially if changing the energy source (e.g., from gas to electric). The cost and complexity of the switch would depend on your specific home configuration and existing HVAC setup. It is recommended to consult with a professional to evaluate your home’s compatibility with the new system and to get an accurate estimate of the costs involved.

Do air handlers and furnaces require the same type of maintenance?

While both systems require regular maintenance to operate at peak efficiency, the type and frequency of maintenance can vary. Air handlers typically require more frequent filter changes and may need additional maintenance if they are part of a heat pump system. Furnaces, on the other hand, need regular inspection and cleaning of their combustion system, which includes the burners and heat exchanger. In both cases, it’s beneficial to have regular professional check-ups to ensure safe and efficient operation.

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