Air Handlers

Everything You Need to Know

An air handler is an electrical unit that hooks up to your HVAC system. These units consist of a blower fan, air filter, electric heating elements and a refrigerant coil. You’ll find them commonly installed with a heat pump and when they work in tandem with each other, an air handler helps keep air cold and blowing through homes. When choosing an air handler, you must make sure it matches up with the efficiency of your heat pump. In this guide, we’re discussing what air handlers are, how they work, how to measure their energy-efficiency, benefits and costs.

What is an air handler?

Heating and cooling units consist of two primary parts: the outdoor system and indoor air handler. You might also see these units listed as an AC air handler. In that case, the AC air handler works specifically with your air conditioner to circulate cool air throughout your home. If you’re using a heat pump, the air handler will circulate the hot or cool air.

Air handlers are cased units that look similar to furnaces. In addition to working with heat pumps, they are also an excellent match for split-system air conditioning units. Because they hook into your HVAC unit’s existing ductwork, they circulate air throughout your home until it returns to the air handler. You’ll find them in different sizes, including small ones that typically have a blower, coil and air filter. Larger air handlers don’t use recirculated air but instead use 100% outside air.

When you select an energy-efficient air handler, that means your outdoor unit doesn’t have to work as hard to keep your home comfortable. Basements and dedicated closets are common places to install air handlers, but they can also be installed in the attic. An attic AC unit might be less efficient during warm months, though, because it has to work harder. An air handler operates with hot and cool air, so you can use them to keep your home comfortable year-round.

Types of air handlers

There are two main types of air handlers: draw-through and blow-through units. The terms draw-through and blow-through refer to how the air handler works. Draw-through air handlers use negative pressure and blow-through air handlers use positive pressure. For example, a draw-through air handler pulls air through the cooling coil, air filter and mixing box before it discharges from the fan outlet. Blow-through units push air through the same components before discharging from the fan outlet. 

Variable-speed air handlers are another common type. These units work in tandem with heating and cooling systems allowing your heat pump and air conditioner to adapt its output and running time. Standard air handlers use motors that operate at one speed, cycling off frequently once it reaches its thermostat setting. Variable-speed air handlers run consistently and will only run at full blast to reach a particular temperature, making it more energy-efficient.

Then, there are types of air handlers with different mounting options. For example, you could choose a traditional multi-position air handler which you can install in various configurations. That means it’s ideal for a new build or when replacing an existing heating or cooling system. Wall-mounted air handlers are broader and shorter than traditional air handlers. These units are excellent for closet installation with a louver door. The third option is a ceiling-mounted air handler, which moves refrigerant using a coil instead of ductwork. Ceiling-mounted air handlers have a low profile and are significantly smaller than traditional models.

Air handler energy efficiency

Manufacturers measure air handler efficiency using the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) and Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) metrics. SEER measures the cooling efficiency of the air handler while HSPF measures its heating efficiency. When measuring for these ratings, each takes into consideration the efficiencies of indoor and outdoor units. 

SEER ratings calculate the air handler’s annual cooling output and divide it by its energy use. That total cooling output is the unit’s British thermal unit (BTUs), which measures a fuel’s or energy source’s heat content. When you take the BTUs and multiply by the number of cooling hours per day and the number of cooling days annually, you reach your SEER rating. Units with the highest SEER rating operate more efficiently.

HSPF measures efficiency by calculating the total number of hours each day during the heating season. The minimum for HSPF is 8.2, with the most efficient air handlers having at least 13 HSPF.

Benefits of an air handler

Energy efficiency is the top benefit of an air handler. If you choose a variable-speed air handler, it runs at such a low level that its constant run-time isn’t an issue. You’re also saving energy because the system doesn’t need to turn on and off regularly. 

Air handlers are also relatively quiet because they don’t operate at a high level constantly or turn on and off frequently. You can avoid even more noise with a variable-speed air handler. 

Improved air quality is another benefit, as all handlers move air through a filter. You can control your home’s temperature better and keep it more consistent thanks to the various fan speeds available in these units. Air handlers are also excellent for removing humidity from your home.

Air handler costs

Air handler prices range between $1,000 and $3,500, varying according to their tonnage and brand. For example, a two-ton Frigidaire multi-position air handler costs $1,017.67 while a two-ton Goodman front return up flow air handler costs $854.29.

The cost to install an air handler ranges between $150 and $390. Installation costs will varydepending on where you live, as well as if the project requires ductwork. Hiring an HVAC professional for annual tune-ups and maintenance can run between $40 and $250. These costs fluctuate according to if you’re calling during a busy time of year, the technician’s expertise and if they charge a flat rate.

FAQs

What is the difference between an A/C and an air handler?

Air handlers are often confused as air conditioners. An air handler is a separate connection to the air conditioner that manages airflow. When an air handler and air conditioner work with an outdoor condenser, they create a split-system unit.

How does an air handler work?

Air handlers work similarly to a furnace whereby they push air through ductwork to maintain a home’s temperature. The only time an air handler circulates heat is when you pair it with a boiler or heat pump. Pair it with your air conditioning system and it will move cool air. Combine a high-efficiency air handler with a high-efficiency heating and cooling system and get year-round comfort at an affordable price.

What is an attic air handler?

HVAC professionals can install an air handler in several places inside your home, including a closet, the attic or the basement. But note that with attic installation the air handlers are likely in an unconditioned area of your home. If that attic space gets too hot, the air handler will have to work harder. An HVAC professional helps you choose the ideal location for your air handler’s installation.

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