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Air Conditioner VS Air Handler

Whether it’s AC repair or total AC system replacement, there are various terms within the HVAC industry that can get confusing for homeowners. Not to mention all of the different pieces of heating and air conditioning equipment that can be used to boost your home’s energy efficiency and air quality. The main question is: what’s the difference between an air conditioner and an air handler?


An air handler will most likely be found inside the home as part of a split-system air conditioner or heat pump. An internal blower distributes the conditioned air throughout a home, making it feel more comfortable in the process. Commonly confused with a furnace due to their similar appearance, an air handler can operate with both heating and cooling equipment (split-system air conditioner or heat pump). The most common type of air handler found in homes are known as terminal units which consist of an air filter, blower and coil. The indoor coil is used to keep the air at a specified temperature. The air filter is used to remove airborne contaminants. The most efficient air handlers come equipped with variable-speed motors.


Unlike air handlers, air conditioning units are usually located outside the home. Instead of blowing conditioned air throughout the home like an air handler, an air conditioner's main function is to remove heat from within the home. To do so, warm indoor air goes through return ducts and then over a refrigerant coil located within the air conditioning system. Contrary to popular belief, a home is not cooled by adding cold air but by removing the heat from indoor air and carrying it outside the home. The process, known as the Joule Thomson effect, involves warm air passing over a refrigerant coil which results in the removal of heat. There are many more moving parts within the unit but that is essentially what an air conditioner does.


On the other hand, we have an air handler, oftentimes referred to as an AHU. AN AHU is a component that has the purpose of conditioning and circulating air. Air handlers are part of the entire HVAC system and made up of several components themselves. Components that compose up an air handler are the blower, heating and cooling elements, filter racks and chambers, sound attenuates, as well as dampers. An air handler will usually connect via the duct work that is used to disperse the conditioned air and circulate it back through the system. Once it is circulated through the building and duct work it will return to the AHU.

Smaller air handlers are also used, they’re known as terminal units, they most likely only have an air filter, coil and blower. These units which are smaller, may also be referred to as blower coils, or fan oil units. Bigger air handlers, which are used to condition 100% of the outside air, and use zero re-circulated air, are known as a makeup air unit or MAU. There is also the rooftop unit, which as the name implies, is an air handler found on a rooftop.

There is one more component of the system which I want to touch on briefly. The chiller, a chiller is used to remove heat from a liquid by the process of vapor-compression or absorption refrigeration cycle. The chilled liquid flows through pipes of a building and passes through the coils, fan-coil units, air handlers and other parts of the system. It cools down, and most often dehumidifies the air of the building.

Now that you have a better understanding of the different components of an HVAC system and know what the difference is between an air conditioner and air handler, do you remember when you last had yours serviced? Because without regular, routine maintenance and inspection, your unit will not run at its peak performance.