Air Handler vs Heat Pump

Whether we’re talking about AC repairs or the total replacement of one such system, rare are industries that can be as confusing for homeowners as the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) industry.

Not to mention a plethora of different pieces of air conditioning and heating equipment that are used to boost the air quality and energy efficiency of one’s home. 

In this article, I’ll be taking a quick look at one of the most routine inquires HVAC technicians see in their job – what’s the difference between a heat pump and an air handler? If you’re looking for an answer to that question, you’re in the right place. 


What’s a Heat Pump? 

Man repairs a heat pump

A part of the cooling and heating system, a heat pump is a device that is installed outside of one’s home. It can cool your house – just like an air conditioner – but it can also warm it up. 

During the winter months, a heat pump will warm up your house by pulling the heat from cold air (yes, you read that right) and moving it into your house.

During warmer months, on the other hand, the same device will remove the heat from warm outdoor air and then transfer this cold air into your house in order to cool it down. 

These devices are powered by electricity and can provide comfort throughout the year by using a refrigerant to transfer heat. Due to the fact that heat pumps can handle both cooling and heating, they remove the need to install separate systems. 

Those living in colder regions can give their heat pump additional capabilities by adding an electric heat strip to their indoor fan coil. Unlike furnaces, heat pumps are environmentally friendly – they do not burn fossil fuel. 

How Does it Work? 

The most important thing to mention here is that these devices do not actually create heat. Instead, heat pumps redistribute heat from the ground or air.

They utilize a refrigerant, which circulates between the outdoor compressor and the indoor fan coil, to transfer the aforementioned heat. 

In heating mode, this device will absorb heat from outside air or ground and release it inside your house. In cooling mode, on the other hand, it will absorb indoor heat and then release it outdoors. 

Are There Different Types of It?

Different heat pumps

The two most commonly used types of these devices are ground-source and air-source heat pumps:

  • Also known as geothermal pumps, ground-source heat pumps transfer air between the ground outside and the air inside your home. While it’s true that these types of heat pumps have a lower operating cost (due to the fact that the temperature of the ground is quite consistent throughout the year) their installation costs more. 
  • Air-source heat pumps, on the other hand, transfer heat between outdoor and indoor air. When compared to ground-source heat pumps, they are a lot more popular for residential cooling and heating. 

What Are Its Components? 

Man charges a heat pump

The following is a list of parts found in most devices of this type: 

  • Expansion valve, whose job is to regulate the refrigerant flow. 
  • Reversing valve, which enables the shift between cooling and heating by changing the refrigerant’s direction.
  • Refrigerant, whose job is to absorb and then release the heat. 
  • Compressor, which pressurizes the aforementioned refrigerant. 
  • The indoor unit, which typically contains a fan and a coil. The fan moves the cooled or heated air throughout the house. 
  • The outdoor unit, which typically contains a special coil which acts as either an evaporator (for heating) or condenser (for cooling). 

What’s an Air Handler?

Large air handling unit

Do you have a heat pump, which I’ve talked about in the first part of this article, outside of your house?

If you do, then there’s a good chance that you also have an air handler – this would be the indoor part of your 2-part household cooling and heating system. 

In most cases, an air handler will be situated in a dedicated closet, although a lot of people like to have it installed in their basements or attics.

An air handler looks very similar to a gas furnace and its job is to “handle” the air, as its name suggests. It is capable of delivering cool or warm air to every room of your house. 

How Does it Work?

Man repairing an air handler

Depending on the design of one’s house, this device can be the primary indoor component of one’s HVAC system.

When the air handler is properly matched with the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) and capacity of the heat pump, it efficiently circulates air throughout the ductwork of one’s house. And, depending on the current season, this air will be either warm or cool. 

Whenever you’re in the need of warm indoor air, the coil that’s inside your air handler will be transferring heat to the air that’s passing over it.

When you need cool indoor air, on the other hand, the same coil will be removing humidity from the air passing over it. 

Are There Different Types of It?  

There are three main types of air handlers available on today’s market: 

  • Single-speed models, which, as their name suggests, operate at a single, continuous speed. 
  • Multi-speed units, which provide greater accuracy during operation due to their ability to work at several different speeds. They are also more effective at transferring cool or hot air to every room of one’s house and they’re typically quieter than the single-speed models. 
  • Variable-speed models, which, as their name suggests, operate with differing speeds. As you can already guess, an air handler of this type easily meets any requirements on the part of the homeowner due to its precise function. 

What Are its Components? 

AHU blower motor

These are the components you’re likely to find in most modern air handlers: 

  • The coil, which is the most vital part of the entire refrigeration cycle. 
  • Blower motor, which can be a variable-speed, multi-speed, or a single-speed model. 
  • Air supply and return connections, which are attached to your home’s ductwork. 
  • The filter, whose job is to remove as many particulates from the circulating air as possible.

While we are on the subject of HVAC, you may also want to check out my MERV 8 vs MERV 13 filter comparison.

Just like it can work as a team with your air conditioning, an air handler can also work together with your heat pump. Combined, they can bring all the cool or warm air your household may need.  Now, if you are wondering where air conditioners fall into the mix? Check out my Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner comparison. To learn more about how air conditioning units work, read my Air Handler vs Condenser comparison as well.