The Electric Air Handler is Back
Popular in the 1960s, split system air handlers had drawbacks that caused them to fall out of favor. New models operate quietly and reliably and fit squarely into the post-fossil fuel future.
The dream of the all-electric house pops up several times in the literature of post-World War II manufacturing. Long before we at Green Builder constructed our VISION House at Epcot Center for Disney, Monsanto took a whack at the idea in 1957, with a plastic house prototype made almost entirely of plastic, with “complete climate control.”
The key to the electric living concept, however, was the introduction of central air conditioning. To sweeten the deal, engineers developed split system air handlers that could both heat and cool the house. The unit inside the house, the air handler, typically included an evaporator coil, blower motor and heat strip—and was tied to an outdoor condenser, one of the earliest residential heat pumps.
But those first generation heat pumps often acted up. Problems included reliability and performance. What kind of problems? Try sludge in refrigerant lines and burnout from improper pressurization, and lackluster performance in hot or cold extreme temperatures. If you want more details, I recommend you read this article from ACHRnews.com.
But let’s not linger on the past. The new age of electrification has arrived, and this time, the technology is ready. Why an all-electric HVAC system? Because solar energy production of energy has now become more cost efficient than the cheapest fossil fuels. That means that the solar equipped, electric house of today can achieve net zero performance with just a little extra attention to insulation, windows, and air sealing.
The advantage of a modern air handler? In homes with ducted central air or heat, it offers vastly improved performance over old equipment—and doesn’t require wholesale conversion from a ducted system to a boiler and radiators. Better models have variable speed motors that allow the unit to “ramp up,” making them quieter and more efficient. They also accommodate high-efficiency MERV filters without sacrificing performance.
I’ve embedded a video in this blog from an interview I did with LG, about one of their products that won an Innovation Award from Green Builder this year. It’s called the LG Vertical Air Handler (VAHU) with LGRED. That means it offers much better performance at weather extremes: 100% of rated heating capacity performance at 5°F and continuous heating down to -13˚F.