Air purifiers usually consist of a filter, or multiple filters, and a fan that sucks in and circulates air. As air moves through the filter, pollutants and particles are captured and the clean air is pushed back out into the living space. Typically, filters are made of paper, fiber (often fiberglass), or mesh, and require regular replacement to maintain efficiency.
That means, in addition to the purchase price of an air purifier, you should also factor in operating costs and filter replacement costs. Operational costs can easily amount to $50 annually, since you should be running air purifiers near constantly to garner the benefits. Filter replacements can run upwards of $100 a year all told.
How frequently you will have to change filters varies based upon the purifier type and usage. Some filters are reusable and washable, but they require meticulous maintenance, so you don't usually find them on the most effective air purifiers. Reusable filters are generally better at removing larger particles from the air, like dust mites and pollen. You'll also find UV (ultraviolet light) filters on the market, which often claim to destroy biological impurities like mold or bacteria, but many require higher wattage and greater exposure to be effective (not to mention some bacteria is UV-resistant).
Other air purifiers use ionizers to help attract particles like static — negative ions bond to dust and allergens and make them settle out of the air. If you're interested in buying an air cleaner that uses ionizers, make sure it does not produce ozone, a gas made up of three oxygen atoms that is often marketed as helping break down pollutants, because ozone could be a lung irritant and further aggravate asthma conditions. Usually the air purifiers with ozone will have that listed on packaging or in the marketing descriptions.
Most filters on the market are designed to capture particles like dust and pollen, but don’t catch gases like VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or radon. That would require an adsorbent, like activated carbon. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that the functionality of air purifiers is limited in terms of filtering out gases, and that you must frequently replace filters for optimal functionality, usually about every three or so months.
So while many air purifiers are good at filtering pollutant particles out of the air (dust, smoke, pollen, etc.), they are not necessarily very good at removing gaseous pollutants like VOCs or radon from the air that may accumulate from adhesives, paints, or cleaning products. Allergens that are embedded into furniture or flooring are also not captured by them.
Additionally, the effectiveness of air purifiers in real-world situations likely won’t mimic those of controlled conditions in a lab (what those "99% effectiveness" claims are referring to!). The location, installation, flow rate, and how long it is operating for will all vary, as will the conditions in the space. In addition, there are other things happening in your home that may effect the efficacy like ventilation (open or closed windows), and new particles are constantly emerging, so the air may not as filtered as the claims may have you believe.
If you are concerned about mold, we’d recommend buying a dehumidifier or humidifier to help maintain the appropriate moisture levels in your home and stave off mold growth issues. Air purifiers do not prevent mold growth, so it is necessary to eliminate the source of moisture that is allowing it to grow.
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Before you do, know that air purifiers are not a cure-all. There is very little medical evidence to support that air purifiers directly help improve your health or alleviate allergies and respiratory symptoms. That’s due in part to the fact that it is very difficult to separate the effects of known air-quality pollutants in your home from other environmental and genetic factors. (For instance, how are the furnishings and ventilation in your home affecting you in addition to any indoor pollutants?) But if you are an allergy or asthma sufferer, an air purifier with a HEPA filter may be helpful for you as it will be good at removing fine airborne particles.
HEPA is an acronym for High Efficiency Particulate Air. HEPA filters capture variously sized particles within a multi-layered netting usually made out of very fine fiberglass threads (much thinner than the size of a human hair strand!) with varying sized gaps. The filter is airtight, and comprised of a dense sheet of small fibers pleated and sealed in a metal or plastic frame. The air purifier's fan draws air into the filter and particulates are captured in the filter. The larger particles (ones bigger than the fibers) are captured via impaction (particle crashes into the fiber), mid-sized particles are captured by interception (particle touches the fiber and is captured), and ultra-fine particles are captured by diffusion (while zig-zagging the particle will eventually hit and stick to the fiber).
The best advice is to address the source of indoor air pollution and ventilate your home. If you are looking to supplement the work of your air purifier or see if you can get by without one, we recommended trying these steps to help reduce indoor air irritants:
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