5 Types of Air Purifiers and How They Work

Indoor air quality should be a concern for everyone, but people with respiratory illnesses are more susceptible to the negative effects of airborne pollutants. Your first steps should be removing sources of air pollution and increasing ventilation in your home. But some people also use an air purifier to rid their home of potential triggers. If you’re considering investing in an air-cleaning machine, it’s important to know the different types of purifiers, how they work, and who should use them.

Whole-House Systems vs. Portable Room Air Cleaners

One of the first steps in choosing an air purifier is deciding between whole-house and portable filtration systems.

  • Portable systems may suit your home if you have one room that’s more frequented by someone with a respiratory illness.
  • Whole-house systems that operate through your home’s HVAC systems appear to be more effective than portable units, if a high efficiency filtration system is used.
  • Whole-house systems that aren’t regularly maintained can actually worsen air quality by circulating trapped pollutants back into the air.
  • HEPA filters block out very small airborne particles, but might create too much resistance to be incorporated directly into whole-house systems.

Whether you choose to go for whole-house, portable, or a combination of both, there are several types of purifiers available. Because they all work in different ways and to varying degrees of success, it’s important to familiarize yourself before you buy.

1. Mechanical

Mechanical units are one of the most popular types of air purifier, and can be found in both whole-house and portable varieties.

  • Air is sucked through mesh that traps and filters out particles.
  • Various types of filters can be purchased, and will impact how effective a mechanical air purifier is.
  • High efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are specifically designed to remove 99.97% of particles that are 3 microns in size (a strand of human hair is about 100 microns thick). These filters can be found in portable air purifiers, vacuum cleaners, and industrial settings.
  • Although most home HVAC systems aren’t equipped to handle true HEPA filters, higher-efficiency filters (with a MERV rating of 14–16) will still result in better air filtration.
  • How often the filter needs to be replaced depends on the specific type used. Replacing HEPA filters can be very expensive, and should be factored into costs when purchasing a portable room air purifier.

2. Ionic/Electrostatic

  • Ionic air purifiers use static electricity to charge particles that are then drawn to plates on the cleaner. There are no filters to be changed, but plates must be cleaned periodically.
  • Some charged particles are drawn into the cleaner, but others may be attracted to other surfaces like TV screens and walls.
  • Ionic purifiers almost always release a small amount of ozone. This irritant can actually trigger bronchospasm in people with asthma or other lung diseases.
  • Some studies find ionic air purifiers are less effective than their mechanical counterparts.

3. Ozone Generators

Ozone is an irritant and one of the chemicals that makes up smog seen in urban centers like Los Angeles.

So why would anyone choose to generate ozone inside of their home?

  • Ozone generators are marketed as air purifiers and odor reducers.
  • According to the EPA, these generators aren’t effective in removing many pollutants, and may undergo dangerous reactions with other chemicals in the air.
  • High concentrations of ozone pose more of a health risk than the pollutants they are said to remove, especially for people with existing respiratory conditions.

4. Gas Phase Filters

  • Gas phase air filters use adsorbent material like activated carbon to remove odors, gases and volatile organic compounds.
  • These kinds of filters are designed to remove specific pollutants.
  • Gas phase filters are often combined with other air purification systems. These filters tend to become deactivated quickly, but are usually inexpensive to replace.

5. UV Air Purifiers

  • UV air purifiers use a UV bulb to kill microorganisms like bacteria, mold and viruses by damaging their DNA.
  • UV lights are usually added on to other types of air purifying systems.
  • This technology is utilized in some hospitals to kill infectious organisms like norovirus, C. difficile, and MRSA. These industrial units feature much stronger UV lights compared to residential systems.
  • According to the EPA, the UV air cleaners typically used in homes have limited effectiveness in killing bacteria and molds.

Home air purifiers can remove airborne pollutants from your home, but they shouldn’t be considered a substitute for reducing your exposure to irritants or taking medication like Advair to manage your asthma or COPD.

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