Young family at home. Husband on laptop researching Air Purifier vs Air Filter vs Air Cleaner

One in six Canadians suffers from hay fever, and asthma rates are on the rise too, growing by 50% every decade.

If you’re one of those unlucky people who suffer from one of these conditions, you may be tempted to spend money on an air purifier in the search of relief. Our US neighbours spend over $250 million annually on-air treatment units for their homes, and we’re not far behind.

Before you open your wallet, you need to arm yourself with knowledge so you spend your money wisely to improve your air quality. But part of the problem is knowing what to buy – an air cleaner, an air purifier, or an air filter?

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Definitions and Technologies

At the end of the day, most companies use these terms interchangeably, especially “air cleaner” and “air purifier”. Essentially, there isn’t much difference, except that air cleaners and air purifiers can contain one or more air filters (more on that later), but an air filter can also be used on its own.

In fact, if you look up the definitions online you’ll pretty much see the same basic thing for each one: “a device used for trapping or removing particles or contaminants from the air”.

What will really help you is to talk about the types of technologies that can be used by themselves or in combination with each other.

Air Filters

An air filter is a mesh of some sort that can be used to screen out particles. The simplest 1” air filters for your furnace prevent hair and larger dust particles from getting into your furnace and reducing its efficiency. There’s nothing wrong with these if you don’t suffer from any allergic symptoms. An air filter can be in your furnace or HVAC systems or in a standalone unit.

HEPA Air Filters

HEPA stands for High-Efficiency Particulate Air and is a specific filter standard that should trap 99.97% of particles 0.03 microns or larger. This type of air filter is much finer, and will trap smaller particles like pollen spores and some bacteria, but will not trap gasses.

But many products advertised as “HEPA Filter” often contain other types of cartridges as well to remove different things from the indoor air you breathe. Here’s where we get into the other types of technologies that upgrade a simple filter to a multi-stage system that’s often called an air cleaner or air purifier.

Activated Carbon

Most filters will trap solid particles of a certain size, but what if the problem is a gas? For that you need adsorption (not absorption) product that causes the gas molecule to be trapped on the surface of a material like charcoal. The gas molecules are chemically and/or electrostatically drawn to the surface of the charcoal, where it becomes “stuck”.

Ultra Violet (UV) Sterilization

A UV sterilizer uses the same UVA and UVB rays emitted by our sun to kill microorganisms like moulds, bacteria and even some viruses.

Ionic or Electrostatic

These technologies use a charge to cause airborne particles to be drawn to metal plates. The advantage of these is that they can allow better overall airflow. These are best combined with a regular air filter to ensure everything gets trapped – many units use both these technologies.

Ozone Generation

Ozone is made of three oxygen molecules bonded together, and it’s a powerful deodorizer. Unfortunately, it’s also a toxic gas in large doses. We don’t recommend you buy ozone generators for your home. Most ionic systems generate a tiny bit of ozone, so ensure you ask how much is created and don’t buy anything that creates more than 50-60 parts per billion, which is about the level of ozone found outdoors.

This isn’t a full list of all the technologies available, but it is a good overview of the ones you’re likely to run into the most.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)

Volatile Organic Compounds are the gases that are emitted from certain solids or liquids that can have short or long-term health effects. Lots of household products use organic chemicals and those can release organic compounds into the air- concentrations of which are much higher indoors than outdoors.

Which Technologies Actually Work To Clean My Air?

The answer will depend on the problem you’re facing, as not all products work on all issues. If you’re facing more than one problem, buy a unit that contains all the technologies you need. Indoor air pollution

  • Problem: pollen allergies/hay fever. Get a HEPA air filter.
  • Problem: dust allergies. A HEPA filter is best.
  • Problem: tobacco smoke or VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Activated carbon filter.
  • Problem: general constant colds and sore throats that never go away. If your doctor says they can’t find a serious health issue, a HEPA filter (or better) should help you find relief. You should also ensure your home has a humidifier to combat dry winter air.
  • Problem: mould in your home. You should get a UV sterilizer inside your ductwork and you may need a dehumidifier as well. In summer, your air conditioner should provide enough dehumidification but if you don’t run it often enough a dehumidifier may be the answer. You may also need a good shower fan if the problem is mostly in the bathroom. For serious mould infestations, you may need to consult a professional mould removal company.
  • Problem: dust mite allergy. While a HEPA filter will help with airborne dust mite feces (yuck!) you should also get a dust-mite proof cover for your bed and pillow. Dust mites live in any kind of cloth or upholstered surface, so consider replacing carpeting with wood or tile floors and replacing drapes with blinds.

Unfortunately, there is no technology that will allow you to get away without regular vacuuming of your home. If you have allergies, try a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.

How Does An Air Purifier/Air Cleaner Work?

While some may boast the capability of an air purifier, beware of common exaggerations. An air purifier or cleaner will typically consist of a filter and a fan that circulates the air. Your filter can be made of paper, fibre, or mesh and all of them will need either cleaning or replacing. As your household air circulates through the filter, particles and pollutants like mold spores, smoke, radon, allergens like pet hair and dander are trapped in the filter and the clean air goes back into your room.

Many air purifiers use ultraviolet light to improve indoor air quality by killing airborne pathogens as well as larger particles.

Other air purifiers filter using an electrical charge and they are called air ionizer filters. These ionic air purifiers work by generating negative ions to bond to larger dust mites and allergens and pull them out, improving indoor air quality. However, these air cleaners can also be a dangerous ozone generator, which can be incredibly dangerous.

How Does An Air Filter Work?

Air filters all work very similarly, but what the filter is made of makes a difference in the quality, quantity, and type of particles being captured. All filters will filter particulates as they pass through- they start building up the moment they are turned on and eventually it will get too clogged and airflow is reduced- which will need replacing or cleaning.

Different air filters will do different things for your indoor air quality. Hepa filters will filter most airborne particles whereas cheaper filters will only collect large particles like dead skin and other airborne contaminants.

Treat Your Whole Home

Whatever solution you need, it’s important to treat your whole home at the same time for the best results. While it’s tempting to sleep with a cheap portable unit by your bedside, what happens when you walk down the stairs?

Don’t forget that your home’s air and particles circulate. For example, a pollen spore that comes in with you through your front door will tend to drift towards the ground or nearby furniture. As you walk around, you stir up the dust layer, which can trigger an attack.

Why not use your home’s air circulation system that’s already moving air around to treat your air? You’ll get cleaner air, better sleep, and fewer allergy or asthma attacks. Plus, it will help keep your HVAC system running smoothly.

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