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How Do Air Cleaners, Air Purifiers and Air Filters Differ?

Air cleaners, air filters and air purifiers are similar, but not the same. What’s the difference, how is indoor air quality affected and which air cleaning solution should you choose for your home?
Last Updated on August 25, 2021

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air cleaners and air purifiers

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Generally speaking, the terms clean and purify are used interchangeably. With regard to air cleaners and air purifiers, however, it is important to note the difference between the two words. The technologies perform similar tasks with similar results, but one solution may be more suitable than the other for your indoor air quality needs.

Air Cleaning Solutions

The main difficulty with the term air cleaners is that it’s evolved to refer to two entirely different IAQ control solutions. Even though the two processes have the same goal—to remove pollutants from the indoor air! One might say that air cleaners and air purifiers are the same things, and someone else could argue they are entirely different control strategies. The bulk of this confusion stems from different applications of the term for both filtration and purification solutions.

Air Filters

Some might use the term air cleaner to refer to HVAC system air filters. After all, filters are designed to capture and remove air pollutants, resulting in cleaner air. There are several types of air filters:

  • Fiberglass filters are common and disposable. While they protect the HVAC system, they do little for indoor air quality. Some fiberglass filters are electrostatically charged, meaning they can catch more particles than those that aren’t.
  • Washable filters are reusable and cost-effective, making them an environmentally and pocket-friendly choice.
  • High Efficiency Particulate Air, or HEPA filters are incredibly effective at trapping particles. Even so, they are not the best whole home filter option as they drastically reduce airflow.
  • Activated carbon filters are often used to reduce odors and gaseous chemicals.
  • Media filters offer the best happy medium, particularly those with a pleated design. Media filters with a high-efficiency MERV rating offer improved filtration without static pressure concerns or reduced airflow. Our go-to air filter recommendation for residential use is a MERV 13 filter.
ProsCons
A good air filter effectively reduces indoor pollutants and allergens such as dust, dander and pollenDirty filters and filters that restrict airflow can cause significant system disruption
By prolonging the life of your unit, filters save you moneyReplacement filters can be expensive to purchase and replace regularly
Higher-efficiency air filters improve overall air quality

Keep in mind that opting for a higher-rated media filter solves both cons! And that filters are an HVAC system necessity and can help prolong the life of your unit by preventing the buildup of debris and contaminants.

Air Purifiers

Air purifiers are designed to sanitize the air and kill airborne pathogens (e.g. viruses and bacteria that cause illness). They also target and eliminate indoor air pollutants, improving indoor air quality.

There are several types of air purifiers that utilize different technologies to improve and maintain indoor air. Ionizing air purifiers use negative ions to create charged particles that bind with other particles. This process results in larger, heavier particles that fall from the air onto nearby surfaces and are more easily captured in system air filters.

Ultraviolet air purifiers render viruses and bacteria inactive by damaging their DNA. These air purifiers are freestanding devices or installed directly into your HVAC system. Some ultraviolet air purifiers produce ozone, which can be detrimental to the health of humans and animals. We do not recommend ozone air purifiers, which can seriously impact the health of humans and animals.

ProsCons
Purification reduces many types of indoor air pollutantsStandalone air purifiers require precise air circulation in order to purify large areas
Most air purifiers operate silently, causing little to no disruptionSome air purifiers emit ozone which can cause significant bodily harm when inhaled in large quantities

Air Cleaners (Part Two)

So, air cleaners can mean both filtration and purification and air purifiers only means purification, right? Except, here’s where the terms really get tricky. “Air cleaner” is also used to refer specifically to portable air purifiers. Annoying, we know.

Generally, the term air cleaner most often refers to a standalone or single-unit air purifier. Their purpose is to clean the air in a single room. Standalone air cleaners utilize air purification technology, but also have an in-system air filter. See why the terms get confusing?

Which Should You Choose?

Understanding the differences and similarities between air filters, air cleaners and air purifiers is confusing.

In Sum …
  • Air cleaner and air purifier can be used interchangeably in regard to purification. Purification technology may use the term air cleaner, air purifier or air sanitizer. Whole-home purification systems usually only use the term air purifier.
  • Air filters are technically air-cleaning, and some even apply the term purifying to the filtration process, but air filters do not include air purification technology. An air filter is essential to HVAC system operations and placed somewhere in the return duct, while an air purifier is a separate add-on device.

But which one will actually benefit your space the most? If you’re looking to remove most air pollutants and despise standalone devices, then you should upgrade to high-efficiency system air filters and consider installing a whole-home purification system. If you’re looking to target air quality in one specific area, then you may want to choose a standalone air purifier device. When possible, it’s helpful to choose a whole-home solution to achieve the best indoor air quality.

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Indoor air quality matters. Indoor air quality control solutions work. That’s why we are IAQ.Works. We are the homeowner’s advocate. Our goal is to help you create a healthier indoor space through education, awareness and action. We support clean air for all and we know it’s possible for every single indoor space. Join us on Twitter!

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