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

Air cleaners and air purifiers are similar, but not the same. What’s the difference and how is indoor air quality affected?

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air cleaners and air purifiers

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Generally speaking, the terms “clean” and “pure” are used interchangeably. With regard to air cleaners and air purifiers, however, it is important to note the difference between the two terms. 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 Cleaners, AKA Air Filters

The main difficulty with the term “air cleaners” is that it’s evolved to refer to two entirely different IAQ control solutions. One might say that air cleaners and air purifiers are the same thing, and someone else could argue they are entirely different control strategies.

Someone might use the term air cleaner to refer to actual air filters. After all, they are designed to filter out pollutants, resulting in cleaner air. They are built directly into the HVAC system and can help prolong the life of your unit by preventing the buildup of debris and contaminants. There are several types of air filters.

  • Fiberglass filters are common and disposable. 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 environmental and pocket-friendly choice.
  • High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are incredibly effective at trapping particles. Even so, they are not the best home filter option as they will drastically reduce airflow.
  • Activated carbon filters react chemically with particles in the air causing them to stick to the filter.
  • Media filters offer the best happy medium. They provide high-efficiency MERV rating filtration without static pressure concerns or reduced airflow. Our go-to air filter recommendation for residential use is a MERV-13 filter.
Filters effectively reduce allergens such as dust, dander and pollenThey can cause significant system disruption
By prolonging the life of your unit, they save you moneyReplacement filters are expensive to purchase and replace
Higher-efficiency MERV rated air filters improve air quality

Note: Opting for a higher-rated MERV media filter solves both cons!

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 overall air quality. There are several types of air purifiers that utilize different technology to improve and maintain indoor air quality.

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.

Ultraviolet air purifiers render viruses and bacteria inactive by damaging their DNA. These air purifiers are freestanding devices, or are 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.

They reduce many types of indoor air pollutantsStandalone air purifiers require proper 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
With regard to operation, air purifiers are more cost-effective than air cleaners

Air Cleaners (Part Two)

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

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

In Sum:

  • Air cleaner and air purifier can be used interchangeably in regards to purification technology. Standalone purification systems may use the term air cleaner, air purifier or air sanitizer. Air cleaner also usually implies HEPA level filtration. Whole-home purification systems usually only use the term air purifier.
  • Air filters can be considered air cleaners, but are not considered air purification technology. An air filter is placed in the HVAC system duct vent, while an air purifier is a separate add-on device.

Which Should You Choose?

Understanding the differences and similarities between air filters, air cleaners and air purifiers is confusing. 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 your 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 or air cleaner. When possible, it’s important 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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