Air quality in your home is one of the most important factors in your overall comfort and health.
We tend to see air quality as something uncontrollable. “Oh, it’s just allergy season,” we’ll say. Or, “The kids bring the flu home from school every year. There’s not much we can do.”
I’m here to tell you: There is plenty you can do.
Your home has an HVAC system, and that system helps to regulate air quality. While it’s true that things like opening windows during nice days or having certain plants in the home can help, your year-round air quality is going to be most directly affected by the nature and quality of your HVAC equipment.
This article is intended to do a couple things:
- Help you understand how HVAC filtration products and accessories contribute.
- Help you determine which ones might be worth the investment for you and your home.
To be clear, for some households, the answer is going to be “I don’t need any additional accessories. I’m fine as-is.” If that’s the case, great! We’re not here to sell. We’re here to educate.
I’ve been in this industry for over 30 years, though, and I can tell you that the vast majority of homeowners I’ve spoken to have at least one area that they’d like to improve, especially once they learn about the potential benefits they’re missing out on.
With that in mind, we’re going to look at two related areas that are affected by an HVAC system and specific HVAC products:
- Air filtration
- Air purification
Both have costs and benefits, but they both contribute meaningfully to your comfort and health.
Problems Associated With Air Filtration
First, it’s important to understand what issues are caused by poor air quality. Just as importantly, each of these areas can be controlled proactively through your HVAC system.
- Allergies, either seasonal or due to a specific environmental trigger
- An overly-warm upstairs or finished attic
- Pet odors
- Cooking odors
- Seasonal flu virus and other regional or seasonal illnesses
The solutions to these problems vary, but each can be addressed in some way.
Filtration & Comfort
Knowing the types of air filters available to you is the first step in knowing why a particular one might be worth investing in. We run through various types below, as well as the pros and cons associated with each.
First, you’ll often see a MERV Rating, or Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, assigned to filters, based on how efficiently they catch particles of varying sizes. Higher is generally better, and will catch more and smaller particles.
The smaller a particle is, the more easily it is breathed into the mouth, throat, and lungs. Many of the most dangerous particles are very small, so some filters will be better at capturing them.
These represent the low-end entry point for airflow filtration in an HVAC system. The cheapest are fiberglass filters, which you can usually see through.
The pros of these filters are obvious: they cost less than anything else on the market.
The cons are probably just as predictable: they’re less efficient at their job, sometimes by a wide margin over other options.
A step up from basic filters are “pleated” filters, which are generally no thicker but are more dense. These generally range from 6-9 MERV rating. While they’ll catch more particulates, the density of the material within a one-inch space creates airflow problems for the entire HVAC system. Even if they’re brand new, they can often cause systems to have to work much harder to move air properly throughout your ductwork. This, in turn, results in more wear and tear on equipment and higher utility bills.
Media Filters (Four-Inch Filters)
In a technical sense, one-inch filters are also “media filters.” In the HVAC industry, though, media filters generally refer to four-inch filters that are a step up from your basic air filter.
You’ll also sometimes see these referred to as HEPA filters, which stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air. There’s an actual standard in the United States to qualify as a HEPA filter: the filter must stop 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 microns in size. So while the terms aren’t interchangeable, many media filters will qualify as HEPA filters.
Make and models of media filters vary greatly, but most will come in between MERV 11-16.
Pros: more particles caught. Cons: higher cost. These pros/cons will be true across the price spectrum, but I also want to look at the pros and cons within different media filter types.
Some have a cardboard cartridge surrounding the filter itself. While not necessarily a problem, these don’t always create a snug fit in a filter area of an HVAC system. Further, the casing can occasionally block the surface area of the filter, making it less effective.
Some of these have a carbon insert, which is effective at neutralizing cooking odors, pet odors, and similar smells. These generally aren’t standard, but can be very useful for multi-pet homes or others with similar concerns.
Another consideration is replacement time. A standard MERV 11 should be changed once a year, whereas a MERV 16 will likely need to be replaced twice a year. This adds responsibility and cost.
At Fire & Ice, we routinely use Aprilaire media filters, ranging from MERV 11-16, because we’ve found that they represent a nice marriage of design and function, without being outside the budget of many homeowners. They also allow for better airflow than many of the one-inch filters, while still maintaining filtration efficiency.
Some people will only have seen these in older restaurants and bars, where smoking used to be more common, and you could hear the “snap” of the electronic filter as it neutralized the odors.
Those are more or less gone in the modern era, but the technology remains in use inside homes.
Electronic filters are less common than those listed above, but are found in some systems. They can be very effective but have certain drawbacks. Unlike other filters that need routine replacing, these can simply break down after several years, and the replacement cost will be higher than a standard media filter. Until that point, they can simply be cleaned and repositioned by the homeowner.
Additionally, they produce a certain amount of ozone, a substance that is known to be harmful when produced in sufficient quantities.
The good news is that the FDA has established safe ozone levels, and the amounts produced by most electronic filters are below this amount. Some are not, though, and some homeowners wish to avoid any amount of ozone, so it’s best to research this before making a decision.
RELATED: How to Change a Furnace Filter
Trane CleanEffects & Hybrid Filters
The Trane CleanEffects is a hybrid filter, which means it utilizes one or more filtration technologies.
In this case, it combines a multi-level media filter with electronic filtration. The collection cells can filter particles as small as 0.1 micron, which is hundreds of times smaller than a human hair.
This combination makes it one of the most effective options on the market from any brand.
The biggest downside is the cost. Its high filtration efficiency also means you’ll need to clean it regularly.
The ozone concerns mentioned for electronic filters apply here too, but the Trane CleanEffects produces a negligible amount for all but the most sensitive situations. The quote below is from Trane’s description of the product:
“Trane CleanEffects™ Air Cleaner was designed to fall well below the 50 parts per billion (ppb) FDA voluntary emission limit for medical devices. Trane CleanEffects™ contributes a negligible amount of ozone – less than .3 ppb to the living space.”
This option will be too much for some, but in a home where multiple people have allergies, or numerous pets, or someone is immunocompromised, it can be a great way to proactively control your air quality.
Static Pressure in Furnaces - Why Filter Replacement Is Important
Static pressure is the resistance to airflow in an HVAC system. This includes both heating and cooling equipment as well as in the ductwork. If the airflow velocity isn’t greater than the resistance, no air will circulate.
Clogged filters are a common source of static pressure. It’s why changing your filters isn’t just about particles in the air, but the performance of your entire system.
Different filters can (and do) affect static pressure differently, and different HVAC models have varying levels of acceptable static pressure.
A manufacturer will provide these levels for an installation specialist. Ideally, the installer is checking static pressure on the day of the install.
This doesn’t always happen, both on the installation day, or sometimes ever! This is a shame because static pressure is directly related to system longevity.
At Fire & Ice, not only do we check static pressure at the time of the installation, but we include a 10-year clean coil guarantee with the inclusion of an Aprilaire media filter, provided you’re changing it out once a year as recommended. The dirt and grime that can accumulate if this isn’t done will affect your breathing, your health, your comfort, the efficiency of your system, and the longevity of your system. Hopefully, it’s obvious why this stuff is so important!
Unlocking the Benefits of Air Purification
Air filtration and air purification achieve some of the same ends, but they get there through different means.
The most common form of air purification is probably UV lamps. Ultraviolet light is deadly to living organisms, so it’s a great way to kill off mold spores and bacteria, and even some viruses.
UV lamps are usually installed inside an HVAC system, most commonly near the evaporator coil, which is a hotbed for such bacteria due to the moisture it collects.
The primary issue is that for the light to work, the air has to come to it, which won’t always happen. There’s nothing proactive about it at all.
At Fire & Ice, the air purification product we offer is the Reme Halo. The Halo works in a couple of different ways.
The first is UV light. It also has a sibling version that uses LED light, but the principle is the same.
The second thing it does is the proactive part, and is what separates it from standard lamps. It releases charged particles into your home that bond with particulates in your air, neutralizing them.
Not only is this an entirely harmless process for a homeowner, but it also has several health benefits:
- It bonds with particles that cause odors.
- The bonded particles are more easily caught in your system’s filtration. This means less dust, dirt, and grime throughout the home.
- It has been proven to neutralize many viruses, including MRSA, Strep, Listeria, Norwalk, Bird flu, and Tuberculosis.
Importantly, there has been no testing of the Reme Halo on COVID-19. While it has proven effective against similar viruses in the past, no claims can currently be made about it on this front.
When would you want to use a Reme Halo, or similar product? For the immunocompromised, elderly, homes that seem to pass around the flu every year, or simply those who wish to proactively manage their health and air quality, it can be a viable option.
It also makes your filtration more effective, increasing the efficacy of your entire system in the process.
“You get what you pay for” is a saying that’s usually true in HVAC. You can get a basic air filter for as little as $30-50, but it won’t be nearly as efficient as a larger media filter. Those can run hundreds of dollars, and a high-end product like the Trane CleanEffects can run $1,500+ depending on whether it’s being installed on its own or as part of a larger HVAC installation.
Similarly, basic UV lamps can have varying costs depending on the power of the light used, how many lights are attached to the lamp, and how complicated the setup and installation is. If an HVAC company is handling the installation, there will be labor costs as well. Lower-end options will run $100-200, while higher-end products can approach $900+.
In both cases, it’s a question of what you want or need for your home and family, and what you’re willing to pay to get the greatest return on your investment. The higher-end products aren’t just empty money. There are tangible benefits associated with them, as we’ve discussed.
Breathing Easy: Putting It All Together
We’ve talked a lot about the different equipment that can contribute to your air quality. Now let’s talk about packaging them in a way that makes the most sense for your home.
One of the first things a good HVAC sales representative should do when they speak with you in your home is to walk through common problems associated with air quality. If you experience any of them, this can help to hone in on which products might be best for you.
The other way you can “put it all together” is by linking products through a communicating, or “smart,” HVAC system.
The Trane CleanEffects is a perfect example. It is linked to your entire system and will communicate with it on airflow and quality. These are parameters that you’ll be able to view in order to know when to clean the filter or identify other issues.
The last thing you can do is proactively ask about these when you’re discussing larger HVAC equipment like furnaces or air conditioners. Some contractors will offer incentives in the form of discounts with a larger investment that include air quality products. Even if this weren’t the case, it would be worth a discussion with your HVAC partner, but sometimes this can sweeten the deal on a larger equipment replacement that you’re planning.
Think you know everything you need about air quality? You’re almost there, but there’s another big topic we haven’t discussed yet: humidity control. The article below will get you up to speed there, to round out your information for your next HVAC contractor visit.
And if you’d like to upgrade now, we’d love to talk. Check to see if you’re in our service area below (Columbus, OH, and surrounding areas). We look forward to seeing you!