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A Complete Central Air Cleaner Guide

Types, Costs and Choosing the Right Central Air Filtration System

You probably think of your home as a clean, healthy place. But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental health risks. The best way to address this problem is to ventilate your home with outdoor air, but when that’s not possible due to weather or outdoor pollutants, an air cleaning device is the next best solution.

A central air cleaner, also known as a whole-house air cleaner, is installed directly into your home’s HVAC system. Every time your central heating system or air conditioner runs, the air is filtered before it is distributed throughout the home. Central air cleaners keep the air that you breathe healthy by removing allergens, particles and pollutants such as dust, smoke, pollen, pet hair and mold (although not every type of air clean removes everything listed here, as you’ll read later). They are quiet, convenient and low maintenance, but they can be pricey.

A central air cleaner will cost you anywhere from $500 to $3,500, depending on the type. We’ll get into specific pricing information in a bit.

About Central Air Cleaners

Shopping for a central air cleaner can be confusing because there are so many different types. Some simply filter the air; others remove contaminants. Most are safe, but some are considered dangerous. It’s important to understand what’s available, as well as the benefits and risks of each type.

There are two types of central air cleaners that filter the air by removing particles: mechanical filters and electronic air cleaners. They do not clean the air by removing contaminants, germs and pollutants.

  • Mechanical air filters range from the basic air filter that is already incorporated into your furnace, which is not very effective, to high-efficiency HEPA filters that capture some 99.97 percent of particles smaller than 0.3 microns. Some HEPA filters can be inserted into the regular furnace filter slot; others are completely separate systems. The mid-range option is a pleated air filter, which is inserted into your furnace slot like a regular filter but removes a greater percentage of particles. In general, mechanical air filters are designed to remove particles such as dust, pollen, animal hair and some mold spores.
  • Electronic air cleaners, also called electrostatic air precipitators, use electronically-charged filters to capture particles. They are far more effective than standard or pleated mechanical air filters. Some are designed to fit into your furnace slot, but the best performing models are separate systems. Unlike other types of filters, these can be cleaned and reused. However, some electronic air cleaners may produce ozone, which can irritate the lungs.
Central Air Cleaner Filter

There are three types of central air cleaners designed to clean the air by removing contaminants, germs and pollutants: ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) cleaners, photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) cleaners and ozone generators.

  • UVGI air cleaners remove biologicals such as viruses and bacteria using ultraviolet (UV) lights. These are designed to be used with air filters, not instead of air filters.
  • PCO cleaners use UV lamps and a catalytic substance to destroy indoor air pollutants. They, too, are not designed to remove particles. The usefulness of these air cleaners has been called into question, so make sure to do significant research before investing in one.
  • Ozone generators remove particles, gases and biologicals using UV lamps or electrical discharges. They are highly effective cleaners; however, they do produce ozone emissions. They should not be used if anyone in the home has allergies, asthma or other lung problems, and the EPA warns against them.

All central air cleaners cycle on and off as needed to save energy. Some people make the argument that portable air filters are more effective because they run continuously. However, central air cleaners require less maintenance than portable versions, and they are hidden from sight. There are pros and cons to each.

Keep in mind that you must have a forced-air heating system to install a whole-house air cleaner. If you don’t, portables are the only option.

How Much Does a Central Air Cleaner Cost?

The price of a central air cleaner depends on the type of air cleaner, the efficiency and local labor rates. Prices range from about $500 to $3,500, but most central air conditioners that are separate units go for $1,500 to $2,500 installed.

  • An electronic filter might cost $600 to $2,000 installed.
  • A central air purifier with UV light and photo-catalytic oxidation might cost $1,200-$1,700, not including installation.
  • A whole-house air purifier with HEPA filtration might cost $2,000-$3,500 installed. HEPA filters are advanced filters capable of grabbing particles invisible to the eye, but they tend to be expensive.
  • By comparison, a heavy-duty portable air purifier that works for spaces up to 2,500 square feet might cost $2,100-$2,300.

Choosing a Central Air Cleaner

The type of central air cleaner that is right for you depends on why you want it. If you’re worried about dust and pet hair, a mechanical air filter will work in most cases. If you have a family member with asthma, an electronic air filter is a better choice. If you’re worried about the spread of disease or mold, or controlling odors such as smoke, an air cleaner powered by UV lamps is the best choice.

Also, give some consideration to efficiency, which is measured by a standard known as minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) for air cleaners. MERV ratings range from 1 to 16, with higher numbers indicating better filtration. In a Consumer Reports test of whole-house air filters, those with ratings of 10 and above performed best.

Finally, take a look at the features. You’ll want an air purifier that notifies you when it’s time to change the filter. Operating an air purifier with a dirty filter is useless. You may also want to consider the frequency of cleaning that is required - some models require much more attention than others.

Keep in mind that the effectiveness of some central air cleaning systems has been called into question. Before you make any purchase, do comprehensive research on the brand and model. Turn to trusted sources such as Consumer Reports for advice on which models are best. In studies, most models have proven to be highly effective at filtering pollen, smoke and dust, but others have shown not to be very effective at all.

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