Fresh, clean air is a pleasure to breathe, especially for those of us who live in places where smoke or smog can sometimes cloud our skies.
If you have allergies, the ability to be free of pollen, mold, or dust mites can be the difference between breathing easy and struggling to cope.
But when it comes to choosing an air purifier for our home or office, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there.
Should you get a HEPA filter or an ionic air purifier?
Like many home improvement questions, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Thankfully, ionic air purifiers and HEPA filters work very differently, which means you’ll be able to pick the one that works best for you.
Our guide will explain how these work, their strengths, and which fits your needs.
Why Use A Purifier
If you’re on the fence about which type of air purifier to get, you might also be wondering if you really need one. Much like a humidifier, an air purifier isn’t a necessity for nearly anyone, but it can improve almost everyone’s life.
Especially if you suffer from allergies or have a lot of airborne irritants, an air purifier can improve your quality of life and your general health.
Even clean homes have pollen float in from outside, dust (and often dust mites which produce allergens), and mold spores. These don’t cause enormous damage much of the time, but between allergic reactions and the ability of mold to grow wherever it lands, they certainly are undesirable.
Air purifiers help get the pollutants, irritants, and toxins out of the air, but they aren’t a silver bullet. If you’re worried about tobacco smoke, allergens, and chemicals in your air, a purifier will definitely help reduce them and alleviate your reactions.
However, if you want to get the most out of your air purifier, though, you need to take steps to reduce the amount of pollutants you put in the air. Reduce how much you use those caustic cleaners and try to avoid smoking in the house.
Ionic Purifiers vs HEPA Filters
We’re going to go over both ionic air purifiers (which actually have two major subtypes) and HEPA filters. You’ll learn how they work, what they do well, and where they might leave you wanting more.
Don’t worry; we’ll also cover the initial cost, the sort of maintenance you need to do, and the expected lifespan of your new appliance.
A Note on Ozone Generators
Rarely, what looks like an ionic air purifier actually turns out to be an ozone generator. Look carefully at the information to make sure you’re not picking up one of these. Though manufacturers claim they can be very effective at removing pollutants like lingering cigarette smoke form the air, they will not improve your air and are dangerous to have around.
Ozone generators produce ozone, a variation on oxygen. Unlike the oxygen we breathe, which is two oxygen atoms in one molecule, ozone has three oxygen atoms. This tiny change makes a huge difference.
Ozone can irritate your lungs and airways, and those who have emphysema, asthma, and other conditions may find their symptoms worsening due to exposure.
Thankfully, since California, the largest market in the US, bans the sale of these for home use, they are no longer as likely to be found on the shelves. Keep an eye out and you’ll be fine.
Ionic Air Purifiers: How Do They Work?
There are actually two major designs of ionic air purifier, but both use a similar process to remove particles from the air. Relying on the principle that “opposites attract,” ionic purifiers use electric charges to affect airborne contaminants.
The first type of ionic air purifier is called an electrostatic precipitator. These use a fan to move air across two electrically charged plates. Ambient pollutants are attracted to either the positively charged plate or the negatively charged one and stick to it.
Fun fact! Technically, these aren’t “ionic” purifiers, because even though they rely on electrical charges, they don’t release charged ions into the air.
It’s the second type of ionic air purifier that does that. Air ionizers send out negatively charged ions into the air, where they attract the pollutants wherever they can find them. When they combine with the contaminants, they make them too heavy to float, and they fall onto the floor or other surfaces.
HEPA Filters: How Do They Work?
While ionic purifiers sound almost like science fiction to the uninitiated, HEPA filters are much more down-to-earth. A HEPA filter is a High Efficiency Particulate Air filter that, when you boil it down to basics, is really just a very good filter.
A HEPA filter must be able to remove 99.97% of all particles 0.3 microns large or bigger from the air that passes through it. The smallest thing a human can see is at least 50 microns in size—almost 200 times larger than the smallest particles a HEPA filter can catch!
Unlike air ionizers, a HEPA filter needs to push air through the filter, which means they do use a fan. This means they won’t be entirely silent.
Ionic Air Purifiers: What They Do Best
Ionic air purifiers have a long list of benefits. Since both they and HEPA filters have a lot of similarities in their results, we’re only looking at where ionic purifiers beat the competition.
- Quiet as a mouse: Because neither type has to force air through a filter, even if they use fans, ionic purifiers range from whisper-quiet to silent, with very few exceptions.
- Easy maintenance: Electrostatic precipitators collect particles on plates, that are easily cleaned off and reattached. Air ionizers don’t have any filters or collection sites that need to be changed or replaced.
- Antibacterial: There’s a reason hospitals use air ionizers! While some specifically use a type of titanium that attacks airborne microbes, the charged particles seem to be able to weaken and kill airborne germs.
- Long reach: Air ionizers can cover a few thousand square feet with the more powerful models. The most powerful HEPA filters can’t go too far over 1000.
- Cheaper to buy; cheap to maintain: Ionic air purifiers can be found for as low as $50 (though make sure to check reviews and stats to see which one fits your needs). Not only are they significantly cheaper than HEPA filters, but they don’t need filter replacements because they don’t have any!
HEPA Filters: What They Do Best
Even though they rely on simpler principles and need a new filter annually at least, HEPA filters have long been the standard for businesses and airlines for good reason:
- Takes out contaminants for good: Even though air ionizers can cause dust and pollutants to fall out of the air from all the way across the room, those same particles can get kicked up as we walk by. HEPA filters catch them in their filter and they eventually get thrown away. No more vicious cycle!
- Fresh air: Although ionic purifiers can remove some odors from the air, HEPA filters often come with an extra activated charcoal layer, which traps scent particles permanently. Look into this if last night’s dinner sticks around in the air a little too long.
- Breathing easy: Not only do HEPA filters clean pollutants our permanently, but this means they’re better than ionic purifiers at ending your allergies at the source!
- Nozone: While ionic purifiers are different than ozone generators, they often do generate a very small amount of ozone as they run. While this is usually well below the danger threshold for even the sensitive, HEPA filters don’t produce any at all!
- Long lifespan: There’s a reason HEPA purifiers have warranties that sometimes stretch up to five years. As long as you replace the filter, these things are reliable!
Ionic Purifiers: Cautionary Notes
Sometimes ionic purifiers come up short. Here are there major blind spots:
- Fighting symptoms, not sources: Air ionizers take particles out of the air, but not out of your home. You’ll need to still clean your floors and furniture to take them out for good.
- Ozone risk: While minor, many ionic purifiers produce trace amounts of ozone. The worst offenders can irritate sensitive people.
- Burnt on pollutants: Electrostatic precipitators are straightforward to clean, but much like a pan in the kitchen, when things get burnt on, it can be a real headache. If you don’t keep up with these, the electrical charge can over time almost fuse pollutants to the plate.
HEPA Filters: Cautionary Notes
For a relatively old technology, HEPA filters have few downsides. They do, however, have their limits and costs.
- Costlier to get, costlier to keep: HEPA purifiers can easily cost three times the amount of cheaper ionic models, and you have to buy a new filter every few months to keep them working in tip-top shape.
- Noisy or not working: Running a HEPA purifier means running a fan strong enough to pull air in from all through the room. If you want quiet, you have to turn it off.
- Biosafe: Unlike ionic purifiers, only a select number of HEPA purifiers kill germs, and usually not as well. If you’re fighting disease, maybe consider skipping the HEPA filter.
What About Viruses?
Air purifiers just aren’t a great way to avoid most viruses, including Covid-19. While both ionic purifiers and HEPA filters likely reduce the amount in the air if there are any, the manufacturers simply haven’t been able to test this yet.
The data we do have suggest that neither purifier will do more than complement an already healthy lifestyle.
Conclusion: To Each Their Own
The right air purifier depends on your individual needs. If you’re fighting powerful allergies or built up pollutants, HEPA filters will suit you best. Large spaces, quiet places, or a germier environment? Maybe an ionic purifier.
Whatever your needs, make an informed choice by using our guide and then carefully comparing model information and reviews! Then sit back, relax, and take a breath (of fresh air)! You’ve earned it!
Thank you for reading this guide! We hope this leaves you equipped to make the right choice for you. Please consider reading our related articles!