Electronic air cleaner good idea for allergy-prone

Inspector's Eye

April 28, 2002|By Dean Uhler

I recently received a question from a family that has allergy problems.

They wrote that they were about to replace a 25-year-old furnace and air conditioner and are considering having an electronic air cleaner installed to reduce allergens in the house. They were told it will cost about $800 for the unit and installation, and they were wondering if that was a good choice and price.

Electronic air cleaners are a sound choice for allergy sufferers, and $800 should be in the right ballpark.

They are very efficient at removing dust particles from the air, including allergens such as pollen, dust mites, dander and mold spores.

A static electrical charge is used to attract dust particles to metal plates in the air cleaner, removing dust from the air stream.

Over time, as particles build up on the plates, the effectiveness of the cleaner diminishes, so regular cleaning is important to prevent dust from bypassing the plates.

A drawback

And cleaning these air cleaners is one of their drawbacks. It's a moderately elaborate process. Typically, two bulky metal cells, which contain the plates, have to be removed and washed every one to three months.

If your dishwasher is big enough, the cells can be washed in it. If not, they get immersed in water in a laundry tub to clean them. In addition, two metal mesh prefilters get cleaned by hosing them off or vacuuming.

The hassle of cleaning the cells in an electronic air cleaner may have the effect of delaying the required cleaning process well beyond an acceptable interval, rendering them ineffective. If the ones I've seen are any indication, hardly anybody cleans them often enough.

The other drawback is that they break. Roughly half of the ones I see are abandoned or, worse, are still in use but not working. So get an electronic air cleaner if you can reliably clean it every one to three months or are prepared to buy a service contract that includes cleaning it. And don't put off having it repaired if it breaks.

An alternative

A sound alternative to an electronic air cleaner is a high-efficiency fiber filter. Air cleaners containing disposable, pleated filters of this type perform very well, though not quite as well as electronic air cleaners, and are simple and reliable. The initial installation cost should be roughly $150 to $200 less than an electronic air cleaner.

These are not the familiar filters that will fit in the existing filter slot in your heating or air conditioning system. They are 4- to 6-inch-thick units with deeply pleated filter media. The pleats provide a large surface area, which allows the filter to trap very small particles without reducing air flow too much.

Also, the large surface can trap a lot of dust before becoming completely blocked, so the recommended replacement interval is six to 12 months. But replacement is costly, requiring a new filter element costing in the range of $85 to $100. The filter elements come packaged with the pleats collapsed and must be unfolded and fitted into the permanent filter cartridge.

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