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Do ionizers actually clean air?

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The other day, someone on Quora asked whether ionizer fans actually purify the air. This is an important question because ionizer purifiers are all over the place. For example, I was at a friend’s apartment in the US, and I saw his tower fan had an ionizer button on it:

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It’s also important because several friends in China have sent me links to products like this:

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Amazing! A “miraculous purifier” that removes PM 2.5 and formaldehyde in just 30 seconds. And all that for far cheaper than regular purifiers and even cheaper than building your own purifier.

If this is true, my life in Beijing is now so much easier. But is it true?

So how do ionizers work? 

Here’s my bedroom, with an ionizer and bad particles in the air:

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That ionizer shoots out negative ions:

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Those ions cause the particles to stick to surfaces, like my bed, the wall, and the floor:

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That’s the principle behind ion generators. It’s hard to see it happening with these tiny particles, but you’ve seen it on a visible scale if you’ve seen someone rub a balloon on their hair and then stick it to a wall.

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But wait #1

A summary of scientific tests of air purifiers found that most ionizers have no noticeable effect on particulate levels (p. 8). Their conclusion is that most ionizers are too weak to have an effect. Studies do show an effect if they use very strong ionizers–much stronger than most ionizers on the market (p. 19).

But wait #2

OK, so regular ionizers don’t work, but we can use a big one! The problem is, when you put that many ions into the air, it produces ozone. Ozone is harmful, so that’s not good!

But wait #3

Even if we use a really strong ionizer and even if we can accept the ozone, you might have noticed that the ionizer didn’t actually filter out the particles. It just made them stick to my bed, wall, and floor.

First, that’s gross. Since the particles floating around here in Beijing include things like arsenic cadmium, and lead, I’d rather not have them stick to my pillow.

Second, they’re still a danger. The particles are just sticking to my bed. So let’s say Thomas comes home:

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When I sit down on my bed, I’ll dislodge those particles, and they’ll float back into the air. Here’s my super scientific rendering of that process:

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Those problems are what led Consumer Reports to publish tests and warn people not to buy the Sharper Image Ionic Breeze. Sharper Image sued Consumer Reports; Consumer Reports won.

So when people send me links asking about these “miraculous” purifiers, I tell them to steer clear.

Careful not to overgeneralize

But let’s not draw too broad of a conclusion here. This doesn’t mean ALL air purifiers are junk. Instead, I use HEPA filters. HEPAs actually capture particles, and they are backed by empirical tests (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Here’s a little test I did with HEPA filters in Beijing:

 

Q&A

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laundrylist 提问: What is the energy usage associated with running a cheap box fan for eight hours at night versus the two expensive models that you compared your cheaper model to?

 

Excellent question! I’ve wondered about that myself. The fan is 50 Watts, compared to 27-215 for an IQ Air (depending on fan speed). So they are comparable, although the IQ Air is using less energy on the lowest setting.

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DIY Compared to Expensive Filters

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UPDATE:

I now have directly comparable data with the DIYs, Blue Air, and Philips: Direct comparison tests.

In earlier posts (1, 2), I showed that you can make an effective DIY air purifier to clean Chinese air pollution out of your home air. But just because the DIY filter is effective doesn’t mean it’s as effective as the Ferrari filters. How effective is the DIY filter compared to the expensive filters?

I’ll attempt to answer this question from several angles in different posts. Here’s one method: comparisons with the published data from the blog of the Beijing doctor Dr. Saint Cyr (which was an original inspiration for me that air purifiers could actually reduce air pollution). He ran tests of an 11,000 RMB IQ Air and a 6,000 RMB Blue Air. I used the same calculation of effectiveness and compared his results for the pricey machines with tests of my DIY purifier. Here are the results:

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To make the comparisons more precise, I compared my filter results only to the tests he reports from the IQ Air and Blue Air on max power in his smaller room.

Dr. Saint Cyr calculated reductions based on outside air quality, which I do not think is the best method. I think it makes more sense to calculate reductions based on the room air before and after using the filter because my room air is significantly cleaner than outside air, even before using the filter (more on that later). But to make the data comparable, I calculated effectiveness using Dr. Saint Cyr’s method.

Now, the comparisons aren’t perfect. Dr. Saint Cyr’s smaller room is still 6.5 meters larger than mine. He also doesn’t say how long he ran his filters and whether the doors were closed. My tests were with the doors closed and overnight, so the filter had several hours to run.

(Update: via email Dr. Saint Cyr said his tests were with doors closed and testing times of 1 hour+.)

But even if the difference in room size bumps mine down 5% and the others up 5%, that would mean 11,000 RMB and 166 RMB get you similar results. To illustrate that, I calculated a graph of how much you’re paying for each percentage reduction in air pollution:

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Of course, the ideal test would use all three filters in the same room with the same particle counter. To that end, I will hopefully get the chance to borrow a friend’s Panasonic filter and test it in my home. I’ll post those results when I get them.

Conclusion: Although the comparisons are imperfect, they show that a DIY filter is at least roughly comparable to expensive filters at a far lower cost. This illustrates my larger point: all you really need to combat particulate air pollution is a HEPA filter. In fact, Dr. Saint Cyr found the same thing in his tests of a much simpler Hunter brand HEPA filter. In a room with the doors closed, his HEPA got 91% of the pollution–similar to what I found.

For data nerds like me, I’m posting more details on my data and methods here:

Test Details:

(更多…)

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Purifier Tests

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I think you can break the question of whether an air purifier works down into two questions.

  1. Is the air coming out of the purifier clean? This is the easier question to answer, and the test results are as clear as can be. The DIY purifier shoots out very clean air.
  2. But is that enough to actually clean the ambient room air? For example, if you have a really tiny filter and a huge room, the filter could work properly but still not be strong enough to make a difference.

Answering this question is more difficult because you need a controlled environment (you can’t open and close windows during the test), and you need to test the air for a longer period of time. Fortunately for you, I’m a nerd, and I’ve been doing these tests for fun for the past few weeks.

 

According to my particle counter, here’s what the filter did in an hour:

 

I’ve also tested the effect by running tests with the particle counter on hourly mode. These tests show that the downtrend continues over several hours:

 

(Note that the hourly test and minute test are on different days.)

The particle counter also gives data on 0.5 microns – even smaller particles. Here’s what that looks like over eight hours:

 

Conclusion: The DIY purifier works. You can get clean air for 166 RMB, as opposed to 8,000 RMB as long as you know that a HEPA filter is all you really need to fight particulate air pollution in China.

From my perspective, filter companies like IQ Air are taking advantage of how little we know about air pollution and the fact that you need expert instruments to tell whether the filter is working or not. When consumers don’t know how to assess the products we buy, we often use price to tell us whether the product is good. That happens with expensive wines all the time. I’m convinced you can breathe safe air in China for far less than filter companies want you to believe.

Finally, for data nerds like me, I’m including more details on the tests here:

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Test details:

The test above was done starting at 11:30 pm (I’m a night owl) on 6/16/2013, when the outside AQI in Beijing was 230 according to the US embassy’s AQI Twitter feed. (The outside air improved the next day, but results were similar on a later test where AQI actually went up slightly from 195 to 202 during the test. Details to follow here.)

According to comparisons of my particle counter’s tests of outside to US embassy AQIs, an AQI of 230 would convert to about 2,650 on the 2.5 micron count on my reader. (Remember, the particle counter gives the raw number of particles 2.5 micrometers and above per .01 cubic feet. The US embassy takes mg/m3 and converts that to an AQI. Therefore, the numbers are different, although they correlate.)

I did the test in my bedroom with the doors and windows closed. The room is 13.5 meters squared, with two windows.

Astute readers have asked whether I let the particle counter run a bit to get a stable reading before turning on the filter. The particle counter tends to take a 5-10 minutes to get stable readings. To be conservative, I gave it about an hour:

 

(Update: This question is answered with much more data in my new tests where I left the particle counter on for 6 days, and I turned the DIY Cannon on a timer to turn on every day for 2 hours.)

The spike at the top was when I entered the room to turn the air purifier on and reset the machine, so it may just be noise or it may be the dust I kicked up by walking around. A more stable reading for that time would probably be about 230.

The uptrend prior to turning the filter on may have been because I was running my dehumidifier prior to the tests, and I have some small filters in that. (Yes, for some reason my house gets very humid–at times over 80%–despite the fact that Beijing is a semi-desert. I think it’s a problem with the plumbing system.)

Regardless, this data suggests that the effect of the filter was NOT a confound of calibration.