Can I Clean or Wash HEPA Filters? – Supplemental Data

This post contains supplemental data for the post “Can I Clean or Wash HEPA filters?“. It includes detailed information about the testing method, and the original data, open-sourced for all to view. Click here to view the original article Open Data Particle Capture Tests For the particle capture tests, CK …

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Is a 30 RMB HEPA Reliable?

After I published directions for how to make your own purifier, people asked me: “Which HEPAs should I use? Is this one trustworthy?”

That’s the type of question that makes a nerd like me happy because it means we need to get more data. So I ordered HEPAs from every manufacturer I could find, and I tested them all. After all the testing was done, I found I could ship the HEPAs that worked best for 80 RMB, which was cheaper than the 110 RMB HEPAs I was buying–quality and price!

Can HEPAs be even Cheaper? 

Later I found HEPAs for 20 RMB wholesale. I was excited. If HEPAs are that cheap, we can make the DIY even cheaper!

But the test data was terrible. These HEPAs weren’t anywhere close to getting 99% of particles, so I passed on them. If didn’t want to use it in my home, why would I want to ship them to other people?

A 99.97% HEPA for 30 RMB?

Thus I wasn’t surprised a couple weeks ago when I saw a store on Taobao selling HEPAs for 30 RMB and claiming that my HEPAs are 暴利 (aggressively overpriced). They claim that their HEPAs get 99.97% of particles, and if that’s true, maybe these were the holy grail of HEPAs I was looking for all along!

So I ordered two online and put them to the test. The first shock was seeing that it doesn’t have a frame:

1

That makes it harder retain its shape, but it might still be effective without a frame, so I put it through the tests.

Air Outlet Test

First, I tested it by putting it on the Cannon and testing the air coming out of the HEPA with a Met One Aerocet 531S. (The Met One is useful because it has a pump to regulate airflow. In air outlet tests, the particle counter is sitting in a stream of air, so using a pump maintains constant readings.)

2

The results weren’t pretty. Smart Air HEPAs got over 99.9% of particles, but the 30 RMB HEPA was below 90%–far below their claim of 99.97%.

Air Speed

But particle effectiveness isn’t everything. A HEPA in the 80% range might work better if it has better air flow. In that case, maybe the HEPA could process the air more times and clean the room air as well as a real HEPA.

To test that possibility, I put each HEPA on the Cannon and used a tool to measure air speed (fancy name “anemometer”). I placed the anemometer on the HEPA at four locations (left, right, top, bottom) and took the average air speed.

3

Again, the results weren’t pretty. So not only was the 30 RMB HEPA getting far fewer particles, it was letting much less air through.

Conclusion

Quality HEPAs for 30 RMB are still a dream. They’re not useless, but using this 30 RMB HEPA would expose people to significantly more particles.

I still hold out hope that manufacturers will be able to innovate cheaper HEPAs without sacrificing quality, but I haven’t seen those HEPAs yet.

Is the Taobao Store Owner Being Dishonest? 

The 30 RMB HEPA store makes claims that their HEPAs get 99.97% of particles, and the data clearly contradicts that, so it’s tempting to think that they’re lying.

But are they? I don’t know what’s in their mind, but my guess is that they simply didn’t go through the hassle of buying a particle counter and testing the HEPAs. I suspect that half of what seems like dishonesty on Taobao is actually just sloppiness.

As usual, I’m posting the raw data below.

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Activated carbon air purifier VOC

Does Adding a Carbon Layer Reduce Particulate Effectiveness?

I recently published tests showing that carbon actually removes VOCs. But adding that carbon layer raises a question: adding carbon means the fan has to power through yet another layer of resistance. Does that make purifier less effective at removing particulates?

Test Method

To test this question, I ran 10 room tests with the Cannon and 10 tests with the Original DIY in the same 15m2 Beijing apartment as my earlier tests without a carbon layer.

 

Dylos particle counter pollution test

 

I measured how much particulate it removed with a Dylos particle counter and compared the particle counts (1) before I turned on the purifier at night and (2) the average of the last four hours before I woke up in the morning.

 

Air purifier test laser particle counter

 

Carbon vs. HEPA Results

With the additional charcoal layer, the Cannon particulate effectiveness dropped 1-2%. Thus, charcoal has a very minor negative effect on the Cannon.

DIY Air purifier test carbon filter HEPA

However, the Original DIY had a harder time powering through the extra layer. Its 0.5 micron effectiveness dropped 19%, and 2.5 micron effectiveness dropped 15%.

DIY purifier activated carbon test

Conclusion: Carbon Tips

For people who need carbon (and that may not be everyone), I would recommend adding the carbon to the Cannon, but I would think twice about adding carbon to the Original. One workaround is to have one Original fan running with a HEPA and another running with a carbon filter.

As always, I’m posting the raw data and more details on the test for fellow nerds below.

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Does Activated Carbon Really Work

Does Carbon Really Work?

Companies sell activated carbon filters (also called “charcoal filters”) to remove chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene, but does carbon really work? The Smart Air lab put real-world carbon filters to the test.

Who Needs Carbon Filters Anyway?

I wrote early on that my number one concern in China is particulate pollution. It’s on so many people’s minds that nowadays even the guy I buy kebabs from knows the word “PM2.5.”

China kebab chuanr

HEPAs do an amazing job at removing particulates, but particulates aren’t everything. Gases like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are so small that they slip through HEPAs. “VOC” is a big category, including things like benzene and formaldehyde. VOCs can cause cancer, throat irritation, dizziness, and other not-fun side effects.

VOCs Common Sources

And for homes that have VOCs problems, we’re supposed to use activated carbon filters. But do they actually work?

When I published the instructions for how to build your own purifier, I wasn’t comfortable recommending activated carbon because I hadn’t tested it, and I didn’t want to just trust what the big filter companies say. So this year, I set out on a journey to test whether carbon actually works.

Activated carbon granules

Put to The Test: Does Carbon Really Work?

I soon learned that gas testing is not easy. First off, “harmful gases” is not a natural category. You can buy a particle counter that will detect all particles of a certain size, but there is no detector that will detect all gases. Instead, you need one for each type of gas, and that is not cheap.

In this case, my scientific curiosity cost me $3,542 for this Industrial Scientific Ibrid MX6. It detects VOCs, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and nitrogen dioxide. It uses a photo-ionization detector to measure VOCs from 0-2,000 parts per million with a resolution of .1.

Testing Activated Carbon MX6 Ibrid

Next, I needed a source of gas pollution. Interestingly enough, my apartment didn’t have enough VOCs to register on the MX6–nor did 8 other Beijing apartments I tested. (That speaks to whether purifier companies should scare people into thinking that everyone needs carbon.)

Because I didn’t have detectable VOCs in my home, I had to go out and find VOCs to pump into my room. I chose cigarettes because they are known to emit VOCs like benzene and formaldehyde.

In each test, I burned 3 Marlboro cigarettes in an enclosed 3.78 m2 porch. At the same time, I ran the Cannon on high for five tests with a composite carbon filter on the front:

image

I ran four control tests with a fan but no filter. That way the room still has air flow, but no carbon. The cigarettes burned out after about 15 minutes, and I left the fans on for another 30 minutes.

Results: Does Carbon Really Work?

Looking at the Cannon + carbon alone after the cigarette extinguished, the VOCs dropped. Here is the data from one test:

Activated carbon removes VOC gases

But maybe the VOCs would have just dissipated on their own? From there, we can zoom out to include the time the cigarette was burning and the test where we had just a fan (no filter). From there, it becomes clearer that the carbon was removing VOCs above and beyond just having a fan on.

Averaging across all of the tests, the VOCs reached a maximum of about 1 ppm while the carbon was on. Without the carbon, VOCs reached 1.5 ppm.

Activated Carbon VOC Test

After the cigarette burned out, the Cannon cleared the air of VOCs in just over 15 minutes on average. Without carbon, the air still had VOCs after 30 minutes.

Averaging over all of the tests, the carbon removed 38% of VOCs by the time the cigarettes burned out compared to the fan-only condition. The Cannon removed 68% after another 5 minutes and 100% by 20 minutes after the cigarettes burned out.

Carbon VOC Reduction Speed

Bottom Line: Do Carbon Filters Work?

Test data showed that activated carbon filters effectively removed VOC gases compared to just a fan alone. 

Smart Air

Thus, I’ve decided these filters are ready for game time. I’ve started shipping these tested carbon filters via our website and Taobao.

Activated Charcoal Filter

Does Everyone Need Carbon?

Does carbon really work? Yes. But does everyone need carbon? Purifier companies have a financial incentive to convince people to buy carbon filters. They make more money if they can scare people into buying carbon. But does everyone need carbon?

I don’t want to scare people into buying carbon. Why? In most homes, my MX6 detected zero VOCs. I only found VOCs in homes that had an obvious source of pollution such as remodeling or smoke. And in all of the places where the MX6 detected VOCs, I was able to notice a chemical smell. That makes sense, since lots of VOCs have noticeable smells, like benzenetoluene, and formaldehyde.

Now, I don’t want to say that VOCs are never a problem. Photo ionization detectors like the MX6 are not the most sensitive test type out there. I bet I’d pick up small amounts of VOCs if I sent air samples to a laboratory.

However, scientists have used fancier methods and found similar results. For example, scientists in Hong Kong tested homes and found that most non-smoking homes did not have un-safe levels of VOCs. We need more tests like this to be sure.

For now, I will not be using carbon in my home, but I think it is right for people whose homes have:

1. Recent remodeling

2. Recent painting

3. Smoking

4. Odors

5. Nearby sources of gas pollutants (such as living near a factory)

6. Symptoms such as inflammation and asthma

Do I Still Need The HEPA?

Yes. Carbon captures gas pollutants, not particulate pollution. I wouldn’t have even tested this, but Anna accidentally forgot to attach the HEPA and unknowingly ran a regular particulate room test with carbon only.

Activated Carbon Filter Versus Particulate Test

The results weren’t pretty–far below the 95% reduction with the added HEPA. Thus, I do not recommend using carbon only.

As always, I’m posting the raw data and more details on the methods for fellow nerds below.

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HEPA Longevity Test: 170 Days

When I started Smart Air, a lot of people asked me how long the HEPAs last. Several people criticized the DIY on Zhihu because they said you’d probably have to change the HEPA so often that it’d end up being more expensive than the expensive brands. At the time, I …

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Types of Filters

Premise: This blog is for people concerned about air pollution. There are many valid reasons people want air purifiers: pet allergies, pollen, and asthma. However, these are not what I’m concerned about while living in China. Here I assess purifiers solely based on whether they can help protect me from …

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How Long Do Smart Air HEPAs Last? At Least 90 Days

The most frequent question people ask me these days is: how long does the HEPA last? This question is important because replacement HEPAs are the biggest long-term cost of clean air. IQ Air charges $370 for its filters. So if you have to replace the HEPA every two weeks, the DIY might …

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The Dirtiest Filter I’ve Seen

Matt Myers attended our workshop in September, and he used it straight through December. On December 7th, he sent me a picture of the blackest HEPA (and pre-filter) I’ve ever seen. Yikes! Time for a new filter! I’d be happy that black gunk is in the filter and not in …

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Smart Air is a social enterprise that creates simple, no-nonsense air purifiers and provides free education to protect people’s health from the effects of air pollution. We are proud to be the only certified B-Corp dedicated to fighting air pollution.