An Expert Guide to Buying an Air Purifier for Smoke

If you live in an area that's prone to wildfire smoke, it's important to stay on top of the air quality in your home! Read on for everything you'll need to know!

A city with orange and grey smoke engulfing the buildings.

Photo by Nick Herasimenk

Summertime is usually a time here in the United States to have fun with friends and family in the great outdoors. However, it seems in recent years that our summer air is increasingly filled with wildfire smoke! As the air fills with the hazy cloud of smoke, you find yourself retreating to the safety of your home overwhelmed with a myriad of recurring symptoms: headaches, red and itchy eyes, coughing, sore throat, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being tired! And I sure don’t want to develop lung disease! But just how much better off are you indoors?

Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick, but people with asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or heart disease are especially at risk. So too are children, pregnant women, and first responders.

According to the EPA, in the last several years, a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. Other research indicates that people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors. Thus, for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors.

How Wildfire Smoke Enters the Home

A wildfire with a lot of smoke.

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier

Outdoor air enters and leaves a house through infiltration, natural ventilation, and mechanical ventilation.

In a process known as infiltration, outdoor air flows into the house through:

  • openings
  • joints
  • cracks in walls, floors, and ceilings
  • around windows and doors

In natural ventilation, air moves through opened windows and doors. Air movement associated with infiltration and natural ventilation is caused by air temperature differences between indoors and outdoors and by wind.

Finally, there are a number of mechanical ventilation devices, from outdoor-vented fans that intermittently remove air from a single room, such as bathrooms and kitchen, to air handling systems that use fans and ductwork to continuously remove indoor air and distribute filtered and conditioned outdoor air to strategic points throughout the house.

The rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air is described as the air exchange rate. When there is little infiltration, natural ventilation, or mechanical ventilation, the air exchange rate is low and pollutant levels can increase. Regardless of whether you live in a single-family home or an apartment, the same hazardous conditions can occur.

So just retreating to the safety of the “not so great” indoors isn’t the best solution. Wildfires put particulates and odors into the air, and these tiny smoke particles are often smaller than 10 microns—that’s smaller than a speck of dust; you can’t even see it with the naked eye! They’re so small that the standard home filters like the ones that you change out in your home heating and air conditioners (HVAC) can’t remove them. So what’s a family to do? There is a solution! Read on as we break down how to keep you and your loved ones healthy during fire season and throughout the year!

Let’s find the most effective ways to eliminate wildfire airborne particles and odors from your home's air. Because of these environmental factors, more and more families are looking toward air purification.

What Is Home Air Purification?

Quite simply put, an air purifier or air cleaner is a device that removes contaminants from the air in a room to improve the air quality. They work by passing your home air through specially designed filters that are designed to remove pollution and odors from your home.

Here’s a list of air filters commonly used for various types of air purification:

  • HEPA filters
  • UV light filters
  • Electrostatic filters
  • Washable filters
  • Media filters (carbon)
  • Spun glass filters
  • Pleated filters

Filter types

HEPA

Remember earlier when I told you that wildfire smoke and odors can be as small as 10 microns? Well, the best way to eliminate these pollutants is with a true-HEPA filter. They are able to remove 99.97% of allergens and pollutants as small as 3 microns! That’s 3/1000th of an inch! So it’s easy to see how these purifiers are able to remove the odor and microscopic particles from wildfire smoke—they trap all these tiny particles that are smaller than a speck of dust and remove them from the air.

Media (Carbon) / Activated Charcoal

The best air purifiers are ones that use a combination of HEPA filtration and carbon filtration. A charcoal filter adds an extra level of odor removal to the system. Carbon air filters are used primarily to remove gasses and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) from the air. These are commonly released from common household products but are also released into the air by wildfires. In combination with HEPA filtration, you’re able to cover all the bases when it comes to home air safety. This type is great for odor removal caused by cigarette and cigar smokers.

Electrostatic

Electrostatic filters use electricity to charge the particles in the air. The charged particles are then attracted to an oppositely charged filter media and are trapped there.

I feel a word of caution should be added here. While electrostatic systems may be safe for most adults, a byproduct of electrostatic filters is that they generate ozone gas. Studies have shown that ozone in high doses can be harmful. Not all ionic purifiers produce ozone so keep an eye out and avoid the ones that do. This is especially important if the purifier is to be used in a baby's room.

UV Light

UV light filters use ultraviolet light to kill harmful pathogens. Smoke particles are not only harmful in and of themselves but potential pathogens (Germs, bacteria) can attach themselves to a smoke particle, so UV light will kill these “hitchhikers”.

Pleated, Washable, and Spun Glass Filters

Everyone should be familiar with these types of filters. These are the ones that are commonly used in home heating and air conditioning systems. Standard pleated filters are disposable and washable filters may be removed and cleaned to use multiple times. They should be cleaned often (every two months) during wildfire season. And also just as frequently in homes where cigarette smoke is present.

The Best Option?

In summary, remember that the best air purifier to use to remove wildfire smoke has a combination of HEPA and carbon filtration.

The Levoit Core 300 True HEPA Air Purifier.

The Levoit Core 300 True HEPA Air Purifier is able to remove particulate matter down to 0.3 microns in size

An added bonus of a HEPA air purifier is that it also removes dust, pet dander, gasses, fine particles, pollen, bacteria, cigar smoke, cigarette smoke, chemicals, germs, and mold spores!

So now that we’ve determined all the particulate matter that a HEPA filtration can eliminate to help keep your family safe, let's review what specifications to look for when deciding which one is right for your home.

What to Look for When Buying a Purifier for Smoke

The The Winix 9800 air purifier.

The Winix 9800 (Tower type)

What else should be considered when trying to remove wildfire smoke from the home? Clean air delivery rate (cadr rating) is key. You want a purifier that will be able to handle the square footage of the room that your purifier is in. Look for models that are able to treat the area efficiently.

Fan speed is another key variable. Models with varying fan speeds allow you to control how quickly you’re able to turn the air around in a room. You may have an elderly family member popping by and want to crank up the fan speed to get the air purified quickly!

Also, look for minimum efficiency reporting values (MERV) for the purifier in question. This is the ability of the unit to capture particles between 0.3 and 10 microns. The higher the MERV rating, the better the purifier is at trapping specific types of particles.

The MinusA2 from Rabbit Air mounted to a wall.

The MinusA2 from Rabbit Air (Wall Mount)

In addition to the type of filter technology, other things to consider include noise levels, energy consumption (energy star rating), and cost of maintenance. These values should be provided by the manufacturer, or your Curated Air Purifier Expert can help you find them.

Another great feature available is plug-and-play technology. This allows you to connect your home purification system to your phone, or “smart home” hub via BlueTooth or your home's wifi network. This, of course, allows you to make changes and monitor the efficiency of the unit at all times.

Styles of Purifier Units Available

Console

The Rabbit Air MinusA2 Air Purifier.

The Rabbit Air MinusA2 Air Purifier

  • Greatest square footage
  • Strongest filtration
  • Sometimes wall mountable

Tower

The Winix Tower AQ Air Purifier.

The Winix Tower AQ Air Purifier

  • More portable than a console
  • Great for the office or moving around the home

Table-top

The The Levoit Core 300 Air Purifier.

The Levoit Core 300 Air Purifier

  • Great for small spaces
  • Budget-friendly
  • Easily portable

Best Brands

  • Winnex
  • Molekule
  • Rabbit Air
  • Austin Air
  • Fellowes AeraMax
  • Allen
  • Aura Air
  • Levoit

Closing Thoughts

So far, we have talked about what to look for and what to avoid to keep your family safe this wildfire season. We’ve looked for a system that combines HEPA and carbon filtration. We want to make sure that the air purifier is capable of handling the size of the room where it will be installed. We spoke of what specs to look for and additional connectivity options. I encourage you to take the info provided and get with an Air Purifier Expert and talk to them about the needs of your home and family. Indoor air quality is important!

Until next time, here’s wishing everyone a safe and healthy fire season! I hope that the above info helps you breathe easy! (pun intended)

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Written By
As a child of the '70's I've always been interested in clean air and water! This led me down a career path heavily focused on the environment! The whole science of taking contaminated air and water and making it safe to use again has been very rewarding. I'm still an active consultant with the Mojav...

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