Allen Johnston headshot
Allen Johnston

Over the past 18 months, we all have become exceedingly more aware of the quality of indoor air, which can be up to five times dirtier than outdoor air and contain chemicals, bacteria, mold and more.

The pandemic increased awareness of the importance of indoor air quality to mitigate pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2, and now there also is heightened awareness around reducing dust, allergens and volatile organic compounds to improve health and well-being.

Suddenly, an industry that’s been around for decades is in the spotlight. As a result, air purification device sales have increased exponentially this past year.

But there remains a lot of confusion about expectations of these devices: what they truly are — and aren’t — capable of. Here’s what you want to consider before installing these devices in your community.

What do air purifiers really do?

Air purification is the improvement of indoor air quality by bringing in fresh air, filtering the air in a room at least three times every hour and/or using advanced technologies such as bipolar Ionization or photocatalytic oxidation to actively reduce pollutants in the space.

Air purifiers were originally designed to eliminate volatile organic compounds and reduce odors such as those caused by bacterial and mold, pollen, dust, pet dander and other pollutants.

More recently, many companies are testing their air purifiers ability to specifically eliminate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although many air purification devices have been proven effective at inactivating SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses, it’s important to note no device or filtration system is 100% effective and, therefore, air purification should be considered as one part of a larger cleaning and disinfecting plan.

When choosing a purifier, look for a device that also offers odor reducing technology to help with nonenal and other offensive odors.

Understanding acronyms

HEPA: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters as the most efficient at capturing human generated virus particles. HEPA filters push air through fine mesh filters, removing dust and other particles without releasing any new potentially harmful materials into the air.

A true HEPA filter can remove at least 99.97% of particles in a lab setting. Be wary of HEPA-like or HEPA-type, because they are not true HEPA and do not deliver these results. It’s also important to note that some viruses and volatile organic compounds are too small for even HEPA filters to trap, which is why multi-layered technologies — photocatalytic processes, UV lights and ions — are seen in the most effective air purification devices.

PCO: Photocatalytic oxidation technology uses energy to turn moisture in the air into products that continuously clean your space.

BPI: Bipolar ionization creates a plasma of electrical charges, ionization removes allergens and other harmful pathogens from the breathing space, either by pushing them away or causing them to clump together and fall to the floor.

CADR: The clean-air delivery rate rating measures the speed that the purifier turns over the air in the room and removes dust, smoke and pollen. Look for a CADR of 300 or more.

Which one is right for us?

We’ve already established that a True HEPA filter is the first thing you want to look for, as well as a CADR of 300 or more.

One of the most common mistakes is choosing a purifier that’s not powerful enough for the space it’s cleaning. Make sure you install a device that’s designed for the size of the room or space you are trying to purify.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency took a stance advising that the use of ozone during the purification process should be limited to unoccupied spaces. Be sure to carefully read your owner’s manual regarding your device’s ozone emissions and operations.

Look for multiple technologies. Combining active air purification technologies such as photocatalytic oxidation and bipolar ionization with a passive HEPA filter can further improve indoor air quality, speed up the purification process and destroy the smallest contaminants that the HEPA can’t capture.

Extend the life of your device

Once you’ve installed your air purification devices, maintenance is an important part of making sure they are operating to their highest ability.

Cleaning the external filters on a monthly basis keeps the internal mechanics clean and extends the overall life of the product.

If your device uses an active technology such as photocatalytic oxidation or bipolar ionization, it likely has a UV light. You’ll also want to follow the manufacturer guidelines regarding replacing the UV light cell that controls the photocatalytic process annually or every two years to achieve maximum performance. You can usually return used cells to the manufacturer or dispose them in accordance with your local regulations.

One final note

Remember, the effectiveness of air purifiers in real-world situations will vary significantly from the controlled conditions in a laboratory. The air we breathe is constantly changing due to the conditions (including temperature and humidity) of the room we’re in, plus the materials and the people in the room.

Installing an air purification system is absolutely a great step to improve the space where your staff and residents live, work and play.

Allen Johnston is working to educate the public on the importance of indoor air quality and alleviate some of the misinformation in the industry. The chief technology officer and founder of GreenTech Environmental started a “war on mold” after watching his mother suffer from poor indoor conditions — undetected mold and chemicals in her work environment that eventually lead to her passing. As a result, GreenTech was founded in 2009 with the desire to innovate products that improve the space where families live, work and play and make clean air accessible to all.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.