What is an Air Scrubber and Why do I Need One?

An indoor air scrubber is a heavy-duty, high-performance air cleaner, the kind placed in many buildings after the smoke and dust disaster in NYC after 9/11.

And you need one because the air in most homes is dirty – polluted – full of contaminants. The same is true for most basements and commercial locations, especially if there has been a flood, smoke damage or other event that makes it more likely that pollution is present - even increasing - in the air. 

Indoor air quality (IAQ) can affect your health, well-being, and comfort. If you think the air inside your home is clean, you’ll be surprised to hear that it’s probably more polluted than the air outside.

Not-so-fun Fact: According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indoor air contains 2 to 5 times more pollutants than the air outside. Can you say, “Yikes!”

IAQ has become a concern to homeowners, especially if someone in the family suffers from allergies, asthma or other respiratory issues. Today, many homeowners are using air scrubbers to remove indoor air pollutants creating a healthier living environment.

What is an Air Scrubber? Whole House and Portable

An air scrubber is a piece of HVAC equipment that sucks in dirty air, uses high-grade filtration to remove pollutants of all types and sizes from it, and sends it back into your living space. Many are commercial-grade, even when used in residential settings.

An air scrubber is designed to clean, purify, and deodorize the air. For homes with existing ductwork, the air scrubber can be installed  into the HVAC ductwork near the furnace air handler. These units are called whole-house air scrubbers.

Air Scrubber in Ductwork

When your air conditioning, furnace, or fan is running, household air is pulled into the air scrubber where it passes through a series of filters which remove particles and gases. Your air handler then blows the cleaned air back into your home.

If you have radiant or hot water heat, and therefore no ductwork, there are portable air scrubbers for you.

Definitely Fun Fact:  Air scrubbers are up to 50 times more effective at cleaning your indoor air than standard HVAC filters.

How Do Air Scrubbers Work?

OK, here are more details.

Inside both a whole house, and a portable air scrubber, are a series of purification filters. The first filter is called a “pre-filter” and removes the largest particles. The next filter is a carbon filter which removes gases and absorbs odors. Sometimes the pre-filter is also the carbon filter. The final filter is called the primary filter and should be a HEPA filter. A true HEPA filter will remove the smallest particles.

This system can remove 99.97% of the pollutants from the air inside your home.

Some air scrubbers use ultra-violet light UV) as one stage in the purification process. The UV light will actually kill harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and mold spores. Air scrubbers with UV light capability are often used in whole house models.

Some air scrubbers use ionization technology which is used to disable and kill bacteria and viruses. Ionization has the potential to generate ozone which is harmful. If you purchase one of these types of air scrubbers make sure the unit is ozone-free or that the amount of ozone levels produced are below the EPA allowable limits.

ALORAIR is a best-selling brand. Here’s a look at one of their newest models.

What Pollutants Do Air Scrubbers Remove?

What have you got? An air scrubber will alleviate the problem.

Following are some of the indoor air pollutants that an air scrubber will remove:

  • Asbestos – If you live in an older home, you may have asbestos insulation or flooring which can give off particles that can be deadly harmful.
  • Biological Pollutants – These include mold and mildew, viruses, bacteria, fungus, pollen, dust, and pet dander.
  • Formaldehyde – Found in building and household products like resins and glues, preservatives, carpeting, paint, and pesticides, formaldehyde can cause skin, eye, and throat irritation, as well as cancers.
  • VOCs – These are volatile organic compounds can be emitted by household products including paint, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, dry cleaned clothing, and pesticides. VOCs can cause many health issues.
  • Radon – Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that enters your home through small cracks and then becomes trapped inside. High radon levels are believed to cause cancer.
  • Smoke – If you have a wood burning stove or fireplace, your home will contain wood smoke. Wood smoke contains gases and small particles released when the wood burns and can be harmful. Air scrubbers will remove wood smoke as well as pollutants from smokers and cooking.

Benefits of Using an Air Scrubber

There are many reasons to consider an air scrubber. Here are the top benefits of an air scrubber.

  • Improve or maintain good health – why wait until dirty air makes you unwell? Get on top of the problem now.
  • Reduces allergies and asthma triggers – Many who suffer with these troubles report that a quality air scrubber removes the irritants that can trigger or worsen an allergy or asthma episode.
  • Clean air can improve sleep – Who wouldn’t sleep better when their airways aren’t filling up with irritants and pollutants?
  • Feel better about life – Living in a cleaner, fresher smelling home can elevate your sense of well being
  • Save money in the long run – Sure, air scrubbers aren’t cheap (see below). But an air scrubber will likely extend the life of you HVAC system by keeping the indoor air clean and preventing the build-up of dust, dirt, and mold. 

Portable Residential Air Scrubbers

Whole house air scrubbers are installed into existing HVAC ductwork but if you don’t have ductwork, you can still clean the air in your home with a portable air scrubber.

Abatement Technologies Predator 750, Portable Air Scrubber and HEPA Filtration

BlueDri BD-AS-550-BL

BlueDri BD-AS-550-BL Negative Machine Airbourne Cleaner HEPA Scrubber

Sizes: Portable air scrubbers are available in various sizes for use in small areas of 250 sq. ft. up to 2,000 square feet. These units plug into standard electric outlets and can be moved from room to room. Some units have four small wheels so that they can be rolled. Some feature two wheels on one side and a handle so they can be tipped and pulled.

Location: Some air scrubbers are meant to be placed on the floor and others are meant to be placed on a tabletop. Either way, keep the unit in an unobstructed location, away from curtains, and where air flow can be maintained.

Portable air scrubbers can be used for general daily use to keep your air clean and fresh but they can also be used when you’re doing remodeling projects, sanding, or painting. The air scrubber will remove the dust, odors, and other particles created by the project.

Other uses – You can now find small or even personal air scrubbers with UV light technology for use in your car, R.V., or boat.

Choosing the Right Size and CADR

 When purchasing a portable air scrubber make sure it has a clean air delivery rate (CADR) that is large enough for the rooms or areas where you plan to use it. You’ll need a 65 CADR for every 100 sq. ft. you need to cover. For instance you’ll need a 65 CADR for 100 sq. ft, 130 CADR for 200 sq. ft, 195 for 300 sq. ft. and so on.

Particle Size: You will also find air scrubbers with CADR’s for particle size too. The particle sizes are defined as smoke (the smallest), dust (medium), and pollen (large). Look for the highest CADR for the smallest particles.

CADR figures are based on square footage for rooms with 8 foot ceilings. If you have rooms with higher ceilings or an open floor plan, chose a unit with a higher CADR.

Air Scrubber Filters – What to Look For

Air Scrubber AlorAir

All removable filters must be cleaned or changed regularly. The pre-filter which removes the larger particles, will become dirty the quickest and will need the most frequent cleaning or changing.

After a specific job, like using the air scrubber during a remodeling project, or while you’re cleaning a moldy, musty basement, always change the filters before you put the unit back into general household use to avoid cross contamination. In other words, the filters aren’t “perfect.” The air scrubber might remove a whole lot of mold spores in the basement, and if you don’t change the filter, it might blow a few of those spores into your living space. Depending on conditions, they might multiply or at minimum cause irritation to you and household members including pets.

The HEPA Filter – A MUST for your Air Scrubber

HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Arrestor. They are the best common defense against indoor air pollution in most homes, schools, institutions and commercial settings.

You want a HEPA filter as the primary filter in your air scrubber. In fact, don’t bother considering an air scrubber that doesn’t use a HEPA filter.

When purchasing a replacement, be aware that a filter can be HEPA rated and not be a true HEPA filter. To be sure, look at the filtration efficiency – a true HEPA filter will remove 99.97% of particles as small as 0.3 microns. Primary filters that are only HEPA rated, sometimes called media filters, will only remove 99% of particles as small as 2.0 microns.  That really is a big difference. If you see the term HEPA-like, or similar, it isn’t a true HEPA filter, and the unit shouldn’t be considered.

What to Consider When Choosing an Air Scrubber – Buying Tips

Here are a few things to think about before you buy an air scrubber:

Determine the Purpose

Before you purchase a portable air scrubber determine how and where you plan to use it. Will you use it only to clean air in one room or in multiple rooms or areas? Do you need it only for general household use or will  you use it  when you do home improvements or for remedial situations?

Portability

If you want to use the air scrubber in multiple locations, make sure it is easy for you to move. Check the weight of the unit and whether it has wheels or a handle.

Quality and Durability

Consider the quality of the unit. Does it feel sturdy and appear well-made? Does the brand have a good reputation? Get the details on the warranty.

CADR

Check the CADR (clean air delivery rate) and be sure it is high enough for your purposes and the size of the space or spaces where you will use the air scrubber.

Speeds

Some units only have a single speed and others have multiple speeds. A high speed will allow you to clean a room quickly. Running a unit on a lower speed for a longer time actually creates cleaner air, but you may not want it running all night in a bedroom. A multiple speed unit will provide more versatility.

Filters

Make sure you understand when and how to change the filters. Are replacement filters easy to find?

Air Scrubbers vs Air Purifiers

This might be an over-simplification: Air scrubbers are commercial-strength air purifiers. The best air purifiers use HEPA filters, but many don’t. A few purifiers have UV light, but most don’t. HEPA and UV are integral parts of most air scrubbers. The same is true for activated carbon filters – standard on the best air scrubbers, but optional on air purifiers.

Which do I need? If you don’t have severe pollution problems (heavy mold, asbestos, an industrial plant nearby, etc.), then you might be OK with an air purifier. This is especially true if no household members have compromised breathing from allergies, asthma, COPD, etc.

Our recommendation: If your issues aren’t serious, and you don’t want to spend $400 or more, start with a quality air purifier like those we cover in our Best Air Purifier for Allergies Review and Buying Guide.

Note – We’ve done reviews for the best air purifiers for SmokePetsMold and other issues! – Pick HVAC is on top of it, as usual : )

The Cost of Air Scrubbers

How much does an air scrubber cost? 

The cost is $425 and up.

While good air purifiers start below $150 per unit, you’ll find air scrubber prices beginning at about $425 and rising to $1,000 or more for units commonly used in a home rather than an ultra-polluted commercial environment.

If you’re a business owner or building manager and need a pro-quality machine, prices start at about $2,000 – but wow, these units really clean the air!

Industrial Air Scrubbers

Industrial air scrubbers are powerful units that are used by professionals during asbestos and mold remediation, to deodorize after a fire, and to help clean up after a flood, but they can also be used in your home if you are doing a large remodeling project, have a leak or flood, or need to remove odors and smoke after a fire.

These units often have accessories available to create negative and positive air flow or to vent the air to the outside.

Industrial air scrubbers are often used in the workplace in hair and nail salons to remove toxins from hair dye and nail treatments, in printing shops, in dry cleaners, hospitals, and schools.

Rent, Don’t Buy: If you don’t plan to use an industrial air scrubber frequently, you can rent one at most big box home improvement stores. Rentals are available by the half-day, day, or week.

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