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Breathing Better in Your Home

by Jon Nunan

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Most of us enjoy breathing sweet, clean air. But for the many people who suffer from allergies and respiratory problems, clean indoor air is a necessity, not an indulgence. Fortunately, homeowners these days have a wide range of options that can help them breathe more easily and comfortably in their homes.

Do Furnace Filters Clean Indoor Air?
As far as home air filters go, the traditional furnace air filter isn't designed to clean indoor air much at all. In fact, its only function is to keep large particles like hair and debris from damaging the furnace blower. These large particles are rarely the source of human breathing difficulty. The main advantage of traditional furnace filters is that they provide low-cost protection to the heating and cooling equipment. But beware, if you don't change these every month or two, they will become clogged and eventually drastically reduce your furnace's air supply. At the very least, clogged filters will make your furnace work harder and waste energy. At worse, it will cause "cycling," which can ruin the blower motor.

While traditional furnace filters cost less than $2, there are many fancier home air filters for your furnace on the market today that catch enough particulate matter to help humans breathe better. In general, the more costly the filter, the better it will clean indoor air. Costing anywhere from $7 to $100, sophisticated filters can pull out up to five times as much dust as a traditional filter.

Electrostatic Home Air Filters
Dust mites are microscopic bugs that look like a cross between Godzilla and a tick (nasty critters, as you can imagine) and the typical home has millions of them. Fortunately, they are too small to see with the naked eye. If you could see them, you'd probably feel compelled to move out. While the dust mites can be very irritating to the lungs, their dung and carcasses can be even worse.

Generally, the better the home air filter is, the more dust mites and dust mite debris is filtered out of the air. The most impressive home air filters use electrostatic energy to help capture about five times as many particles as a traditional furnace filter. These filters have plastic or metal strips that generate static electricity when the air blows over them; in turn, the static electricity attracts very tiny particles.

As with the basic filter, it is important to change all filters regularly. Some filters are reusable. With these, take them outside and hose them down once every month or two. In the winter, use a deep laundry sink. Many people buy these filters thinking they will save money, but after cleaning them a couple of times decide it's too much bother and switch back to disposables. The choice is yours, but make sure you don't allow dirty filters to stay in your furnace.

Portable and Installed Home Air Filters
Electronic air cleaners, which can extract 30 times as much dust as ordinary filters, cost a lot more. In fact, a professionally installed air cleaner costs $500 to $700, including installation.

While this is a substantial amount of money, it's worth every penny if it offers significant breathing relief to one or more people in your household. But, if the price is too steep for you, portable units can be purchased for far less. Of course, the smaller units clean indoor air in just one room (much like a window air conditioner cools only one room).

Electronic air cleaners only need to be cleaned once a year or so because they incinerate the trapped dust. The human body is well equipped to handle breathing dirty air, so most people have no problem breathing normal household air— dust mites and all. But if someone in your household suffers from asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, allergies or other respiratory problems, you should investigate ways to make the air in your home more breathable.

Jon Nunan is a freelance writer who draws on his experience in construction, ranging from landscaping to log home building, for his articles on home improvement.