Q&A: Can air purifiers get rid of household odors?

Consumer Reports News: January 30, 2008 03:09 AM

Our kitchen is poorly ventilated, so cooking odors tend to linger. Will an air purifier eliminate the smells?

Some manufacturers of air purifiers claim their machines will remove odors from your home as well as improve the overall air quality there. Hoping to sniff out the truth, we put five room air purifiers to the test.

Manufacturers use a range of different technologies to enable their machines to remove odors:
• The Whirlpool Whispure AP45030S, $230, highly rated in “Filtering the claims,” uses a thin carbon-fiber mat that also serves as a prefilter to remove large particles.

• The Bio-Net EGF Enhanced, a $750 electrostatic precipitator–type purifier, has a small shallow cartridge loaded with carbon granules.

• The IQAir HealthPro Plus, $800, and the Austin Air Systems HealthMate HM-400 (shown), $450, are equipped with large cartridges filled with carbon granules.

• The Winix PlasmaWave 5000, $300, combines a carbon filter with “PlasmaWave” technology said to, generate “both positive and negative ions” to create plasma clusters that “instantly neutralize viruses, bacteria, chemical vapors and odors in the air.”

Over the course of several days, we ran each of the five machines through its paces in the same sealed chamber we used to test for dust and smoke removal. Read the results of the testing below.

The first step involved filling the chamber with a cooking odor by heating ground cumin in an electric frying and pumping the aroma into the room via a duct. (There was no air purifier in the room at this point.) Every 15 minutes over the course of one hour, our trained panelists, seated at “sniffing stations,” took a test whiff of the chamber air to determine whether the cumin odor in the room was being reduced. The panelists determined that the odor stayed roughly the same during the one-hour test period.

To get the room ready for an air purifier, we ventilated it completely. Next, we placed an air purifier in the middle of the room and turned it on and then repeated the cumin test as described above. We followed the same procedure for each model.

Our findings: The Whirlpool, Bio-Net, and Winix air purifiers did not remove the odors and proved to be hardly an improvement over no air purifier at all. The IQAir and Austin Air models proved the most effective, though it took them an hour to eliminate the odor completely. Note that neither of these models was among the top performers in our tests for dust and smoke removal. Refer to our Ratings of room and whole-house air purifiers (available to subscribers) to find the top overall performers.

You’ll need to replace the odor filters on your purifier according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, typically every 3 to 12 months. The cost of replacement odor filters for the models tested range from about $8 for the Whirlpool carbon-fiber mat to about $100 for the IQAir large cartridge.

The bottom line? Instead of buying an air purifier to get rid of smells, you might do just as well by opening a window even for just a few minutes.—Ed Perratore

Essential information: Read “Tip of the day: How to choose an air purifier” for expert advice on choosing an air purifier.

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