Best Air Filters for Your Furnace and Central AC

Protect your HVAC system and clean the air in your home with one of these filters from CR’s tests

Technician inserting one of the best air filters into a duct.
Senior technician Mike Sedlak inserts an air filter into a duct in CR's test chamber.
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Hidden away in your basement or attic, the air filter in your HVAC system is something you probably don’t think about much. But a good air filter keeps your furnace and central air conditioner humming along by protecting the mechanicals from dust and debris. And the best filters trap indoor pollutants such as dust, pet dander, and pollen, helping to clean the air in your home.

That’s important because the concentration of air pollutants inside your home can be two to five times higher than concentrations typically found outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Below are the top air filters from CR’s tests (grouped by their thickness and listed in alphabetical order). We gauge how well an air filter removes dust, pollen, and smoke from the air, and see how freely air flows through the filter at any fan speed. We also calculate the annual costs of replacement filters, based on the manufacturer's recommendation for when to change them (keep in mind: prices may vary by retailer; also, it may be cheaper if you buy filters in bulk).

“Thicker filters perform better in our tests and we found that you don’t have to replace them as often,” says Dave Trezza, who oversees CR’s air filter tests. But not every HVAC system can accommodate a thicker filter—the most common size is 1 inch thick—though you can retrofit the ductwork of some systems to accept thicker filters.

Something else to keep in mind as you shop is the filtering grade given by the manufacturer. The most commonly used system applies a MERV number (minimum efficiency reporting value) to each filter, which was developed by ASHRAE (formerly the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers). But 3M and Home Depot have each developed their own classification systems called MPR (microparticle performance rating) and FPR (filter performance rating) respectively. "No matter the grading system, the higher the number, the better the filter is at getting rid of air pollutants," says Trezza.

For more information on air filters, including some models to avoid, see our full air filter ratings and air filter buying guide.

1-inch Air Filters
Filtrete 1900 Maximum Allergen Reduction
Filtrete 1900 Maximum Allergen...

    Filtrete 1900 Maximum Allergen...

    CR’s take: The Filtrete 1900 Maximum Allergen Reduction filter is impressive at removing dust, pollen, and smoke from the air when the HVAC system is running on its highest fan speed, earning an Excellent rating in that test. But at the lowest speed, the filter is only average at removing those same airborne particles. Airflow through the filter remains strong in both instances. Filtrete recommends that you replace this filter four times a year, so, though the price is only $20 per filter, the annual cost is $80.

    Filtrete Ultra Allergen Reduction 1500 MPR
    Filtrete Ultra Allergen Reduction...

      Filtrete Ultra Allergen Reduction...

      CR’s take: The Filtrete Ultra Allergen Reduction 1500 MPR filter earns a Very Good rating for removing smoke, dust, and pollen from the air with the system running on a high fan speed, but is only average when running on its lowest speed. In both cases, air flow through the filter is strong. Filtrete recommends changing this filter four times a year for an annual cost of $68. 

      3M Filtrete 2500 Smart Premium Allergen Ultra Fine Particles S-EAX22DC-6
      3M Filtrete 2500 Smart Premium...

        3M Filtrete 2500 Smart Premium...

        CR’s take: When we heard that 3M was making a “smart” air filter, we were dubious—an air filter is about as low-tech as you can get. But the addition of a sensor to the filter that you can read with an app on your smartphone turns out to be a good idea, because it takes the guesswork out of when to change the filter.

        In our tests, the 3M Filtrete 2500 Smart Premium Allergen Ultra Fine Particles S-EAX22DC-6 effectively removes airborne particles with the system running on its highest fan speed, earning an Excellent rating. At the lowest speed, however, particle removal is only average. The manufacturer recommends replacing the filter twice a year, at an annual cost of $60, though the sensor may indicate that it should be changed more—or less—often.

        We also test two other 1-inch smart 3M Filtrete filters, the 3M Filtrete 1900 Smart Premium Allergen Bacteria and Virus and the 3M Filtrete 1500 Smart Allergen Bacteria & Virus, which have lower MPR filtering ratings than the 2500 Smart Premium above.

        4-inch and 5-inch Air Filters
        Aprilaire Healthy Home 213 MERV 13
        Aprilaire  Healthy Home 213 MERV 13

          Aprilaire  Healthy Home 213 MERV 13

          CR’s take: The 4-inch-thick Aprilaire Healthy Home 213 MERV 13 earns an Excellent rating for removing dust, smoke, and pollen when the HVAC system is running on its highest fan speed. It does almost as well when running on its lowest fan speed, and air flows freely through the filter. Annual cost is $41 per year based on Aprilaire's recommendation to replace the filter once.

          We also test the 4-inch Aprilaire Allergy & Asthma 216 filter, which earns similar scores. But you’ll pay $184 in annual costs because the filter costs more and Aprilaire recommends replacing it twice a year.

          Carrier EZ Flex Filter Cabinet
          Carrier EZ Flex Filter Cabinet

            Carrier EZ Flex Filter Cabinet

            CR’s take: The 5-inch-thick Carrier EZ Flex Filter Cabinet with a filtering rating of MERV10 earns a Very Good rating for removing dust, pollen, and smoke from the air when a system is running on its highest fan speed, but it earns only a so-so rating of Good with the HVAC running on the lowest speed. It has no problem maintaining air flow in either scenario. Carrier recommends replacing this filter twice a year, which translates to an annual cost of $128.

            Filtrete Healthy Living Ultra Allergen 4 MPR1550
            Filtrete Healthy Living Ultra...

              Filtrete Healthy Living Ultra...

              CR’s take: Another good performer, the 4-inch-thick Filtrete Healthy Living Ultra Allergen 4 MPR1550 capably removes dust, pollen, and smoke with the HVAC system running on both its highest and lowest fan speeds, earning Very Good ratings. This filter provides nearly unrestricted airflow. Filtrete recommends that you replace this filter once a year, and at $29 per filter, that makes it one of the more economical filters in our tests.

              Lennox Healthy Climate CarbonClean 16
              Lennox Healthy Climate CarbonClean 16

                Lennox Healthy Climate CarbonClean 16

                CR’s take: The 5-inch-thick Lennox Healthy Climate CarbonClean 16 effectively filters dust, smoke, and pollen when the system is operating at both its highest and lowest fan speeds, with little noticeable restriction of airflow through the forced-air system. The list price for this filter is $100, although we’ve seen it selling for less. Lennox recommends that you replace it once a year.

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                Mary H.J. Farrell

                Knowing that I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, I decided to spiff up my byline by adding the middle initials "H.J." A veteran of online and print journalism, I've worked at People, MSNBC, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and an online Consumer Reports wannabe. But the real thing is so much better. Follow me on Twitter.