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Cheap Air Purifier Buying Guide

Medical experts warn that not even the very best air purifier can make any health claims whatsoever, and the EPA bluntly advises that air purifiers be only part of an air treatment plan that includes controlling the source of pollutants and improving ventilation. Still, experts and consumers generally agree that these devices (if they perform well) should improve air quality.

In air purifier reviews, many consumers with allergies or trouble breathing say air purifiers offer some relief as they work to rid the air of many of the contaminants, both visible and invisible, that contribute to these problems.

The biggest factor affecting the price of an air purifier is the amount of square footage it's designed to cover. Room air purifiers are designed either for small rooms (less than 200 square feet) or large rooms (200 to 600 square feet or more). An air purifier meant for 150 square feet will always be cheaper than an air purifier meant for 550 square feet, regardless of features or performance. Many rooms straddle the line between small and large, so err on the side of large when considering what size air purifier to buy.

Cheap small-room air cleaners range in price from $35 to $60 while high-end purifiers for small rooms can cost more than $300. Our top picks in the budget range, the Hamilton Beach TrueAir Compact Air Purifier 04386 (starting at $48) and Holmes HAP242-UC (starting at $36), are not only reasonably priced but have stood the test of time, with thousands of reviewers attesting to their performance.

Cheap large-room air purifiers generally start at about $150 and top out at $300. In this segment we chose the Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K (starting at $279), which is designed to cover up to 500 square feet, and the Winix PlasmaWave 5300 (starting at $168), designed for spaces up to 350 square feet. The Envion Ionic Pro Turbo (starting at $135) comes at a price almost unbelievably low for a unit that claims to provide 500 square feet of coverage. But this widely visible brand seems to suffer from generally shoddy workmanship, according to reviews, and the safety and effectiveness of its ionizing technology have been questioned.

Upmarket models start at about $500, while some of their costlier cousins run to $1,000 and beyond. They are more powerful, generally cover larger square footages, and feature technologically advanced filters, along with conveniences such as remote controls and LED displays. Our picks may not have some of the bells and whistles of these high-end machines, but what they do have are the endorsements of both experts and consumers, many of whom would place them side by side with much pricier models.

Shoppers will not spy many of our top picks in the aisles of big-box stores such as Walmart and Target. They are most readily found and generally cheapest online at Amazon. A version of the Hamilton Beach 04386, for example, is primarily sold via Amazon with an "A" at the end of the model number.

Finally, in case there is any question, know that an air purifier, no matter how expensive, will not remove radon or carbon monoxide from the air. These toxins are extremely dangerous and the latter can be lethal. Consumers who suspect they may be at risk for radon gas exposure can buy a testing kit -- if harmful levels are found, call in a pro. A carbon monoxide alarm can detect the otherwise odorless and colorless gas sometimes called the "silent killer."

What We Looked For

For consumers just beginning a search for a cheap air purifier, the first step is identifying the air quality issue(s) they want to address. Common irritants include smoke, dust, pet dander, pollen, mold, cooking and perfume odors, and chemicals and gases. After doing your best to control the source of the problem and increase ventilation, determine the size of the space you'd like to address and consider which type of cheap air purifier will complement your overall line of attack. The Environmental Protection Agency dedicates an entire section of its website to the topic of indoor air quality and discusses the performance characteristics of different types of air purifiers. Some cheap air purifiers focus more on particulates than on odors or gases, or vice versa.

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HEPA Air Purifiers.

High-efficiency particulate air filters resemble the lint screens used in clothes dryers, except that they are made of small, tightly woven fibers (often glass) as opposed to metal or plastic. HEPA filters, found in the Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K and Winix PlasmaWave 5300 large-room air purifiers, trap 99.97 percent of airborne particles -- think dust, pollen, mold spores, pet dander -- as small as 0.3 microns (1 micron equals 1/25,400 of an inch).

The Hamilton Beach TrueAir 04386 model for small rooms uses a HEPA-grade filter, a step down from a true HEPA filter. These filters can claim to capture only 99 percent of airborne particles -- those at least 3 microns in size. Still, reviewers hold that the Hamilton Beach is an absolutely viable choice for mild or seasonal allergy sufferers. As a buyer's guide on the retail site AchooAllergy.com illustrates, pollen, plant spores, dust mite allergens, mold, and certainly most dog hair and cat dander are large enough that even a pseudo HEPA filter should be able to trap them.

For consumers who insist on a true HEPA purifier for a small room, the Holmes HAP242-UC has recently been outfitted with a new range of filters that let users to decide the level of allergen and odor protection they need, from HEPA-type to an even more advanced HEPA-Plus filter that claims to attack 99.99 percent of the smallest particles. If fighting the spread of viruses is a main concern, the Germ Guardian AC4020 (starting at $55) is not only one of the cheapest and most attractive small room units with a HEPA filter, it also uses ultraviolet germicidal irradiation to destroy bacterial microorganisms.

The Airfree brand offers an alternative approach in the Airfree Onix 3000 (starting at $266). Its Thermodynamic Sterilizing System uses a ceramic core to kill off offending spores, fungus, viruses, and bacteria, at temperatures of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. With no fan and no filters to replace, this model is silent and eco-friendly. The patented technology works slowly, however, claiming to reduce 70 percent to 90 percent of organisms in the air within 10 days.

Keep in mind that airborne particles often settle before being drawn into an air purifier, so even a HEPA filter won't get rid of all airborne pollutants. Before buying an air purifier, note any information on air changes per hour, or the number of times air flows through the filter each hour. The higher the ACH, the more opportunity to catch pollutants. Many experts recommend a minimum of four. The two HEPA air purifiers on our list of top picks, the Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K and Winix PlasmaWave 5300, meet this minimum at 4.8 and 5 pass-throughs an hour, respectively. The specs for the other units we researched don't include this information.

Carbon Pre-Filter.

Many HEPA air purifiers also incorporate a carbon pre-filter that helps absorb odors and trap some larger particles. If smoke and/or odors are the primary problem, a cheap air purifier with a carbon filter (sometimes referred to as a charcoal filter) is a good choice. This type of filter uses activated carbon to absorb the offending fumes but doesn't remove other microbes from the air. That's why a carbon filter is often paired with a HEPA filter. Among the multiple filters available for the Holmes HAP242-UC, the AER1 Odor Eliminator boosts a true HEPA filter with doses of carbon, zeolite, and baking soda for even greater odor absorption.

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The carbon filters in most cheap air purifiers are not equipped to remove volatile organic compounds, which are often byproducts of common household cleaning agents, as well as paints, varnishes, waxes, and certain building materials, among other substances. The activated carbon levels in the filters are not high enough to eliminate VOCs. For a serious problem with these gaseous pollutants, look for an air purifier recommended especially for this purpose, and expect to pay more than our $300 limit.

No Ozone Generation.

The most controversial air purifiers intentionally convert air molecules into ozone to tackle odors. The EPA warns that ozone can seriously damage the lungs and, at the very least, exacerbate respiratory problems. Consequently, many experts recommend against ozone-generating air purifiers.

Ionic air purifiers such as the Envion Ionic Pro Turbo (an electrostatic precipitator, to be exact) also produce small amounts of ozone, but supposedly at levels that do not exceed current safety standards (and do nothing to cleanse the air). Instead of using a filter, ionic air purifiers catch contaminants on electrically charged plates/blades or cells. They send out negatively charged ions that attach to airborne particulates, which are then pulled down out of the air and lured back to a positively charged collector plate. Reports dating back to at least 2003 have questioned the efficacy of air ionizers -- most famously the Ionic Breeze, resulting in a lawsuit that forced manufacturer Sharper Image to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And yet, these types of purifiers remain popular with some consumers and are readily available at many retailers.

Perhaps the amount of dust, dirt, and grime visible on the collection blades makes an ionic air purifier appear to be doing its job. But the silent operation that makes these models appealing depends on the absence of a fan, which means the machine catches only the contaminants that happen to drift within close range. So what happens to the rest? Experts note that often the particles on the charged plates also may be recirculated, and some wind up settling on other surfaces.

Given the potential safety risks and many viable alternatives, our inclination is to avoid products such as the Envion Ionic Pro Turbo. The Holmes HAP242-UC is augmented with an optional ionizer, for consumers who really want to give this technology a shot. The Winix PlasmaWave 5300's "corona discharge" process supposedly emits very low levels of quickly dispersing ozone when switched into PlasmaWave mode. Consumers can keep the setting turned off should they decide not to risk exposure to any ozone whatsoever.

High CADR.

An air purifier's clean air delivery rate should correlate with the size of the room(s) where the product will be used. There is a CADR for three types of pollutants -- tobacco smoke, pollen, and dust. Each is determined separately by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, an independent third party, as part of a voluntary program. The numbers are listed on the packaging for participating products, including some but not all of our picks. The maximum CADRs, based on the testing protocols, are 400 for dust and 450 for pollen and smoke. AHAM recommends looking for a CADR for tobacco smoke that's at least two-thirds the square footage of the room where the air purifier will be used. The smoke CADR for the Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K, for example, is 315, making it suitable for larger rooms (about 475 to 500 square feet). An air purifier with a higher CADR relative to the room size will clean the air faster and more often.

Air Purifier Reviews

Determining which model is right for you based on air purifier reviews by users, especially at the lower end of the price spectrum, can be frustrating. As with many consumer products, the first review you read might be glowing and the next one damning: One user deems a particular model a waste of money because it's too noisy or hard to maintain while another says it makes a big difference in the breathability and smell of the air. We also noticed that models meant for large rooms generally garner more favorable comments than small-room air purifiers. Although there aren't many slam-dunks in this category, our picks, large and small, are generally well-received by consumers and experts alike.

Pollutant Removal.

Judging the performance of an air purifier starts with the simple question of whether or not it cleans the air. Among our top picks, the Hamilton Beach TrueAir Compact Air Purifier -- our first choice in the small-room category -- is the only one without a "true" HEPA filter. Despite this, it receives highly positive feedback on Amazon from a majority of reviewers, who number in the thousands. A good portion report noticeable differences in dust levels and say the air purifier mitigates allergy symptoms and reduces pet odors.

The best large-room air purifier on our list, the Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K, handily vanquishes the usual airborne irritants and also seems to have good staying power, with several reviewers reporting no hitches in operation after many years of ownership. Countless reviews on Amazon say it takes care of the smoke and smell from cigarettes or cigars, and several even laud it for clearing the air during wildfires. Any room air purifier does a better job when placed in a spot where the air can freely circulate, with the door and windows closed.

Opinion is sharply divided on the Envion Ionic Pro Turbo. While some reviewers are enamored of it, others express doubts about whether it actually cleans the air, and we saw several references to an "ozone smell" given off by the machine. These are standard criticisms usually associated with air ionizers and could be considered subjective. More worrisome are numerous complaints on Amazon and the Walmart website regarding these units breaking down after only limited usage.

Noise Level.

One important thing to remember about noise is that one person's white noise is another person's distraction. Most air purifiers have three speed settings and those with fans are the noisiest. Users report that the lowest setting is the least intrusive, although this reduces the rate at which air is circulated. The Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K gets several nods of approval from reviewers on Amazon for very quiet operation, even on the turbo setting. Both the Hamilton Beach and Holmes small-room models also win some plaudits for relatively quiet operation, while many find the Germ Guardian AC4020 surprisingly loud.

The Winix PlasmaWave 5300 is equipped with a sleep mode that many reviewers say virtually reduces all noise. Controversial ionic air purifiers and the Airfree Onix 3000, with its specialized heat technology, are made to be totally silent.

Ongoing Expenses and Maintenance.

It would be great if an air purifier could be purchased, plugged in, and left alone. Much to the chagrin of reviewers, HEPA air purifiers demand two ongoing expenses: energy and, more significantly, replacement filters.

To cut the energy cost, which corresponds to the size of the air purifier and the frequency with which it's used, experts recommend using the lowest setting (most come with three -- high, medium, and low) and leaving the machine off when you don't need it. Ionizing room air purifiers such as the Ionic Pro Turbo, as well as units such as the Airfree Onix 3000, consume less energy but are meant to run continuously.

The Hamilton Beach TrueAir Compact Air Purifier has a permanent filter that requires only vacuum cleaning. On the other models, both the primary filter and the carbon pre-filter (if there is one) must be replaced regularly. The HEPA filters on many room air purifiers should be changed at least every 12 to 18 months, although some users report replacing filters as often as every three months. The carbon pre-filter on a cheap air purifier lasts three to six months. Depending on the specific size and model, replacement filters for the models we've covered cost about $30 to $115 dollars a year. The Whirlpool Whispure AP51030K features two indicator lights to remind the user well in advance when the filters need to be changed. The Germ Guardian AC4020 likewise has a replacement timer.

Reviews on Amazon gripe that the Holmes HAP242-UC collects enormous amounts of dust, and Holmes says its less finely meshed AER1 HEPA-type filter should optimally be replaced at least four times a year. Some users get around this expense by removing and cleaning filters, whether by vacuuming, wiping with a damp cloth, or soaking in water. Many carbon filters are also washable, and do-it-yourself types report finding generic charcoal pre-filter material at home improvement stores.

The Airfree Onix 3000 stands out when it comes to maintenance, because there's no filter to clean or replace. All users have to do is dust the outside from time to time. The steel plates (and charging wires) or the collection cell on an ionic air purifier such as the Envion Ionic Pro Turbo must be kept clean to work at maximum efficiency. Dirty plates make popping and crackling noises. These catchments should be wiped down with a damp rag periodically, and some models need this attention as often as every four to five days.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Air Purifiers
  2. Discount Air Purifiers Features Comparison Table
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