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THE GOODS : Clearing the Air at Home


Although the time-tested way to clear the air in a room is to open the windows, outdoor air pollution can make that impractical. So the housewares industry is trying to fill the gap. "It's an incredibly hot category," said Mark Eisen, Home Depot's head of environmental marketing. "People don't think about indoor air until they start getting allergies and asthma, and most people don't know anything about filters."

An investment in air-cleaning equipment can range from about $89 for a tabletop filter to $1,200 for a central system tied into the ductwork, he said. Houseware stores, home appliance departments and some pharmacies now offer a dizzying variety of systems to filter, moisten, cool, recirculate and monitor household air.

"Indoor air quality is the fastest emerging health concern of the decade," said Bob Senn of Honeywell Enviracaire, one of the major manufacturers to unveil new air purification systems at last winter's International Housewares Show in Chicago.

Honeywell, like other major manufacturers (including Norelco, Bionaire and Holmes), is promoting a new filtration technology known as HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) in its line of home systems. Originally developed to trap radioactive dust in atomic plants, the tightly woven filters are said to trap up to 99.97% of particles down to a 0.3 micron size. (Ten micron is the threshold of visibility.) "HEPA is the new flavor of the month," said Kim Bennett, who coordinates certification programs for the Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "It's definitely a hot niche right now."

And is it the best air cleaner?

"The filtration standard is very good. It means you'll be filtering out particles almost as small as tobacco smoke," said Frank Iacopelli, who tests home environmental products for Consumer Reports magazine. But there is no simple way to say what's "best," he emphasized.

The three traditional ways to clean air, he said, are filters, electrical attraction of particles and ozonization that converts oxygen in the air to ozone, which then destroys gas molecules and microorganisms. His tests of 24 models showed that the two most effective console models for room cleaning are HEPA filters and electrostatic precipitators in which a fan moves the air through a set of plates charged with electricity at an opposite polarity to the dust, thus attracting it.

Testing for a number of factors, including smoke removal, dust removal, noise and cost, the best electrostatic model was on a par with the best HEPA, he said, the major difference being maintenance.

The HEPA filter requires virtually no maintenance until it needs to be replaced (three to five years, depending on use), when it becomes quite expensive, he said. The replacement filter cost can range from around $70 to $150, depending on the model. And consumers are warned that such labels as "HEPA-like" or "HEPA-type" will not meet the rigorous standards of the genuine filter.

"With electrostatic, the plates will get coated with so much dust they have to be washed, so you have to keep an eye on them," said Iacopelli. Although the price is comparable ($200 to $300 for a console), both systems do a credible job of removing particulates, though he and other experts emphasize they are not a panacea.

Iacopelli warns against buying any product with extravagant health claims, such as curing asthma. "I have run the gamut of indoor air cleaners and am skeptical of any claims, to a certain degree, because there are so many variables out there," he said.

He also listed some downsides. No system will work if it is dumped into a dusty room, so before you start you should clean your house thoroughly (there are now vacuum cleaners manufactured with HEPA filters) with a damp dust cloth.

You can retrofit a central air conditioner, if you have the space, with either a HEPA or electrostatic system, but the same maintenance considerations apply.

To a large extent the outdoor air will permeate whatever is indoors unless your home is thoroughly sealed. "There are always trade-offs," said John Jiambalvo, director of the Portable Appliance Division of the Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "If you have a serious medical condition and need to live in a bubble, you'd need something more specialized than what's on the market at Sears or Target or Kmart. But for common seasonal allergies, these products should give you measurable relief."

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