If you are thinking about buying an air purifier for smoke, you might want to know what are the difference between wildfire and cigarette smoke, and how to get rid of them.
It’s by now widely known that secondhand smoke can be as dangerous as direct inhalation, thus legislation over the last three decades has followed to limit indoor exposure. Nevertheless, sometimes we cannot fully control the source of smoke.
If your neighbor is a smoker, you will experience secondhand smoke drifting from their apartment into yours. Or maybe you live in a fire-prone area, and wildfire smoke is a real danger. Whatever the case, there are steps you can take to improve your situation, and an air purifier can definitely help.
If you are faced with the task of finding the best air purifier for smoke, you probably know there is a lot of contradictory information out there about what technology is the best. The main reason being that smoke is a highly complex pollutant, thus difficult to “test” in airflow lab tests.
People tend to opt for HEPA filters to remove particles from the air, but smoke is much more than just micro particles. It is also full of harmful gases. So, what is the best air purifier for smoke? Ultimately, it depends on the situation. Remember that no matter how good an air purifier is at removing smoke, it will never be a complete solution and should not be a substitute for reducing or eliminating the source of smoke whenever possible.
Why is it so important to get rid of smoke?
You most likely know that smoke is harmful to health. But exactly how harmful can it be?
If you live with children, elderly adults, or someone with respiratory conditions like asthma or allergies in your family, they are more at risk.
Smoke from wildfires, though harmful, is normally a temporary event, which can last anywhere from a few hours to several days or even weeks. If you are trying to filter smoke from a regular source like secondhand smoke, it is even more crucial to take the first line of action, like asking them to avoid smoking nearby. Scientists report that there are at least 250 harmful chemicals found in tobacco smoke, and at least 69 of these are carcinogens. Secondhand smoke may cause disease and premature death even in nonsmoking adults and children. For children in particular, exposure to secondhand smoke can cause an increased risk of SIDS, colds and bronchitis, and for those that already have asthma, can worsen their symptoms.
What is smoke?
If there is nothing more you can do to reduce you and your family’s exposure to smoke, your next best option is getting an air purifier. Before you start looking for one, you need to know exactly what you are dealing with as smoke is far from simple for an air purifier to remove.
As we said, the reason for this is because of the smoke’s composition: a mix of dangerous fine particles and gases, and usually an air purifier is designed to filter either one or the other, but not both.
What size are tobacco smoke particles?
The most common size range of particles in tobacco smoke (and marijuana smoke too) ranges from 0.3 to 0.5 microns, however the highest concentration of particles are the extremely harmful microparticles, as small as 0.1 micron.
The first and major type of pollutant contained in smoke is particulate matter, or fine particles. Particulate matter in smoke is a mixture of solids and liquid droplets floating in the air. Though some of these particles are dark or large enough to be seen by the naked eye, others are so tiny they can only be seen through a microscope. These fine particles are especially dangerous to health because they are small enough to penetrate the lungs, and may cause cancer or lung disease. Particulate matter in smoke can be smaller than 0.1 micrometers in size.
Particulate matter is serious enough, yet it is only half of the problem when it comes to smoke pollution. Smoke also contains plenty of harmful gases. These gaseous pollutants include gases normally used in combustion, like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Other gaseous pollutants are organic chemicals called Volatile Organic Compound, or VOCs.
Can an air purifier actually filter out microparticles that small?
In short, some can, most don’t.
This is where choosing the correct air purifier becomes most critical. The most common type of air purifiers used to remove tobacco particles are called HEPA air purifiers. The problem with HEPA, however, is that there are different “levels” of HEPA filters, and not all have the ability to remove the finer, most hazardous particles contained in smoke. Although may brands promote what appear to be very impressive HEPA air purifiers, the reality is that almost always the HEPA filter contained inside the air purifier is only effective at removing particles down to 0.3 microns, and is therefore incapable of removing vast amounts of the most harmful airborne pollutants which are smaller than 0.3 microns.
The most effective air purifiers for tobacco smoke removal, thus, must contain a filter capable of removing particles right down to 0.1microns. That is not to say that basic HEPA air purifiers with 0.3 micron filters do not have a role to play, but they certainly aren’t as effective as we may think.
How can air purifiers help with smoke?
Why is that so important to understand the composition of smoke? Mostly because the best air purifier for smoke has to be able to reduce both particles and gases.
The best way to understand how can air purifiers help with smoke, is to understand how the different air purification technologies work: HEPA (to filter particles), carbon (to filter gases), hybrid (to filter both) and PCO (to remove both). It is important to understand what these different devices can do for smoke, so you can determine which air purifier will be the best one for your situation and the type of smoke you are dealing with.
If you want to filter particles from the air, you might consider a HEPA filter. Yet whether or not an air purifier can remove a particle is ultimately based on the particle’s size. A rating called a MERV rating (ranging from 1 to 20) tells you the smallest size of particle an air purifier can filter. The higher the rating, the smaller the particle it can filter. HEPA filters are designed to remove 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 micrometers or larger.
However, the tiniest particles in smoke and other dangerous air pollutants can be smaller than 0.3 micrometers. Also, depending on the nature of the airflow and the HEPA filter material itself, the size may be significantly less than 0.3 micrometers. This means that the most dangerous, tiniest particles in smoke cannot be filtered by a HEPA filters at all.
There are some exceptions: The highest quality of HEPA filter (with a MERV of 20) can remove 99.99% of particles in the 0.1–0.2 micrometer range. However, these filters are normally destined to use in electronics and pharmaceutical manufacturing, and you cannot buy one as a private consumer.
But even a perfect HEPA filter is only doing part of the job when it comes to smoke as most of the harm done by smoke comes from its gaseous pollutants, which a HEPA filter cannot remove.
These filters are designed mainly to remove gases and odors, though of course none can remove 100% of them. Carbon filters are particularly useful when it comes to VOCs.
There are a couple of problems associated with carbon filters though. One is they can quickly become saturated and have to be replaced quite regularly, making it both expensive and time-consuming.
Every time the carbon filter becomes saturated, toxic gases can be released from the filter itself back into the air. Even if the filter is not fully saturated, but the composition of gases in the air changes (say if a window is opened and more air is let inside), research has shown how gases on the filter surface can also outgas back into the air.
Hybrid air purifiers.
There are a few air purifiers out there with two types of filtration, like a HEPA filter combined with a carbon filter. They are designed to filter both particles and gases, yet this may not make them necessarily better for smoke. The EPA states that their effectiveness decreases as filters are arranged in a series, which reduces the delivery of clean air to the room. Reduced air delivery means that the device may not produce enough clean air to circulate throughout the room, and if the air bypasses the filter, then contaminated air may flow through the unit and not get filtered at all.
PCO air purifier.
The PCO technology has shown to be the best at eliminating harmful VOCs contained in smoke. Innovation in this technology, in particular, has seen a rise in popularity in recent years, with a few companies experimenting with blending PCO with other types of air filtration.
Koru Air Purifier, for example, blends the natural purification power of plants (called phytoremediation) with the most advanced PCO technology.
In this case, there are no organic vapors that stick to a filter that can be released back into the air.
What is the best air purifier for smoke?
Now you know about the four air purification technologies that can be used for removing smoke. However, what you may not know is how each of them applies to your particular situation.
For wildfire smoke:
You have two options for wildfire smoke, depending on whether the exposure lasts just hours or weeks. The major concern here is particulate matter. Because a HEPA filter can filter most particles pretty well, it is a good enough option, though it cannot remove the tiniest ones.
However, a HEPA filter cannot address the gases or odors of wildfire smoke. The best option for wildfire smoke if you want to filter both particles and gases is a PCO or Hybrid air purifier.
For tobacco or wood smoke:
This kind of situation most likely does not apply to you. This is when tobacco smoke is often produced inside the home or a home where wood stoves (or a chimney) release a lot of smoke into the air. Here, both particles and gases would be a significant concern. There really is no air purifier that can sustain cleaning the air in this type of situation. The only real solution would be to smoke outside and upgrade or replace wood stoves as soon as possible to reduce risk.
In a situation where secondhand smoke is the main concern, the best air purifier would be a hybrid PCO device like Koru Air, which addresses both of the major pollutant types in smoke.
How do you reduce the smell of smoke?
Now you know what the best air purifier for smoke would be for your situation. But what about the smell?
The best air purifiers for the odors of smoke include a carbon filter as a short-term solution, or a Koru air purifier as a long-term solution. Nevertheless, the smell will remain even if you use an air purifier.
Tobacco smoke sticks to everything from carpets and sofas, to clothes and walls. The California Department of Public Health describes the residue that tobacco products leave behind as thirdhand smoke.
To dramatically reduce the levels of thirdhand smoke, you usually have to replace or substitute materials, such as change the carpet or repaint. Comprehensive cleaning, such as steam cleaning all the rugs and carpets, curtains, and even the upholstery on your furniture, can help to reduce odors and thirdhand smoke, though it is hard to clean completely.
So how do you remove the smell of the smoke?
Odor not being a particle, it cannot be trapped by even the best HEPA filters. Removing the particle The only thing that will effectively remove that is a carbon filter in conjunction with some high-effectiveness air purifier. The reality is that only a miniscule amount of odors can ever be adsorbed by the tiny amount of carbon contained in carbon filters, and therefore their benefit is virtually negligible.
More Tips to Protect Yourself From Smoke
Smoke can travel hundreds of miles from the source, so even if you live far away from a fire and are in no immediate danger, you could still have harmful smoke coming into your house. Using an air purifier helps, but there’s more you can do to keep your home as smoke-free as possible.
- Close all your windows and doors and seal any air leaks (including the mail slot, if you have one) with weather stripping if available. Even masking tape is better than nothing.
- If you have an air purifier, use it in this room and keep it running 24/7.
- Change the filter as soon as the indicator light comes on or according to the time frame specified in the manual. If you can’t change it right away, continue to use the air purifier until you can. A dirty filter is still better than not using the air purifier at all.
- If it’s too hot to go without using a window air conditioner, close the outdoor air damper if you can and tightly seal any gaps between the unit and the window.
- If you have central heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, you can install a high-efficiency filter (MERV 13 or higher) in the system. Run the system’s fan as often as possible to get the most out of the filter. If your system has a fresh air option, turn it off or close the intake.
- If you need to leave your house, wear goggles and a face mask designed to block particles from entering your mouth and nose if you can. If you don’t have an air purifier and the smoke is very bad, consider wearing this protective gear indoors when you can as well. While cloth face coverings and surgical masks provide protection from exposure to COVID-19, they will not protect you from smoke inhalation.
- Try to spend the bulk of your time in a room with the fewest windows and no fireplace or ventilation ducts that connect to the outside. If you have a fireplace, shut the chimney flue.
- Shut doors to the laundry room and bathrooms because those rooms often have ventilation ducts that lead to the outside.
What is the best solution for smoke?
You probably already know the answer to this question, but let’s say it once and for all anyways. The best solution for smoke is to remove (or reduce as much as possible) its source.
But you might not be able to do that always. In the cases where have no other choice but to deal with smoke, an air purifier can help reduce levels of pollutants, and each type discussed in this article can offer benefits for reducing smoke.
A conclusive note
The overall goal when using a air purifier for smoke is to improve the indoor air quality in your home. Another way to improve air quality, especially if you are exposed to constant smoke, is to use a specialized air purifier which can destroy both the particles and harmful gases.
Air purifiers are becoming more and more accessible and easy to purchase. Giving one a try might make a difference in the comfort level you experience at home.