There are many tools at our disposal to minimize air pollutants in our homes and offices, but two of the most common are the vacuum cleaner and the air purifier. The first modern, portable vacuum cleaner marketed for domestic use was made in 1905 by Walter Griffiths. The first modern residential air purifier was invented in 1963 using HEPA technology created in the 1940s.
Let’s walk through the basics of vacuum cleaners and air purifiers and explain the different types of devices on the market, so you can make the most informed decision about how to achieve cleaner air in your home.
Vacuum Cleaners vs. Air Purifiers
Both air purifiers and vacuum cleaners should be an important part of your regular cleaning regimen. Vacuum cleaners use suction to pull large and visible dirt off of surfaces – such as carpets, floors, and windowsills – and into a bag or other collection vessel. The air pulled into the vacuum typically comes out cleaner after passing through a filter inside the vacuum. The suction capability decreases as the bag or collection chamber and filter fills up with dirt.
Air purifiers also use suction to remove pollutants. However, unlike vacuums, air purifiers are designed to focus on removing airborne pollutants that are invisible to the naked eye, and they don’t remove large particles of dust and dirt that are already sitting on surfaces. Instead, air purifiers remove allergens and pollutants present in the air. Air enters the device and exits through a filtration system of varying complexity, depending on the type of air purifier. If the filter is fresh and the purifier is in good, working order, the air that exits the device is usually cleaner. Air purifiers come with a wide range of filters that work in various ways.
Despite having two different functions, air purifiers and vacuum cleaners have a symbiotic relationship. Larger particles settle to the floor where a vacuum cleaner is designed to pick them up. While these larger particles are being picked up, the vacuum will also kick up tiny particles that are easy to breathe in. The job of the air purifier is to intake and effectively remove these newly distributed small dust particles from the air.
Now that you know the basics of each device, let’s get to know the different types of vacuums and air purifiers available.
Types of Vacuum Cleaners
All vacuums suck dirt from surfaces but typically vary in the type of collection canister that they use. Some vacuums collect dirt and dust in a bag, while others don’t. Bagged vacuums hold the dust and debris that they suction securely in a closed, replaceable bag. Because the bag remains closed as you dispose of it, it prevents the allergens and dust from being released back into the air. Bagged vacuums contain filters that don’t need to be replaced as frequently as those in bagless vacuums.
Bagless vacuums contain dirt and debris in a chamber that you can typically see. This makes it easy to know when your vacuum needs to be emptied. Bagless vacuums are also more environmentally friendly since you don’t have to purchase bags. However, disposing of the collected dust can re-expose you to allergens as you empty the canister.
Vacuum cleaners can use a variety of filters, depending on the type of device. Regular vacuum filters do not trap small particles or smells. However, HEPA filters can trap smaller particles, and carbon filters can trap smells. All filters should be changed on time, or they stop being effective and reduce suction power. There are several different types of vacuums:
Upright vacuums are perhaps the most common household vacuum in the United States. These vacuums stand upright and have a bag attached to a handle, while a rotating brush at the base collects dirt via sweeping and suction.
Canister vacuums have the dust collector and motor, usually on wheels, connected to the vacuum head by a flexible hose. This hose makes them more flexible and, thus, easier to maneuver. Like upright vacuums, they collect debris using suction power and a brush roll. These vacuums are more common in Europe.
These vacuums are designed to clean up dry and liquid spills and can usually be used both indoors and outdoors. Wet/dry vacuums are a type of drum vacuum similar in design to canister vacuums; they have a flexible hose attached to a separate collection canister on wheels.
Robotic vacuums move autonomously to clean a room using suction power. These came into prominence in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. These vacuums can usually navigate around furniture, but their advanced capabilities depend on the brand. Robotic vacuums are smaller than traditional vacuums and, therefore, have less power and smaller collection bins.
Cyclonic vacuum cleaners do not use bags. Instead, they work by spinning dirt and debris against the walls of a detachable collection chamber. A fast-spinning vortex is created as air and debris are sucked into the collection cylinder, causing the particles to move to the outside of the chamber, where they fall to the bottom. This helps reduce the loss of suction power compared to bagged vacuum cleaners.
These types of vacuums are built into homes with ports set up throughout the house where you can simply plug in the hose and cleaning head and start to clean. The collection bin for this type of vacuum is mounted in one place and is so large that you must empty it far less often than traditional vacuum cleaners. Central vacuums are quieter, and they remove all dirt collected to the central bin, as opposed to blowing some of the suctioned air back into the room.
Types of Air Purifiers
All effective air cleaners move air through filtration systems. What makes each air purifier distinct is the composition of its filtration system. Almost all filtration systems are more than one technology working together. Most air purifiers have particle and carbon filters, while some types of air purifiers add other technologies to achieve cleaner air.
The most common air filters are particle filters. These filters physically capture particles in the air as it’s forced through the unit. Whether particles get trapped in the filter depends on the size of said particles. A common type of particle filter is a HEPA filter. These filters have been tested to be able to capture 99.97 percent of particles sized 0.3 microns or 300 nanometers. This includes most particles of dust, pollen, mold spores, and similar pollutants. The fibers of particle filters may be coated in antimicrobial substances that kill microbes or an electrostatic media that better attracts air pollutants.
Carbon or Charcoal Filters
Carbon and charcoal filters work by adsorption. Adsorption, which is different from absorption, is the process of adhesion of molecules from a gas, liquid, or dissolved solid to a surface. This means that carbon filters can adsorb chemicals in the air such as VOCs, ozone, and other chemical pollutants. Carbon filters can fill up as well, but it will not reduce airflow.
Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI)
Air purifiers that use UVGI technology shine a UV-C light through the forced air passing through, sterilizing viruses, bacteria, and mold spores. UVGI works best on surfaces, so it’s not ideal for air purifiers unless the design of the device provides a surface for the microbes to land on to be disinfected. Additionally, some UV-C bulbs can produce ozone, which is toxic, and a known lung irritant.
Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO)
Often called TiO2, this technology shines a UV-C light onto a catalyst to initiate an oxidation reaction and comes in a variety of configurations. There has been concern that PCO is insufficient in completely oxidizing organic substances, which may result in the formation of formaldehyde as a byproduct. Also, like UVGI, the UV-C light can produce ozone.
Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO)
This is a unique type of PCO that has higher efficiency and has been shown to produce zero byproducts. Because it uses a UV-A light, it has no danger of producing ozone. The UV-A light shines on a nanocatalyst-coated filter, initiating a chemical reaction that breaks down harmful pollutants. This air-filtering technology is effective in destroying ozone, VOCs, smoke, viruses, bacteria, mold, pollen, and other allergens. It destroys the widest range of pollutants compared to traditional air purifiers and can destroy pollutants 1000 times smaller than what the HEPA standard even tests for. For more information about this breakthrough technology by Molekule, review the specifics on the company’s website.
These devices produce ozone, a strong oxidant gas, that oxidizes other chemicals. They are used to kill mold or remove smoke odors after heavy fire damage. However, the EPA recommends that ozone generators only be safely used in unoccupied spaces because ozone is toxic to inhale.
Plasma or Corona Discharge
These devices pass the air through an electrical arc to attempt to destroy pollutants, but not much research is available on their efficacy.
Ionizer purifiers generate electrically charged gas ions that attach to airborne particles. These charged pollutants clump together, become heavier, and fall to the ground. These air purifiers require more vacuuming than others but often have a mechanical filter to capture the larger particles that they create.
While air purifiers and vacuums both use fans to blow air into some sort of collection area, vacuum cleaners suction large particles off of surfaces, while air purifiers filter small particles and pollutants from the air. Using both methods together is a great way to improve the air quality inside your home.