Updated: April 2024

Indoor air pollution is a major problem that affects virtually all homes, offices and other buildings. Studies show that the air inside is generally anywhere from three to five times more polluted than typical outdoor air. This can be a serious issue considering that most people spend more than 90% of their time indoors.

Your HVAC air filter works to eliminate some allergens and pollutants from the air, but it is entirely ineffective against VOCs, smoke, combustion fumes and other harmful airborne contaminants. An HVAC air scrubber is by far one of the most effective options for improving indoor air quality, and here is everything you need to know about how they work and why they are such a great choice.

What Is an Air Scrubber?

An air scrubber is a special type of air filtration system that is capable of removing the vast majority of particles from the air. If you’ve ever remodeled your home, you may be familiar with portable air scrubbers. These units are frequently used on construction sites to minimize the amount of dust and other airborne particulates.

There are also integrated air scrubbers, which are installed as part of a forced-air HVAC system. When your HVAC fan runs, it forces air into the air scrubber and through a series of filters. This allows the air scrubber to purify your air by filtering out more than 99% of all airborne particles.

How Does an Air Scrubber Work?

Air scrubbers provide extremely effective air purification by using a series of different filters that can trap even the smallest airborne particles. Most air scrubbers use a HEPA filter, which can filter out 99.7% of all airborne particles and 100% of larger particles like pollen and dust. Some units will come with a carbon filter to eliminate odors and keep your home smelling fresh and clean.

Air scrubbers also contain a photocatalytic air purifier, which uses germicidal UV lights to kill any living, carbon-based molecules. This includes pollen, mold spores, dust mites, bacteria and viruses. The UV lights basically scramble the particle’s DNA, which kills the particles and renders them harmless.

There are also standalone germicidal UV lights designed for HVAC systems. While these are effective, an air scrubber is far more efficient as its photocatalytic air purifier has additional functions beyond just a UV light.

The inside of the photocatalytic air purifier contains a honeycomb matrix coated in titanium dioxide. The UV lights excite the titanium-dioxide molecules, which causes them to release free electrons. These negatively charged electrons react with water molecules in the air and produce negatively charged hydroxide ions (OH-) known as hydroxyl radicals. As air flows out of the air scrubber, these hydroxyl radicals are pumped throughout the building.

Hydroxyl radicals have powerful antimicrobial properties, which means they can kill odor-causing bacteria, mold spores, pollen and other contaminants. When the air scrubber runs, it fills the air inside the entire building with these particles. This allows the system to eliminate pathogens and living particles not only from the air but also from your carpets, sofa, countertops, doorknobs and other surfaces.

The process works due to oxidization. In essence, the small hydroxyl radicals attack larger organic molecules. When these radicals attach to a carbon-based molecule, they break apart its chemical bonds. This changes the chemical structure and turns the organic pollutants into water, carbon dioxide and other harmless compounds.

These negatively charged particles also work in another way to clean your air. Most airborne pollutants like smoke, chemical fumes and VOCs are positively charged. If you remember high school chemistry, you know that positively and negatively charged ions attract each other. This means that the negatively charged particles will attach to the positively charged pollutants.

When this happens, it increases the weight and size of the particles. The added weight makes it impossible for the particles to float through the air. The particles will sink and collect on any surfaces, which means you won’t be breathing them in. Every time you clean your countertops, mop your floors and vacuum your carpets, you’ll also be removing these particles.

Benefits of Installing an HVAC Air Scrubber

Installing an air scrubber in your home can provide major benefits in terms of your overall health and well-being. If you suffer from severe allergies or other respiratory problems like COPD and asthma, an air scrubber will allow you to breathe more easily. By eliminating the various airborne allergens and pollutants from the air, you can reduce symptoms like coughing and sneezing.

Air scrubbers can also help prevent you and your family from getting sick by killing any viruses, bacteria and pathogens in the air. However, it is important to note that there is currently no evidence as to whether or not air scrubbers are effective against COVID-19. Nonetheless, they will eliminate most pathogens that cause the common cold and other illnesses.

Air scrubbers can also protect you from the potentially serious long-term health effects caused by breathing in chemical fumes, smoke and VOCs. Long-term exposure to many of these pollutants has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers and other serious health problems.

How Do Air Scrubbers Compare to Other Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Solutions?

Air scrubbers are generally much more effective than any other type of IAQ equipment. Whole-home air filtration systems can remove most indoor particles. However, they only trap particles and cannot kill mold spores, bacteria and other organic pollutants. They also only clean the air that flows through your HVAC system. This means they will have zero effect on the pollutants found on your floors and other surfaces.

Whole-home air filtration systems will only work when your HVAC system is running. This is technically true for air scrubbers as well since your blower fan is what forces air into the unit. However, by releasing the hydroxyl radicals into the air, your air will continue to be cleaned even when the air scrubber and HVAC system aren’t running.

The only real drawback to air scrubbers is that the photocatalytic air purifier produces a small amount of ozone (O3), which in itself is a pollutant. Nonetheless, most manufacturers claim that the amount of ozone is far below the maximum safe guideline set out by the FDA. If you’re worried about the potential effect of ozone, there are ozone-free air scrubbers available. Keep in mind though that these might not work quite as effectively. That being said, they will still typically be more effective than a whole-home filtration system or any other IAQ solution.

Your Local Indoor Air Quality Experts

If you’re worried about indoor air pollution, the professionals at Oak Island Heating and Air Conditioning can help ensure your home’s air stays fresh and clean. We have been serving the San Marcos area for more than two decades, and our technicians have years of experience installing, maintaining and repairing indoor air quality equipment. We install and service a wide range of IAQ equipment including air scrubbers, whole-home filtration systems, UV lights and mechanical ventilation systems. If you have problems with high or low indoor humidity, we also install whole-home dehumidifiers and humidifiers. To learn more about your options for improving your home’s indoor air quality, give us a call today.

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