The 5 Best Air Filters for Home Air Quality

Amy Pawlukiewicz
Written by Amy Pawlukiewicz
Updated July 27, 2021
Woman breath deeply in her home
Photo: LeoPatrizi / E+ / Getty Images

Determining the best air filter for your home can keep your family breathing easily

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Are air filters really important? In short, yes. Not only do they keep pollutants like dust, pollen, and smoke out of your home, they also catch larger particulates that can wreak havoc on your HVAC system. There are a ton of choices out there for air filters and air purifiers. So how do you choose which one is right for you? We’ve compiled a list of the best air filters for your home to get you started.

Furnace Filters

For whole-home air filtration, furnace filters are the way to go. Furnace filters go in the ductwork of a home and are rated by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) on the MERV system (minimum efficiency reporting value). MERV ratings range from 1 to 20 and measure three things:

  • The ability of the air filter to remove particles

  • The ability of the air filter to resist airflow

  • The product's expected operating life

There are four main types of furnace filters: flat-panel fiberglass, pleated media, HEPA and washable. The best types for filtering out harmful air particles are the HEPA pleated media filters, but the other three types have their advantages as well.

Pleated Media Filters

Person changing air filter on furnace
Photo: Marvin Samuel Tolentino Pineda / iStock / Getty Images

Made from pleated polyester, paper, or cotton, pleated media filters are more efficient than fiberglass filters and washable filters at catching particles. Disposable pleated media filters are polyester or cotton and come with a lower efficiency rating on the MERV scale at around a 6. Their pleated design helps them catch smaller particles like dust and mites and cost between $4 and $5. There is a tradeoff for the low price, though, since these air filters have to be replaced frequently to avoid clogging your HVAC system.

Permanent pleated filters are made of thick cotton material and attached to a strong metal grid. They are incredibly efficient with a 14 to 16 MERV rating, but they’re also the most expensive option at around $100. These filters are usually used in places like hospitals since they screen out the smallest of particles but are a good choice if someone in your family has a respiratory illness like asthma.

Flat-Panel Fiberglass Filters

Fiberglass filters are designed to catch larger particles from making their way into your heating and cooling system. At a 2 to 3 MERV rating, these filters are good for people who have no pets or respiratory issues, as they do very little to actually clean the air. However, they are the most inexpensive of the furnace filter options, clocking in at just $1 to $2.

Washable Filters

Washable filters come with a higher upfront price at around $50 but can be a great investment, especially if you’re very environmentally conscious. You have to wash them every few months in the washing machine or sink to keep them in good shape, but they’ll last for up to eight years. With an 8 MERV rating, washable filters do a good job of filtering out dust and debris and are a good choice for anyone looking to filter out pollen, common household odors, and bacteria.

HEPA Filters

HEPA filters aim to catch 99.97% of all particles, according to the EPA. They have an efficiency rating of 17 to 20 on the MERV scale and will significantly improve your indoor air quality. However, due to their dense filtration material, most HEPA filters too rigorously restrict airflow and cannot be used in vents. They’re also not usually sized for residential furnaces, so they are used in hospitals and industrial environments. HEPA filters do, however, work very well with portable or room air purifiers.

MERV Ratings

You can tailor your choice of air filter based on the types of particles you want to filter out.

  • Up to MERV 6 catches lint, pollen, dust, dust mites, mold

  • MERV 8 filters everything MERV 6 and under does, plus pet dander, smoke, smog, allergens

  • MERV 12 is a heavy hitter that catches all of the above plus bacteria and viruses

  • MERV 13 and up filters out all that and more (it’s good for people with severe allergies)

UV Light Filters

UV filters are a newer option and can be installed in the ductwork of your home. Some studies show that UV lights can kill some antibiotic-resistant bacteria on surfaces, but their effectiveness is still under debate. Installation runs anywhere from $170 to $900 and will add $15 to $30 per year to your electric bill. Because the UV option relies on light for sanitizing, there is no MERV rating for these systems.

Air Purifiers

Portable air purifier in living room
Photo: PrathanChorruangsak / iStock / Getty Images

Air purifiers improve the air quality in a home, whether used standalone or in tandem with a furnace air filter. The difference between an air purifier and a furnace system lies in the filters. Air purifiers have more dense, stronger filters, so they can provide cleaner air, remove odors, and help respiratory health.

Furnace air filters, while effective, are mostly used to filter out dust particles and other debris to keep your HVAC system running smoothly. When used in tandem, furnace filters and air purifiers provide cleaner air in your home, neutralize pet odors and smoke, and provide a safer environment for those suffering from respiratory illnesses and allergies.

The nice thing about air purifiers is that there’s a huge range of sizes and prices available on the market (from under $100 up to multiple thousands of dollars), so you can tailor your choice to fit your home and your budget.

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