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HEPA Filters and Vacuum Cleaners
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Is your home infested with microscopic dust? I?m referring to particles smaller than human hair, which measures a whopping 60 to 90 micrometers (formerly microns). For instance, mold begins at 4 micrometers; bacteria range from 0.3 to 50 micrometers; and pollen is between10 and 40 micrometers. You may not see small organisms below 10 micrometers, but they surely can make you sneeze and wheeze, especially in the winter with the house closed up.

Because microscopic substances remain air borne for many hours, methods to remove them from the environment are revolutionizing home vacuuming and introducing air filtration systems. In fact, a new term has appeared, HEPA, which stands for High Efficiency Particulate Arresting. HEPA was developed by the US Atomic Energy Commission to filter 99.97% of all particles greater than 0.3 micrometers. HEPA filters are found on air purifiers and on more and more vacuum cleaners. You cannot get a HEPA filter for an air conditioner or heater because air resistance becomes too high, according to Jim Rosenthal, co-owner Allergy, Air & More.

HEPA air purifiers circulate air continuously 24 hours a day, pulling out dust, pollen, animal dander, and volatile organic compounds. These box-like units sit inside the room and pull from 360 degrees drawing air through activated carbon filters, zeolite filters, and potassium permanganate to remove formaldehyde, sulfides, ammonia, and odors, in addition to HEPA filtration. The Austin Air Jr. fits one room, like the bedroom, and covers a maximum 700 square feet; more powerful units cover up to 2000 square feet. Also available are air purifiers for people who live with smokers; these units come with separate HEPA and carbon filters, allowing the carbon filter to be changed without disturbing the HEPA filter, which needs replacement every 5 years.

High efficiency, electrostatic air filters on air conditioning/heating units also reduce air borne particles, although not HEPA sized particles, according to Allergy, Air & More brochures. And disposable filters on vents and washable filter registers further cut down incoming particulates.

?Still, a lot of people who have allergies have trouble vacuuming,? said Rosenthal. ?The reason why is the way a vacuum works?it sucks the air in and then blows the air in the bag. If the bag is not a good bag or a bag with a good filter, all the small particles will blow through the bag out into the air.?

?Most companies have come out with better filtering paper bags,? said Phillip Evans, owner of All Vac, Inc. So, standard as well as higher filtration bags in graded steps of filtration are available along with new vacuum cleaners installed with better exhaust filters?even HEPA filters.

But having a HEPA filter does not infer that the vacuum offers HEPA filtration, according to Greg Kimbrell, owner of American Vacuum Company, because the vacuum may leak dust in other areas before the air goes through the HEPA filter. Well-designed vacuums with HEPA filters include the Nilfisk, recommended by Rosenthal, and the Erueka, Oxygen, recommended by Evans. Even these vacuums apparently are not certified HEPA machines, says Kimbrell. ?Miele (German made cleaner) is just now introducing two new series of vacuum cleaners that will be the first certified HEPA vacuums available in this market.? These new units, because of the way the entire units are sealed, allow absolutely no dust leakage outside the HEPA range. ?You?re talking about virtually pure air.?

Yet, for many people, HEPA vacuums and pure quality air are more than what the family needs.

?If you just want to make your vacuum the best it can be, talk to a professional that handles that business instead of going to Target or a hardware store to upgrade your system,? Kimbrell said. ?Go to a vacuum shop and a professional who can point you in the right direction.? Because vacuum stores provide repair, they also see the problems. And today, an alarming number of vacuums in the $200 or less range are considered ?disposable,? according to Evans.

?Lot of times you?re lucky to get a year or two out of them before you have to replace them,? said Evans. ?The vacuum cleaner is, I?m told, the most frequently replaced appliance. But the ones they?re making now just don?t hold up even under normal use. They?re trying to make them as powerful as they can and as cheap as they can.?

?In the last few years, they?ve also tried to out do each other in how many amps the motor can pull,? said Evans. ?All that tells you is how much electricity the vacuum uses. It really doesn?t tell you how efficient the motor is, how much power it has. And sometimes the thing just screams and makes a lot of noise.? In fact, low noise can be a sign of a better-made machine. Recommended brands include Lindhaus, Simplicity, and Bernita, according to Evans, and Riccar upright machines and Miele canisters, according to Kimbrell.

Also driving the vacuum cleaner market is the trend in taking up carpeting for hard surface floors, area rugs, and oriental rugs, according to Evans. So needs are changing demand from upright vacuums for carpets to canister vacuums on floors.

Historically, the vacuum cleaner has undergone slow evolutionary change since the first non-electric machine built in 1869 by Ives W. McGaffey, who also tried to electrify the machine in 1900. Although McGaffey?s machines were never popular, the concept developed in companies like Royal, Hoover, Kirby, Electrolux, and Eureka. Central vacuuming got its start in the 1920?s, according to some old instructional books found by Evans. And central installation has been available for at least 50 years. But central vacuuming did not catch on in the Dallas area until about five to seven years ago.

?In Canada, they tell me that they don?t even build a house without central vacuuming,? Evans said. But in the Dallas area, the great percentage of new homes still does not include central vacuuming.

?I have had customers come to me,? Evan said. ?They?re having a house built?they?ve gone to the builder, but the builder doesn?t know anything about central vacuuming?then, they contract to me directly to install the system.?

?It?s definitely home owner driven,? said Kimbrell. ?As more people move into this area, coming from central vacuums elsewhere, they?re demanding these systems be put in their homes or as they build a home that these systems be installed because of the air quality issues and even the lack of regular service that a typical vacuum cleaner requires?a central vacuum cleaner requires less.?

?In new homes, we put the pipes in the walls when the house is in the framing stage, before any sheet rock is put on the wall,? said Evans. Plastic pipes run through the walls and attic to the garage, where the power unit and receptacle are located. Costs depend on the size of the home and number of inlets but average $1500 and up for a system with good attachments that will last for 10 to 20 years.

?Central vacuuming can be put in existing homes,? Evans said. ?But it?s costly and difficult.?

?It depends on how much you desire the system,? Kimbrell said. ?I?ve had some people who have had some very tricky installations?even though it cost 50% -75% more than if it had been done at construction. They were highly motivated to have the system installed.?

?It?s such a great add-on to a home when a person actually understands what a central vacuum can offer,? Kimbrell said. The main issue, of course, is that the air in a central vacuumed house is much cleaner because vacuuming does not deposit microscopic particles of dust in the air.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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