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Rating Cigarette Smoke Air Purifiers

Image of IQAir HealthPro Plus home air purifier If you're searching for effective tobacco smoke air purifiers you're certainly not alone. Millions of nonsmokers are concerned about the health effects of second hand smoke exposure in the home.

Attempting to cash in on this concern are numerous Johnny-come-lately manufacturers touting their latest "high tech" purification method. They hawk a confusing array of air cleaners to remove tobacco smoke, "Ozone! No ozone! Best! Newest! Latest technology! Multi-Tech! Eats smoke! Three ways, no four ways, no five ways to clean your air!"

How do you know what is really going to work? With all the competing and contradictory claims from so-called smoke eaters, how do you choose the right air purifier for cigarette smoke? Are there any effective smoke air purifiers on the market?

The answer begins in understanding the problem.

Understanding what tobacco smoke air purifiers must remove

Tobacco smoke contains two different kinds of pollutants.

The first is particles. This is the smoke that you see and is the easiest to filter. These particles come in a wide variety of sizes, measured in microns. A micron is one one-thousandth of a millimeter. Though microscopic, most filter media is capable of trapping some or even most tobacco smoke.

The smoke that you see is not necessarily the smoke that you smell. The second component of tobacco smoke is the chemical gases given off by burning tobacco. Over four thousand chemicals have been identified in tobacco smoke.

As dangerous as particle contaminants are to the lungs and tissues of the airways, these chemical toxins are extra dangerous.


While particles are limited to the airways, chemical toxins pass through the lung tissues into the bloodstream. This is how nicotine is delivered to the brain. While in the bloodstream these toxins will pass through every organ and tissue in the body. This is why exposure to tobacco smoke increases cancer risks for every organ of the body. The health effects of tobacco smoke are systemic, encompassing the whole body.

So, smoke air purifiers need to effectively address both particulate and chemical pollutants of tobacco smoke.

Unfortunately, while there are a lot of choices, most are not up to the job.

Capabilities and limits of smoke air purifiers

There are five primary technologies marketed as air purifiers for cigarette smoke. These are sometimes combined with one another to produce the diverse products on the market.

This makes it impossible to consider products individually but if you understand the underlying technologies you can determine which have merit. We'll consider each technology’s ability to remove tobacco smoke in addition to other pollutants.

Negative ion generators as smoke air purifiers

The first air purifier for cigarette smoke we’ll consider is the negative ion generator, or air ionizer.

This method of air cleaning relies on the fact that negative ions will charge particles suspended in the air. These particles are drawn to and collect on room surfaces or possibly each other, making them heavier and more likely to settle out of the air.

Unfortunately, your walls, tables, chairs, and everything else become one big particle collector. That's why these devices are notorious for blackening the walls where they are placed. The effect has even been given a name; it's called "black wall effect."

The biggest problem is that these charged particles enter your lungs and imbed there with even more tenacity than they otherwise would. This is the exact opposite outcome you'd like considering that you want to remove tobacco smoke.

Finally, the negative ion generator has no effect on chemical contaminants, gases and odors, since these do not attach to the negative ions and become charged.

Electrostatic precipitators as smoke air purifiers

The second air purifier for cigarette smoke we’ll consider is the electrostatic precipitator. These products are the ones usually promoted as "ionic" and are among the most common air purifiers on the market.

It is like an ion generator except that a set of oppositely charged plates has been added. This attracts the particles and they tend to separate out of the air before the air leaves the air cleaner. This helps eliminate the black wall effect because the contaminants collect on the plates instead.

Since it is possible to collect particles down to 0.1 micron versus a HEPA filter's 0.3 micron filtration you will sometimes hear a manufacturer proudly proclaim their product to be "Better than HEPA!" However, these devices have been shown to only be about 80% efficient at collecting particles versus HEPA's 99.97% efficiency. This means an electrostatic precipitator leaves about 20% of the contaminants in the air with each pass.

What is worse, efficiency steadily declines as the plates become loaded with contaminants. Research has shown that 80% of the plates' collection ability is lost in as few as three days. This is under normal use. Attempting to remove tobacco smoke with its heavy particulate load will render the plates ineffective at an even faster pace. The end result is the owner must clean the plates at a minimum of every other day and preferably every day to maintain any reasonable level of usefulness.

Of course, these ionic electrostatic precipitators also do nothing for chemicals, gases and odors. If you want effective smoke air purifiers you should pass these by.

Ozone generators as smoke air purifiers

A third type of air purifier for cigarette smoke is the ozone generator. The basis of its air purification claims is ozone's ability to react with chemical contaminants.

When ozone fully oxidizes a volatile organic compound the only products left are water and carbon dioxide. This sounds wonderful, right? But there are several really big catches to this scenario.

It is true that commercial ozone generators are used in hotel room prep, car detailing, and fire and smoke restoration to eliminate smoke odors. When used in these capacities an extremely high level of ozone is being produced.

But no humans or animals are present when these devices are in operation due to the danger of ozone exposure. The area being treated is ventilated afterward to allow the ozone to escape and decay.

Ozone's highly reactive nature means it can rupture cell walls and destroy tissues as easily as it can break up chemical contaminants. Exposing a person to the levels necessary to remove tobacco smoke effectively would have dire consequences up to and including death.

Any ozone generator sold for home use must produce ozone at far lower levels. However it is widely recognized by everyone but sellers of ozone generators that levels tolerable for long-term exposure could never effectively deal with indoor pollution, much less remove tobacco smoke. You'd be better off simply opening a window.

It is also recognized that asthmatics and others with breathing difficulties are especially susceptible to increased ozone levels. A home-use ozone generator can be especially dangerous to the very people they are marketed to.

Unfortunately, in the US no governmental body has oversight and authority to pull the plug, though the FTC has filed suit against some manufacturers for fraudulent claims regarding these devices.

If you want an air purifier for cigarette smoke an ozone generator simply isn't up to the task and exposes you to an additional health risk.

HEPA filters as smoke air purifiers

Our fourth contender to remove tobacco smoke is the HEPA filter. HEPA filtration technology was developed by the US Atomic Energy Commission to remove fine particles contaminated with radioactive isotopes from the air at nuclear research projects.

HEPA filters have the ability to remove particles from the air as small as 0.3 micron at 99.97% efficiency. This was the standard set for HEPA filtration because it is at this point that most filter media becomes least effective.

This particle trapping efficiency is more than adequate to remove tobacco smoke from the air. Its effectiveness at doing so will remain at 100% throughout the life of the filter. The only reason to replace it is when particle loading reduces the amount of air flowing through the filter.

A high quality HEPA filter should last five years under normal use, less in a smoke filled environment, but is still your best choice for smoke air purifiers.

However, while the media being used may meet HEPA standard the air purifier incorporating it may be way off the mark. Since HEPA filter media can be brittle it may have become cracked or otherwise damaged in manufacturing. Poorly made air purifiers may have gaps between the housing and the media that allow air to pass. Poor seals may allow air to bypass the filter. These defects reduce the efficiency of the air purifier and its ability to remove tobacco smoke and other pollutants.

To choose the best HEPA air purifier look for a company that specializes exclusively in air purification products. Look for warm rolled medical grade HEPA filter media, to insure against cracks. Expect a well built housing and quality seals. Try to find a company that guarantees the actual efficiency of the overall unit, not just the theoretical efficiency of the media.

Finally, HEPA filters will not remove chemicals, gases and odors. For that HEPA media needs to be partnered with activated carbon, our next air purifier technology.

Activated carbon as smoke air purifiers

The last air purification method we'll consider is the activated carbon filter. Activated carbon is the media of choice to remove tobacco smoke gases and odors.

Activated carbon can adsorb as much as 60% of its own weight in chemical pollutants. This makes it ideally suited for tobacco smoke air purifiers.

Additional catalysts and compounds can be used to treat the carbon so that it removes specific contaminants with greater success. This occurs either by improving adsorption ability or possibly catalyzing the decomposition of certain VOCs.

The effectiveness of activated carbon has led numerous manufacturers to include it in their products. Unfortunately this often takes the form of a foam pad impregnated with a few ounces of carbon. This foam pad may serve double duty as a prefilter on some air cleaners to protect a higher efficiency filter downstream.

This does not benefit the consumer. Without any depth to the carbon bed, there is insufficient dwell time for the carbon to adsorb chemicals. Using the carbon as a prefilter subjects it to particle contamination that clogs its pores and reduces its ability to adsorb chemicals.

The inadequacy of these designs is made obvious by the fact that manufacturers of this kind of filter also include a scent cartridge to mask odors. If the carbon were working the scent would be unnecessary. Not only that but the carbon would adsorb the scent rendering the scent useless.

To truly be effective an air purifier for cigarette smoke needs to include many pounds of activated carbon.

It is also preferable if the activated carbon has undergone special treatments to enable it to better handle the chemical contaminants typically found in tobacco smoke. Look for a special smokers air cleaner carbon blend such as offered by Allerair.

My recommendation for smoke air purifiers

Tobacco smoke in the home can be especially difficult to remove. If you're looking for an air purifier for cigarette smoke you need one that can handle both particles and gases. The above guidelines will help you in your search.

My own personal recommendation is the Allerair smokers air purifiers. Allerair has developed innovative products you simply won’t find anywhere else.

The Allerair smoker’s air purifiers have a patented tar trapping prefilter that removes heavy tars in tobacco smoke before they reach the rest of the filter media. The smoke laden air then passes through a deep bed of activated carbon, custom blended for enhanced adsorption of chemicals found in tobacco smoke. This bed may be from 15 to 160 pounds of activated carbon, depending on the model. High quality True HEPA filters complete the process by eliminating smoke particles from the air.

Your Host J Alan Rodgers

J Alan Rodgers, Home Air Purifier Guide author
Discover how I quit wasting time with good for nothing indoor air purifiers
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