Reducing waste with washable air filters
By Hannah McKenzie
Q: I am tired of purchasing new air filters for my HVAC system every month or so. I try to minimize the amount of trash I make and money I spend. Are washable air filters a good option?
A: An internet search will reveal nearly any product that our heart desires, including a variety of washable, or sometimes called reusable HVAC air filters. For cheapskates like myself who don’t mind routinely hosing down or vacuuming the air filter, it sounds like an awesome idea. But, considering that most people don’t reliably change air filters and a new HVAC system costs somewhere around $5,000, or as I like to think of it — a used car — you realize that proceeding with caution is in your best interest.
HVAC air filters are critical for the HVAC system to last a full life, be energy efficient, and keep our homes comfortable. Regardless of being washable, a dirty or restrictive air filter will make the HVAC fan work extra hard to move air and heat or cool your home. On the other hand, an air filter that allows larger particles through can make the HVAC system dusty and reduce its performance. So primarily having a clean, operable air filter is extremely important for saving money and caring for your HVAC system. Sometimes a secondary benefit from air filters is improved indoor air quality.
Washable air filters are already common in through-wall/window air conditioning units, ductless mini-split HVAC systems, and whole-house air cleaning units.
To find the right washable air filter for an existing HVAC system, a conversation with your HVAC technician will point you in the direction of quality products. Most people will be looking for a 1" thick filter priced from $20 on up. A 4" thick washable filter is often available from the HVAC system manufacturer. Washable filters are made from a variety of materials such as plastic, foam, electrostatic materials, or activated charcoal. What’s more important than cost or materials is a filter that will perform well with your HVAC system.
As you narrow down the options, here are some questions to consider:
- What filter dimensions do I need?
- How do I clean the filter? Is it easy or hard?
- If water is needed for cleaning, how long does the filter take to dry? Would purchasing two filters be wise?
- How often will I need to clean the filter?
- Am I certain that I will reliably clean the filter?
- Will this filter work with my HVAC unit or void any warrantees?
- Will this product match the filter benefits or MERV rating I want?
- What’s the typical lifetime for the filter?
Certainly, big home improvement projects, such as a new HVAC system or whole-house air cleaning system, may offer cost-effective opportunities to reduce energy use and waste. But there are other incremental ways to reduce waste, keep HVAC maintenance costs low and maintain comfort. Reusable filters have specific features and benefits that may help you get there. But like many other products, they may not be a “silver-bullet.”