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Ask Dirk: 7 Reasons Your Air Filter May Not Work Correctly

Indoor air quality researchers tell us that particulate matter (PM), or particulates, which are invisible pieces of stuff floating around in the air, are bad for human health.

Particulates that are 2.5 micrometers (0.0000025 m) or smaller, abbreviated PM2.5, are worse than larger particulates because they can penetrate deeper into the lungs and more easily find their way into your blood. The biggest sources of PM2.5 in most homes are outdoor air that finds its way into your home, indoor smokers, and regularly burning candles or incense.

Opening windows or using local bathroom and kitchen fans may help dilute particulates, although if the wind is blowing or the pollen count is high, open windows may not help. Another approach is to filter these smallest particulates out of your indoor air using the heating and air conditioning system. Even using a forced air HVAC system, filtering the air may not be helping your indoor air quality. Here are seven reasons your HVAC filter may not be working efficiently.

Not enough runtime

Filters can clean the air only when air is actively going through them. For most people, that’s only when your furnace or air conditioner is running. The rest of the time, air cleaning is not happening.

One option is to put the fan switch on the thermostat in the “on” position instead of “auto.” This will work in some places, but at the cost of higher energy bills. Depending on the equipment you have, it’s possible to add $30, $40, or even more to your monthly electric bill.

Not enough flow

Clean filters - change often

A clean filter is a good filter.

Not enough flow may also be caused by ducts and filters that are too small. That increases something called “total static pressure” in the system, which reduces air flow. Not changing filters often enough also can result in high pressure and low air flow.

Air that can’t be filtered

Sealing your home to lower infiltration can help. Air that leaks in around doors, windows, around floor registers, and from other sources will bring particulate matter into your home. There is no way to filter air that infiltrates, so prevention is the cure.

No filter

No filter means no filtration. Maybe someone removed the filter because it’s difficult to reach or took it out and forgot to replace it. Without a filter, you also could be getting your duct work, blower, air conditioner coil, furnace heat exchanger and other components dirty.

Filter bypass

Installing a deep media filter that’s capable of filtering out the small particulates only functions if properly installed. If it isn’t, air coming into the system will go around the filter, instead of through it.

Improperly sealed ducts

While improperly sealed ducts can waste 20 percent or more of your heating and cooling, they can also cause dirty indoor air. This is especially true of the return air duct that takes air from your living space back to your furnace. In our area, these ducts are typically in the attic. They have lower pressure inside them since the furnace is sucking air through them, so leaks allow air from the attic (not especially nice air) to be sucked into the ducts. If your filter is in your furnace, some of the debris will be caught, but if it’s in your ceiling return air grille, air that’s sucked in from the attic will be delivered straight into your home without the benefit of filtration.

Low efficiency (MERV) filter

The standard rating system for filters is Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, or MERV. The higher the number, the more particulates are filtered out. Typical one-inch filters are around MERV 2.

Increasing your filter to at least MERV-10 will remove about half of the small particulates. A MERV-13 will remove more than 90 percent of that small particulate matter.

Use care when switching to higher MERV filters, they can restrict air flow, which can decrease your system’s efficiency and life expectancy. As always, filters in your HVAC system should be changed at least quarterly. Your technician can help you select the best filter to meet your needs, balancing the decision between air cleaning ability and keeping your equipment healthy.

2019-01-04T14:38:45-07:00November 7th, 2018|

Ask Dirk: Should I have my furnace serviced for winter?

With cold weather upon us, chances are you have turned on your furnace for the season and are enjoying the warmth it brings to your home.

So, if everything seems to be working fine, should I still consider having maintenance service? Absolutely. Here are my reasons why:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of care

Your furnace system controls the temperature and moves air throughout your home to keep it comfortable while also filtering out dust and allergens. A yearly preventative maintenance inspection by a qualified service technician can keep your system functioning at peak efficiency by identifying problems from thermal stress, movement, or dust.

Common problems can include:

  • Dirty air filters restricting air flow and placing extra stress on the furnace
  • Dirty blower fan blades lowering air flow and making the blower motor work harder
  • Out of specification capacitor making the system work harder (and likely to fail soon)
  • Changes in performance over time as the equipment ages

An inspection can also find and repair less obvious problems like:

  • Loose blower belt
  • Improperly firing burners
  • Blocked condensation drain
  • Loose wiring harnesses

Yearly fall maintenance can save you time, frustration, and money when it’s done right by a trained technician. It may even prevent a mid-winter failure by nipping a pending problem in the bud.

Change those filters!

change those filtersNext to having your furnace checked annually by a trained professional, changing your filter is the most important thing to do to ensure your furnace’s longevity and performance. One of the biggest culprits behind equipment issues are dirty filters, which can:

  • Restrict airflow, putting additional strain on the fan motor that, after time, can make your motor burn out, your system overheats, your heat exchanger crack, or your equipment fail
  • Reduce comfort by affecting the system’s ability to heat your home
  • Reduce efficiency causing an increase in your utility bills
  • Drastically reduce your indoor air quality, which can aggravate allergies, asthma and other illnesses

Manufacturers typically recommend that furnace filters be changed every three months. Homes with smokers, pets, or situations that let more dust indoors will likely need to change their filters more regularly than other households.

Duct cleaning?

Since your furnace has air filters that keep dust away from your heat exchanger and reduce dust from entering your ducts and blowing back into your house, you may not need regular duct cleaning. The strong exception to this is if you see mold, insects/rodents or excessive dust coming from your vents; if you do, then a duct cleaning is in order.

Be sure to hire a competent contractor if you decide to clean your ducts, and make sure they guarantee that their equipment won’t damage your ductwork.

Your service professional also will be able to inform you as your system nears the end of its useful life. That way, you can be in control and replace your equipment at your convenience, instead of having to make a crisis replacement.

— Dirk

2019-01-04T14:27:16-07:00October 28th, 2018|

Ask Dirk: Should I humidify my home?

Living in Nevada, we are very familiar with the concept of low humidity, but what is it, really?

Humidity refers to the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. Relative humidity, a term used by weather forecasters, measures the actual amount of moisture in the air compared to the total amount of moisture that the air can hold. An important factor in determining how much moisture air can hold is its temperature – colder air holds less moisture than warm air does.

Nevada’s low humidity

Here in Nevada, we often hover around 20 percent for relative humidity, so it feels dry because our air is holding one-fifth (or less) of the moisture it is capable of holding.

Winds along the west coast typically blow west to east which brings cool air (which holds less moisture) from the cool water onshore. Additionally, the Sierra Nevada blocks much of the moisture coming in from Pacific storms.

Home humidity
Since cold air holds less moisture than warm air does, there is less moisture in the air during winter time. To make matters worse, when humidity levels dip, the ambient air feels cooler and we turn up the heat. A properly sealed home will require less humidification, in addition to added efficiencies for your furnace.

portable home humidifier

If humidity levels in the home dip too low, your furniture and house can deteriorate. Wood floors, furniture and millwork may split and crack, paint could chip and electronics can be damaged. Additionally, dry, cracked skin and dry nasal passages may make it easier for germs and viruses to enter your system.

While you may not actually need a humidifier, it may make your home more comfortable by helping to reduce dry skin, itchy eyes and irritated nasal passages, and by reducing static electricity. Adding a humidifier to your home can remedy low humidity with varying degrees of effectiveness and cost.

Natural Evaporation
Adding moisture to the air is as simple as placing a vessel of water on top of, or next to, a radiator or other air heating system, or hanging wet clothes out on a drying rack or hanging in doorways. This is a very low-tech and low power method; however, the strength and humidity controls are limited and available moisture is dependent on the size of the vessel used or the amount of wet clothes left out to dry. Vessels must be frequently refilled and cleaned.

Portable/Room Humidifier
The most common type of humidifier is a portable one and there are two types: cool mist and warm mist, both of which use a reservoir to hold water. The cool mist uses a wick to absorb the water and a fan blows air through a moistened filter. As the air passes through the filter, it evaporates some of the water into the room. Warm mist humidifiers use a heating element that heats the water before dispersing it into the air. Portable systems are easy to use and they can be moved as needed. However, similar to natural evaporation, control and measure of relative humidity is limited, and the reservoir must be refilled about every 24 hours and cleaned regularly.

Whole House Humidifiers
For the most controllable humidity system, adding a whole house humidifier to your furnace will distribute vapor directly into the heated air and circulate it throughout the house using your normal duct system. The whole house system is the most effective and the most expensive option. With a whole house humidifier, you control humidity levels with a device called a humidistat (like a thermostat). This method has the greatest humidification capacity and provides the most control overall.

If you choose to humidify, remember to keep the unit clean and the water fresh on the portable units. A wise man once said, “Do your research before purchasing anything.” Might have been me, but it’s great advice anyway.

2019-01-04T14:28:56-07:00October 13th, 2018|

Ask Dirk: Which portable air cleaners do the best job for removing smoke from the air?

Ask Dirk - Nevada Appeal Column photoWe seem to be catching a break from the smoke that filled our service area over the past weeks. The National Interagency Fire Center is predicting that in mid-September, we’ll experience weather events that will begin to reduce fire activity in the region, but only briefly as California enters its fall fire season and smoke again fills our valleys.

Portable air cleaners

Portable air cleaners are one way to help manage your indoor air quality.

Properly sized for the space you’re intending to clean, these portable units can reduce indoor air pollution, and can run continuously for less cost than running the fan in your central air conditioning system, which can increase your electric bill $40 or more per month.

To size your cleaner, compare the square footage of the space you wish to clean with the square footage rating of the device. Visit www.ahamdir.com for more information on how to size your air cleaner.

Two types of air cleaners

Most air cleaners will be either mechanical or electronic. Less expensive units might not clean the air as well as more expensive units during smoke events like we’ve seen over the past couple of months, but could be fine the rest of the year.

Mechanical air cleaners

Mechanical air cleaners pull air through filters that trap particulates in the air. Reliable and safe, these air cleaners do not produce an air pollutant called ozone, which has been labeled a health hazard. Mechanical air filters offer various levels of air cleaning, all the way up to HEPA filters. I own a unit with both charcoal pre-filter and a HEPA filter.

I like my little HEPA unit with the charcoal pre-filter – it offers the best chance of getting the stuff I’m most worried about, even if it can’t always completely keep up with fire season.

As with your air conditioning system, mechanical air cleaner filters need to be regularly replaced to ensure efficiency. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines, or check often during smoke events to make sure your filter is clean.

Electronic air cleaners

Electronic air cleaners may use an electrical charge to remove particles, and typically fall into one of three main categories:

Electrostatic precipitators (ESPs): ESPs remove suspended dust particles by applying a high-voltage electrostatic charge and collect the particles on collector plates that need cleaning when dirty.

Ionizers: Ionizers draw dust and particles from the air and deposit them on special surfaces within the unit. They typically use little electricity and are efficient – and quiet – to run. They may produce negative ions, and trace amounts of ozone, usually well below that of intentional ozone generators.

Intentional ozone generators

Intentional ozone generators are not typically recommended for homes or other occupied spaces due to the large amounts of ozone they produce, similar to other air cleaners like those using ultraviolet (UV) bulbs and those using surface coatings like titanium dioxide to remove particles in the air. Others, including hydroxyl generators, that are designed to remove chemicals can emit volatile organic chemicals in the air.

A few more thoughts

Confused? As always, do your research before committing to buy anything. Keep in mind operating costs, which include electricity (look for Energy Star models) and filter replacement. Some models have washable, reusable filters which may save money down the road. Some units may be noisier than others, or need to run on high for longer periods of time.

2019-01-04T13:19:24-07:00September 15th, 2018|