Here is my collection of detailed reviews of air purifier machines in my home and office in Beijing, from 2008 to the present.
Isn’t it a total hassle to buy an air purifier in China, especially for expats? Back in places like the USA, when we shop for anything we can luxuriously research using consumer magazines and other review sources, wisely shopping around online and in stores as educated consumers. Here, many of us struggle with Chinese so are at a loss on local shopping websites, forcing us to rely on word of mouth and a tiny handful of imported brand stores. This usually has meant that many of us end up buying the same legacy brands, usually quite reputable but also usually at incredibly marked up prices. Even if fluent in Chinese it’s still very difficult to research credible data. It’s a classic Economics 101 example of information asymmetry, where the typical consumer doesn’t have all the information that they need to properly research the marketplace, thus giving too much leverage to the seller — leading to a very unbalanced supply and demand curve where we pay much more than we should, for a machine that may not be exactly what we needed.
So in my continuing efforts to educate people about healthy living in China and elsewhere, I’ve written a basic how-to guide to buying an air purifier, similar to my pollution mask buyer’s guide. I won’t be discussing the need to buy one, as I’ve made it blindingly obvious in many other articles that an air purifier is essential for anyone living here, especially children.
Pre-step: Hire An Independent Testing Company
I suggest that anyone with a villa, large home or a business should think about saving some time and possibly a lot of money first by hiring an environmental consultant to assess your site. You may think famous Brand X air purifier is great — but do you need one, two, three or more? And can you get equal benefits from a much cheaper model? And which speed setting do you need to use for general use? Let them figure out all the complicated cubic meters and assess how much machine(s) you need. They also do a great job looking for — and fixing — air leaks around windows and doors (which is cheap and effective advice for everyone, even in your one-window tiny dorm room). They also are experts on the brands of machines available. They should also come back for free for a specified time and double-check that all is OK. I’ve personally used two such companies, both run by expats: Environment Assured, which aim to get your indoor PM2.5 concentration under 10 ug/m3 (the WHO standard, and my goal at home), and also PureLiving China, whose indoor goals for PM2.5 follow the higher Chinese target of 35 ug/m3. I’m sure there are other companies out there, as this surely should be a booming industry. I personally think the evidence is overwhelming that your goal should be to keep your indoor PM2.5 under 10 ug/m3 all the time — even when the outside air is crazy bad. It can be done, and it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you fear.
Step 1: How much/many do you need? Let’s do some math
If your needs are simple or small, or you’re only here a few months, you can definitely handle this on your own. First, in order to know how much or how many machines you need, you first need to do some math: you need to calculate your room’s volume. Most air purifier ads mention either recommended room size (适用面积) as square meters or airflow rate (风机空载风量), often written as CADR, and listed as cubic meters per hour. Here are the steps:
- First, measure your room and get the area of your floor space, in square meters. For example, my dining room, living room and long hallway are collectively 84 square meters (“84 m2”).
- You could be done already! Now you could just check the ads for the recommended room size (适用面积) and do the math. For example, I need 84 m2 of protection — a very large area. I don’t see any single machine rated that high but I see a few in the 40-70 m2 range. So in theory, two machines rated for 61 m2, with a combined area of 122 m2, should easily take care of my 84 m2.
- That’s the easiest way — but I actually find it more accurate to use airflow and volume because it factors in the room height. A 20 m2 room with standard 2.6 meter high ceiling will need a lot less machine than the same floor space with cavernous 6 meter high ceilings, as many villa front rooms may need. So let’s do more math! Multiply your room area by the room height. For my front rooms: 84 m2 x 2.5m height = 210 cubic meters (210 m3) volume.
- Since a proper air purifier needs to replace the entire room air at least five times an hour (5 Air Changes Per Hour, or ACH) to really be effective, you need air purifiers that collectively can cover the volume 5 times. So the total airflow (风机空载风量), or Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) you need = room volume x 5. For my front rooms, I need 210 x 5 = 1050 cubic meters per hour (m3/h) CADR. Since no single machine has this much power, I’ll need to buy a few machines.
- Then you need to research air purifiers’ CADR — but here’s where it gets tricky: the published CADR applies only to max speed which is almost always not the speed you will be using 99% of the time. Most machines’ max speeds are far too noisy for normal use, and the speed you’ll actually be using may have airflow much less than the published CADR. The problem is that it’s hard to find published CADR for the lower speeds. I think as a general rule, you should cut the CADR in half to get a more accurate sense of how much coverage you’ll get.
Let’s continue with my example as a case study, now that I know I need to get to 1050 m3/h for my front rooms. Comparing a couple of very large machines:
- Model A on max setting (5) = 783 m3/h. So I would need 1050/783 = 1.34 machines needed.
- Model A on default setting (3) = 285 m3/h; 1050/285 = 3.7 machines needed.
- Model B on max (6) = 510 m3/h; 1050/380 = 2.06 machines needed
- Model B on medium (4) = 289 m3/h; 1050/200 = 3.6 machines needed
Thus I could conclude that 2 Model A machines may be the most efficient choice for my needs, compared to 2 Model B machines, especially when it’s crazy bad outside and I want to crank up the machines to max speed for a few minutes. On the usual settings I would need an equal amount of machines, but they’re both equally expensive so I’d just start with two of Model A, take some data for a while with my Dylos, and see whether I need to buy a third one.
- Thus armed with such information for your own rooms, now you can properly research which machines may be best for your needs. Generally you’d want a higher airflow than you really need, so you can use the machine at a quieter level and still get effective airflow. Or maybe two smaller machines combined would still be a better value than one more expensive machine.
Step 2: How Much Budget?
Not everyone can afford 12,000 RMB ($2,000 USD) for an air purifier, and the wonderful news is that nobody should be paying such exorbitant prices. Certainly when I arrived in Beijing eight years ago those very few early entry, imported brands served an invaluable service for expats and others. But now, there are many reputable brands making perfectly fine HEPA filters in China at a far more reasonable price point. For example, I’m pretty sure almost every student in China could sacrifice a few days of their Starbucks latte and buy the 200 RMB do-it-yourself air purifier. I also just published my own data proving that a slew of air purifiers under 1,000 RMB are perfectly fine for smaller rooms. I’ve tested most of the expat-famous imported models and yes, many are quite good, but I wouldn’t call most of them a good value for the money — not anymore. For example, here is a list from JD.com of HEPA machines under 3,000 RMB which are rated for room sizes over 50 m2, including models from famous international brands such as Westinghouse, Philips, and Panasonic.
Step 3: Research
In terms of features (工作原理), I strongly feel that you do not need ions (负离子) or ozone (臭氧) which actually can cause more lung harm than help — especially in the cheaper machines. Even UV lights (UV灯) are a bit gimmicky. I also don’t care much about killing bacteria (杀菌) and in my home formaldehyde (除甲醛) isn’t a big problem. Really, all you need is an awesome HEPA filter which clearly mentions it eliminates >99% of particles (过滤灰尘/花粉 (0.3 微米)), plus a strong fan speed which reflects in a high airflow/CADR. My second rank would be an activated charcoal filter (活性炭 滤网) which absorbs the sometimes serious indoor gases called VOCs, especially formaldehyde (甲醛) and benzene (甲苯).
In terms of independent reviews, English readers should definitely start with consumersearch.com, which collects the most reputable reviews from multiple review sites such as Consumer Reports as well as reputable independent testers and also consumer reviews from Amazon. But this is limited data for us in China as many of the brands aren’t the same here. I dearly hope there’s a Chinese version of such a useful site for Chinese consumers! In the meantime, I’m aware of a couple of independent reviews in China which I’ve blogged about here; I also found another Chinese-only review here.
For other China-specific reviewers, I’ve blogged quite extensively about air purifiers and have reviewed many, which you can read here. My other favorite tests are from Thomas Talhelm, the creator of the 200 RMB Smart Air filter who also has extensive tests on his blog here.
The next level of research are the online shopping stores. Each model is overwhelming you with pretty pictures and a hard sales pitch, but it’s here that you’ll find the details of CADR, filters, room sizes, and extras such as carbon, formaldehyde, etc.
Step 4: Buying
In China, online shopping has quickly become the most efficient way to buy almost anything, including air purifiers (空气净化器). I recommend starting with Amazon China’s Clean Air Store, partly because on the left hand side you can instantly filter by square meters, price and features like HEPA. Also, for most English-speaking expats the Amazon store is much easier to use and very familiar to the USA version; they even have an English interface. My second choice online store would be Jingdong (JD.com), especially if you click on their own distribution brands (京东配送); they also have excellent filter options. My last choices would be Taobao and Tmall. Of course there are retail stores as well but for research and convenience, not to mention price, online is great.
Step 5: Testing
What good is spending all this money on machines if your indoor PM2.5 still isn’t under the goal 10 ug/m3 all the time? I’ve saved a huge amount of money and also know that my indoor air is clean because I invested a bit in a portable particle monitor. There are many brands but my favorite is the Dylos 1700, which also seems to be developing a fan club in China, led by the helpful FAQ on the fantastic website aqicn.org. Apparently you can buy online on Chinese sites but it’s cheaper (and probably safer) to get in the USA directly from them or Amazon. I hear that a lot of groups are pitching in to buy one and share, which is a terrific idea. The goal with this Dylos is to get the data on the left side of the screen (PM0.5 but actually more represents PM2.5) always under 3,000, which correlates to an AQI of 50 (which itself means PM2.5 concentration under 12 ug/m3).
Step 6: Maintaining
It’s quite shocking just how many people buy machines and actually forget to change the filters, essentially making them totally ineffective if the filters get too clogged. It’s not only crucial to replace the filters on time (all machine replacement schedules are different), it’s also helpful to frequently wipe or vacuum the outside of the machine to get dust off the prefilters. I’ve had a Blueair for a long time — and totally forgot about the plastic prefilter screen underneath the machine, which was totally clogged with dirt and I’m sure was dramatically lowering the airflow. That was embarrassing!
My Bottom Line
There simply is no longer any good excuse for anybody in China, even those with limited resources, not to protect themselves with an indoor air purifier. I hope I’ve provided some helpful information for you to make informed decisions.
Update January 2016: My data below speaks for itself, but people should be aware of possible quality problems reported here.
I think I’m done testing air purifiers. Yes, I’ve said this before, and I admit I often enjoy crunching the numbers, but I think I mean it now. The only possible way I could be persuaded to test another model would be an amazing breakthrough in technology. But it would still have to be reasonably affordable, even under 1,000 RMB per machine. Crazy, no? Actually, it’s not, because I sold all my IQAirs and my Blueair and switched to six air purifiers which cost me a total of 5,200 RMB. That’s right; a total of 5,200 RMB, for six new machines. I hardly doubt I need to remind most of you that’s half the price of only one of the many popular machines on the market now. And as this article will show, I’ve proven that these new machines are keeping my family’s indoor PM2.5 under 10 ug/m3, which is the goal of the World Health Organization and thus should be everyone’s goal (read more about that here). So why would I even want to test anything else?
As to which machine, many readers probably already know my answer because I started to test them last year: the Xiaomi 小米空气净化器 at 899 RMB, covering 48 square meters (apparently there’s a newer, smaller model as well for only 699). I initially blogged about Xiaomi last year discussing my test results of indoor air purifiers under 1,000 RMB. After last year’s testing, I had replaced two imported models in bedrooms with the Xiaomi purifier, and my bedroom air has been just fine since the switch. Just a few weeks ago I made the really big leap, returning two large air purifiers in my front rooms with three Xiaomi purifiers (I needed one extra as the coverage was comparatively less). And for the record, I am getting no promotional money or free anything from Xiaomi.
In our nine years in China we’ve always used well known imported air purifiers to cover our front rooms, which are essentially one large open space covering 83 square meters. But the price gouging in China always galled me. So after last year’s testing of purifiers under 1,000 RMB, I was always thinking, why can’t I see if I can also replace these big machines in the front rooms with something of more value yet equally effective? The timing was perfect as we’ve had multiple December days way over 200, 300 — and the worst two days of pollution I’ve ever seen in Beijing in my nine years here, our 2015 Airpocalypse with readings over 600 and an eerily dark, yellow sky in the afternoon of December 1st.
Let’s jump right in to the only thing that matters: hard data. And maybe the most important test was Airpocalypse 2015. So here’s the bottom line: data from our Laser Egg PM2.5 monitor showed an outdoor average PM2.5 concentration of 465 ug/m3 over those couple days, and inside the front rooms only 25 ug/m3. That’s an astonishing 95% steady improvement over the worst pollution you’ll pretty much ever see here, and although it’s not at my ideal of 10 ug/m3, it’s still far below the 35 that most Chinese environmental teams shoot for anyway, and the 95% reduction is certainly way below the usually recommended 80% goal. And the machine’s weren’t even on the top, super-noisy speed but the middle speed, which is still fine for general conversation and TV watching. Here’s the graph from the Laser Egg app, with the red line showing outdoor PM2.5 and the blue line showing my living room PM2.5 (the left side axis is PM2.5 concentration in ug/m3 and the bottom axis is just the number of data entry points):
On more “normal” days the data was much closer to, and usually under, my aggressive goal of PM2.5 concentration under 10 ug/m3. Here’s the data from earlier November:
Even a quick glance at the graph above tells me everything I need to know: my living room air (the blue line) is generally exactly around 10, and always under 20 even as the outdoor air climbs up. And as Beijing’s annual average is 70-90 ug/m3, my three Xiaomi machines easily get me to my goal of 10 during those typical days — and at a nice auto setting with very comfortable sound level. For calculated averages over this week using the Excel spreadsheet data from the Laser Egg, my front room average was 6.1 ug/m3 when outdoor air was a relatively clean 61; 9.8 during heavier days averaging 136 outside; and a still respectful 14.4 when outdoor air tanked for a couple days at 220 (that’s an impressive 93% reduction).
You notice there are a few spikes on the blue line, but all of those are easily explainable as with any other air purifier I’ve had: either the windows were open while we were using our laundry dryer, or we were cooking, or the machines were accidentally off for a while and no one had noticed.
Here’s one more graph from my bedroom, again demonstrating even more clearly than last year’s test that a Xiaomi on quiet setting is perfectly effective, and easily just as effective as any machine I’ve ever tested, including all the far more expensive models. The calculated average PM2.5 concentration was 8.0 ug/m3, again nicely below my goal of 10. It was 8.6 ug/m3 when the outdoor air was a horrible 224 over two days; and 7.4 ug/m3 on two clearer days, when the outdoor air average was 69:
So let me be perfectly blunt to those in China who say that an indoor PM2.5 of 10 ug/m3 is impossible and too expensive: I say that’s nonsense, especially now, certainly on the money side. A goal of 35 ug/m3 still gives everyone a 15% increased mortality risk, as the WHO specifically mentions in their Air Quality Guidelines. I do realize this is a sensitive concept for some readers, as many people have spent a lot of money on air purifiers, or even work for those companies. And it’s fair to point out that these Xiaomi replacement filters don’t last as long as others (three months, although they’re only 179 RMB), and their HEPA filter at 99.3% (rated H11) is not as efficient as most other higher-end machines’ filters, and maybe the machine’s solidity isn’t so great, and perhaps they may break down sooner than other machines. We simply don’t know yet, as these are new machines only a year on the market — which in itself should give people some pause. Also, the built-in sensor is quite inaccurate and pretty much useless to follow — but I’ve never found sensors ever reliable on any air purifier, and I always control all of them manually anyway (and none of the major brand machines ever had a sensor anyway). The sensor’s more concerning issue is that it thinks that a PM2.5 concentration of 75 ug/m3 and under is safe. That’s simply too high, and even the Chinese government rating of 35 would be more proper. I of course think 10 is best, but for a machine made in China I would think 35 is reasonable. So if people are using a Xiaomi and relying only on the sensor on auto speed, then indeed they still may be inhaling not great air. This again is why everyone, using any type of air purifier, should not be relying only on any machine’s auto setting ever (my personal opinion). You need to get a separate monitor and use that to test your air.) And yes, Xiaomi is mostly a cell phone company first.
But let’s be very clear here: I’ve mentioned many, many times that anyone living anywhere in polluted areas, whether China or India or Los Angeles, has an ultimate goal to get your indoor air pollution under the World Health Organization’s goal of PM2.5 under 10 ug/m3. The scientific data is very clear; any PM2.5 over 10 starts to have health effects. So people in polluted areas absolutely must have air purifiers indoors, where you spend 90% of your lives. At the very least, put one in your bedroom. And for heaven’s sake, make sure your children’s rooms are all protected.
So you’re more than welcome to get any air purifier machine you want, as long as you’re reaching your goal of PM2.5 under 10 ug/m3, and routinely monitoring your air afterwards (perhaps with the new Laser Egg, only 499 RMB) to make sure all is working fine. In terms of which air purifier is best, again I’ve mentioned often that all that anyone needs for indoor protection is a good filter attached to a good fan. I’ve tested many models over many years, in real world circumstances in my homes, and no particular model at any price point ever was so obviously better than the rest. This is why I am perfectly comfortable with my current setup.
And this is why I am done with testing. Probably…
Just how much, or how little, are you willing to pay for an air purifier? Here in China expats have been so accustomed to scandalously expensive air purifiers that we get suspicious if anything’s under 4,000 RMB — which still would be more costly than almost any high end model in America or Europe. But I just finished testing a half dozen models each under 1,000 RMB, and I’m now quite convinced that the lower-priced market can offer excellent value.
I’ve tested quite a few air purifiers during my eight years here in Beijing, and I honestly thought (hoped?) I was finished with the testing. But I recently was diagnosed with asthma, which really angered me as much as it scared me. In my anxious efforts to control my symptoms, I decided to ramp up my protection from air pollution everywhere: I threw out my N95 masks and now only use N99; and I’ve totally reassessed protection at home and at work. My goal remains getting 100% of my daily exposure to PM2.5 under the healthiest target of 10 ug/m3 (AQI <50), the WHO’s official target which I blogged about last year and which I strongly feel should be everyone’s goal. I spent much of January testing more than a half dozen small air purifiers, all under 1,000 RMB, to assess which machines are best in small rooms, including my office as well as my bedrooms.
First, some background
I will repeat what I’ve said before: all you need is a good filter and a strong fan. Literally! Filter+fan. A decent filter is by far the priority, hopefully officially certified as a High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance (HEPA) filter, which in the US means 99.97% efficiency against PM0.3; the EU’s terminology is much more confusing, allowing HEPA ratings from 85% to almost 100% (more on this later). PM0.3 is short for “particulate matter of 0.3 microns size” which is essentially microscopic dust 10 times smaller than PM2.5; it’s importantly considered the most dangerous size that penetrates easiest into our lungs, causing the most harm.
While a good filter is crucial, it’s actually not super critical only to have the most awesome Hyper-Nano-Xtra-HEPA filter, with multiple 9’s that impress and overwhelm the consumer. Yes, that level of filtration is totally cool, but those extra 9’s very possibly are clinically irrelevant and only add cost, not value. Also, if the fan sucks weakly and isn’t circulating your room air at least 5 times every hour (known as ACH, “Air Changes per Hour“) then the total machine isn’t good. A machine with a 99.9999% HEPA filter but a tiny fan absolutely may clean the air less effectively than an 85% filter with a massive fan.
The same filter+fan concept applies for our ultra-expensive machines that many of us, including me, use at home for our big rooms. If they’re all humming away on a lower, noise-tolerable speed, then the air flow is much less efficient than their advertised Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR), which refers to its max fan setting — most likely not the speed you’re always running it. Thus your rooms’ pollution may be much higher than you assume. CADR is a bit of a gimmicky test created by the industry, not a health agency, and a machine’s max setting is usually incredibly loud and which nobody uses for routine use, especially in bedrooms. The CADR test in fact is only based on 20 minutes of data! It’s a totally impractical test for consumers in China as it tells us nothing about how we all use these machines here in China — always on, 24/7, at lower, quieter speeds which don’t impede conversations or sleeping. I completely don’t care if a machine wipes out all pollen and bacteria from the air; I want to know if a machine will protect me from dying from long-term exposure to small particles like smoke and dust — at a noise level that won’t drive me crazy. That’s the data we need — and of course don’t have, at least not from the manufacturers’ ads.
Every good expensive machine is literally just an amazing HEPA filter with a strong fan. And that’s all you need — forget the rubbish about ionizers and ultraviolet light. A good machine absolutely does not have to be over 10,000 RMB, as Thomas Talhelm proved last year with his consumer-revolutionary 200 RMB do-it-yourself air purifier. His first machine was an off-the-shelf 90 RMB HEPA filter slapped with a velcro strap on top of a cheap plastic fan. And in his tests — which I confirmed on my own — it performed about as well, or better than, far more expensive machines (see his data to the right). And why wouldn’t it? His HEPA filter, if you hold a particle monitor over it, filters 100% of both PM2.5 and PM0.5; only IQAir has had similarly perfect results in my tests. You may not be ready for Thomas’ ungainly Smart Air models in your bedroom, but once you review his data you’ll certainly be much more open minded to the once heretical idea that an air purifier can be effective and affordable.
When I first arrived in Beijing over eight years ago, there were only a couple of choices for air purifiers. Now, hundreds of new models have flooded the market over the last couple of years, and I’m just as overwhelmed as you are when I search the Chinese shopping sites. There’s also very little independent testing or reviews (I wrote about one here, and here’s another). My search priorities were: price under 1,000 RMB; famous international brands > Chinese models; filter rated HEPA or darn close; fan strength flow rate (CADR) at least matching what my office needed (which is ROOM VOLUME x 5 ACH; thus 21 m3 x 5 = 105 m3/hour airflow). Another real plus was the ability to filter formaldehyde or VOCs, but that wasn’t my priority. Separate pre-filters also are helpful — but uncommon at this price point. I chose these:
- Smart Air Original: 200 RMB; filters 99.9% of PM0.3; CADR unknown; covers 11-20 m2
- Air-O-Swiss P320: 699 RMB; filters 99.97% of PM0.3; CADR 86 m3/h, covers 16 m2
- Panasonic F-30C3PD-D: 599 RMB; filters 99% of PM0.3 and 89% formaldehyde; CADR 163 m3/h, covers 30 m2
- Philips AC4025: 699 RMB; filters 91.2% of PM0.3 & 95% formaldehyde; CADR 127 m3/h
- Midea KJ20FE-NH3: 750 RMB; filters 99.9% of PM0.3 & 87% formaldehyde; CADR 204 m3/h, covers 20 m2
- Xiaomi: 899 RMB (or 1,000-1200 RMB on reseller sites); filters 99.3% of PM0.3 & 91% formaldehyde; CADR 406 m3/h, covers 48 m2
My Office Results
My clinic office was the main testing ground, a cozy 9.6 square meters floor space (21.3m3 volume). For such smaller spaces, a huge Blueair or similar flagship machine would be expensive overkill and take up valuable floor space; thus my urge to test smaller models. I tested these machines over my lunch breaks, at maximum speed, with the doors closed, usually after flooding the room with outdoor air and then closing the window. My key data points were at 10 minutes and one hour (50 minutes), measuring the percentage drop in PM2.5 and PM0.5 using my completely-worth-the-cost Dylos 1700 particle monitor. During the rest of the workday I would keep them on their more standard, quieter settings and do random checks. The results are all in the table below, but the take home points are:
- All machines were generally effective at my key index of PM2.5 at 50 minutes of max speed: PM2.5 reductions ranged from 88-94%. Some got there a bit quicker, and at 10 minutes the Xiaomi’s clearly larger fan definitely shows off, already clearing 88% of PM2.5 with similar results for PM0.5. Again this shows the importance of fans as much as filters, and the Xiaomi’s CADR of 406 m3/h is double the size of the nearest competitor, the Midea.
- The Xiaomi needs to be clarified a bit: its max speed button only lasts 15 minutes and then reverts to auto, so its comparatively lower 50 minute data is harder to compare to the others because only the first 15 minutes are on max. But considering how at 10 minutes on max it was the leader, one could assume it would do at least as well if it had continued on max.
- The Air-O-Swiss clearly was the smallest model, with a CADR of 86 m3/h not close to the 105 that I needed, and it shows in the results. But it still wasn’t too bad. Most likely their larger 350 model would be more helpful — but it exceeded my admittedly arbitrary price rule under 1,000 RMB.
- The Panasonic and Philips both did fairly well — it’s just really too bad the Panasonic’s garish orange color makes it totally unprofessional for me to consider using. The Philips’ green is more acceptable, especially for a kid’s room, but still it’s not ideal.
- The Midea is a nicely handsome black and white model, something I wasn’t ashamed to show in the office, unlike the two above. Its larger size and fan speed also were borne out in the generally good results, especially with PM2.5.
- The Smart Air Original — the do-it-yourself 200 RMB filter and fan — performed at least as well at its more expensive cohorts, although a bit less so with the PM0.5. It’s not professional-looking enough for me to use, but it’s still a great value for students and the like, and it’s far better than using nothing at all (read my earlier review).
- Noise levels on max speed wouldn’t be tolerable all day for any of the machines, but on their quieter levels were generally all OK for an office.
My favorites: I decided to test Xiaomi, Midea and Philips at home for the more important 8 hour results. I really like Xiaomi’s clearly larger capability thanks to its huge fan, not to mention its much classier, sleek look as well as its small footprint. I also thought the Philips and Midea were acceptable and not too out of place for an office.
My Bedroom Results
We’ve always used overly massive machines in our bedrooms, a Blueair 503 and IQAir Pro 150, and I thought now was the perfect time to challenge them against cheaper, smaller models (similar to my Philips test last year). This test was different than my previous tests, which had always compared indoor to outdoor air. This time, I wanted to see their efficiency over 8 hours, especially after a standard challenge by filling the room with particles, closing the doors and continuously monitoring while we slept. My particle test used essential oils in a vaporizer, which can raise the entire house’s pollution levels shockingly high and quickly. A secondary test was the final hour’s raw data: did it keep my indoor air in the green zone most of the time?
All machines this time were used on the quieter settings, not maximum as in the office tests. The great majority of tests were run in the larger master bedroom, which at 40 m3 (16 m2) needs airflow of 200 m3/hour. The smaller bedroom is 23 m3 (10 m2) and needs airflow >115 m3/hour.
Just for fun, I also compared these against an Airgle AG800, a much larger machine whose massive airflow of 763 m3/h easily should clean the air in such small rooms even at lower fan speeds.
The results, please
- At the crucial 8 hour mark, most machines performed quite well. For PM2.5, Blueair led the way at 99.9%, just edging out Xiaomi’s sleep mode at 99.8%, with most others close behind in 98-99% range. For the smaller PM0.5, Blueair again topped out at 99.9%, closely followed by Philips at 99.6 and Xiaomi at 99.5%.
- For short-term clearing within 1 hour, the Airgle did very well as you would expect for its huge fan, designed for much larger rooms. Otherwise, the budget machines from Xiaomi on auto and the Midea on low speed also did very well. (But the Xiaomi on auto comes at a slight cost, as its higher speeds to fight the incense are a bit louder and temporarily a bit distracting. And the Midea on low is a bit too loud for sleeping; fortunately the quieter sleep mode also did fairly well.)
- Another useful metric is the final hour’s raw data (particles per cubic foot/100): My goal for PM2.5 is to always have the Dylos data stay under 50, which is roughly equivalent to 10 ug/3 (or AQI<50). The great news is that every machine’s final ranges were far under 50, including both cheaper models. For the trickier to control smaller PM0.5, the goal is a bit less clear but Charlie Thompson from my environmental testing company Environment Assured agrees that Dylos PM0.5 under 1,000 is the best equivalent to AQI<50. Using this cutoff, both the Philips and Blueair did extremely well, followed again by Midea and then Xiaomi in third. The larger machines from Airgle and IQAir surprisingly had some data over 1,000 — the only machines to do so.
- In overall performance, all three cheaper machines certainly held their own, and none of them were obviously inferior even to the larger machines. The Midea posted impressive data even on their very quiet sleep mode. The Xiaomi also performed very well long-term and also was the best with short-term air clearing when in auto mode. The Philips also performed quite well with some very low raw data (but the outdoor air also was quite good that night, which helps a bit). For the three larger, far more expensive machines which on paper should have blown away their cheaper competition, only Blueair’s performance seemed obviously strongest, with the lowest raw data of all the machines in both particle sizes.
- CORRECTION March 18: new data from the incredible Dylos FAQ at aqicn.org suggests that the left side number, PM0.5, actually is more representative of actual PM2.5 and the right side number represents PM10. Other data suggests that my PM0.5 goal of 1,ooo equals an AQI of 18 which actually is a bit of overkill; at 3,000 it equates to AQI of 53, just above the “green zone” of 50 (which equals a PM2.5 concentration of 12 in the USA). So anything under ~2,500 seems all to be in the green zone — which is great news as all my final hour raw data for PM0.5 was under 2,00 and often much less)
For my office, my decision was fairly easy: I decided to go with Xiaomi due to performance, price and professional look. The Midea isn’t a bad second choice.
For the bedrooms, my decisions have been a lot harder. Since I already had machines, I’d need a really good reason to replace them. For the new bedroom, I’ve decided to use the Xiaomi. For our other bedrooms, I’m still deciding but know I will replace the IQAir and possibly also the Blueair with either the Midea or the Xiaomi.
I must talk a little bit more about Xiaomi’s air purifier, which is only on the market for three months but clearly may be very disruptive to the industry due to its novel design and incredible price. One very cool thing about Xiaomi which separates it from all the other machines is their app; their machines have built-in wifi which you can link inside their smart phone app and control the speed as well as get real-time data on the pollution inside the room, compared to the pollution outside (based on China MEP hourly data). This app even sends your phone an SMS telling you “the outdoor air is now clean and better than indoor air, it’s time to open the windows”! It also gives you real-time estimate of remaining filter life. It’s extraordinarily cool, even if a bit gimmicky — but this is my first foray into the exploding “connected home” phenomenon of intelligent, wifi-enabled home appliances, and I can definitely see the value in such data.
But I do have some reservations about Xiaomi, mostly because it’s a newish company known mostly in the mobile phone market for value, not so much top quality. Their HEPA filter is advertised as H11, which they claim is 99.3% efficient, which is not the highest rated top-line HEPA of 99.97%; but clearly their massive fan more than compensates for this, which accounts for its essentially similar, sometimes superior, results to the more expensive machines. As I said before, it’s the combination of fan+filter that’s the key.
Other negatives about Xiaomi are the newness of the machine. Since their air purifier is only a few months old, there’s no track record on maintenance or reputation. It’s also extremely difficult to buy on their own website due to their very unusual direct-selling marketing techniques; you can’t just order it, you have to first click to “reserve” and then on Tuesday at noon you and thousands of other people return to the website to buy, first come first served. I tried twice and they were sold out within one minute, so I was forced to use third-party resellers on Jingdong and Tmall — marked up, of course. This limited availability really disturbs me — what if the refill filters become hard to find?
These uncertainties are the main reasons why I didn’t replace my entire house with Xiaomi; otherwise, their price point and value are exactly the kind of disruptive innovation that the air purifier market in China desperately needs.
The Bottom Line (Finally!)
To summarize, I hope I’ve demonstrated that there are indeed many air purifiers far, far less than 10,000 RMB which may be perfectly adequate for your smaller room needs. Maybe 1,000 RMB models are a bit too weak, and for 1,500-3,000 RMB you can get a stronger fan and filter, especially from international companies with long track records such as Panasonic, Philips, Westinghouse and others.
Please note that my tests should serve as a guide, not as a strict recommendation, for your own decision-making. I also hope many readers also test their machines and share results with others, as Thomas does. My main hope is that people who currently don’t use any machine, mostly due to cost, will now realize they have far more options than they previously thought.
Last January we had the airpocalypse, and this January — hell hath frozen over. Because a bright-eyed Fulbright scholar and his disciples are spreading across China, preaching in their revival tents to swooning crowds that “you — yes, YOU, ma’am, in the corner!” (rising applause) “Yes, I swear to you right now that you can make your own air purifier for under 200 RMB — and get the same results as your fancy-schmancy, Perrier-sipping import! Can I hear a yee-haw!” (wild clapping).
I refer to Thomas Talhelm’s evangelistic, data-filled blog and his company spinoff, Smart Air Filters, offering frequent DIY workshops on just this subject, as well as selling their own two models. And yes, the cheaper one is really only 200 RMB. Crazy, no? Like a fox, maybe. Because Thomas’ scrupulous data, far geekier than anything I’ve written (that’s a compliment), does indeed show quite impressive PM2.5 reduction with these machines, even when directly compared to some famous models we all know about.
Thomas actually was inspired to do his own testing from all of my own tests and blog posts, and we’ve been emailing back and forth since last summer, comparing notes. As I mentioned last week in my Philips review, I’m quite a fan of his goal to find affordable protection for the masses against indoor air pollution. And his message has spread quickly, with many news groups covering the story. Many of my readers have asked me to review his machines, and I recently got to test both his Original and Cannon. So how did they do? Is he a prophet or a charlatan?
Let’s cut to the chase: a true HEPA filter and a strong fan indeed are all you need to eliminate bad particles in the air. Almost every top air purifier machine out there, no matter how fancy, is still built around those two pieces: a HEPA filter rated to eliminate 99% of particles larger than PM0.3, and a fan blowing air through it at a proper flow rate. No other features really matter as much as this, at least here in China. If you have a car, a HEPA filter can go into your exhaust system and clean your air; if your home or office has an HVAC system, installing a top-rated HEPA filter is incredibly effective, and much cheaper than a floor machine.
So yes, it makes perfect sense that a do-it-yourself combo could work — and it does. I tested the smaller Original model in my three small rooms, 10-13 square meters in size, overnight with the doors closed. And this little guy did about as well as any other machine I’ve tested: PM1 levels were 91% lower than the outdoor air, and PM5 levels were 95% better. This was on its lowest speed setting, which was tolerably loud but certainly noisier than my usual Blueair settings at night. In my most recent testing of Blueair, IQAir and Airgle, I got bedroom results of 88-90%. For small rooms, this little HEPA filter was at least as efficient as all of the big boys.
Thomas tests his machines a bit differently than I do, comparing them to the same room before and after, and he also measures PM0.5 and 2.5, whereas my Dylos machine measures PM1 and 5. He also mostly tests on highest fan speed, which I find impractical and too noisy for a real world scenario. But even with these differences, we still got about the same results: effectiveness always at least in the high 80%, which also at the very least was a strong match to the bigger machines — sometimes better.
So our data does match, and again why wouldn’t it? He’s using a real HEPA filter and a fan with a flow rate that works. I think their smaller Original model is especially a reasonable option for students and people with limited income to use in their bedrooms. It certainly is far, far better than having nothing at all, when the AQI outside is crazy bad.
His newer machine, the 450 RMB Cannon, was designed for bigger rooms, and I think that also could work well in theory, since it’s the same HEPA filter on a stronger fan. I wish I could share hard data with you, but honestly I didn’t get a lot of data points on this machine, mostly because it was just so darn noisy that I didn’t want to test it any more in my living room. Even at the lowest setting overnight, it was much louder than normal background decibels from my current IQAirs. For me at least, that’s a non-starter as an option. Thomas openly admits that the Cannon is a bit loud, but it still is effective even on low settings (see the graphic to the right).
But let’s not get bogged down in the details of these two models. These are early, first generation attempts, and besides, it’s distracting from his and my main message: everyone everywhere should always try to limit their exposure to pollution, and a DIY HEPA filter and fan combo are a heck of a lot better than nothing at all.
I assume the PR teams at the famous air purifier headquarters are now champing at the bit to correct me, aghast that I would gloss over their superior technology. And of course that’s partly true, as some top end filters do indeed claim to filter down to PM0.003, a hundred times smaller than a normal HEPA. Not to mention the other filters for VOCs and other chemicals besides PM. And maybe that does matter in a place as polluted as China — but I haven’t seen any data or medical resource claiming any specific advantage in targeting those ultrafine particles. Perhaps in the next couple years, with better research, we may learn that spending that extra $$ on the top end models may prove more beneficial to your health.
Until then, I say to the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve bought air purifiers: keep up the good work. But for the hundreds of millions of unprotected people across the developing world, anxiously awaiting the next inevitable airpocalypse — go get a HEPA filter and stick it to a fan. And buy yourself a particle monitor, test your machine, and blog about it. Viva la consumer revolution!
UPDATE, March 2015: Please check out my 2014 review of the science behind air purifiers; my 2015 tests of air purifiers under 1,000 RMB plus my 2014 review of two dozen top air purifier models in China.
I’ve blogged a lot about testing my air purifiers at home, a quartet of machines (three IQAirs and one Blueair) working in symphonic harmony to create indoor air 80% cleaner than the outside air pollution — 24 hours a day, every day. I find this 80% to be very reassuring, especially for my newborn son, who will be spending almost 100% of the first years of his life inside our home. Air purifiers in China are a no-brainer, must-have item! I would be even more cheerful if one more criteria could be improved — the cost.
Each time I pay for replacement filters, I get really ticked off that I’m paying so much money — and so much more than I would than if I lived in the USA or Europe, ordering exactly the same filter. It’s simply infuriating that a replacement filter in China could cost more than an entirely new machine in America! In the respected Consumer Reports list of top air purifiers, the highest rated machine is only 2,118 RMB (~350 USD, the Whirlpool APS 1030K). Even the Chinese press has started to cover the extortionate prices of some air purifiers, especially the replacement filters.
I actually feel partly responsible for this, as many thousands of readers have bought machines based on my recommendations. Here in our expat bubble world, sheltered underneath our shiny pollution domes, we all keep self-promoting the same heavily advertised imported brands, creating a self-reinforcing illusion of brand superiority. Meanwhile, the other 99% of people in China couldn’t possibly afford almost any machine I’ve recommended. So while I appreciate my current machines, and while they truly are highly rated from many independent sources, they are far from the only viable options out there — and definitely not the best value for anyone with limited income.
I can’t say I’ve found the perfect solution quite yet — perhaps the team at Smart Air Filters could help fill that gap — but I may have finally found a decent value. It’s the Philips range of air purifiers, especially the AC4072, which I recently gave to my in-laws as a Christmas gift (only in China would that be a hot gift!). I chose this because it ranked very well on the test results last year from the Shanghai Consumer Rights Protection Commission, where its sister model, the Philips AC4074, filtered 96% of PM2.5 and 53% of formaldehyde — using the same HEPA filter as the cheaper AC4072. Plus, my new comrade-in-arms in geeky air pollution testing, Thomas Talhelm, recently published his own data comparing his DIY filters against this Philips as well as the Blueair 203 — and the Philips was as good or better than the Blueair, eliminating 93-96% of PM0.5-2.5 on high speed overnight in a small bedroom. Thomas and I are on similar missions to share data with the world, and he’s even more focused on finding value — a very important and noble goal. The AC4072 is currently 2,900 RMB direct from Amazon China, compared to my Blueair 503’s price of 5300 RMB, my IQAir Pro 150 price of 9,000 RMB and my Pro 250 price of 11-15,000 RMB (depending on voltage and import status).
For my own tests, I did my usual routine: I compared real-world situations, not just blasting them on high speed all night, which I feel is an impractical and loud scenario that no one does in real life. In real life, we want the most effective machine at a reasonably quiet level. I want to know:
- How much better is the air when I’m sleeping?
- How much better is the air in my big living room, and the rest of my house, during the day?
I always compare my indoor pollution to the outside air at that time, because again my most crucial question is “how much better is my air inside, compared to outdoor air?” As I mentioned before, my current system is 80% better. Can the cheaper and smaller Philips keep up the same good results as these famous flagship models?
I was very pleased with the results. In my 13 square meter bedroom, overnight with the doors closed, the Philips AC4072 on a lower setting filtered out 87% of PM1 and 98% of PM5, when compared to the outside air. I usually have the Blueair there, and while the AC4072 wasn’t as wonderfully quiet, it was very reasonable white noise and still performed at least as well as Blueair and others in previous tests. During my last testing of Blueair, IQAir and Airgle in my bedroom, their combined effectiveness overnight was 90%, so the Philips data is right in line with that.
In my 30 square meter living room, it filtered 84% of PM1 and 96% of PM5, again compared to the air right outside my window. These numbers are very comparable to previous data, which again is impressive given the clearly smaller size and price. In last summer’s test, the living room average was 85%, so yet again the Philips is exactly in line with that data.
My Bottom Line
Despite the clearly smaller HEPA filters and unit size, the Philips AC4072 performed equally as well as all other units I’ve previously tested. Plus, it was generally quiet at most settings, and their automatic mode was quite useful for the front room. And it doesn’t hurt to be a bit sleek and stylish, occupying less than half the floor space of my other units. Regarding value, it’s half to a third the price of my current machines (same goes for the filter replacements).
That’s good news for me, and for the tens of millions of others across China who are looking for quality performance with value for money. Even this AC4072 is probably overkill in smaller bedrooms, and maybe their cheaper AC4025 or AC4012 would be fine. Besides Philips, I’m sure that quite a few models from the other major brands also would be just fine, many with prices far below the famous foreign brands. Daikin, Sharp, Panasonic, Whirlpool, Westinghouse, Honeywell, Yadu … as the DIY folks are starting to prove, all you really need is a good HEPA filter and a good fan.